Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My Friend The Enemy by Dan Smith

My Friend The Enemy is a well written piece of historical fiction that captures the reality of war for both soldiers and civilians while showing the humanity of the enemy from a young boy's perspective.

It is a bright sunny summer day in Northumberland, England when twelve year old Peter Dixon hears the air raid sirens go off in his village and hears "the angry buzz of German bombers filling the sky." Out in woods checking his snares, he begins running towards the village where he knows his Mam will be worried about him. Peter turns just in time to see a bomber plummeting towards him in Mr. Bennett's potato field. The explosion of the German plane blows Peter off his feet and just as he begins to black out, he sees a white parachute falling from the sky. Peter's Mam arrives first, then children from the village race over the hill towards the crash site followed by men belonging to the Home Guard. Then the soldiers who had taken over Bennett Hall and the farm soon arrive. Peter is checked out by Dr. Jacobs who finds he has nothing more than a few scratches.

Mr. Bennett who owns the estate and Hawthorne Lodge where Peter and his family live, arrives to survey the damage. Peter doesn't like Mr. Bennett because he seems overly interested in his Mam. Peter's dad is the gamekeeper on the Bennett estate raising pheasants for Mr. Bennett. Both Peter's dad and Mr. Bennett saw action in Dunkirk, but while Mr. Bennett remained at home, Peter's dad was sent over to Africa to fight the Germans. Mr. Bennett convinces Mam to allow Peter to stay and watch the fireman put out the flames from the plane while he escorts her home.

One of the boys from the village, Tom Chambers,  tells the lieutenant that he saw a parachute and this is confirmed by another boy, Alan Parsons as well as Peter. Sergeant Wilkes tells the children that they shouldn't worry because they will soon catch the German airman and they brag about shooting him when they find him.

At the crash site Peter meets someone he's never seen before - a girl dressed in boys clothes. The girl whose name is Kim, is from Newcastle and has been sent into the country to be safe from the German bombing of the city. Kim tells Peter that the German plane is a Heinkel that likely had as many as five airman in it. Kim's brother, Josh, is in the RAF while her father is a doctor at a hospital in Newcastle. Also at the crash site is fifteen year old Trevor Ridley, who enjoys bullying others, particularly Peter. But when he makes suggestive remarks about Peter's mother and Mr. Bennett in front of the other children, Kim stands up to him.

Kim and Peter make plans to return later that night to the crash site to try to locate souvenirs. They meet at 10pm but witness a group of three boys, including Trevor and his buddies being caught and sent home.They do manage to sneak past the guards, to the wreck and retrieve a few souvenirs including a gun. But a bigger discovery awaits them in the woods near the plane. Running into the woods to avoid discovery, Kim and Peter come upon the wounded German airman.

Based on what they have heard the adults say about killing the "Jerry" when they find him, Kim and Peter decide to hide the German airman rather than turn him in. Their decision is based on the belief that if Kim's brother or Peter's father were found by someone overseas they would hope their family member would be helped. They take the German soldier to the shed area where Peter's dad kept the pheasants for Mr. Bennett but instead of hiding him in the shed they find a large, overgrown area where he will be completely hidden.

Both Kim and Peter realize the German airman is young, afraid and injured. The next day they manage to bring him water and a bit of food, but it's obvious he needs his wounds tended to, a change of clothing and some way to relieve himself. Peter tells the German his name and learns the soldier's name is Erik. At the mention of a doctor, the German becomes upset and insists that they do not take him to the doctor. Kim cleans the bad cut on his face, wraps his wounded arm and they bring him what little food they can scavenge from their homes.  Erik thanks Kim for helping him. When they return a day later Kim discovers that Erik's ankle is either broken or badly sprained. Using wood from one of the pheasant cages, they make a splint for him.

The German airman is not anything like the posters up in the village. He is young, sad, weary and most of all, thankful towards Kim and Peter. Meanwhile Trevor Ridley continues to bully Peter and warns him he knows he's up to something.  Eventually, Trevor and his friends confront Peter and Kim in the woods, setting in motion a series of events that have serious consequences for all.

My Friend The Enemy is a very well written novel that explores the concept of enemy and propaganda during wartime. It is common during wars between countries to make assumptions about the people on the opposite side of a conflict. During the First World War, British and American propaganda demonized the German soldier (usually referred to as Huns) and the German people, while the Nazi's immense propaganda machine was used during the Second World War against the Jewish people. In Peter's village the adults repeatedly espouse the view that they must kill the German because he would kill them first.

Throughout My Friend The Enemy, Peter's view of Germans comes to change, despite the fact that his father has been taken away from him to fight overseas as a result of Germany. Meeting a German soldier puts a human face on the enemy for Kim and Peter. Peter recognizes as much.

;"All those Germans we heard about on the wireless were different. They were not men, they were faceless, helmeted and armed, marching across places I knew the names of but had never seen. France, Norway, Africa. They were airplanes dogfighting over the English channel; they were bombers casting a shadow over our cities. They were the enemy.
Our German was different. He was a real person. He was here, he had a face, and he was in trouble."

Even after a few visits to the injured German soldier, Peter begins to have trouble reconciling the pictures on the war posters of Germans with the young German soldier before him.

"On some of the posters, the Germans looked like they had no faces, just half-closed eyes looking at us from the shadow beneath their helmets. Or they were dark monsters, sighting along the barrels of their rifles. On one of them, the enemy was a mustached cross between Hitler and the devil -- his red face topped with horns that stuck out from his side-parted black hair. But as I watched him drink, I realized the man we'd brought into my secret place wouldn't have stood out if he'd been waiting in the queue at the grocer's."

Kim expresses what Peter is thinking when she says, "He's not much of a German, is he?"..."You've seen the posters. They always look different. Like their monsters or somethin'." They both agree that their German looks nothing like the posters, more like them and not different at all. And looking at him reminds Kim of her brother, Josh, and Peter of his da'. Now that they can put a face to the enemy, a young man who is scared, has a name and a family, Peter and Kim have a hard time believing what the adults around them are saying. Even though they are told by adults if they find the German they must turn him in, Peter and his friend display the moral courage not to when they believe that he will be killed.

Smith does a brilliant job of seamlessly incorporating facts about daily life in the English countryside during World War II and portraying the effects of war on Peter and his family and those around them. There is the loss of his da' at a time when a young boy needs him most, the privation of not having enough to eat or the basic necessities of life and of course the terror of being bombed.

My Friend The Enemy succeeds as historical fiction because the author establishes a realistic setting in north east England and populates his story with historically accurate characters and situations. While the major focus in Peter's life at this time is the German soldier, life during wartime goes on. Peter has to deal with the village bully, forms a new friendship with a girl that turns out to last a lifetime, and he has to deal with what appears to be a blossoming friendship between his mother and Mr. Bennett, leaving Peter feeling like she is possibly being unfaithful to his dad.

The novel has a wonderful epilogue which tells what happened to Peter and his mother, to Kim and also to Erik who writes a letter to Peter at the end detailing his life and thanking him for befriending him.The cover is quite well done although I actually like this cover better. A map showing Peter's location within England and relative to Norway and Germany would have been welcome. Overall a truly appealing novel on many levels.


This novel is highly recommended for young readers interested in World War II history and for those looking for a novel with a male point of view. I look forward to reading and reviewing another of Dan Smith's novels, My Brother's Secret. You can visit Dan at his website Dan Smith


Book Details:
My Friend The Enemy by Dan Smith
New York: Chicken House, an imprint of Scholastic    2014
279 pp.



Monday, October 13, 2014

The Fourth Wish by Lindsay Ribar

Margo McKenna is now one of only two genies in the world, besides her crush, Oliver Parish. After making a fourth wish that saved Oliver, but killed Xavier by setting him free, Margo is struggling to adjust to life as a genie with unimaginable powers. But those powers come at a price especially when the person who is in possession of your "vessel" is the creepy boy you don't like.

When Margo first becomes a genie she reappears as Amber, a tall, curvy blonde, at a party Ryan Weiss is attending. Ryan holds Margo's vessel which is a red guitar pick.  The first of his wishes is that Margo's best friend, Naomi Sloane fall in love with him. This horrifies Margo because she knows for a fact that Naomi dislikes Ryan even more than she does. Margo is forced to grant Ryan his wish and Naomi appears to be attracted to him. The next day Ryan tells Margo that he and Naomi spent the night together. He tells her that he will be more careful about his last two wishes which he wants to be really good.

Walking home Margo meets up with a girl named Gwen who is really Oliver who she learns has taken this body for his new master. Oliver fills Margo in on what happened after the fourth wish took effect - that they spent time in the gray world called the Between. Oliver tells her he will teach her about the magic so she can function as a genie. He shows her how to move through space and time quickly and how to change herself back into Margo. Oliver tells her that the magic makes her look like someone her new master will be attracted to and trust. She can go back to her original body and she will eventually learn how to stay for long periods of time in that body if she needs to.

