Friday, April 24, 2015

Resistance by Craig Simpson

Set in Norway in 1943, Resistance tells the story of young Norwegian boy's coming of age during the turmoil of the Nazi occupation of his beloved country.

The novel opens in September 1943, with Marek Olsen and his older brother Olaf on a hunting trip in the Hardanger Plateau, a vast "uninhabitable wasteland freckled with lakes and meandering rivers and streams". Olaf and Marek have grown up in the (fictional) village of Ulfhus on the shores of the Sorfjord where their father is the schoolmaster.

After shooting a reindeer, Marek helps Olaf skin and butcher the deer and they take the meat to their Borsobu - a small hut. On the way they are buzzed by a Luftwaffe plane which fires at them on its second pass. Terrified, Marek pushes Olaf to the ground saving his life as the bullets pass through Olaf's rucksack and into the deer meat.

In their hut, Marek and his brother Olaf eat the reindeer stew, drink potato whisky and smoke an English cigarette. It is Olaf's possession of the forbidden cigarette that makes Marek realize that despite his brother's great intellect, he is a risk-taker. He realizes that Olaf "enjoyed the thrill and revelled in the danger." The two young men talk about their futures; Olaf is planning on studying medicine in Oslo but he worries that the Germans will not allow him to go. Marek likes to fix cars and machinery but his father wants him to study law.

On their way home they meet three men, one of whom is a Norwegian and likely a member of the Norwegian resistance, MILORG. When Marek and Olaf return to Ulfhus, they are shocked to see guards outside the Johanssen's guest house and watch as the Gestapo take their father and Mr. Torstig and the Johanssens away in a truck, their hands bound. Marek and Olaf's mother collapses when she learns of her husband's arrest and Marek is sent to fetch Dr. Haskveld.

Hans Tauber, one of the older Germans stationed in Ulfhus tells Marek not to worry if his father has not done anything "wrong" and that his father has been taken to the police station in Odda. Olaf decides that they must go to Odda to see what can be done about their father. He and his friend Lars decide to steal petrol from Tauber's car while Marek works on repairing the engine of their father's car, nicknamed Josephine.Lars and Olaf steal the gasoline and the three drive to Odda with Marek's mother. At a checkpoint, they encounter a German soldier named Hartwig Lauder who is enamored of their father's French Citroen. Hartwig insists on driving them to Odda and even offers to buy the car from them which Marek refuses. Although Marek wonders about killing the German, he notes that Hartwig seems to be quite a reasonable man. Their trip in Odda is unsuccessful; Marek has an uncomfortable "meeting" with Wolfgang Stretter, a Gestapo while Olaf and his mother learn that father will likely not be released any time soon.

Hans Tauber is sent to the Russian front and a new German is sent to Ulfhus, Lieutenant Klaus Wold, a young soldier intent on making his mark and harassing the women of Ulfhus and surrounding villages. Wold first encounters Agnete Hilting, Olaf's girfriend,  at her seventeenth birthday party and then one night insists she accompany him for a walk. When he sexually assaults Agnete, Olaf tries to intervene but is badly beaten by the German soldiers. Determined to seek revenge and punish Wold, Olaf plans to ambush Wold's car on his weekly trip to Odda. Wold's car is forced off the road but he survives the accident and Olaf shoots him dead. However, an unknown passenger in the car escapes. Dr. Haskveld happens upon the accident and when he is told what happened he advises Olaf and Marek to flee into the wilderness, promising to take care of their mother and get her to safety.

Olaf and Marek ski up to the Hardanger Plateau, intent upon reaching the Johanssen's hut. During their flight into the Hardanger, Olaf reveals to Marek that their father was a messenger for the resistance and that the Johanssens also work with the resistance. They soon become lost in a blizzard and weakened by lack of food and sleep, both Olaf and Marek collapse. They are saved by a man named Jorgen Peterson from Tromso - the same man Marek and Olaf met on the journey home from the Hardanger weeks ago. With Jorgen at the Johanssen's hut, are five other resistance members; Harald Larsson and Leif Brekke who found Marek and Olaf, Ingrid whose husband, a resistance member was shot and two British men, Major Tim Fletcher, an engineer and Sergeant Eddie Turner, a stonemason. Jorgen and the others reluctantly allow the brothers to stay at the hut until they recover and can decide what to do next. With an important, secret mission pending, the resistance wants the brothers to move on because they know the Germans will be looking for them.

Feeling badly about using up the group's food supplies, Marek and Olaf go out on the plateau to hunt reindeer. Their trip is cut short when they are surprised by two German soldiers. Hoping to kill them, Olaf fires his rifle but repeatedly misses and they are only saved when Eddie arrives. Because the Germans managed to contact their base, Jorgen and the others know they must now leave the hut. The group decides to travel to Kinsarvik on their way to Jondal on the coast of the Hardangerfjord. Olaf agrees to guide the group as far as Kinsarvik. Marek and Olaf learn that Jorgen and his group need to get to Jondal to meet up with their men and supplies without taking the Kvanndal ferry across the fjord. They also find out about the "Shetland bus", the nickname for the boat service used by the resistance between Lunna Voe on the Shetland Islands and Bergen, Norway.

When the group reaches Kinsarvik, they split up with Ingrid leaving to visit a friend to find out what the Germans are up to, Leif and Harald reconnoitring the town, and Jorgen, Eddie and Fletcher waiting in the forest. Olaf and Marek now leave the group but have a surprise encounter with Agnete in Kinsarvik. During their talk with Agnete, Marek sights the Gestapo officer, Herr Stretter. They see Ingrid captured by Stretter so Marek runs to tell Jorgen while Olaf attempts to warn Leif and Harald. Jorgen, Fletcher, Eddie and Marek decide to walk through town where they meet up with Olaf who tells them that Leif and Harald have also been arrested. In a strange coincidence, Marek recognizes Hartwig driving a German army truck onto the ferry. Convinced he can get a ride out of Hartwig, Marek approaches him and asks for a lift to Jondal. The ferry takes them across to Utne and Hartwig, not suspecting they are resistance, happily drives Marek, Olaf and their friends to Jondal.

Once in Jondal, the group manages to meet up with the Shetland bus, captained by the crusty Kurt Torvic. Now shorthanded, Jorgen decides to take on Olaf and Marek as members of the resistance and reveals to them their plan to sabotage German submarines in the Atlantic. Unfortunately at the last moment the Marek and Olaf learn the operation has been compromised, setting in motion a chain of events that thrust Marek into a dangerous confrontation with the hated Nazis. Both Marek and what's left of the resistance learn the shocking truth behind their betrayal.

Discussion

Resistance is an exciting, well written historical adventure filled with thrilling escapes and tragic loss. Resistance vividly portrays in a realistic manner the true nature of war. In this novel,  the cruelty of the Nazi regime, the fear people in occupied countries experienced and how occupation divided the people in nations that were previously united against an aggressor are all . It also portrays the high price many civilians paid to resist tyranny. War is characterized by murder, rape and the imprisonment of people in labour camps where men look "as though there very souls have been stolen."  All of this is portrayed in Resistance, but not in an overly graphic manner.

The main character in the novel is fourteen year old Marek Olsen. Not a child anymore, but not yet a man, Marek struggles to be taken seriously by his brother Olaf. When their father is arrested and Olaf defers attending university to help out at home, Marek argues unsuccessfully for quitting school to work. Physically he can't keep up with Olaf or the other men in the story, but his quick thinking and knowledge of engines saves him and his brother and the resistance several times over and earns him the respect of resistance leader, Jorgen.

Resistance invites young readers to consider the morality of certain actions undertaken in war, specifically when a country is occupied by a brutal aggressor such as Nazi Germany was. Several of the secondary characters in the novel commit murder. The first is the murder of Wold in retaliation for the sexual assault of Agnete and the brutal beating of Olaf when he tried to protect her. Rape by German officers was extremely common in all occupied countries during the Second World War. Seeing the effect the assault had on Agnete, Olaf is determined to kill Wold and formulates a plan to blow up his car. Marek doesn't give the plan much thought, eagerly participates in its development and even helps Olaf carry it out.  After Olaf shoots Wold, Marek recalls the pity he felt for the reindeer Olaf killed on the Hardanger and states, "Towards Wold I felt nothing, despite him being a fellow human being. I suppose he represented to me all the evil of the Nazis. And somehow that rid me of guilt or shame." 

Much later on, when Marek, his brother and other members of the resistance are being driven to Jondal by Hartwig, Marek struggles against his feelings of friendship towards the Nazi. Hartwig states that "Underneath, we're just like everyone else. And we want an end to the war as much as you. I think people forget that we're not here by choice. They forget that we did not ask to wear this uniform or carry guns. Most of all, though, they forget that the very idea of shooting a fellow human being is abhorrent to many of us." It is Marek's ability to identify with a man he should hate that ultimately saves Hartwig's life.When they are leaving Hartwig's car, Marek recognizes that Jorgen is going to kill Hartwig. But he finds he cannot allow Jorgen to do this evil act. "We can't let Hartwig go in case he reports us. He had to die. And that struck me as wrong. I reached out and seized Jorgen's arm. He glared at me. I shook my head. 'It's OK,' I said quietly."

When Olaf kills a second man, a German soldier, during their daring rescue of their desperately ill father, Marek recognizes how war has changed his brother. "I saw only hatred in Olaf's eyes, hatred in its purest form, cold as ice diamonds and without remorse. Who was this standing before me? Could it really be the same brother as the one I thought I knew, the one who'd wanted to study medicine and dedicate his life to helping his fellow man?"

