Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Of Neptune by Anna Banks

Of Neptune is the final installment in the Syrena trilogy. Emma has returned to land with Galen and his brother Grom. While the two brothers argue inside the beach house about Rachel's death, Emma wanders alone at the beach trying to collect her thoughts. Emma's grandfather, King Antonis arrives at the seashore to speak with her and makes a startling revelation. He tells Emma that when her mother, Nalia, disappeared and was thought dead, one of the trackers, Baruk, thought he had felt her mother's pulse. The pulse eventually disappeared and Baruk urged Antonis to consider her dead. However, King Antonis could not bring himself to do this. He continued to search for her, eventually moving inland and that's when he uncovered something unique - a town called Neptune, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. He wants Emma to visit this town when she takes her trip with Galen.

While Emma's mother, Nalia, has now partnered with Grom and they have decided to return to the sea, Emma and Galen take off on a road trip to spend time together. Grom is not happy about his brother spending time alone with Emma because he fears that there will be rumours about them not respecting the laws about not mating before their ceremony.

Emma has asked Galen that their mating ceremony wait until after they have completed college. However, Galen is anxious to secure Emma as his mate and really doesn't want to wait three years. But he recognizes that it is very important for him and Emma to follow the law to its limits because they need to regain the trust of the kingdoms in the royal family.

Emma and Galen set out on their journey. Emma changes their destination from the Cascade Mountains to the Smoky Mountains and unknown to Galen, is set upon trying to find this mysterious town of Neptune. She has no real reason why Antonis wants her to visit it but she knows she must. They stop to explore the springs near their destination and end up going for a swim in a river with caves in the Smoky Mountains. During their exploration of a cave, they are shocked to meet another Syrena, a boy named Reed who is obviously a Half-Breed and who tells them he is from Neptune. Against Galen's wishes, but at Emma's urging, Reed takes them his parents home in Neptune. Reed tells them that there are many Half-Breeds in Neptune, as well as full-blooded Syrena and humans.

Galen cannot understand how Neptune has been able to go undetected by the Trackers, especially someone like Toraf who is able to sense Syrena anywhere in the world. The only other community like that of Neptune was Tartessos which was destroyed by General Triton thousands of years ago. General Triton destroyed all the half-breed children of General Poseidon and all of the full-blooded Syrena returned to the ocean.

Emma and Galen take rooms at the local bed and breakfast, Sylvia's Starfish Bed and Breakfast and later on have dinner with Reed's parents, his father Reder Conway, a full-blooded Syrena who is leader of the Neptune community and his human mother, Lauren. Reed recognizes that Galen is an ocean Syrena because of his pulse and he also recognizes the royal trident on his stomach as marking him a royal. Although Reed's parents are very friendly, Galen becomes jealous of Reed's obvious attraction to Emma.

After dinner, Galen and Emma quarrel about their plans for the future. With the discovery of Neptune, everything seems to have changed between them. Galen tells Emma he doesn't want to attend college and he wants to have their mating ceremony and return to the ocean with her. However this is not what Emma wants because she cannot breathe for long periods of time underwater. Galen leaves Emma in Neptune and heads back to Grom and Triton, intending to tell them of Neptune's existence. Emma pleads with Galen not to tell Grom about Neptune and the Half-Breeds because she is certain the Syrena will come to Neptune and kill everyone.

Despite Emma's pleas, Galen leaves but never makes it to Grom. Instead he is captured by a Syrena in the woods outside of Neptune. Meanwhile, Emma spends time with Reed getting to learn about the town and beginning to establish a friendship with him. Reed is very interested in Emma and offers the possibility to Emma of her choosing him over Galen.

What Emma does not know is that Galen has been captured by a Syrena known as Tyrden. Tyrden recognizes that Galen is a Royal and begins torturing and interrogating Galen about Jagen and Paca's attempts to overthrow the Royals. During his time with Galen, Tyrden reveals how the plot to overthrown the Triton kingdom came about with his meeting with Jagen and how he trained Paca to work assimilate on land with humans.

When Galen does not return Emma's phone calls and her mother tells Emma that Galen has not arrived back home, she begins to suspect that something has happened to him. Emma's  mother is worried about her and she manages to get Emma to reveal where she is. At this point Emma approaches Reed and tells him she is certain Galen is missing. At the Huddle, a town meeting of the Neptune Syrena and Half-Breeds, Emma is welcomed and search parties are set up to try to find Galen.

Can Emma save Galen in time and also save Neptune from possible destruction by the Kingdoms?

Of Neptune continues the saga of the Syrena and the two kingdoms, only this time there are revelations about the Syrena on land. Although events were tied up nicely in the second novel, Of Triton, this third novel focuses on the history of the Syrena and how it relates to the future and the significance of Emma being accepted by the Syrena kingdoms.

Emma as a Half-Breed has been accepted into the Syrena, but this is the first time in their history that they have accepted a Half-Breed. Her grandfather Antonis comes to her revealing the existence of a town, Neptune that she needs to visit. When Emma arrives in Neptune she discovers a town filled with people like her - half Syrena, half human and accepted by both. She also meets a Half-Breed young man, Reed who shows immediate interest in her. This causes Galen to doubt her choice to be his mate, leading him to wonder if this now gives Emma a second option - to live life in Neptune, possibly with Reed. This feeling of conflict leads the two to quarrel and sets up the events that follow.