Oliver had thought that he and Margo would run away to be together but Margo tells him taht she even though she became a genie she had no intentions of giving up her human life; she has a family and wants to go to college. Margo has trouble retaining her shape as herself and eventually has to reveal her situation to Simon Lee, the only human person who saw what happened in the Jackson High auditorium and his girlfriend, Vicky Willoughbee. She also tells Naomi what has happened to her and that she is now a genie.

When Oliver and Margo talk again Margo tells Oliver how Ryan is telling everyone what happened between him and Naomi and that he also seems quite knowledgeable about genies. Oliver tells her  about an online forum on genies and when he signs onto the board using his really identity of Ciaran Kelly they find that he's been fishing for information on this forum.

The next time Ryan "calls" Margo he is with a dark-skinned man in dreadlocks whom Ryan announces will be her next master. Margo is shocked to learn that Ryan is intending upon selling her to this man, whose name is James. James backs out of the sale when Margo as Amber tells Ryan he can't sell her because she's a person.

Meanwhile Margo begins to learn about her magic and life as a genie. Margo struggles to learn how to keep her body looking like


The Fourth Wish is a strange novel that tries to tackle a lot of issues within the confines of a paranormal romance. In this novel, Margo is attempting to come to terms with the fallout of becoming a genie at the end of The Art of Wishing. This was an impulsive action on her part, to save Oliver's life without fully understanding the consequences of her action. The major consequence which she gradually comes to recognize in The Fourth Wish, is that she can't live her human life while being a genie because being a genie means being bound to someone else and essentially losing some of one's free will. "But I also can't do this double-life thing anymore," I continued. "I can't walk around pretending to be normal when I'm constantly making an effort to look like myself, constantly wondering if my master's going to call me, and all that."  Margo feels like she is leading a double life and she struggles to maintain her identity both physically and psychologically, as a high school senior intent upon attending NYU next year. Becoming a genie begins to change her in ways that her friend Naomi recognizes as harmful. When Margo calls forth money and later when she "adjusts" herself to be smarter at math, she begins to realize that there is a level of dishonesty about these "adjustments" that she is not prepared to accept. Eventually, Margo gets around this in the end by making Oliver her master knowing that he will not use the wishes and she can carry on with her life for the most part.

Two other themes in this novel involve the body and are connected; the first involving gender identity and the second idea that a genie is simply supposed to adapt to having his or her body used. The author spends a great deal of time in the book focusing on one of the rules of a genie and how this affects them - a genie's body is made to look like someone his/her master will be attracted to and trust. This means that if a genie's gender is female and her master wants a male genie she will be male. So Margo learns that Oliver has been both male and female and in this novel he has the identity of Gwen which is confusing to Margo and leads her to question who he is, who she is and how this will affect her. Oliver eventually tells her that she will get used to the idea of being either gender but to Margo being a man when she is decidedly female feels like "wearing a costume".  The idea of a genie being able to take on a different gender like changing one's hair colour came up repeatedly throughout the story weakening the storyline and further development of the main characters.  It seemed at time that the author's purpose was to make her point that gender is fluid, using Oliver, the intelligent, bisexual genie, as her mouthpiece.

While Margo seems to accept that Oliver can take on different genders, she has more trouble accepting his promiscuous past as either a male or female and the apparent loss of free will genies encountered especially when it led to manipulation and sexual assault. Oliver seemed to suggest that genies simply had to accept this as part of their fate and that Margo needed to learn how to adjust herself to cope instead of actively trying to stop the abuse.  This comes up when Ryan Weiss decides to turn a wish against Margo and force her to sleep with him. When she tells Oliver about what happened he seems to imply that she can control this by manipulating the other person rather than getting them to actually stop their behaviour.

Overall The Fourth Wish will appeal to those who enjoy fantasy and paranormal but they may find there is not enough substance to hold their interest through the middle of the novel.

Book Details:
The Fourth Wish by Lindsay Ribar
New York: Kathy Dawson Books      2014
358 pp.



Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fireflies in the Dark by Susan Goldman Rubin

Fireflies in the Dark tells the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist and a teacher who worked with children using art. When Hitler came to power and set up a dictatorship, he began to implement many policies to rid Germany of its Jewish population. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Friedl lived in Prague at this time. Concerned for her well being, given the Nazi policies towards Jews, friends had arranged for Friedl to emigrate to Palestine, the new Jewish state, but she refused to leave her friends. Eventually, Friedl, like most of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, was sent to a concentration camp in 1942. Friedl, her husband Pavel Brandeis were sent to a camp called Terezin or better known as Theresiendstadt.


When Friedl was packing to leave for Terezin she took many art supplies including paint, brushes and paper. Her motivation for doing so were the children that she knew would be in the camp. Friedl felt that art would be able to help many of the children in the camp. Friedl and her husband along with all the Jewish population of her town and many others had to lug their suitcases almost two miles into Terezin which was once a Czech army fortress. All of the town's non Jewish inhabitants were ordered to leave and it was turned into a camp.

At the camp the Nazi guards took away anything of value that the Jewish people had brought with them but Friedl's art supplies were left untouched. Families were separated so Friedl lived in a separate barrack from Pavel. She was sent to live with the children in a "home" called L410 which was for girls. Conditions in L410 were terrible as it was cramped and cold. Friedl managed to create a small area away from the packed barrack that allowed children some space.

In the camp, Friedl and other adults taught the children in secret as they were not allowed to attend school but only to study music and crafts. Friedl's effort in this was to give art lessons to any child who wished to learn. It was through art that Friedl helped the children to express what they were feeling, to escape the horrific situation they had been placed into and to retain some dignity during a time when hope was lost. People including the children did not receive enough food, had to cope with bedbugs and lice, and were often sick. In addition was the ever present fear of being named to the transports which meant being sent east to a death camp.

In 1943 Friedl and the other tutors at Terezin had the children put on a production of a Czech fairy tale called Fireflies.  With Friedl's help they created the costumes for the musical. On October 6, 1944, Friedl along with thirty of her students was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau were she was murdered.

At the end of the war when Terezin was liberated by the Russians, two suitcases containing five thousand children's drawings were found in the attic of L410. The suitcases were brought to Prague by Willi Groag who had been the head tutor at L410. Nothing was done about them until ten years after their discovery when they were finally exhibited. Today these drawings are now catalogued and preserved. Both the Jewish Museum in Prague and Beit Theresienstadt in Israel retain the drawings.

Fireflies in the Dark captures the essence of Friedl's work with the children of Terezin as well as their experience in the concentration camp, with the many reproductions of their artwork. For example, A Train Travelling Through a Night Landscape by Alice Guttamanova who died in September, 1943 effectively portrays "a train hurtling the night, carrying the prisoners into the unknown." with its dark bold lines amid a full moon. Other paintings such as Flowers and Butterflies by Margit Koretzova display beautiful colours that suggest an escape to a happier more peaceful realm.

The author, Susan Goldman Rubin was able to meet some of the survivors of Terezin including Eva Stichova-Beldova, Helga Weissova-Hoskova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc and Doris Grozdanovicova. She also had access to the unpublished diaries written by some of the prisoners. All of this plus the help of numerous others contributed to a book which passes on the story of the children of Terezin to a new generation of young people.

Book Details:
Fireflies in the Dark by Susan Goldman Rubin
New York: Holiday House     2000
48 pp.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Beauty's Daughter by Carolyn Meyer

Beauty's Daughter tackles the story of the Hermione, daughter of Helen of Troy and King Menelaus of Sparta. The novel which is narrated by Hermione, is her story but it also involves the prominent role her mother played. It opens when Hermione is eleven years old, relating her early life and her family history. Hermione's grandmother, Helen's mother Leda, was married to Tyndareus, King of Sparta. The great god Zeus appeared to Leda in the form of a giant swan and seduced her, causing her to give birth to a giant blue egg. Helen hatched from the egg and was accepted by Tyndareus into a family that included twin brothers, Castor and Pollux and a sister, Clytemnestra.  Helen was extremely beautiful. When she was eleven years old, Helen was kidnapped by Theseus, the son of Poseidon and taken to his mother Queen Aethra who lived in a small village. Theseus left her and went off on his own adventures and eventually Helen was rescued by her brothers, the Discouri. When Helen was older, she married Menelaus whose brother was Agamemnon, king of Mycenae.

Agamemnon was married to Helen's sister, Clytemnestra, whose husband, Tantalus he killed in battle. At this time Helen was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. Her father chose Menelaus and at the recommendation of Odysseus, had every suitor swear to defend him. Hermione and her little brother Pleisthenes were born. Hermione developed a close relationship with her father, learning about the gods who seemed to control their lives;  Zeus and Apollo his son, Artemis, Apollos' twin and Athena who sprang from the brow of Zeus.

When she was eleven, Hermione's uncle, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and her cousins, Orestes, Iphigenia, Electra and Chrysothemis came to visit Sparta. At the end of the summer, as her cousins are preparing to leave, the Spartans learn that Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy will visit soon. King Priam has nineteen children, including Paris and his eldest brother, Hector. He also has numerous children by concubines and servants. Troy is an important city in the trade for silks and spices from the Orient.