As the resistance's plan begins to collapse and some members are arrested, Marek comes to realize the terrible choices war forces people to make. When they suspect Harald of having betrayed their plans, Marek tells Ingrid he would never cut a deal with the Nazis. Ingrid however tells him not to judge Harald too severely "Faced with a firing squad and the promise that your whole family will be arrested and tortured, most human beings would understandably seize any offer, however treacherous." This scene is a foreshadowing of the larger and more personal betrayal Marek will confront near the end of the novel.

Likewise, when Jan and the other resistance members are captured in Ork, Marek and his group once again faces impossible choice. "Do nothing and Jan and his fellow Jossings would face execution. Liberate them and an equally horrid fate might befall the good people of Ork. The enormity crushed me and I had to sit down, glum-faced. Any sense that we were trying to do something brave or heroic vanished...It boiled down to a simple fact. We were deciding who would live and who would die -- or, at the very least, who would suffer most..." Marek begins to realize in war, people face difficult choices that challenge their deeply held beliefs and that people often act very differently from what they might do outside of war.


Resistance was British author Craig Simpson's first published novel and was written after considerable research into life in Norway during the Nazi occupation of World War II. The precarious existence of all who were part of the resistance movement against the Nazi's is well presented in Resistance. Few new all the details of specific operations and many paid the ultimate price in the attempt to fight back against the Nazi occupiers. Simpson includes a map of the setting for Resistance and an excellent Postscript that fills in details about the Nazi occupation of Norway.

While Resistance will definitely appeal to boys, anyone with an interest in World War II will find this novel well worth reading. And that definitely includes adult readers.

Book Details:
Resistance by Craig Simpson
London: Corgi Books    2007
353 pp.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Kalahari by Jessica Khoury

Sarah Carmichael is the daughter of zoologists living and working in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. Sarah has lived all her life in the field, working alongside her parents. Now it's just Sarah and her father after her mother died four months earlier from a bee attack. Helping them is Theo, a Bushman who has trained Sarah to track and to live in the Kalahari.

Sarah and Theo wait by the landing strip for a plane bringing in five teens who have signed on to a educational safari. The teens include seventeen year old Joey Xiong, a Hmong American from California, Canadian Avani Sharma, Miranda Kirk and Kase Rider of Boston, and seventeen year old Sam Quartermain from Pittsburg. In return for hosting the teens on a conservation exchange program, Sarah's father will receive much needed research funding from the Song Foundation. When the group arrives at camp they are met by Sarah's father who tells the group that they will be staying in tents.

The group has no chance to settle in when Sarah's father and Theo race out of camp in the truck to try to locate poachers who are hunting a white lion. When Sarah's father does not return by dark, she tries to contact him via radio but is unsuccessful. Sam asks Sarah if they should be worried and she tells him that the situation with the poachers has been getting progressively worse. As night comes on Sarah becomes increasingly concerned about her dad and Theo and even more so when they receive a garbled radio transmission that gives their location and that they are being pursued.  The transmission ends with the sounds of gunshots, leading Sarah to believe her father is now in grave danger.  Sarah is unable to reach Henrico, the South African warden located south of their camp, and she cannot contact the military nor anyone else to help them because the satellite radio is in the Cruiser with her father and Theo. 

At first Sarah wants to leave immediately to track her father but Sam insists he accompany her and this results in all five teens deciding not to stay in camp. Packing water and muesli bars, the group sets off the next morning, with Sarah tracking her father and Theo. Eventually they discover tracks that indicate the Cruiser was being followed by another vehicle. By evening Sarah makes another discovery that the trucks are being followed by an adult male lion. As the sun is beginning to set, Sarah and the group discover the damaged Cruiser smashed into a tree. Tracks leading away from the Cruiser lead Sarah and Sam to Theo who is fatally wounded. As Avani, whose parents are both doctors, attempts to help Theo, he warns them of a silver spirit, a lion hunting. Sarah is deeply shaken by Theo's death and mystified by her father's disappearance. She doesn't know if he has been captured or is somewhere out in the bush.

Sarah discovers that the lion has been around the Cruiser but instead of going after Theo appears to have followed her father. The group also discovers that the food supplies which were in the Cruiser have been ravaged by wild animals. After burying Theo, eats some leftover fruit and then tries to rest. The next morning they manage to get the Cruiser started and head back to their camp. However, they discover that the men after Sarah's father have visited the camp and burned it to the ground, destroying not only the tents and supplies but also Sarah's parent's notes and research. They learn that a man named Abramo is in charge and is determined to find them.

Sam tells Sarah that this is all very strange as ordinary poachers would never go to these lengths, to murder researchers. Sarah creates a false trail for the men to track while she leads her group west hoping to meet up with the road that will take them to Ghansi and safety.  The next morning while working to free the truck which has become bogged down in sand, the group first hears and then is attacked by a lion. However this lion is not ordinary - it is "silver, from nose to tail, as metallic and gleaming as mercury." Sarah immediately realizes that this is the lion the men have been searching for and that they have stumbled upon something much bigger than poaching.

The lion attacks the group as they huddle in fear in the truck and they are only saved by Sarah firing her shotgun and wounding it in the shoulder. The group flees in terror into the bush. Sarah and Sam return to the area and discover the lion is no longer wounded, but behaving strangely and watch as it kills an ostrich for no reason. The lion once again picks up their scent and begins pursuing them through the desert.  They only manage to escape the lion when the entire group falls into a huge underground cavern filled with water.

Sarah and the group find their way out of the pool by crawling to the top of metal scaffolding that leads them to an above ground pumping station and find themselves in what appears to be some kind of research facility. As Sarah, Sam and the others scout out the camp, which appears to be abandoned, they discover a laboratory and then a room filled with animals in cages. The cages are filled with numerous different mammals from the Kalahari desert. Many of the cages contain animals that have been shot dead.  Other cages hold live animals, some of whom are partially silver while others, like the lion, are completely silver. They also find a lab worker dead in the room.

Sarah now believes that the animals have some kind of infection and that the scientists from the lab are chasing the silver lion because it escaped from this facility. Sarah's father and Theo were complications they hadn't expected and so they killed Theo and are now hunting Sarah and her group, her father and the infected lion. Sarah and Sam realize that whoever is responsible for creating the infection now want to cover up the research and will be returning to the lab to finish destroying what remains.

In  a small trailer, Sarah makes a truly shocking discovery; three scientists who are infected and completely silver, locked in a room. The scientists who are in advanced stages of the infection are incoherent and in obvious distress. In the trailer, Sarah and Sam come face to face with Dr. Carl Monaghan, who admits that he created a metal that is "alive", - a type of inorganic life.  Dr. Monaghan explains "Metalcium is inorganic, and yet it self-replicates. It has a kind of metabolism. It adapts to changes in its environment....Just little cells of metal at first...It was when we began adding lead that its true potential was realized." Avani fills in the details for the others, that metalcium sneaks "into an organism's system by hiding behind a mask of lead."  Monaghan admits that he had hoped to use his discovery to heal but, instead the metalcium began attacking them, converting all an organism's cells to metal.

The doctor explains that they came to Kalahari because their research could be conducted under secrecy and it is rich in minerals which they required for their research. Once Monaghan realized the danger he tried to stop the research, but Corpus, the company funding the research, refused. Now Corpus has sent out Tony Abramo to clean up the mess, by killing everyone involved and everyone who knows about the research. Monaghan tells Sarah and Sam that they must leave immediately.

Sarah knows they have to get to safety and tell the world about the deadly infection but with Abramo on their tail, her father still missing, and the possibility that they have all been exposed to infection, the likelihood of her getting to Ghansi is beginning to seem remote.


Discussion

Jessica Khoury's novels are characterized by unique stories involving futuristic science in the style of John Wydham. The story in Kalahari is centered around a new virus, Metalcium, that has been created in a lab, and which gradually converts living tissue into metal, eventually killing its host. Although this twist makes Kalahari an intriguing read, it doesn't appear until Chapter Eight. Instead the first hook is the disappearance of Sarah's father and the group's foray into the semidesert to find him. From there the plot thickens leading the group from one adventure to the next. The resolution to the story flows quickly and ties up loose ends rather neatly.

Khoury immediately sets up the beginnings of a romance between Sarah and Sam, who seem to develop a rapport quickly, learning about each other as the story moves along. There are other pairings as well, although they really don't figure much into the story; Miranda and Kase are already a couple, but Joey, the group clown, likes the brainy Canadian, Avani. The minor characters are not as well developed, only enough to give readers a sense of who they are.

The author does have her main character, Sarah Carmichael experience an inner journey that parallels the physical one she undertakes in the novel. Sarah is not keen to spend time with teenagers. Her one experience in school in the United States was disastrous. "The kids in the class called me Mowgli and threw bananas at me during lunch." However, Theo encourages her, telling Sarah she needs to spend time with humans too. When Sarah first meets the five teens she judges them as shallow and uncaring at the beginning of the novel. However, her opinion begins to change. When Miranda offers her diamond ring for Sarah to use on a stick, Sarah feels ashamed that she has made assumptions about Miranda without really knowing her. "When I studied wild animals, I always waited until I had all the facts before drawing conclusions about their habits and lives -- why couldn't I do that with people?" By the end of the novel, Sarah is glad to have met all five teens despite what they went through.