On hearing of Prince Paris' visit, Helen decides to refurbish the palace with new couches, beds and fleeces. The handsome Paris arrives and immediately Hermione realizes that Paris and her mother Helen are attracted to one another. However, her father, Menelaus seems oblivious. When Menelaus leaves for Crete, Helen and Paris steal away and leave for Troy. Hermione discovers her mother's absence during the night but cannot wake anyone in the house. As she searches the house, she discovers that her Pleisthenes has left with them and they have taken all her father's treasure from the store house.

Hermione meets Zethus, Prince Paris's servant, who tells her that he saw Aphrodite, the goddess of love,  case a spell over everyone, as Paris is her favourite. Hermione tells Zethus that when her father comes home to discover his wife and son and his treasure gone, he will enlist the help of Helen's former suitors to help him recover her. This will likely mean war with Troy. And that's what happens as we well know.

When Menelaus arrives home to learn Helen is gone, he travels to Mycenae, to meet with King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra. Hermione will stay with her aunt while Menelaus gathers together the men who took the oath to aid him and travels to Troy to retrieve Helen. Menelaus and Agamemnon decide they will send an embassy to Troy to ask for Helen's return and when King Priam refuses, they make war on Troy.  They also decide to consult the oracle at Delphi. Eventually King Menelaus is able to assemble a thousand ships at Aulis, all painted black with huge eyes on the bows. Determined to travel to Troy, Hermione sneaks aboard the women's ship only to learn that it filled with prostitutes for the warriors. Hermione is protected by an older woman and eventually reveals herself to her father on the beach at Troy.

For ten years Hermione stays with the Greeks as they fight the Trojans. Hermione relates many of the events that are part of the Illiad; the fight between Kind Menelaus and Prince Paris, the death of Patroclus, the victory of Achilles over Hector and of course the building of the wooden horse with the Greeks hiding inside.  During this time Hermione and her cousin, Orestes, who has been involved in the Trojan war, become close friends and then lovers. With the war over, Hermione and Orestes decide they will marry. However, fate intervenes and Hermione learns that her father has already promised her to Pyrrhus, the violent and cruel son of Achilles.

Hermione has seen how the Pyrrhus enslaved Andromache, Hector's widow and killed her son, Astyanax and she wants no part of the marriage. Besides, her grandfather, Tyndareus betrothed her to Orestes when they were both children. However, when she tries to seek out Orestes to tell him what her parents have done, she learns that he has sailed with Agamemnon back to Greece. Hermione is forced to marry the brutal Pyrrhus and sets said with him to Iolkos, the main port in Phthia. After burning all his fleet, Pyrrhus sets out to Pharsalos, the capital of the Myrmidons.

Although Hermione tells herself that she must forget Orestes, she finds it difficult to settle into life with Pyrrhus. When Zethus visits bring news of terrible events in Mycenae involving Orestes and his family, Hermione makes the decision to leave and search for the man she loves.

Beauty's Daughter succeeds in telling the remarkable story of  Helen and Menelaus of Sparta and the war that ensued after Helen was taken to Troy whether by force or by choice, by Paris. This then sets the stage for Hermione's own story which takes place after the Trojan War. We know the story of Helen of Troy and the Trojan War because it is was passed on orally and eventually written down in what has come to be known as the Epic Cycle. The Epic Cycle includes the Cypria, the Aethopis, the Little Illiad, the IIiupersis, the Nostoi and the Telegony.  Homer's epic poem, The Illiad, (sometimes included by scholars along with the Odyssey) covers only a small part of the war. Very little is known about Hermione, except that she married Pyrrhus and that she eventually fled his home after attempting to have his concubine murdered by her father. Hermione eventually marries Orestes. It is this part of Hermione's story that Meyer fleshes out.

The storytelling in Beauty's Daughter is well done and will be very appealing even to those whom  the story of Helen and Paris and the Trojan War is well known. Beauty's Daughter is definitely an engaging read simply because the story encompasses so many literary themes such as love, betrayal, war, and the differing roles of men and women in the Mycenaean Bronze Age. And mixed into this story is the many gods who can't seem to keep out of human affairs.

Where Beauty's Daughter falters somewhat is in the development of characters. Because there's so much "story" to tell, and because we see the events only through the eyes of Hermione, as this is her story, the other characters are not so fully portrayed.  Meyer does develop Hermione better than most of the other characters, focusing on Hermione's struggle to find her place within the Greek encampment, her longing for her mother Helen, whom Hermione feels has abandoned her,  and her love affair with Orestes. Instead we see a kindly Hermione tending to women who have been captured as spoils of war and heroes who fall in battle. The reader never really comes to know Orestes, who seems to be an important part of Hermione's life for those ten years of war at Troy, during the time the two friends grow into adulthood and love.  Even after he commits his terrible crimes, Meyer does not flesh out Orestes much except to tell us that he is being driven mad by the Furies. The same can be said of Pyrrhus as we know little about what drives him to be so cruel to Andromache or so disinterested in Hermione.

Despite this, I enjoyed reading this novel. Meyer has done her research and portrays Greek social and religious customs with great realism. I found it interesting to see how Hermione and her fellow Greeks viewed their fate as whatever the gods determined, sometimes relieving them of any responsibility for their actions. Meyer has included a detailed map of Greece and Troy and a list of the many characters in this saga.

Book Details:
Beauty's Daughter by Carolyn Meyer
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt     2013
337 pp.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Faces of the Dead by Suzanne Weyn

Faces of the Dead is historical fiction with an occult twist that makes use of the switched identities trope.

Marie-Therese-Charlotte of France, Madame Royale, daughter of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, has a good friend in Ernestine, whose mother is a chambermaid. Marie-Therese's mother, the Queen arranged for Ernestine to be her daughter's companion and they become good friends. The two girls look so remarkably alike that few people can tell them apart and so beginning around the age of twelve take advantage of this by often switching places. By the time they are sixteen, the two have switched places frequently because Marie-Therese is determined to learn what life is like outside the palace, to see the real France.

Ernestine tells Marie-Therese that she can sneak out of the palace by hitching a ride with Jacques who goes into Paris for supplies. On her first ride in with Jacques, Marie-Therese learns from him that the French people believe her mother is extravagant at the expense of the people and that she is an Austrian spy. On her own Marie-Therese meets a boy named Henri who tells her not to tell anyone that she works at the palace. Henri takes her to the workshop of Mademoiselle Grosholtz who recreates realistic figures in wax. Dr. Curtius taught Mademoiselle Grosholtz how to make wax figures and she has recreated scenes from many settings including Ancient Rome and Egypt and from Marie-Therese's home, at Versailles.

With Henri, Marie-Therese learns about the hatred directed towards her family by the people of Paris. She sees the sick and hungry children, the poor mothers and remembers when the women broke into the palace demanding food for their starving families. The revolutionaries, who wear the red, white and blue ribbons,  want to kill Marie-Therese's mother and father and her family.

While she is gone, Ernestine, posing as Marie-Therese, meets Marie Therese's cousin, Louis-Antoine d'Angouleme, whom she is to marry. Ernestine enjoys the duc d'Angouleme's company but Marie-Therese is not able to connect so well with him, Louis-Antoine tells her that unless she is more like she was before (when he was talking to Ernestine) they will not be happy together.

At the Place de la Concorde, Marie-Therese sees the guillotine for the first time, and sees the people rioting in the streets, intent upon storming the palace and calling for her parents to be put to death. Afraid for her family she races back to Versailles, warning her father. Her father suggests they give the people food, while her mother believes that the gates will keep the frenzied crowds outside the palace grounds. However, the mob finds its way into Versailles but are not satisfied with the bread given to them.  When the mob breaks into the palace, Marie-Therese, her younger brother Louis-Charles, Ernestine, and the king and queen attempt to escape but are forced back to Paris. When the carriage stops, Marie-Therese's Mama insists she leave and hide out telling her that her uncle from Austria is coming to take her. For three days Marie Therese waits and then heads back to Paris where she stays with Henri.

Eventually Marie-Therese and Henri become homeless after a series of misfortunes. Her family is placed at Tuileries where Marie-Therese sometimes goes to watch them in the courtyard. Eventually they discover that Mademoiselle Grosholtz has be freed and is working at Dr. Curtius's exhibit. With her is a beautiful dark-haired woman, Rose de Beauharnais who was born in Martinique and who has knowledge of magic. Mademoiselle Grosholtz tells them that she must collect the severed heads from the Place de la Revolution to make death masks of the beautiful and famous.

On their first day there, Marie-Therese learns that the women of Paris are planning to storm the Tulieres and kill the queen. Marie-Therese is carried along by the crowd, but manages to sneak away and warn her mother and family who escape into a secret safe room. When the riot is over,Monsieur Clery tells them they are expected at the National Assembly but Marie-Therese is told to go back to her life on the streets of Paris until the revolution is over. Mama gives her a velvet purse containing jewels and coins to help. Once outside again, Marie-Therese meets up with Henri who now reveals to her that he knows who she is. Henri also tells Marie-Therese that Mademoiselle Grosholtz also knows, but that they will not turn her it.