When Sarah becomes infected with the Metalcium which will be fatal, she begins to regret how she has lived over the past four months since her mother's death. She admits to herself that since her mother's death she hasn't cared much about life. "The world had been covered in a gray veneer, tasteless and uninteresting. She had been the sun that lit the savanna, and when she died, I'd been left in darkness, not caring whether I stumbled forever through the night or fell over a cliff and was lost. " However, now that she's caught the incurable infection, Sarah begins to see life differently. The change of heart has also come from her deepening relationship with Sam who has helped her to recognize that she could be happy again and "that the sun could rise on a world without my mom." Sarah also realizes that's she's never taken the time to cherish all the special moments in her life and that she's taken the time she's had for granted.

Kalahari has a few spots in the storyline which feel weak. The first is the unrealistic actions of Sarah's father, Ty Carmichael, who leaves his daughter with five inexperienced teenagers in a bush camp, taking ALL their food supplies AND the satellite radio with him. Ty is not just going for a short drive in the bush, he's going to try to track what he believes are poachers, who present some degree of risk for him and Theo. It's unlikely that Carmichael, as a seasoned field researcher would have done this.

Secondly, although Sarah's father does manage to escape from Abramo and he has considerable skill as a tracker, he never seems to quite be able to catch up to Sarah and her group. That is, until conveniently at the climax of the novel, when Sarah faces down Abramo - making his sudden appearance seem somewhat contrived.

Kalahari is filled with interesting facts about  this semi-desert region of Africa including the wildlife, the climate and geography and about the Bushmen who still live in the area. Khoury spent time in Africa at the Mabalingwe Nature Reserve and in Botswana where she had the experience of tracking elephants, lions and leopards.

Kalahari is book three in the Corpus series. Overall, Khoury's interesting storyline works well, providing readers with plenty of suspense, some intriguing science fiction and a little romance in an exotic setting.



Book Details:
Kalahari by Jessica Khoury
New York: RazorBill, an imprint of Penguin Group    2015
354 pp.

Monday, April 13, 2015

My Heart and other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

"I can't help but laugh. If I have a boyfriend, his name is Death. And I'm pretty sure Roman is in love with him, too. It's like a love triangle gone wrong. Or maybe it's a love triangle gone right: we both get the guy on April 7."
Sixteen year old Aysel Seran lives in Langston, Kentucky with her mom, stepdad Steve, and her half sister, Georgia and brother, Mike. Aysel is obsessed with killing herself. Her life is hell after her father was sent to prison for murder.

While working at Tucker's Marketing Concepts, Aysel joins an online suicide group, Smooth Passages which is dedicated to helping people kill themselves. Aysel sees a message on the Suicide Partners forum which pairs up people who help each other commit suicide, and decides to respond to it. The message is from a seventeen year old guy who lives in the adajacent town and who uses the handle FrozenRobot.

Aysel's life has been made intolerable by her father committing a crime which is only fully revealed to readers near the end of the novel. That crime involved the death of Langston's golden boy, Timothy Jackson, three years ago. Timothy was Langston's Olympic hopeful in track and field.

She's lost her friends who "scattered as fast as they could once the news of my dad's crime traveled through the halls of school".  As a result of her father's incarceration, Aysel has come to live with her mother and Steve full time and she feels she's never really fit into her family. "I've never fit, not really before my dad lost it, and certainly not after..." Aysel believes she is a constant reminder to her mother of her dad and her potential to become a criminal like him. For Aysel suicide is the means to prevent "myself from growing into the person I've terrified of becoming."

Aysel and FrozenRobot, whose name is Roman Franklin, meet at the root beer stand on Route 36 which is between their two towns of Langston and Willis. When Aysel sees Roman for the first time, he's not what she's expecting. He's tall, lanky with "buzzed chestnut-colored hair and deep-set hazel eyes." Roman doesn't look like someone who is intent on committing suicide because he looks like he cares about his appearance and he seems to be popular at the root beer stand where the waitresses flirt with him.
However, to Roman, Aysel does fits the part of someone who wants to kill herself because she looks so terribly miserable. From their first meeting, Aysel learns that Roman is an exceptional basketball player, who used to work out with Brian Jackson, the younger brother of the boy her father killed. However, he no longer plays the sport he loves so much.

At school, Aysel's physics teacher, Mr. Scott, assigns a project to the class that involves taking pictures to illustrate the principles of the conservation of energy. Mr. Scott chooses the teams by picking names out of a hat resulting in Aysel being paired with Tyler Brown. Aysel doesn't care much about completing the project because it is due after April 7th, the date she and Roman have chosen to kill themselves.

The second time Aysel and Roman meet, Roman reveals why he wants to commit suicide. One day Roman was babysitting his nine year old sister, Madison, who suffered from seizures and couldn't be left alone. However, Roman had his girlfriend over and while he was making out with her, Madison had a seizure and drowned in the bathtub. He gets little sympathy from Aysel though, who believes that unlike her, the world does feel compassion for Roman and what happened to him.

Aysel and Roman drive up to Crestville Pointe which is a park overlooking the Ohio River to scout out a location to commit suicide. Aysel refuses to tell Roman why she wants to kill herself and he tells her that he wants to know because if her reason is stupid he will try to talk her out of it. Aysel begins to see how Madison's death has affected Roman. Although he is classically good looking, the type who is popular in school she realizes "...the more I stare at him, the more I see his grief wrapped around him like shackles he can never take off. I try to imagine him without the grief...but it's hard to see him as anything other than desperately sad." Roman wants to jump off the cliffs at Crestville Pointe and into the Ohio River because he feels that drowning like Madison did is the right way to die.

The next day when school is canceled due to snow, Aysel's half sister, Georgia calls Aysel out on her attitude. She tells Aysel that her dad has given Aysel a home, implying she should be grateful. She tells Aysel that she is not to blame for what her father did. "I'm tired of you spending every day feeling sorry for yourself just because of what your dad did. Newsflash: You aren't your dad. And you should stop blaming everyone else for what he did. Yourself included." Aysel is touched by the concern of her half sister who tells her "I just wish you weren't so sad all the time, Aysel" and the love of her half-brother, Mike who begs his mom to make sure she puts more chocolate chips in the pancake batter because "Aysel loves chocolate chips." Suddenly Aysel realizes that leaving them is going to be difficult.

Tyler and Aysel decide to take pictures at the zoo for their physics project and arrange to go to Louisville the following Saturday. At Roman's on Friday evening, Aysel agrees to allow him to tag along with her and Tyler. Dinner at Roman's home makes Aysel feel good because she's the center of attention which she surprisingly enjoys; Mrs. Franklin cooked a Turkish meal for her and wants to know her opinion on everything. Roman's mother is friendly and kind towards Aysel. However, the fact that she mistakenly believes Roman's interest in Aysel is a sign he is recovering from his sister's death make Aysel feel guilty.

On Saturday, Georgia invites herself to come with Tyler, Roman and Aysel to the zoo.At the zoo, Tyler tells Aysel that Georgia is trying to be friends with her and that she is concerned about her. Talking to Roman about Georgia leads Aysel to realize that she wants to see her father before she dies. Roman doesn't like this because he considers that Aysel is trying to find reasons to live, however, he decides he will go with her to see her dad.

After rummaging through papers in her mother's bedroom, Aysel learns that her father is at McGreavy Correction Facility. She calls the facility and then decides to visit the following Saturday. With eleven days before April 7, Aysel starts to become more involved in life. She finds that actually doing her work makes her shift at TMC go faster, and then she invites Roman to go with her to the Langston carnival, the one place she can remember being truly happy.

At the carnival, Aysel tells Roman more about going to see her dad and that he is in prison. When Roman seems unfazed by this, Aysel is grateful for his unconditional acceptance of her. However, Roman is more concerned with why she wants to see him and he is convinced that she is "flaking out" on him - not intending to go through with jumping off of Crestville Pointe.

Aysel and Roman plan to visit McGreavy Correctional Facility and then go camping for a night. Roman continues to be puzzled as to why Aysel wants to see her father. When things don't work out at the facility, Aysel and Roman spend the night at a muddy campground, eating hotdogs and drinking red wine. That night which sees Roman kiss her and hold her in his arms makes Aysel finally recognize that she no longer wants to die. Roman tells her that this shouldn't change anything, that he needs to remember Madison and she needs to remember her reasons for wanting to kill herself. It is her reasons that stop Aysel. She's afraid that if she tells Roman her reasons for wanting to commit suicide he will agree that she has to die.

Aysel now realizes that her relationship with Roman has changed her perspective. "He's no longer the person I want to die with; he's the person I want to be alive with." But can Aysel give Roman a reason to live, can she do for Roman what he did for her?

Discussion

My Heart and other Black Holes is a deeply moving novel that portrays teen depression and suicide in a way that is intensely realistic. The message is one of hope, that no matter how dark the depression may be, it is possible to overcome the sadness. My Heart and other Black Holes portrays that difficult, sinuous journey out of darkness and into hope.

Warga offers us two teens who are contemplating suicide as a result of  life-changing events they have experienced. Both Roman and Aysel have withdrawn from life despite both having things in life that they deeply love. In Roman's case, his guilt doesn't allow him to pursue the things he enjoys; he has stopped playing basketball which he excelled at, stopped training with another athlete and abandoned his friends. Roman's guilt tells him he deserves to die.