Months pass as Marie-Therese lives with Mademoiselle Grosholtz, helping her make her death masks. Henri and Marie-Therese fall in love despite the gory revolution. Will the revolution  ever end and will Marie-Therese ever see her family again?

Faces of the Dead could have been an interesting story but it was marred by Weyn's choice of two very strange storylines; the first playing on the recently revived substitution theory which posits that Ernestine de Lambriquet bore a remarkable resemblance to Marie-Therese-Charlotte, Madame Royal and that they two may have switched places during the revolution, the second storyline involving Creole voodoo to revive the spirits of those guillotined during the revolution.

If Weyn had focused on the historical story of Marie-Therese and the French Revolution, the novel would have succeeded admirably. Because the author had to focus on two very different threads, neither really lived up to expectations. Historical fiction is successful if the author is able to recreate the time period and have the characters behave in a manner consistent with that era. Although Weyn succeeds in portraying the horror and gore of the revolution, neither Marie-Therese's actions nor the paranormal storyline are believable. As an aristocrat, Marie-Therese would have stood out on the streets of Paris both in the way she spoke and in the way she behaved. She lived a very isolated, privileged life at the palace, something ironically that Weyn effectively demonstrated in her parents reactions to the revolutionaries. As a person to whom every care was attended to, she likely would have been extremely shocked to see how the average French person lived and not so eager to partake of  such a life. As to the substitution theory, it is widely regarded by historians as myth but readers will find the Author's Note which goes into greater depth about the mystery to be interesting. Readers might find the views on the blog,  Tea At Trianon also interesting.

With a separate storyline based on the occult, Faces of the Dead strays from pure historical fiction. The paranormal storyline was not necessary and ultimately pushed the novel into the realm of ridiculous with Weyn using the spirit-calling as a way to reincarnate Marie-Anoinette at the end - a totally absurd notion.Weyn provides an interesting Author's Note at the back of her novel which goes into greater depth about the mystery.

Overall, a strange novel, whose dark, mysterious cover fits the paranormal storyline in Faces of the Dead.

Book Details:
Faces of the Dead by Suzanne Weyn
New York: Scholastic Press       2014
201 pp.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Echoes of the White Giraffe by Sook Nyul Choi

Echoes of the White Giraffe is the second book in Sook Nyul Choi's books about a young girl and her family living in Korea during the first half of the 20th century.

Echoes of the White Giraffe begins in the year 1950. Fifteen-year-old Sookan is now living in Pusan with her younger brother Inchun and her mother after having barely escaped from the bombing of Seoul by the Korean and Chinese Communists. Sookan and her family had reunited after their daring escape out of Northern Korea which was occupied by the Russians who had driven out the Japanese occupiers. Sookan, her best friend Bokhi, Inchun, Teacher Yun and many other refugees had all played a part in building a school so that they could return to their studies. Teacher Yun and other teachers who had escaped from Seoul when the war started eight months ago are eager to help the students catch up.

Sookan misses her "beautiful brick Ewha School with its sparkling classrooms and its beautifully tiered garden." But she also misses her family home in Seoul. As refugees Sookan and her mother and brother live in a small wooden shack at the top of the mountain near Pusan. In their flight from Seoul they became separated from her father and three older brothers and haven't heard anything since then.

One morning Sookan is awoken by the loud yelling of a man on the opposite side of the mountain, telling everyone to wake up. Curious to see who the man is, Sookan races to the top of the mountain and yells back at him. She asks him if he is a mountain poet and calls this unknown man her "shouting poet". His yelling is a daily ritual that awakens the refugees.

Sookan settles into life in Pusan. Her family are Catholics and they attend Father Lee's morning and Sunday Masses. She also sings in the choir which is directed by Haerin Min, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Lim, the town doctor. The choir is made up of members from Pusan High School for Boys, Pusan Girls' School and also the refugee students from Seoul. Sookan doesn't much like Haerin, after the disdainful way she treated Sookan and her family when they first arrived in Pusan, looking down on them because they are refugees. Sookan spends a great deal of time with the choir, practicing every Saturday and singing at four Masses on Sunday. It is in the choir that she first meets Haerin's oppa or brother, Junho. Sookan finds seventeen-year-old Junho to be very handsome. Because their voices harmonize so well together, Haerin places Junho and Sookan together in the center of the choir, having them sing duets together.

One Sunday after Mass, Haerin catches up with Sookan as she walks home and questions her about her escape from the war in Seoul. Haerin's insensitive questioning makes Sookran uncomfortable but when Junho manages to meet with them Sookran tells him about her life in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite Junho's kind remarks Sookan feels humiliated.

Sookran's time in Pusan is punctuated by several tragedies. Her best friend, Bokhi who lives with her aunt, learns that her parents died in the bombing of Seoul. Bokhi is so distraught that she does not return to school for days. Sookran stays at her house to try to encourage Bokhi to accept her parent's deaths and to realize that living her life well will please them. Eventually she manages to get Bokhi to come to see Teacher Yun who helps her cope. But when Sookan returns to her home on the red mountain the next morning she oversleeps. It is then that she realizes that she has not heard the shouting poet that morning and learns from her mother that he has died. Sookran's mother takes her to his grave where they discover his name was Baik Rin which means "white giraffe".

As time passes, Sookran and Junho develop a special friendship. When Sookran misses several days of school because of Bokhi and the death of Baik, Junho comes to visit her on the mountain. Under normal circumstances it would not be proper for Junho to stay to visit Sookran but because he is caught in a heavy downpour, Sookran's mother, recognizing the attraction between the two,  suggests he stay. This gives them a chance to really talk. Sookran tells him how her family came to escape Seoul and travel to Pusan. Junho asks Sookran what her plans are after she finished high school and she tells him that she wants to study history in America, then return to Korea to become a nun with her sister Theresa. This revelation disturbs Junho and as the rain has ended he quickly leaves.

Junho arranges for he and Sookran to have their picture taken together - something that is considered highly improper. When Junho receives the pictures, he secretly passes one onto Sookran but Haerin, jealous of Sookran's relationship with her brother, informs their parents. Junho's mother is furious and yells at Sookran's mother but Dr. Min is more tolerant understanding the innocent nature of their relationship.

With the signing of the armistice, once again dividing Korea in to the communist North and the democratic South, Sookran, Inchun and their mother return to Seoul where they find the three older boys at their badly damaged home. Eventually they learn that their father was killed in the bombing of Seoul. Amidst this loss, Sookran decides that she will study hard so she can apply to colleges in America. But in doing so it will mean leaving behind the young man she truly loves.

One day Junho comes to visit her in Seoul. He is now enrolled in Dongkuk University where he is studying literature. Junho tells Sookran that after finishes his studies he will enter the seminary to become a priest. This leads Sookran to wonder whether he has decided to enter the seminary because she told him she was going to become a nun or whether this was always his plan.

Sookran works diligently passing her exams and prepares to leave for America but before journeying overseas she decides to visit Jonhu. Unable to see him one last time, Sookran must believe that it is because they are "everlasting friends".

Echoes of the White Giraffe is a beautifully written story that explores the themes of identity, forbidden love, and hope. This short novel manages to portray the uncertainty of life during the Korean conflict and the life of a refugee in a realistic, somewhat reserved way. The story is narrated by Sookran who reveals that her family was reunited in Seoul in 1945 and settled into a beautiful home at the base of Namsan Mountain.  All this changes five years later when they are forced to flee from Seoul, their family becoming separated once again and Sookran, her mother and younger brother Inchun, crammed onto a boat which takes them to the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, to Pusan. In the first part of the novel Choi effectively portrays the uncertainty, fear and humiliation of Sookran's situation as a refugee.

Choi makes special use of mountains in her story as a symbol of safety and hope. When Sookran and her family flee to Namsan mountain in Seoul, the mountain is a source of protection and safety. The red-brown mountain they live on in Pusan, along with other refugees, symbolizes the obstacles they now face as refugees within their own country. They have no home, no relatives and an uncertain future. Climbing the mountain at the end of each day for Sookran seems almost impossible. The red mountain mud stains their shoes and their clothing, and climbing is sometimes so difficult that "On rainy days, we had to get down on all fours to climb up the muddy, treeless mountainside." Sookran states that the "red mud caked on my shoes made me feel very heavy." Their new life in Pusan is represented by this mountain. Sookran describes their home as "one room made of four thin plywood walls with a sliding door separating a small kitchen area from the main part..." When she looks down the mountain she is afraid seeing "dark shadows moving about. Feeling afraid that the dark valley might swallow me..."

However, the mountain provides them with a symbol of hope and also comes to represent how their lives gradually change as they overcome various obstacles. It is on the mountain that Sookran hears the man she calls the "shouting poet" who yells every morning "Hello, all you refugees on these mountains. Rise and shine. Remember it is a new day, a brand new day. Hello, hello." His voice reverberates over the mountain and Sookran notes that he makes the word "refugees" sound sweet; "The word "refugee" rang as melodiously as all the other words, not sounding as cold and ugly as it had the first time I heard it..." The shouting poet gives them all  hope reminding them that each day is fresh, a new start.

But as life carries on and Sookran settles into a routine of attending school, hearing Mass and singing, she one day realizes that the mountain too has changed. "The mountain was not so difficult to climb as it used to be. The path up the hill had become worn and smooth from constant use. In some of the steep areas that were difficult to climb, people had dug little footholds that made it more like climbing a ladder". This description can be applied to Sookran's life which has now become a bit easier, with the refugees helping one another. Even the shacks now look different from one another, some with "tall yellow sunflowers, while another had morning glories scaling the walls and climbing the roof. Another had rows of tin cans blossoming with pansies and marigolds... It was as if each little house were furiously competing to be the prettiest, most cheerful one on the mountain." The shouting poet has done his work, he has passed on hope to the refugees on the mountain and that is reflected in their homes and their lives.

Choi's writing is very sensual, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of Sookran's world whether it be in Pusan or Seoul. The descriptions are poetic and beautiful, capturing the world around them, "We walked all the way to the jagged black rocks that jutted into the sea. In gloomy silence, we watched the waves crash violently onto the rocks, filling the air with cold, gray mist."

Sookran is shown to be a sensitive thoughtful girl who develops a chaste attraction to Junho. She rebels mildly against the strict norms of her culture which dictate that men and women do not mix in public and that unmarried men and women do meet unchaperoned. Sookran cannot bring herself to tell Junho how she truly feels, no matter how many times they meet, leaving her wondering what could have been. In the end, her one final attempt to see him goes ungranted making it seem as Junho said that they would be "everlasting friends". Sookran must come to accept Junho's decision to enter the priesthood as he had accepted her decision to travel overseas to study with the intent to eventually enter the convent.

There's also the lovely theme of faith woven through in this novel as Sookran and her mother attend Mass and find hope through their faith.

Choi achieves her purpose well in this novel, explaining some of Korea's 20th century history, and portraying the culture of Korea, the resilience and determination of its people in difficult times to young readers.

Echoes of the White Giraffe is the second of three autobiographical novels written by Sook Nyul Choi is a novel filled with tragedy and loss, but also hope and acceptance.

Book Details:
Echoes of the White Giraffe by Sook Nyul Choi
New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing   1993
137 pp.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen

I, Galileo tells the story of one of history's most famous scientists, Galileo Galilei, in his own words accompanied by the beautiful, bold illustrations of author-illustrator Bonnie Christensen.

The story opens with an elderly, blind Galileo reminiscing about his life beginning with his childhood. Galileo was the oldest child in a large family. He was inquisitive and wondered about the natural world around him. His father taught Galileo music and mathematics but at age eleven he was sent to a monastery for a more formal education. When Galileo showed interest in becoming a monk his father had him brought back to Pisa to be educated in to become a doctor. However, Galileo was captivated by mathematics but like his father he often had disagreements with others. This resulted in him leaving the university. Galileo moved to Florence where he began teaching math and giving lectures. His lectures were so popular that he was offered a teaching job at the University of Pisa.

Galileo continued his questioning ways and made enemies by challenging some of the ideas the beloved philosopher, Aristotle had proposed many centuries earlier. He lost his job at Pisa but was soon hired by the University of Padua where Galileo began to conduct experiments and invent new things. His most important improvement was to a Dutch invention, the telescope, a new type of spyglass that greatly magnified objects far away. Galileo worked to perfect his telescope making it more powerful and when he turned it to look at the heavens he made some astonishing discoveries. These discoveries resulted in Galileo securing the patronage of the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de' Medici.

Devoting himself full time to experiments, Galileo came to believe that the sun and planets did NOT revolve around the earth but rather the earth and other planets revolved around the sun. He made this deduction by observing the phases of the planet Venus which is situated closer to the sun and shows phases just like the moon.

This deduction was in complete opposition to what Aristotle had claimed and what the Catholic Church supported. In 1616, the Catholic church ruled that teaching the earth revolved around the sun was heresy and Galileo was ordered to stop. This model of our solar system was called the Copernican theory after Copernicus who first proposed this theory. Copernicus had no way to prove his theory, but Galileo's observations suggested that his theory was probably right.

For seven years Galileo did not teach this theory but when his friend, Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban Galileo thought he would be able to write again about heliocentrism. According to the author, Galileo wrote and published Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems which outraged the pope because he believed Galileo had portrayed him as a fool in the book. Galileo was ordered to face the Inquisition in Rome and was sentenced to imprisonment for the rest of his life. The book ends with Galileo making that comment that the truth will find the light - implying of course that science eventually defeated the ignorance of the Catholic Church.

Christensen's picture book is simply written and of course treats the Galileo affair in a basic manner. However, there are some errors in the story as presented by Bonnie Christensen. Galileo's run-in with the Catholic church was more complex than portrayed in this book as both sides were at fault to some degree. The fallout of the Galileo affair remains; the Catholic church and religion in general are now seen as antithetical towards science. What follows is a summary of George Sim Johnston's discussion of the events in his book, The Galileo Affair published by Scepter Press.

The Catholic church believes that faith and science are not at odds. The church completely supported the work of Nicholas Copernicus who surprisingly was NOT the first to suggest that the earth and other heavenly bodies revolved around the sun. This was suggested in ancient times by the Greeks. The church supported Aristotle's theory mainly because it seemed to be supported by scripture and scripture was interpreted more rigorously in past centuries than now. Also science in the time of Copernicus was not interested in determining scientific truth but in making sure that ideas and theories previously presented (such as Aristotle and Ptolemy's theory of the sun revolving around the earth) were preserved. Scientific reality was not considered important.

However Copernicus turned this way of explaining the natural world on its head; in fact he was afraid to publish his book not because he feared the church (which actually supported his work) but because he feared his fellow academics.

Galileo learned of a remarkable new instrument, the telescope which had been made by the Dutch. He made his own and soon made many interesting discoveries as Bonnie Christensen mentions in her book; the discovery of the moon's true surface, four satellites of Jupiter and the phases of Venus. A leading Jesuit astronomer, Christopher Clavius was at first skeptical but soon verified Galileo's observations. Even Pope Paul III was interested and agreeable to his theory.

But the disagreeable nature of Galileo that Christensen highlights in her story came back to haunt the scientist. He became determined to force the Copernican view of the solar system onto a public that was not ready to accept a very different cosmic view. According to George Sim Johnston of "The Galileo Affair",

"But Galileo was intent on ramming Copernicus down the throat of Christendom. The irony is that when he started his campaign, he enjoyed almost universal good will among the Catholic hierarchy. But he managed to alienate almost everybody with his caustic manner and aggressive tactics. His position gave the Church authorities no room to maneuver: they either had to accept Copernicanism as a fact (even though it had not been proved) and reinterpret Scripture accordingly; or they had to condemn it. He refused the reasonable third position which the Church offered him: that Copernicanism might be considered a hypothesis, one even superior to the Ptolemaic system, until further proof could be adduced."

With Galileo moving the controversy into the realm of scripture, the church had no choice but to act. In the context of the times, post-Reformation, where protestants focused on the private interpretation of scripture, it seemed as though Copernicanism was in direct opposition to the strict interpretation of scripture that the Catholic church held. Either scripture had to be re-interpreted or the theory was wrong. Since there was no way to prove Copernicanism at this time, Galileo could not present it as fact. Why he chose to force his theory into the realm of scripture is probably a function of his obstinate, prideful nature.

The first two submissions to Rome resulted in his case being dismissed. Then Cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine wrote Galileo a letter requesting he either prove his theory (which was perfectly acceptable to hold) or to leave the matter alone. Eventually in 1616, at his first trial, Galileo was told to neither "hold or defend" his theory which he abided by. However, in his file there was also a mysterious and controversial directive stating that he could not discuss it either, which Galileo claimed he was unaware of. When he published his book, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems this violated that term. But even worse, the book seemed to mock Urban VIII for his scientific views. At his second trial in 1633 which did not see Galileo torture or recant his theory, he was judged to be "vehemently suspected of heresy". Galileo's condemnation, according to Johnston was unjust because Copernicanism was never judged to be heretical. In fact,"in 1822, at the behest of Pius VII, the Holy Office granted an imprimatur to the work of Canon Settele, in which Copernicanism was presented as a physical fact and no longer as an hypothesis."


Sadly the church has never seemed to recover from fallout as a result of the Galileo affair despite that fact that many Catholic scientists were responsible for the development of several scientific disciplines throughout the 1800's. Modern science considers religion hostile to science. It is not.

For those who might want to read George Sim Johnston's piece in its entirety, please see The Galileo Affair.

Another excellent piece is The Dispute Between Galileo and the Catholic Church by Donald DeMarco.

Galileo's voice in I, Galileo, is accurately portrayed as belligerent and arrogant. Galileo's stubbornness and determination to aggravate ecclesiastical authorities comes across in this telling.  However, there are several inaccuracies in I, Galileo. First, according to Johnston, Galileo never did conduct the experiment with two objects from the Tower of Pisa. It is widely held that this was a "thought experiment". Secondly, the church never did rule that Copernicanism was heresy. And thirdly, Galileo was not imprisoned, but lived comfortably near Florence in a home. These inaccuracies pretty much cancel the simplicity of the story and the accurate voice of Galileo in this book.