For Aysel, her father's incarceration leaves her feeling unmoored and deeply depressed; she's now living with her mother whom she does not feel close to.  She's angry and jealous of her younger sister, Georgia who seems to fly though life. Aysel doesn't do her job at the call center and she avoids participating in class, even in physics which she loves. Her father's crime has changed Aysel's perception of herself and those around her. Aysel believes she will turn out like her father. Suicide is the preventative to that happening.  "Without me, my mom won't have to stay up at night, worrying that the criminal gene, the murderer gene, was passed to me and that any day now, I'm going to blow up the school or something awful like that... I want to say that I know for sure that I'm different from my dad...But I'm not sure. Maybe the sadness comes just before the insanity...All I know is that I'm not going to stick around and find out if I become a monster like my dad."

It is this theme of perception or as Aysel describes it, perspective, and how our perspective affects how we live our lives, that dominates the novel. Aysel's perception of herself and others is deeply distorted at the beginning of the novel but undergoes a significant change throughout the novel. Although in the beginning of the novel,  she acknowledges that her mother used to look at her "with a combination of love and longing" before her father's crime, she now believes her mother views her not with love but with suspicion. "She'd never say it, but I am an intruder in their happy home. An infestation. I've gone from being a bruise to an open festering wound." Aysel also believes those around her do not like her, that she inspires "the desire to wash their hands clean".  At school she states "...I can hear their whispered insults, but it all sounds like a mumble of hisses to me..." Aysel admits that although she lost most of her friends after what her father did, her best friend, Anna Stevens stuck by her but Aysel pushed her away because it was for Anna's own good.  She describes Mr. Palmer, her boss at TMC as speaking to her like she's "a stray mutt raiding his garbage can."

Roman begins to pull Aysel out of herself because she notices that despite his handsome, boy next door good looks, he is wrapped in grief. In physics class, Mr. Scott asks his students about Einstein's Theory of Relativity. After pressing Aysel she responds, "Doesn't it have to do with how our perception of things can't always be trusted?" - a foreshadowing of what Aysel will come to realize about her own life and Roman's life too. After giving a brief description of Einstein's theory, Aysel states that time isn't constant and that "it's all about the perception of the observer."  This causes Aysel to think about the last few weeks of her life since she met Roman and made the decision to die together. "Ever since I met Roman and made the Crestville Pointe jump plan, time has flown by. I want to believe that the change has nothing to do with Roman. That maybe time just moves the quickest at the end...I know everything is close to being gone forever, so my desire to rush it is a little less."

This leads to Aysel beginning to try to savour moments that she won't experience again, like eating her granola bars slowly so she can taste the chocolate chips, tasting the citrus in her orange juice, or doing extra practice problems in physics because she loves it so much.  However, this begins to have the opposite effect in that it slowly awakens in Aysel the desire to live.

What ultimately changes Aysel's perspective on life is her trip with Roman to see her father. On the drive to McGreavy,Roman does a sketch of Aysel using charcoal pencil. After visiting the correctional facility, while camping, Roman admits that he cares about the things that Aysel cares about and he knows he's made her happy. But Roman insists that this perception isn't real, because (their) "happiness is fake, it's fleeting." and they need to remember their reasons (for wanting to die).

But Aysel knows that their changing perceptions are important and have made a difference - at least to her. Meeting Roman has changed her.

"But maybe meeting Roman has helped me to understand myself better. Yes, I'm broken. And yes, he's broken. But the more we talk about it, the more we share our sadness, the more I start to believe that there could be a chance to fix us, a chance that we could save each other."
"Everything used to seem so final, inevitable, predestined.But now I'm starting to believe that life may have more surprises in store than I ever realized. Maybe it's all relative, not just light and time like Einstein theorized, but everything. Like life can seem awful and unfixable until the universe shifts a little and the observation point is altered, and then suddenly, everything seems more bearable."
When Aysel looks at the drawing Roman did of her, she is astonished because the drawing shows her as she could be. "The girl I'm staring at is not me, but she is me. Her large eyes are focused away from the viewer, but there's something in them I don't immediately recognize: hope. Her posture looks straighter than mine, like she's stronger, more resilient."

Roman's drawing gives Aysel the hope she needs to grasp on to and so she takes the drawing as a keepsake. "I need it to remind myself that I can be this girl, that this girl is inside of me. This hopeful, strong person."Aysel becomes that strong person, the person that Roman sees and she repays him by saving his life. Later, Roman admits that he drew the picture "To try and show you the person I see when I look at you, not the person you seemed to think you were."


Aysel's change in perspective is also demonstrated by her relationship with her mother and sister.  Aysel's distorted perception of her mother undergoes a transformation by the end of the novel. When Aysel tells her mother that she's not going to turn out like her father despite the fact that she is sad all the time, her mother admits that she did not know how to talk to her about what happened. That she was afraid to say and do the wrong thing. Aysel's mother asks her to open up and talk to her about her sadness, demonstrating that she does not share Aysel's earlier perception that she would become like her father.

Aysel's perspective about Georgia, the stepsister who by Aysel's reckoning she hasn't "had a real conversation with in about two years" is also distorted. At the beginning of the novel she describes her sister as "not having the time to worship anyone other than herself" and as someone who "loves the sound of her own voice."  She describes her stepsister as being like the sun while she is "like the bumpy, brooding moon." But on the morning of the snow day, Aysel realizes that perhaps her mother, Georgia and Mike actually do care about her when she overhears their conversation at breakfast. Later on Tyler tries to convince Aysel that her setp-sister really does care about her.

One of the strengths of this novel is how Warga describes what it feels like to be depressed. Aysel's depression is personified by a black slug - an image that is both ugly and scary. Aysel describes what she's feeling as though something is wrong inside her. "I bet if you cut open my stomach, the black slug of depression would slide out."  The black slug is something that "devours any happy thoughts I allow myself".  She claims she hasn't cried since she was ten. "I think it's because the black slug sucks up any of my potential tears." But as her perspective on living changes, Aysel wishes that the black slug in her didn't exist.

I also really enjoyed how Jasmine Warga weaved her knowledge of science and specifically Einstein's Theory of Relativity into the story line. 

My Heart and Other Black Holes is an outstanding piece of realistic fiction that is deeply emotional in its portrayal of depression and suicide. Warga's writing will resonate with teens and adult readers alike. We all know someone who has contemplated suicide, maybe someone who has committed suicide, someone who is depressed or deeply sad. We can change the conversation about mental health issues especially when it comes to young people, by reaching out to one another when we see someone struggling. Aysel and Roman's families recognized that they were struggling but were unable to move forward and help them.

Jasmine Warga writes that she wrote My Heart and Other Black Holes because of the death of a friend and the writing allowed her to process what she was feeling. Warga writes in her Author's Note at the back that, "My Heart and Other Black Holes has always been a story about the people who understand you, all of you, even the scariest and weirdest parts of you. It is about those people who come into your life when you least expect it, in the strangest of ways, and change everything -- it is about the importance of letting those people in, of opening up to them. It is about the people in your life who help you to see yourself differently and the true power of human connection."

In the words of Aysel, "I want you to live for you because I know there's so much more waiting for you. There's so much more for you to discover and experience. And you deserve it, you might not think you do, but you do. I'm here to tell you that you deserve it." 

Amen.

Book Details:
My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga
New York: Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers     2015
302 pp. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Enders by Lissa Price

Enders is the sequel to Lissa Price's debut novel, Starters.

The backstory:

 As a result of a biochemical war, America is comprised of very elderly people, Enders, who rent out the bodies of young people who are called Starters through a company called Prime Destinations. When Callie Woodland decides to become a donor to make money to save her sickly brother, Tyler, she discovers that the mind-body transfer is not an innocent as it seems. Some Enders want to retain the bodies they take over. The government also wants to use the Starters for its own agenda. Callie discovers that Prime Destinations, run by an Ender known as the Old Man has an even more terrible use for the Starters.

Although the Old Man escapes their attempts to capture him, Prime Directions is destroyed and the missing teens recovered, including Callie's brother, Tyler. Meanwhile the teen she'd fallen in love with while being a rental, Blake, does not respond to her messages, so Callie decides to go see him. She discovers that Blake does not know her because he was being rented by the Old Man. Senator Harrison reveals this to Callie and asks her to never reveal to Blake what happened to him.

Callie learns that Blake was kidnapped by the Old Man to force Senator Harrison to push the deal between Prime and the government. Helena used Callie's body to try to kill Harrison so that she could expose the deal and how the body bank would be used for evil. To accomplish this, Callie's chip was altered to turn of the stop-kill switch. The Old Man used Blake's body to monitor both Helena's actions and to see how Callie adapted to the changes. The ability to communicate between Helena and Callie meant that the Old Man now had a very valuable commodity to sell to the government. The novel closes with the Old Man speaking to Callie through her chip and inviting her to join him. He tells her he is the "good guy." But the Old Man is not the only one who can "talk" to Callie. She also hears the voice of her dead father, leaving her confused and frightened.

Synospis:

Despite taking down Prime Destinations, the Old Man lives on. He can talk to Callie via the chip in the back of her head. "It was like a phone the Old Man could call anytime, a phone I had to answer and could never disconnect. It was the Old Man's direct line to me, Callie Woodland."

Callie now lives in the home of  the Ender, Helena, who had rented her and had used her body to try to assassinate Senator Harrison in order to stop the Old Man. Her younger brother, Tyler, now fully recovered, and a friend, Michael live in the guest house. Tyler tells Callie that he and Michael are going to get him new shoes at the mall.

Callie agrees to meet them at the mall after she takes sandwiches to the starving Starters in an old office building that had been home for Michael, Tyler and Florina when Callie was being rented out. When she arrives at the building, the sandwiches are stolen from her by a young Starter.

Her mission to feed the Starters a failure, Callie arrives early at the mall and heads to the food court where she's to meet Michael and Tyler. Suddenly Callie begins hearing the Old Man's voice in her head. The Old Man directs Callie's attention to a Starter that Callie knew, named Reece. Callie's guardian, Lauren, had rented Reece's body to search for her grandson. Callie knows Reece doesn't know her but she attempts to get her attention since she sees that Reece is being followed by an Ender with a silver animal tattoo. Reece, not recognizing Callie, walks away and in an attempt to flee the Ender, runs towards the shoe store where Michael and Tyler are shopping. She never makes, exploding before reaching the store, as Callie is taken down and protected by a dark-haired Starter with piercing eyes. The Old Man tells Callie that although she destroyed the body bank and Prime, he has other facilities and can still access any chip. He can turn these into weapons just as he did with Reece.

Callie contacts Senator Bohn who helped her take down Prime Destinations with an idea of how to track down the Old Man. After contacting her guardian, Lauren, Callie goes to meet Blake, the Senator Harrison's grandson, who has been attempting to contact her. Callie decides to reveal to Blake about the chip implants, how he was kidnapped and implanted and that his body was used by the head of Prime, the Old Man. She explains that the Old Man has an electronic mask and an artificial voice to disguise himself. Callie warns Blake to avoid the Old Man and to ask his grandfather about what really happened to him.

Callie, Senator Bohn who is in charge of the Congressional investigation of Prime Destinations, and Lauren are unsuccessful in their attempt to access the computers at Institution 37, where Callie was once imprisoned. The Old Man once again contacts Callie via her chip and warns her that if she does not cooperate he will harm Michael and her brother Tyler.  He also reveals that Tyler has been implanted with a chip.The Old Man instructs Callie to drive to an unknown location but she never makes it. Instead she is kidnapped by the Starter who saved Callie in the mall explosion. The Starter reveals himself as Hyden, the son of the Old Man. Callie deduces that the Old Man must be a Middle, one of the rare middle aged who survived due to vaccination. Hyden's specially designed SUV blocks access to her chip, providing a place to be safe.

Callie learns that she is the only Metal (a Starter who has a chip implanted) whose chip has been altered so that she can kill when someone is inside her head. She is also able to retain her self-awareness, unlike other Metals who have no idea what happens to them when they are being used. Hyden tells Callie that both he and his father, whose name is Brockman, developed the mind-body transfer technology but while he wanted to use it for good, his father was only intent upon selling the technology to the highest foreign bidder.

Hyden informs Callie that access to the Metal's chips can be prevented at either high altitudes or if they go far enough underground.  To that end, Hyden arranges for Michael and Callie's brother, Tyler to be taken to his private mountain chalet where they cannot be tracked by his father. At the same time, he takes Callie to his secret lab which is located underground. There she finds Redmond, an Ender who had altered her chip in the first novel and who helped her.

Callie wants the chip removed from her head but Hyden tells her it is not possible and that all attempts to remove the chip have met with failure. After experiencing another of Helena's memories in her head, Callie tells Hyden that they should find as many of the other Metals as possible and bring them back to his lab so that Brockman will not be able to capture and sell them.

Using a scanner, Callie, Hyden and his bodyguard, Ernie (a Middle), begin locating and picking up Metals. Soon they have many Metals with various skills living in a dorm in the lab complex, helping out making meals, cleaning and doing repairs. During this time Callie learns that Hyden has suffered nerve damage as a result of an accident and cannot bear to be touched. The mind-body transfer technology was something he hoped would help him. It is because of this pain that after taking in one of the Metals, Hyden transfers into the other boy's body, revealing to Callie that he too has a chip.

Soon after this, Michael contacts Callie and she and Hyden to  pick him up. However, while looking for Michael, Callie hears her father's voice in her head. Although Hyden insists that the voice she heard was not her father but was  in fact his father, Callie holds hope that he might still be alive. In order to find out, Callie and Hyden go to the Hall of Records and learn that he is dead. At the Hall, Brockman contacts Callie and Hyden fights off a hijacked Metal, he demonstrates to Callie that he is learning how to control her body by moving her pinky move. They manage to cut off Brockman and recover the Metal, taking her to Hyden's lab.

Hyden's lab is attacked and the Metals are all captured except for Hyden, Callie and Michael. Ernie and Redmond are also spared. They learn from a dying Ender that Brockman was responsible for the attack and that he is planning to sell the Metals to the richest Enders in the world, in ten days time. Can Callie rescue the Metals from a terrible fate and stop Brockman in his quest to own the technology and sell it to the highest bidder?

Discussion:

Enders is an fitting conclusion to Lissa Price's first novel, Starters, neatly tying up all the loose ends from the first novel. Callie, who brought down Prime Directions in the first novel, is determined to find a way to rid herself of the chip and get away from the Old Man. But as she discovers more about herself and the two men who designed the mind-body transfer technology, it becomes apparent that she has to stop him from selling the technology to other governments who will have no qualms about using it against America.

Although not as interesting as Starters, Enders strong point is the revelations at the end of the novel. Price does a great job holding her reader's interest, gradually revealing more of the backstory behind Hyden and Brockman, developing the mystery surrounding her father and utilizing many plot twists in the final chapters. However, readers will be somewhat disappointed at how quickly the resolution to the novel occurs. Callie gaining control of her chip simply happens, just like that, diffusing the climax to the story and creating a feeling of the novel rushing to quickly to its resolution.

Enders is somewhat weak on characterization as the story is driven by the action in the novel. There's no real depth to the characters, except for Callie who is presented as a girl just wishing for a normal life with her brother Tyler but who comes to realize that she needs to keep fighting for those who have been implanted with this technology against their will. Michael who was a significant character in Starters, is a minor character in this novel. Callie's romantic relationship with Hyden seems bizarre given his lies and manipulation of just about everyone around him. Callie seemed to completely forget the relationship she had with Michael.

Price only touches on the implications of biotechnology for individuals and society in a superficial way near the end of novel when Callie is taken over by a creepy Ender. Although what he makes her do is vividly described, the reader doesn't get a sense of what Callie's feeling as she loses her ability to control her actions in front of a gallery of old men,  because she doesn't tell us. This was a great opportunity for Price to demonstrate how such technology impacts bodily autonomy and the integrity of human beings if they are controlled by others.

I'm puzzled as to why Price titled this novel Enders, since most of the story does not directly involve Enders, except at the conclusion of the novel when it is the Enders who are the ones interested in the Metals. It isn't even an Ender who is the villain in the novel, but a Middle. And it is Metals who are the prime focus of the novel. As a result, it would have been more accurate to have titled  the novel Metals. I also wish that Price had stuck with the original cover design which was rather cool the circuitry and the silver and blue colour theme.

Overall though, Enders is a good conclusion to a duology with a very unique and interesting premise. These novels will appeal to those who enjoyed The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series which also explore the impact of biotechnology on human identity.

Book Details:
Enders by Lissa Price
New York: Ember, an imprint of Random House    2014
272 pp.




Friday, April 3, 2015

Better Than Perfect by Melissa Kantor

Better Than Perfect is a story about a girl whose perfect life is not so perfect for her. It's about a girl beginning to discover just who she really is and what she might want out of life. And it's not the perfect life she has lined up for herself.

Synopsis

Juliet Newman's life has turned upside down with the separation of her parents. Her perfect family is no more. Her life plan was to ace the SAT and attend Harvard early action with her handsome boyfriend, Jason Robinson. But things in Juliet's life changed very quickly in June when her father announced he was leaving. 

Since that time, neither Juliet nor her mother have been doing well. Juliet scored poorly on her June SATs, taken the week after her father's big announcement. And her biggest support, Jason, is leaving for a holiday in France with his family. Jason's mother, Grace, asked Juliet if she wanted to travel with them, but Juliet cannot give up her coveted internship at Children United. Meanwhile her only sibling, her older brother, Oliver, who is staying at Yale for the summer, has gone camping for the week. And Juliet has no idea if her father intends on keeping the reservation for the house they usually rent in Maine for the summer.

At home Juliet's mother often sleeps late and drinks in the evenings. Her mother has always had lots of prescription drugs, for insomnia, for her back and even to calm her when she did presentations at charity functions. Now Juliet is concerned about all the prescription bottles on her mother's night table. On Bad Days Juliet's mother doesn't make it out of bed and Juliet finds herself taking on the role of mom. Good Days find Juliet's mom making plans to return to the workforce or planning to redecorate the house.

Sophia Taylor, Juliet's best friend, helps her study for the SATs and this leads Juliet to stay over at her friends home one night. When Juliet returns the next day, she finds her mother bloody and unconscious on the bathroom floor surrounded by pills. Juliet does not know whether her mother attempted suicide or if she accidentally overdosed.

At the hospital Juliet learns from her father that her mother has been abusing prescription drugs and mixing them with alcohol for some time. This revelation and seeing her mother in restraints make Juliet angry at her father and sad for her mother. Refusing her father's offer to return to his new home, Juliet drives to the Milltown Country Club where Sofia is working. However, in her frazzled state of mind, Juliet cuts off a van containing a family of musicians who are arriving for a gig at the country club. As a result of this accident, Juliet meets black haired, blue-eyed Declan Brennan, guitarist for the band, The Clovers, which also includes Declan's younger brother, Danny, his sister Sinead and his cousin Sean. After the concert in a moment of passion, Juliet and Declan impulsively hook-up, something Juliet regrets and feels intensely guilty about since she has been dating Jason for four years.