Christensen's book has a Chronology and a list of Galileo's Experiments and Galileo's Inventions and Improvements, Astronomic Discoveries, a Glossary, Bibliography and Websites at the back of the book.

Book Details:
I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen
New York: Alfred A Knopf    2012

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On The Fence by Kasie West

On The Fence is a poignant coming-of-age story about a girl growing into womanhood  who struggles to remember the mother she misses and to unravel her deepening feelings for the boy next door.

Charlotte (Charlie)Reynolds is sixteen years old and lives with her policeman father and her three brothers, Jerom, Nathan and Gage. Her neighbour, Braden Lewis is almost always at her home so he too is like a fourth brother to Charlie. Charlie is a pure tomboy, keen about sports and involved in running, soccer and basketball and roughhousing with her brothers. Her mother died when she was six and Charlie has few precious memories of her. Now a teenager, Charlie finds she misses having a mother around to guide her through the ins and outs of dating, boys and makeup.

When Charlie acquires a second speeding ticket, her dad insists she get a job to pay him back for the tickets and as insurance against any future tickets. Charlie doesn't want to work, but with the help of brother Gage, she manages to get hired on by Linda who owns a clothing store, Linda's Bazaar. Linda is an earthy woman whose motherly concern for Charlie manifests itself in helping Charlie purchase suitable clothing for working in the boutique. Charlie has to wear something other than her typical t-shirt, jeans and beat up sneakers.

Lately Charlie has seen the nightmares about her mother return and when she can't sleep she decides to go sit out in the backyard by the fence. For the past four years, Charlie has found that running before bed made her tired enough to sleep through the night, helping to avoid the recurring nightmares. But lately running hasn't worked. One night in her backyard she witnesses Braden's father coming home drunk, yelling at Braden and his mom. Upset at what she's witnessed, Charlie talks to Braden through their shared fence. Soon they find themselves meeting frequently in the middle of the night, Charlie on her side of the fence, Braden on his side. They talk about Braden's family problems and Charlie's life. Charlie challenges Braden to a game to see who knows more about the other.

Meanwhile Charlie begins to enjoy her job at Linda's. She finds Linda to be a kind manager who encourages her. However, when Linda makes a general remark about Charlie's mother, instead of telling Linda that her mother died, Charlie acts as though her mother is still alive. This little lie unsettles Charlie, but she's tired of being pitied when people ask.

When a girl drops off ads for make up demos at the store, Linda suggests that Charlie sign up to be a makeup model. Charlie agrees to do this, forging her dead mother's signature on the permission paper. Unable to sleep after doing this, Charlie meets Braden at the fence in the middle of the night confessing her guilt over what she's done in a sort of general way.

The make up demo goes well, with Amber doing basic makeup of Charlie's face. Amber's friendly and an Olympic chatter which makes the session pass easily. Charlie who was dreading the session because she is completely out of her league when it comes to girly things, finds it not quite so bad. When she discovers how much money she can make from just one session Charlie agrees to do a second one.

Gradually Charlie begins to realize that she's falling in love with Braden, but he doesn't seem to reciprocate her feelings. Charlie can't stop the way she feels but she knows she has to. "I needed to stop the way my body was reacting to Braden lately. We were friends. Too close to ever want to explore these stupid new reactions and risk losing him forever."

Charlie meets a new guy, Evan, when she goes out with Amber and her friends after the second make-up session. When Evan, who in Charlies eyes is "hot and nice" learns she is a sports nut, he invites her to come with him to see an Oakland Athletics baseball game. It's supposed to be a double date but Charlie knows she can't invite Braden because Amber and her new guy, Dustin will likely come with them.

Things between Charlie and Braden become strained when one night Charlie thinks he's going to tell her that he has feelings for her but instead Braden tells her that he wanted to talk about something very different. Embarrassed and humiliated Charlie leaves. "Of course, Braden didn't like me like that. I was his buddy, his pal, his sister. A burly girl who played sports. The only way a guy would ever like me was with a thick layer of makeup."

This seems to make things easier for Charlie to date Evan because she assumes that Braden simply views her as one of the guys and not a girl who could be a potential girlfriend/date. But when Braden fills in for Amber's date who falls ill, his behaviour seems to suggest that he is jealous. Evan doesn't know Charlie very well but assumes she is like other girls, clueless about sports, especially baseball and into nice clothes and makeup. Braden tells Charlie that he's not the right person for her since she can't be herself around him. Charlie knows she's faking it but maybe this is what she has to do to get a guy interested. These mixed feelings make it hard for Charlie to cope with having Braden around and she wonders how do you stay friends with someone you've fallen for?

On The Fence is a sweet story that touches on the themes of identity, honesty and first love, all of which are interconnected. Charlie has always been seen as "one of the guys" but she begins to wonder if that means guys aren't attracted to in her. Does she have to change who she is to get a date and should she? She becomes aware of this when she goes to Woodward Park to play disc golf with her brothers and they find a girl's lost Frisbee with her contact information on it. While her older brother Jerom thinks it's "hot" that a girl plays disc golf, Gage says, " 'I don't know. A girl who plays disc golf? She's probably a dog. Some aggressive, burly thing.'
The guys laughed...Maybe that's how they saw me. Maybe that's how most guys saw me."

Later on as Charlie begins dating Evan she feels that she must be a different kind of girl than who she is - one who wears makeup and different clothing, who doesn't know about baseball and definitely someone who doesn't play tackle football with the guys. When Braden sees Charlie behaving differently around Evan he tells her "If you can't be yourself around him, then you shouldn't be dating him." But Charlie challenges Braden asking him how many of the guys they know have raced to ask her out. "If they want someone to date, they go to the mall or the club and find a girl who wears tight clothes and does her nails and giggles at their jokes.... Guys don't want a competitor, they want a cheerleader." Seeing Charlie sitting out a tackle football game, Braden again reminds her, "You don't have to change for a guy," telling her that by compromising, she isn't showing Evan the real Charlie.


Charlie's dishonesty with Evan is mirrored in her other relationships with Linda whom she lied to about her mother. Charlie's struggle to find her own identity and to accept it comes to a head when her lies to Linda are revealed, causing Linda disappointment and hurt and bringing down the wrath of her father.  Charlie feels guilt because she knows Linda understands her and is able to help her understand herself and she recognizes she needs someone like this in her life as the men around her cannot provide this much needed insight. Charlie reveals to her father why she lied about her mother's death and asks  him to explain what happened to her mother. She learns that her father and brothers were trying to protect her from the truth of her mother's death, but in doing so they prevented Charlie from coming to terms with her death and healing.

By the end of the novel, Charlie comes to a sort of self-acceptance which allows her to tell both Evan and Braden the truth. She also accepts that her athleticism is a good thing but that she also might want to be open to stepping out of her comfort zone and using a bit of makeup for special occasions. Things like makeup and nice dresses don't make her anything less than who she is. They don't take away her identity.

Charlie is a believable character, and West does a great job filling in her character as the story progresses. Like many sixteen year old girls, she's just figuring herself out, what her strengths are, how to navigate the world of boys and relationships, how to deal with uncomfortable conversations and coming to terms with a family tragedy that happened ten years earlier.

On The Fence is a gentle romance and coming of age story that will appeal to many readers. Kasie West has placed another great read on the bookshelf.

Book Details:
On The Fence by Kasie West
New York: HarperCollins Children's Books    2014
293 pp.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Noisy Paintbox by Barb Rosenstock

"I let myself go. I had little thought for house and trees, drawing colored lines and blobs on the canvas with my palette knife, making them sing just as powerfully as I knew how." Vasily Kandinsky

This historical fiction picture book, written for children, succinctly tells the story of Vasily Kandinsky, a Russian born artist who created abstract art.

Rosenstock's The Noisy Paintbox serves as a nice introduction to this innovative and very important 20th century painter. The basics of Kandinsky's early life - his interest in art and his following of his parent's expectations for him to become a lawyer are told. But Kandinsky experienced colour and music in a different way from most other people - colour produced noise and music, and music often represented colours. Kandinsky became determined paint after several life-changing experiences and his paintings changed the art world forever.

Rosenstock's vivid text works to convey the emotions and colours of Kandinsky's abstract art. "Snapping cerulean points. Crunching crimson squares. Whispering charcoal lines." evoke images in the imagination that speak of Kandinsky's abstract art. Mary Grandpre's bright artwork created using acrylic paint and paper collage enables young readers to understand just how unique Kandinsky's art was while also telling part of the story.

The back of the book has a short biography on Vasily Kandinsky and several small pictures of his artwork. There is also a list of print sources as well as online resources for further investigation.

Kandinsky was born in Moscow, Russian in 1866. His father ran a tea factory in Odessa where the family moved in 1871. Vasily grew up in a cultured home and was well educated. He studied piano and cello and even took some art lessons. However, Vasily's parents expected him to become a lawyer and that is what he did.