In the morning she meets her Aunt Kathy who has arrived from Portland Oregon. Kathy attempts to explain to Juliet her mother's situation, reiterating that she was abusing alcohol and prescription drugs not because Juliet's dad left her but because she has been unhappy for a long time. Kathy explains that her mother will have to go into a long-term facility for treatment and that she should consider moving back to Oregon with her. During her aunt's stay, life goes on for Juliet. She continues working at Children United, working on her SAT homework and seeing her SAT tutor. Juliet decides to turn down both Kathy's request to return to Oregon with her and her father's offer to live with him in New York and instead chooses to move in with her Jason's family.

Life is further complicated for Juliet when Declan shows up at Milltown High the first day of class. Attracted to him, but feeling guilty for cheating on Jason, Juliet tries to ignore Declan but Sophia, also attracted to him, draws Declan into their circle of friends. When she does finally talk to Declan she tells him what happened was a mistake.

Juliet goes to see her mother in the hospital, but the visit is upsetting because her mother is still very medicated and the woman she sees is nothing like the mother she remembers.  After the visit Juliet begins to think more deeply about her life and wonders why everything has to be "perfect".  After The Clovers have a successful gig at the Coffeehouse, they are offered the Friday night spot. Needing a new lead singer because Sinead has to travel to Boston every weekend in starting in January, Juliet is asked to join the band.

After rewriting the SAT Juliet seriously considers joining the Clovers, something Jason does not approve of. But when Juliet also suggests they not attend Harvard next year, Jason becomes concerned. Jason doesn't understand Juliet's desire not to attend Harvard because Harvard is their "future". After this Juliet decides to rehearse with the Clovers even though it will mean being around Declan. Juliet loves being in the band but her first gig with them doesn't happen after Sean and Danny are in a car accident, leaving Danny seriously injured.

As Juliet struggles to make sense of her life, Jason struggles to understand the changes in Juliet. Although Juliet continues along the path she has planned, studying to improve her Latin scores, she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her life. Her mother's return home and the changes in her mother and their relationship, as well as revelations about her parents by Oliver, lead Juliet to begin to make different choices from what she and Jason planned. Juliet's ambivalence towards Harvard continues even after she and Jason are accepted to Harvard early action. Being perfect seems to mean just doing what everyone expects of you. But is that what Juliet really wants for her life?


Discussion

Better Than Perfect focuses on the effect family expectations can have on people, particularly if those expectations do not jive with what that person wants for their life. Juliet comes from a family where everything has to be perfect. Her boyfriend, Jason's family is much the same. They have both been raised that to be the best at everything is the way to be happy. Yet Juliet has seen that in her family this has not brought happiness to her parents. "Out my back window I could see the pool. The pool guy, the gardener, the housekeeper...my house was its own little economy. All these people working so hard to make everything clean and pretty and well manicured. And with all that, my parents still hadn't been able to be happy together."

Being perfect hasn't brought Juliet the happiness she thought it would either. She has a perfect SAT and an early admission to Harvard. But she has not taken the time along the way to enjoy life. "Had I ever just gone home from school and hung out? I tried to remember, but I couldn't really remember anyone in my family just hanging out. We were all always doing something. Squash. Piano. Homework. Planning a vacation. Packing for a vacation. Unpacking from a vacation. Running errands. Making reservations. Organizing play dates. Soccer. Little League..."

Eventually Oliver reveals to Juliet that while their family was trying to be perfect, none of them were really happy. "Dad was trying to make all this money. Mom was trying to have the perfect family. I was trying to be the perfect student. You were trying to be the perfect student. But was anyone happy? Apparently not." 

Juliet comes to realize that if she continues to do what everyone expects of her she will never be happy. "There'd be graduate school and a job and a career and promotions. In a horrifying waking nightmare, I saw Jason and my parents and all my future classmates and colleagues and mentors and bosses telling me to keep doing something I hated doing because someday I would be glad I had done it." 

This leads her to tell her mother "And I know I'm disappointing you and Dad and everyone, but I feel like if I keep doing what I'm doing, I'm just going to be unhappy forever."  Juliet's mother understands because this is exactly what did happen to her. Her mother's quiet acceptance of what Juliet feels empowers her to break up with Jason. Juliet's relationship with Jason mirrors her parent's relationship. Like her parents, Juliet and Jason gradually grow apart but unlike her parents this is the result of being young and maturing. Juliet recognizes that she has different goals in life and that fitting into family expectations is not as important to her as it is to Jason. Juliet recognizes this and breaks off the relationship so that she doesn't end up like her parents.


One of the strengths of this novel is its portrayal of the effects of marriage breakdown on older children. We often assume teenagers will be able to cope with separation and divorce easier than younger children, but as Kantor's portrayal of Juliet's family breakdown demonstrates, teens can feel confusion, alienation, anxiety and deep anger. They may think they understand what has happened but often they do not. What happens to Juliet's family raises some hard questions especially around blame. Juliet at first blames her father for leaving but when she comes to know more about her parent's relationship she starts to realize that it was more complicated than she was aware of. Juliet's father tells her that he and Juliet's mother simply grew apart, not a fully honest answer considering what eventually was revealed. But is growing apart a reason for divorce? Should one person get to be happy at the expense of everyone else in the family?

Among the weaknesses in Better Than Perfect are the portrayal of casual sex without any consequences and also the long term sexual relationship Juliet and Jason have, also without seemingly any emotional or physical consequences. 

Although the situations of the characters in this novel, wealthy and leading a very priviledged life are not familiar to most teens, their struggle to make their own choices and forge their own path will resonate. Most young people would love the opportunity to attend Harvard and to live in a family wealthy enough to afford cars, gardeners and pool cleaners. This makes Juliet's dissatisfaction with her life seem shallow. However, as is often the case, being wealthy does not guarantee happiness.

Overall, Better Than Perfect is well written and will appeal to those readers interested in novels about high school and relationships and coming of age.

Book Details:
Better Than Perfect by Melissa Kantor
New York: HarperTeen     2015
324 pp.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Death of Us by Alice Kuipers

The Death of Us by Alice Kuipers is a story of a toxic friendship between two girls that ends in tragedy. Shrouded within the mystery of a terrible accident is a toxic love triangle involving one young girl confused about her sexual identity and another with a troubled past.

Synopsis

The novel opens with the ending of the story and then works its back to that point with alternating narrators. It is July 31st, the middle of the summer. The story begins with one of the major characters, Kurt Hartnett, indicating that there has been a terrible car crash at a bridge outside of Edenville. Kurt is at a party at his best friend Xander Buckmaster's home where he overhears people talking about Ivy Foulds and Calliope Carraway who are on their way to the same party. One of the partiers screams that there has been a terrible crash at the bridge and a picture posted on social media indicates that the car is similar to Ivy's. Kurt knows that Callie is with Ivy.

Alternating with Kurt's narratives which occur mostly at the hospital are those of Callie and Ivy, beginning fourteen days prior to the accident which provide the backstory leading up to the accident.

Ivy has returned to Edenville with her alcoholic mother and her mother's boyfriend, Kevin. Ivy's life has been anything but stable. Her father left when she was three years old and her mother has been involved with many men and drinks a lot.

Ivy's friend, Callie, whom she describes as "shiny-penny Callie" still lives in Edenville with her mother and father and her baby brother, Cosmo. Her father is a history professor at the university and her mother is a successful children's author. Callie is a good girl who by her own accounts keeps her room tidy, does her homework and is "perfectly bone-crushingly normal". She feels she should be delighted with a baby in the house" and that at sixteen she should be able to deal with her mother having a new baby. But she's not. Callie is jealous.

When Ivy returns after leaving suddenly three years ago and not saying good-bye, Callie is both thrilled and upset.  Ivy tells Callie that they lived in San Francisco where her mother tried to re-ignite her relationship with Ivy's dad and then moved to Kansas City where she met Kevin, a pot-bellied, well to do man whom Ivy finds disgusting. Ivy forces Callie to go for a run one morning and they meet Callie's friend, Kurt. outside a home near where Callie lives. Callie is puzzled because she knows Kurt lives in a fancy house outside of town. Ivy is immediately attracted to Kurt and Callie notices this attraction. Kurt invites the two girls to accompany him and Xander on his boat the following day. Ivy agrees but Callie knows her mom won't allow her to go.

After visiting her ailing grandmother, Callie approaches her mom about the boat trip but as soon as she learns that Ivy will be going, her mom refuses to allow Callie to go. Her mother tells Callie that she's always been "intoxicated" with Ivy and that her friendship with her was not good for her, causing her to dump her close friend Rebecca three years ago. Because of this, Callies mom decides to forbid her to see Ivy.

Ivy goes out with Kurt and Xander on the boat and the next day the two girls meet at a cafe. On her way to the cafe, Callie sees a ad for a job in an art studio and thinking how forward Ivy is, decides to apply. At the cafe Callie and Ivy make plans to double date that night but Callie, knowing her mother will never give her permission, sneaks out to Ivy's home.The two girls meet Kurt and Xander at a BEneath, a bar a few blocks from Callie's home and get drunk.

Soon Callie begins lying more and more to her mother so she can see Ivy. She sneaks out of the house to go with Ivy, Kurt and Xander on the boat and then one night to go to a party at Kurt's house. However, Callie's parent's discover her lie when she doesn't return home after the party and when her granny passes away the night of the party. At first her mother is furious about the party but after the funeral relents, telling Callie that perhaps she needs to be more open-minded. She agrees to allow Callie to see Ivy but expects her not to lie anymore.

When Ivy tries to get Callie to come to another party, Callie tells her she's not allowed to. She finally explains that her mother doesn't like Ivy after she saw what the girls were doing three years earlier. The two girls go shopping at a store and while Ivy is changing, Callie discovers that Ivy has been lying to her about events that have happened in her life while away in Kansas. This greatly upsets Callie but she accepts Ivy's explanation. The night of the party, Callie decides to slip out of the house and attend without her parents permission. Callie is confused about Ivy's feelings towards her, towards Kurt and believes that possibly Ivy feels that same towards her. Eventually the relationship between the three teens gradually descends into a toxic love triangle with all three not really understanding how they feel about each other.This leads to jealousy, anger and tragedy no one could have predicted.

Discussion

Alice Kuipers keeps her readers guessing through the entire novel with narrations that seem to have one meaning only for the reader to discover that something very different was happening. For example, the reader believes that Xander and Kurt are at the party and head to the hospital to learn the fate of Ivy and Callie. In fact, this is not the case. Careful readers will quickly pick up on what is happening, others won't figure it out till the reveal at the end of the novel.  The same is true for Callie and how she feels about Ivy. At first it seems like she's happy for the return of a long lost friend, but soon it becomes apparent that Callie's relationship with Ivy is very different from an ordinary friendship. The effect of these unreliable narrators is to build a sense of deepening mystery, creating a shocking ending to the story.

Characterization is particularly strong in The Death of Us. Both Ivy and Callie are deeply troubled girls who are struggling with significant changes in their family life, while also trying to determine their own identities. Ivy, who has tried to kill herself, struggles to maintain control in her life, exercising to excess and listening to esteem-building podcasts while attempting to avoid morphing into a copy of her manipulative and needy mother. The rage inside her eventually explodes as she confronts Kurt and Callie about their relationship. Callie, on the other hand, comes from a stable home where she has to fit into her parents image of a good girl. She never parties, does her homework and blends in. But Callie feels lost in a family focused on a toddler, her parents oblivious to her needs as a teenager. Her rebellion is ignited by the arrival of Ivy. Callie's mother really does know the truth about her daughter's relationship with Ivy but tries to pretend that things are normal. Of course the difference between the two girls is that Callie has a mother who really does care about her. When she tells her mother she is confused about who she is, her mother is patient and understanding.

Especially well portrayed is the complex relationship between the two girls. It is a relationship fraught with secrets; the secret of Ivy's mother attempting suicide and the secret of the two girls experimenting sexually. Both of these secrets affect their relationship. Callie told Ivy she has told no one but when the girls visit Callie's granny, the elderly woman lets slip she knows about Ivy's mom. The sexual experimentation is a confusing point for both girls with what happened obviously meaning much more to Callie than to Ivy who definitely likes boys. Neither girl understands the other; Ivy doesn't understand Callie's attraction to her to the point that she doesn't believe she's not interested in Kurt and Callie doesn't understand Ivy's distrust and dishonesty.


As Kuipers has stated about The Death of Us, "Starting a book with the end of a story, makes for difficult writing.." But Alice Kuipers succeeds brilliantly in her novel. It an interesting, well written novel from a favourite writer of mine.

Book Details:
The Death of Us by Alice Kuipers
Toronto: HarperTrophy Canada     2014
216 pp.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Invaded by Melissa Landers

Invaded is the ong anticipated sequel to Alienated by Melissa Landers and for the most part readers will not be disappointed.

In the first novel it was revealed that Earth has been scouted by an advanced alien culture from another galaxy. The L'eihrs require human DNA to rejuvenate their people and wish to form an alliance to bring human colonists to their planet for that purpose. As a result of contact with the L'eihr, Earth's water has inadvertently been contaminated by a super algae that will eventually destroy all the oceans and make the planet uninhabitable. Most humans are not aware of this impending catastrophe nor that the L'eihr have the technology to decontaminate the water. This fact is being hidden by the governments on Earth. The L'eihr will only provide the technology if Earth forms an alliance with them.

The novel ends with Cara having learned Aelyx's (along with Eron and Syrine) role in trying to sabotage the alliance by planting a parasitic tree, sh'alear, which destroyed nearby crops. When she is brought before The Way, who are the L'eihr Elders, Cara meets the two newest and youngest leaders, Jaxen and Aisly. Jaxen tells her that despite the murder of Eron and the violence against Syrine and Aelyx, the alliance negotiations will continue, Syrine and Aelyx are to be sent back to Earth to regain the human trust and work for the alliance and Cara is to accompany Jaxen and Aisly to L'eihr.

Invaded opens with Cara Sweeney headed to L'eihr alone after the L'eihr Elders decided to send Aelyx back to Earth to help rebuild the alliance between the two planets. They were supposed to start a life together on L'eihr but now Aelyx is in Manhattan with Ambassador Stepha. Aelyx finds life on Earth fraught with danger as HALO (Humans Against L'eihr Occupation) seems determined to assassinate him. His security detail is run by Colonel Rutter along with a new guard, Private David Sharpe who saves Aelyx from being killed when they first return to New York. As a result of this incident, Ambassador Stepha decides to confer with The Way. They decide that the technology to neutralize the algae blooms will be provided in the spring during an alliance ceremony between Earth and L'eihr. Any further attempts on the lives of the L'eihr youth will terminate the relationship. Both Aelyx and Stepha are puzzled at the ambivalent attitude of the Elders towards the attacks. He knows the real purpose behind the alliance is to recruit human colonists who will eventually provide fresh DNA to rejuvenate the L'eihr population. He knows humans are unaware of the algae contamination and believes that they should be told the truth.

To try to counter the resistance by people on Earth, Director General Kendrick suggests that Aelyx and Syrine undertake a multi-city tour in the hopes they can win over the human population. Syrine, who is disgusted by humans, begins to change her opinion after visiting dying children in a hospital. Soon after this, two more attempts are made on Aelyx's life. When David repeatedly risks his life to save them, Syrine begins to fall in love with David. Despite the attempts, the Elders refuse to call off the alliance leaving Aelyx and Stepha puzzled.

On L'eihr,  Cara is escorted to the capital by the two young Elders, Jaxen and Aisly. Aisly and Jaxen reveal that they are seventeen and twenty-one years old. This puzzles Cara because Aelyx has told her that the oldest clones were nineteen. Cara finds L'eihr very different from Earth: it has twin moons and one large continent in a vast ocean. Instead of being taken to the colony as she expected, Cara is taken to one of the five precincts in the capital to live. Jaxen tells Cara that the colony is still under construction and that it is located on an island where influence from the L'eihr will be minimal. Cara feels unsettled by Jaxen who looks like the L'eihrs but who seems different in some way that Cara can't yet explain.

Cara is assigned to live with Elle, (Aelyx's genetic sister) whose l'ihan, Eron, was killed while he was stationed in China. Cara's brother, Troy, a Marine, is stationed on L'eihr as her human mentor. Despite her devastation over the loss of Eron, Elle works with Cara on her Silent Speech and helps her to begin to adjust to life on L'eihr. Cara's days are filled with L'eihr classes in the Aegis, brutal fitness classes with an instructor she nicknames "Satan" and time in the L'eihr nursery.She has her Sh'ovah, a sort of citizenship ceremony but it is marred by the crash of what appears to be a meteorite. Cara notices that it is some kind of spherical object secretly retrieved by Jaxen.

On Earth, the attempts on Aelyx and Syrine's lives continue when David discovers that a supper brought in has been poisoned with strychnine. An image consultant is brought in to help reform his and Syrine's reputations and Aelyx agrees to be interviewed by a journalist named Sharon Taylor. During the interview, Aelyx explains that he and his fellow L'eihrs were initially against the alliance because of their views about humans which changed as they came to know them on a personal level. The interview is stopped however when Taylor brings in Marcus Johnson, the student who tried to kill Aelyx.

Living separately in two different galaxies begins to take its toll on Aelyx and Cara's relationship. Cara believes that Aelyx is attracted to Syrine and when Aelyx learns that Cara's brother deliberately missed his transport home, he worries that Cara is having trouble adapting. Aelyx also begins to form a strong friendship with David, his security guard. He becomes concerned when he discovers that David is taking L'eihr injections for a degenerative genetic disorder.

On L'eihr Cara continues to be challenged by someone determined to sabotage her mission on the planet. Professor Helm's tablet goes missing and is found in her quarters. Dahla, a L'eihr who hates Cara,  is poisoned by a deadly toxin that has been placed in her food. In both situations Cara is implicated but helped by Jaxen. But this is not as disturbing to Cara as her trip to the colony. Cara quickly realizes that the humans will be unable to leave the island once they are settled there and that they will be unable to choose their vocations. While on the island Cara makes the shocking discovery that both Jaxen and Aisly have the ability to control people's minds when they erase her brother Tory's memory of a second object falling from the sky. Cara, whose mind is more trained is able to block Jaxen's attempt and to hide his failure to do so from him.