He attended Moscow University to study law where he eventually became an Associate Professor. Vasily married Anna Chimyakima and they moved to Tartu where he become a Professor of Law at Derpt University. However, two events were to have a profound effect on Vasily; during an exhibition of Claude Monet's Haystacks he experienced a strong emotional reaction and the same thing happened at a performance of Richard Wagner's opera, "Lohengrin".

These unusual sensory experiences in which Vasily Kandinsky experienced sounds as colours were not unusual for him; he had experienced this sort of thing as a child. It is quite likely that Vasily Kandinsky had a rare genetic condition known as synesthesia in which one sense triggers a reaction in another sense. It was these experiences that motivated Vasily to leave the law profession to become a full time artist.

Arab city  1905  http://www.wassilykandinsky.net/work-299.php
Vasily left Russia and traveled to Munich, Germany where he first studied with Anton Azbe and later with Franz Stuck. In 1903, he divorced his wife and spent the next five years traveling with his companion, Gabriela Munter.

At first Kandinsky's paintings were exquisite, colourful landscapes such as Arab City or Forest Landscape with Red Figure, reminiscent of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. Kandinsky however abandoned these styles and began painting very differently; he used bright colours, line and textures and combined these with shapes that were not recognizable. Kandinsky wanted his artwork to convey feelings through the use of colour and forms. Kandinsky is considered to have created the first piece of abstract art. His painting, Composition VII is considered his best abstract painting.

Composition VII 1913 http://www.wassilykandinsky.net/work-36.php
Kandinsky was part of the Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen (Munich New Artists' Association) but left the group in 191l and participated in the Blaue Reiter's exhibition. From 1914 to 1921, Kandinsky lived in Moscow, marrying the daughter of a Russian General and where he was involved in teaching and developing art museums.

But he fell out of favour with the Socialist government, eventually leaving the Soviet Union and returning to Germany where he became involved in the Bauhaus movement. The Bauhaus was closed by the Nazi's in 1933 and Kandinsky left for France. In the 1937 purge of "degenerate art", fifty-seven of Kandinsky's painting were burned by the Nazis.

For further information on Vasily Kandinsky please check out Wassily Kandinsky Biography, Paintings, and Quotes and Kandinsky.

For more information on people who have synesthesia and this interesting genetic condition check out the PBS website.

Book Details:
The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock
New York: Alfred A. Knopf        2014

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bomb: The Race to Build - And Steal- The World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Bomb is Steve Sheinkin's fascinating account of the three way race between America, Germany and the Soviet Union to build the first atomic bomb. Whoever won this race would likely win World War II and America was determined it would not be Germany.

When fission was discovered and it's possibilities realized, the development of an atomic weapon became a massive project that involved hundreds of brilliant scientists drawn from Europe, Britain and America. It also became a multi-pronged tactical exercise that involved hindering German atomic research as much as possible, keeping American research secret from both Germany and the Soviets, co-ordinating the production of material required to make the bomb, and developing a team to deliver and drop it.

Sheinkin opens the story of "the creation and theft of the deadliest weapon ever invented" with the arrest of Harry Gold, an American who the FBI finally caught up to in 1950.

The story then backtracks to the early life of Robert Oppenheimer, a strange but brilliant character whose peers often considered him "as being sort of nuts". Oppenheimer had a tendency to illness so his parents kept him inside, allowing Robert to develop his interest in languages and science. In high school he loved chemistry and physics. He graduated from Harvard University in 1925 and then went overseas to Britain and Germany where he completed advanced degrees. Oppie, as he was nicknamed, eventually returned to the United States and was hired by the University of California at Berkley where he developed a theoretical physics program. At this time theoretical physics was focused on attempting to figure out how the inner parts of atoms behaved. As he got a bit older, Oppenheimer become more aware of current events taking place in the world at large and was alarmed at Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Oppenheimer had Jewish relatives and friends in Germany and he was concerned about their safety.

In 1938, an astounding discovery was made by a German scientist, Otto Hahn. By the late 1930's scientists understood more about the nature of matter than ever before. They knew that atoms were the small particles that made up all things and they knew a little bit about the structure of atoms, that they had a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons with electrons whizzing around the nucleus in a sort of orbit. They also knew that some atoms were unstable or radioactive, giving off energy in the form of particles which broke away from the nucleus. Scientists like Hahn used radioactive atoms to make an amazing discovery. When Hahn placed uranium beside a radioactive element, he discovered that the uranium atom appeared to be split into two atoms - something considered impossible at this time.

He was so surprised by this result that at first he didn't believe it and Hahn contacted a friend, Lise Meitner, a Jewish physicist who had fled Germany. Meitner in turn showed her nephew who was also a physicist. Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner concluded that it was possible and that if it did occur, a great deal of energy would be released. This discovery was so incredible that Frisch raced to Copenhagen, Denmark where he told Neils Bohr. This process of splitting a uranium atom in two would be called fission and it was to have a profound effect on world history and the nature of war. When Robert Oppenheimer learned about fission , he knew that it had the potential to create the most powerful bomb the world had ever seen.

No one knew exactly what Germany was doing with this new found knowledge. During peace, normally scientists would share discoveries but with countries now falling into what appeared to be another global conflict, no one could be certain of anything. Two concerned physicists solicited the help of  the renowned Albert Einstein who wrote a letter to President Roosevelt telling him about the German discovery of fission and its potential ramifications. If Germany developed the first fission bomb, they would be in a position of world dominance, capable of inflicting deadly damage on any country they were at war with. When Roosevelt understood the message conveyed by Einstein he decided to act.

First atomic bomb named "Gadget" tested at Trinity
This is where Harry Gold returns to the story. Like many American's during the depression, Gold ended up losing his job. He got a chance at employment in a soap factory where he met Tom Black, a committed communist. When Gold went back to work for his former employer, the Pennsylvania Sugar Company, Black recruited Gold to steal the chemical processes for the Soviet Union. This was how Gold became involved in "the greatest crime of the century" as described by J. Edgar Hoover.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbour in the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, the United States entered the Second World War. Reasearch into nuclear fission would now be of paramount importance.

The Soviets too heard about Hahn's remarkable discovery. Georgi Flerov a Soviet physicist noted that academic journals were suddenly devoid of papers on uranium fission, meaning that work was going ahead to build a bomb. The Soviets recognized that despite being allies against Germany with the Americans, they too needed to build their own atomic bomb. With their country in a death fight against the advancing Nazi army, they did not have the capability to do their own research. This mean they were going to have to steal the information necessary to make one. And the KGB set about to do just that. In order to steal the information the Soviets needed a "reliable source inside the American bomb project."

Leslie Groves, an engineer who had overseen the project to build the Pentagon was placed in charge of the American project to build an atom bomb, known as Manhattan Project. He eventually chose Robert Oppenheimer, who felt that a laboratory which was focused exclusively on building an atom bomb, was needed. This would allow scientists from different research labs to be in one centralized location and able to share insights. This despite reservations from the FBI who felt Oppenheimer's past interest in Communism made him unacceptable. Groves won and Oppenheimer was placed in charge of Manhattan Project.

From this point on Bomb details three storylines; the setting up of the Manhattan Project to build the world's first atomic bomb under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer, the destruction of the German's heavy water plant at Vemork near Rjukan, Norway and the cultivation of spies in America to steal vital information to make a bomb and pass it to the Soviets.

Each of these stories on their own, make fascinating reading, building to the climax of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Sheinkin provides much interesting information on the actual development of the atomic bomb gathered from many sources. The entire Manhattan Project from beginning to end involved a great deal of planning, from recruiting the best and brightest scientists in the fields of physics, chemistry and mathematics, securing enough uranium, working out a bomb design, testing the bomb to ensure it worked, to hand picking the pilots and the crews to fly the missions. All of the problems encountered, the many characters involved in the Manhattan Project and the mixed reactions after the dropping of the first bomb are well described.

The story of the Vemork heavy water plant is also one that many readers will learn about. Its destruction by Knut Haukelid and his team was a significant setback to German scientists in the development of their own atom bomb and came with a heavy price to the people of Norway. We should all be grateful for their sacrifice and for the outstanding effort of the team sent into Vemork. It is quite possible that Germany would have won the race to build an atomic bomb were it not for the destruction of their heavy water plant.

Equally amazing is the story of  Soviet espionage and betrayal by two scientists working on the Manhattan Project supported by a colourful cast of international agents. The information stolen and passed onto the Soviets saved them from wasting valuable time in developing a bomb design and in the end resulted in an arms race that did not cease until the late 1980's. One can only speculate on how different the history of Eastern Europe might be today had the Soviets not had atomic and nuclear weapons.

Sheinkin has written a remarkably well researched book and told the story of the development of the atomic bomb and the theft of classified information in a way that is both engaging and informative. The book has four parts; Part 1: The Three Way Race, Part 2: Chain Reaction, Part 3: How To Build An Atomic Bomb and Part 4: Final Assembly. There is a Prologue and an Epilogue, the latter detailing the consequences that the major players in the espionage faced as well as how the arms race played out in the mid-20th century. A reproduction of the letter Albert Einstein sent to President Roosevelt as well a some pictures of the explosion at Trinity are also included.

Bomb is high recommended for those who have an interest in science and World War II history. Not surprisingly, Bomb was the winner of the 2013 Robert F. Sibert Medal for excellence in informational books. It also won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Young Adult NonFiction for 2013.

Book Details:
Bomb: The Race To Build - And Steal- The World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
New York: Roaring Book Press     2012
266 pp.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Inland by Kat Rosenfield

Inland is an atmospheric novel that leaves readers wondering whether the main character is insane or really is what she believes she is as suggested in the first chapter. The central character is sixteen year old Calypso (Callie) Morgan who lives with her professor father, Alan Twaddle and who struggles to cope with an unsettled life after a family tragedy.

The opening chapters provide the back story, first fifteen and then nine years previously. We  meet Callie's mother, Maera Morgan fifteen years earlier - a young woman who had carefully and in a calculating manner selected a lonely, passionless geoscience professor to marry and to give her a child. Maera made sure the man she chose was someone she would never love and Alan Twaddle was certainly someone who fit that criteria -an academic buried in his research. Then nine years ago, with her daughter Callie in a boat, Maera simply slipped into the water and disappeared, presumed drowned. Callie was questioned but no one believed her story nor understood why Callie didn't help her mother.

In an effort to forget Maera's death, Callie and her father moved inland, the first few moves within the state of California.  Callie's mom had a younger sister, Nessa, whom Callie is close to. Nessa tells Callie that her mother's family all live near the sea in many different countries throughout the world. They are drawn to the sea with many being sailors, swimmers, divers, fisherman and aquatic biologists. Nessa tells Callie that the ocean has a voice that seems to beckon them, an idea that her father finds ridiculous and chalks up to Nessa's use of marijuana.

After the second move, Alan decided to leave California, taking Callie away from the ocean and the home she loved so much to the Midwest. Nessa didn't travel with them, warning Alan "God knows how your daughter will suffer before you see how wrong it is." For nine years Callie and her father moved from place to place in the Midwest, from Grand Junction, Colorado to Elko, Nevada to Laramie, Wyoming where they've lived for the past six months.  A year after her mother's death, Callie developed problems with her lungs, having attacks that left her unable to breathe and often requiring hospitalization and numerous medications. These mysterious attacks puzzled doctors who were never quite able to pin down a diagnosis. Callie eventually stopped making friends; too many moves and too many hospitalizations.

While in Laramie, an old colleague of Alan's, Mike Foster, began calling him from the Gulf Coast. Her father has a reputation as an excellent geotechnical engineer and he's being courted for a huge wind-farm project to be developed in the Gulf. With the offer to pay for their move and Callie's treatments at a university hospital, Alan agreed to move to Florida.

The story reverts to the present as Callie and her father settle into a house on a river that leads to the Gulf and she is enrolled in a private school called Ballard. Callie is provided with a new physician named Sharp who starts her on new medication. Within a month of arriving Callie finds her breathing begins to ease, her attacks less frequent. She meets the young girl next door, Bee, who insists she's seen a dark-haired mermaid in the river near the dock.

When Callie goes to see Dr. Sharp she tells him that she has been having vivid dreams, which the doctor suggests might be the result of the beta-blockers she is taking. What she doesn't tell Dr. Sharp is that when she closes her eyes, she sees someone in the darkness of her mind. Callie believes this is her mother and she takes great comfort in these dreams.

Then one day Nessa surprises everyone arriving for an extended visit, not having seen Callie for nine years. At school Mr. Strong, Callie's biology teacher, assigns a cute boy, Ben Barrington to help Callie settle in. For the first time in years, Callie makes friends; Ben's friends who include sisters Mikah and Shanika and Jana who specializes in just being herself. There's also cute Eric Keller, Meredith Hartman's boyfriend.

At night Callie retreats to her dreams where she believes she meets her mother in the depths of the ocean. Then her dreams change with Callie hearing her mother beckoning her to come away with her, to come home. One night Callie sleepwalks to the dock entering the river, only to be saved from drowning by Nessa. Nessa and Callie keeps this episode a secret from Callie's father and they decide to lock her bedroom door at night as Callie can't be sure this hasn't happened before.

Because of her dreams and her belief that her mother lives on in the sea as a mermaid, Callie feels drawn to water, to the ocean and wants to learn to swim. When she does, Callie discovers she is a natural. In fact, she's so good that Eric Keller who is a member of the school swim team, suggests that she try out for the team. All Callie wants to do however, is answer the persistent call of the sea, to swim in the Gulf where she believes she's being called.

Callie's swimming begins to trim her body of the doughy physique she had acquired over the years and she becomes lean and taut, growing taller and broad shouldered. For the first time in her life, Callie feels strong and capable, in charge of her life and her destiny. In the water she feels confident.
"Everything that made me flat-footed and ungainly in my old life is different in the water...I will never be a teenage dream of sinuous, delicate femininity. Not on land. But swimming, even my large hands and feet seem streamlined. Flat and powerful, knifing and kicking as I relearn to move below sea level."

Ben begins coming to visit Callie at her home, meeting her father and taking her out. Nessa warns Callie though to be careful telling her "This boy will want to keep you."  But Callie begins to fall for Ben enjoying her time with him and they way they make plans to do things together. Just when Callie's life seems to be falling into place, her health recovered, a cute boyfriend and an almost family with Nessa and her father, things begin to unravel. The pull of the ocean overwhelms Callie, almost leading to a terrible tragedy and resulting in difficult decision by her distraught father to save his daughter from the fate she seems destined for.

Inland is psychological mystery in which Callie's condition can be an either or. Rosenfield presents her readers with two choices; is Callie part of a line of mermaids who still feel the call of the ocean or is her heritage really that of mental illness. Rosenfield weaves the mermaid theme in early, incorporating some of the mermaid mythology into the opening chapter. In mermaid mythology, mermaids were creatures who were half woman half fish, who sang to men on ships, luring them into the sea with their beautiful songs, only to drown them. Callie's mother seems to suggest that she has been granted time on land to carefully select a man to give her a child, but is always intent upon returning to the sea. As Callie grows older she learns that she comes from a family in which all the women seem irrevocably drawn to the sea and appear to need to live near it in order to remain healthy. Inexplicably, Nessa won't follow Callie and their father as he moves inland but when she learns of Callie's move to the Gulf Coast she leaves immediately. Callie's Aunt Lee however, moves as far away from ocean as possible, after the death of her husband and boy and is very sick when Callie contacts her, suggesting that her illness is the result of her distance from the ocean.

The mermaid theme continues when Callie moves to Florida and she lives next to a river. Ben takes her to an area where there are manatees, which Callie immediately feels an attraction to. These elusive creatures were once thought to be mermaids. The evil mermaid theme appears throughout most of Callie's nightmares. Her mother does not appear as the beautiful, kind mermaid of modern culture but more as a willful, dark one. Rosenfield's descriptions portray this well: "I can feel, rather than see, her pale, long hand as it brushes my hip or shoulder; the glint in her large black eyes..." and later on after the near drowning of her and Ben: "Her skin is silver-white and cold, hairless and slick. I feel long limbs sliding past me, a hand like silk on my back....There is something stretched between her fingers, a gossamer membrane too slippery to grasp. The oval nails are longer now, skinless, gray, thick, and hooked and glistening in their points....The high rise of her forehead breaks the surface, water beading on the ridges where her eyebrows used to be. Eyes like black marbles peer back at me, lightless and shining with no whites at all."

Even the mystery over Callie's maternal family suggests either mermaid or madness. Nessa tells Callie that her grandmother, glamorous, smart and gifted, "rejected what she was meant for" and disappeared. Aunt Lee also hints at Callie's mysterious family past remarking that no one has told Callie anything.

The theme of mental illness is also woven through the novel as Callie gradually loses her grip on reality and begins to recognize that her obsession with the sea seems to mirror that of her mother's before her death. Callie asks herself if the voice of sea once called out to her mother too and could she have believed that that is where she belonged?

Readers may think they know where Rosenfield is going with her storyline, but she does throw in enough twists to keep readers wondering.  Is Callie really seeing something in the river or are her vision the product of a sick mind? Are her dreams the result of the psychological trauma she experienced as a young girl and is unable to process properly or the product of a true longing to return to the sea?

Rosenfield's prose is beautiful and captures the setting of her story well. However, sometimes the extensive descriptions overwhelm the novel which perhaps could have benefited from better editing especially at the beginning when readers have to catch up on the missing nine years following Maera's death.

The ending of Inland is unexpected and cryptic, leaving readers to make their own conclusions. Inland is an interesting variation on the mermaid theme that seems to be seeing a resurgence of interest in young adult literature. Fans of Anna Banks, Of Posiedon series may not find this one quite to their liking, given the cryptic, unresolved nature of Inland. But it is well written and the mental illness twist adds to the mystery.

Book Details:
Inland by Kat Rosenfield
New York: Dutton Books      2014
382 pp.