Aelyx is puzzled when Cara tells him about Jaxen and Aisly hidden abilities since mind control is not believed to be possible. Tension begins to develop between Cara and Aelyx when she tells him that based on what she has learned about the colony she cannot go through with plans to live on L'eihr.  Aelyx tells her that she can appeal to the leading Elder, Alona, which she decides to do after she is accused of attacking Dahla a few days later.  While Cara deals with this, Aelyx decides to research the archives of the Voyagers who traveled the galaxies scouting various civilizations. He learns about a L'eihr researcher, Larish who believes that aliens called the Aribol transplanted humans to L'eihr thousands of years ago. His research only leads to more questions; if the mysterious probes are from the Aribol, why are they investigating L'eihr now?

Aelyx meets HALO leader Isaac Richards and reveals to him that all of Earth's water has been contaminated by a deadly algae bloom. He tells Richards that years ago L'eihr's Voyagers came to Earth and introduced scientists to their nanotechnology. Not fully understanding the technology, Earth's scientists unwittingly released nano-fertilizers into the oceans where they are now acting to destroy the water. Aelyx asks Richards to support the alliance publicly so that he can help Earth get the technology from the L'eihr's to save the planet.

Meanwhile s third attempt on Aelyx's life leads Colonel Rutter to identify the mysterious hit man. David's impressive ability to save Aelyx each time leads Syrine to fall hopelessly in love with him.

Cara's interview with Alona impresses the Elder and sees her being assigned to the colony development panel. In an attempt to figure out the origin of the probes, Cara meets with Larish who supplies her with information about the Aribol. Larish believes the Aribol to be tinkerers, who "seed species across multiple galaxies to see how each one develops" but he doubts that the Aribol would be sending probes to L'eihr . Larish tells Cara that the Aribol have the ability to change how they look as do the L'eihrs. This information tells Cara that Aisly who uses drops to alter her eye colour and Jaxen are not regular clones, only deepening the mystery as to who they are and why the probes are falling on L'eihr.

As Aelyx and Cara work to uncover the mystery behind the probes, they learn the real reason behind the L'eihr's desire for an alliance and discover a betrayal that has deadly consequences for David and Syrine and threatens the alliance and the future of both planets.

Discussion

Invaded is an exciting second novel in the Alienated series. It continues the interesting story started in Alienated although the title feels somewhat off for this novel since no real invasion occurs, only the threat of one. Landers does an excellent job of creating suspense and developing layers of intrigue. As with the first novel, the story is told by Cara and Aelyx in alternating voices, although Cara feels like the main narrator. Through her voice we learn more about life on L'eihr.

The characters of Cara, Aelyx and Syrine are more fully developed in Invaded with Landers adding a new villain in the character of Jaxen and introducing her readers to Elder Alona, Larish, a nasty pet named Vero and an anti-hero, David Sharpe. Readers will not only enjoy the suspense but the romance between David and Syrine.

Landers does a good job of showing how prejudices which are usually formed when people encounter those who are different can be changed. Syrine found humans disgusting and was visibly sick when she first went out with Aelyx on a public-relations tour. However, gradually her encounters with the sick children and with David changed how she viewed humans to the point that she even fell in love with a human.


My biggest complaint with this novel involves what I consider to be several weak plot points. For example, the plot in the first novel revolves around the point that Earth's water has been contaminated by a nano-algae unleashed into the world's oceans. This premise is continued in Invaded. Somehow, the algae problem, which is apparently easily detected by a microscope, as Aelyx demonstrates to the leader of  HALO, Isaac Richards, is being kept from the general population which seems completely unlikely.

In the second novel, Cara grows increasingly suspicious of L'eihr's motives for the alliance with humans. As she and Aelyx piece together the puzzle, Cara uncovers the reason for the weapons training on L'eihr; they are preparing for war. She learns from Alona that the Aribol have been sending dozens of probes over the entire planet. Fearing an invasion, the L'eihr desire an alliance with  humans because they do not have the soldiers to defend their planet. They intend "to arm humans with iphals and use them in battle in exchange for decontaminating the water supply."Cara who has mastered Silent Speech is unable to fire the iphal. The iphal is controlled by a person's mind. To expect human soldiers to be able to do the same and to battle aliens who are far advanced stretches the credibility of this part of the plot.

Landers ties up most of her loose ends but does leave room for a third novel in the series. It would be a shame to not have a final book that would explore the role of the Aribol and to finalize what happens to Jaxen and Aisly. Landers has said that if sales for Invaded are strong enough she will pen a third novel. Stay tuned!

Book Details:
Invaded by Melissa Landers
Los Angeles: Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group.     2015
356 pp.




Saturday, March 21, 2015

Movie: Cinderella

Continuing the series of fairytales that are being made into movies or remakes is Kenneth Branagh's visually captivating Cinderella starring Lily James and Robert Madden as Prince Charming.

The movie follows exactly the Disney version of fairytale Cinderella. Young Ella lives a beautiful, happy life with her father and mother. Her father is merchant who often travels away from home. When at home the family are kind and caring to one another. Then one day Ella's mother takes ill and then dies. Before dying Ella's mother tells her to have courage and to be kind.

Ella grows into a beautiful, kind woman. One day her father tells her that he will be marrying Lady Tremaine and that her two daughters, Anastasia and Drizella will be coming to live in their home. After the marriage, Ella's father resumes his business travels, only to die while away. This leaves Lady Tremaine in charge of the estate.

From their arrival, it is evident that neither Lady Tremaine nor her ill-mannered daughters are fond of Ella. Their treatment of her is dismissive at first but burgeons into full blown resentment and hatred. Gradually she is sent to live in the attic.

One day while out riding, Ella comes across a handsome young man who is part of a hunting party after a stag. She refuses to give him her name and he tells her his name is Kit but does not reveal that he is the Crown Prince. Ella returns home happy while Kit returns to the palace determined to learn the identity of the beautiful young girl he met in the forest. His father however, reminds him that he has a duty to marry a "princess" but Kit feels this is not important.

In order to learn the identity of the mystery girl, Kit, decides to hold a ball, to which every eligible maiden will be invited. This of course, sets in motion the events that lead to them finding one another, losing each other again and the discovery of the real identity of the prince's mystery girl.

Branagh's Cinderella is a lovely adaptation of the Disney fairytale that recaptures the innocence of the story. Parents with young children, older viewers who wish to just enjoy a good fairytale without the dark elements, the modern cynicism and the feminist overtones so common in even children's movies, will love this film. Ella is beautiful, kind and courageous - true to her mother's dying request. No matter how terrible Lady Tremaine treats Ella, she meets her time and again with unfailing kindness and respect. Even when all seems lost and she's locked in the attic, Ella refuses to despair or hate. And when Ella is rescued by the Prince from the clutches of Lady Tremaine, she responds not with hate or condescension but with forgiveness and humility. Lily James superbly captures Ella's purity of soul and strong character.

Prince Charming is well.... absolutely charming with a gorgeous smile and a determination to discover the true identity of the maiden who's captured his imagination. Encouraged by his father, the king, to marry a woman based on her social status, Kit hesitates. Despite everyone telling him that he doesn't know this girl and even that she is not suitable, he trusts his own instincts. He treats her with deference and respect. He also suspects that someone in the palace may be working against him.

As expected, Helena Bonham Carter plays the fairy godmother with her typical eccentricity. First appearing to Cinderella as a quirky, beggar-woman, she tests Ella by asking for something to drink and eat. Cinderella kindly complies. In this film, Helena is far from the Tim Burton style she's known for Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd. Her gown is pure white with 400 LED lights to achieve that fairy-godmother magic.

Cate Blanchette plays Lady Tremaine with cold harshness that convinces viewers there's not a nice bone in her body. Beautiful in a chilling sort of way, Lady Tremaine's evil is only emphasized by her spectacular couture costumes in bold colours and rich velvety fabrics.

Some aspects of Cinderella are exquisitely done. For example, the scene where Ella stumbles upon her fairy godmother,  ho turns a pumpkin, mice and a few lizards into a coach, horses and footmen, is brilliantly done. The lizard footmen are fantastic, still retaining some of their reptilian qualities that make them a bit repulsive but not enough to be totally off-putting. It's a chance once again, to showcase Ella's remarkable magnanimity as she treats the footman kindly, even though he's a bit creepy looking.

The costuming in Cinderella is simply stunning. Three time Oscar winner, Sandy Powell designed all the costumes including the amazing dresses worn by Lily James and Cate Blanchett. Swarovski provided Powell with 1.7 million crystals with which to use in Cinderella's ball gown and shoes. Cinderella's gown contains 270 yards of fabric in twelve layers and 10,000 Swarovski crystals. Powell wanted the dress to be voluminous and "to look like she was floating" when she danced and also ran down the stairs. Her wedding dress was simpler and more modest because as Powell explained in an interview with Paul Chi of Vanity Fair,  “Cinderella wins the Prince’s heart through her goodness, so I wanted to show this through her clothes."


The Prince, played by Robert Madden who has deep blue eyes, wore a blue wool military jacket that highlighted his eyes. It was modelled after the jacket in the Disney animated movie made years ago. 


Sandy Powell began working on the costume design two years before the film and has said that she blended 19th century style with that of the 1940's. This was especially evident in Lady Tremaine's costumes which are almost all done in green - the colour of envy.


Cinderella is a delightfully refreshing movie. Just go see this lovely film.


The trailer contains brief cuts of many scenes in this wonderful movie. Enjoy!