Separated from each other, they must both determine if their original decision is still valid in light of these new events. Emma discovers that she has not acknowledged Galen's pain over Rachel's death and that his desire for her to live with him in the ocean is the desire to be together and live a long life. Meanwhile Galen, struggling to overcome his feelings of jealousy towards the attention Reed is giving Emma, realizes that he has been pushing Emma towards a life she cannot live. The strong conflict between them is eventually resolved and serves to strengthen their relationship.

Paralleling this personal conflict is the conflict between the full blooded Syrena in the Poseidon and Triton kingdoms and their intolerance of Half-Breeds. Neptune, it turns out is one of many towns throughout the world filled with both Half-Breeds and full-blooded Syrena. Antonis's purpose in sending Emma to Neptune was twofold; partly for her to discover others like herself, but also to try to unite all the Syrena, full-blooded and Half-Breeds, those on land and those in the ocean. the intolerance towards half-blooded Syrena needs to end, because some day the Syrena, whose existence has (mysteriously) not been revealed to the world, will someday be and Antonis and others recognize that all the Syrena need to be united.

In this way Of Neptune explores the theme of working together to resolve conflicts on both a personal and social level as well as the theme of intolerance or bigotry towards those who are perceived as somehow "less" than others.

What I felt was missing from this novel were the strong secondary characters Banks had created in the first two novels, Toraf, Grom, Rayna and Nalia, who do make an appearance in the opening and closing of the novel. Instead we have two villains in the novel and a rather creepy,unlikable character in Reed Conway.

Readers however, will be satisfied with the romantic ending to this unique series and of course the romantic cover.

Book Details:
Of Neptune by Anna Banks
New York: Feiwel and Friends Book 2014
327 pp.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Paige Turned by Erynn Mangum

Paige Alder has been working for two months now as a Youth Minister with Pastor Rick at their church. After Tyler saw Layla's brother, Luke, who is Paige's ex-boyfriend, kiss her at the end-of-the-school year youth party, things have been decidedly cool between them. At first Paige is certain that Luke's kiss is the cause of Tyler's lack of interest and the fact that they haven't seen each other for most of the summer. With the exception of the youth karaoke picnic where Tyler grabbed Paige and they sang, Tyler has been mostly absent and distant.

During Paige's week off, her best friend Layla who is stressing about her upcoming wedding, decides to get a puppy. Layla's brother Luke, shows us at the animal shelter and Paige finally has the courage to confront Luke and tell him that while she forgives him for what happened between them, she is not interested in pursuing a relationship and that he is messing up what she has with Tyler.

As both Layla and Paige's sister, Preslee prepare for their upcoming fall weddings, Paige tries to help both young women. At the same time she becomes increasingly worried about Tyler until one night Tyler and Pastor Rick talk together. It is after this that Tyler confesses to Paige that he did not lead a good life before he became a Christian and this is why he has taken things slowly.

From this point on, Tyler and Paige begin to fall in love against the backdrop of two other couples planning very different weddings. But will their relationship lead to a trip down the aisle?

Paige Turned is a light feel-good conclusion to the Paige Alder series. Readers will not be surprised by the sweet, predictable conclusion to the series. It's nice to see a series of novels where the characters focus on becoming friends first and trying to determine if each has a good character and might be someone suitable to spend the rest of life with. It was refreshing to see Paige finally confront Luke and tell him how she felt and that in this case, it was too late for a second chance.

There was one thing I didn't like about Paige and Tyler's relationship. His question at the end seemed too soon and too sudden, given that Tyler only asked Paige to be his girlfriend at the beginning of the summer and it's now October. They did not date over the summer because of Tyler struggling to tell Paige about his past - a past he never fully reveals to her.

I also wasn't keen on the language used to describe a very important aspect of Paige and Tyler's relationship which the author brings up. When Tyler reveals that he has a past before he was Christian and that he has made mistakes,  Paige spends a large portion of the novel working on "forgiving" Tyler for his sin involving his past relationships. I didn't like this notion of Paige having to "forgive" Tyler. Eventually this evolves into the more realistic concept of Paige needing to accept Tyler, despite the mistakes of his past and to realize that just because he's now come to Jesus does not mean that he won't make mistakes in the future.  The same applies to Paige's relationship with her sister Preslee, who also made mistakes as a young person. Paige has had to forgive Preslee for the hurt she cause her and her parents and to realize that Preslee is a work in progress. While it takes time for her to get to this point, in the end Paige does so, with the realization that she too has a past.

As a result, in Paige Turned, the relationships feel real and the characters are decidedly authentic. Paige has the support of her pastor and married friend to help her live a chaste single life and Tyler is respectful and honourable, always looking on the bright side of life. While Paige comes from a stable, intact family, Tyler's family has suffered from divorce. His mother, a somewhat stereotypical divorcee, is bitter and critical, the complete opposite of Paige's kind, warm mom. It felt refreshing to see a strong Christian  not reject someone outright because their family has suffered from divorce. Paige accepts Tyler on the basis of his good character and the respectful way he treats her.

There's plenty of wit to go around, and Paige Turned is a light, refreshing romance that avoids heavy discussions about sin, sex, dating and marriage. The message comes across clear; people can and do date without focusing on sex, intent on saving themselves for marriage and they are normal, happy people!

Book Details:
Paige Turned by Erynn Mangum
Colorado Springs:  NaviPress    2014
286 pp.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

While We Run by Karen Healey

While We Run, the sequel to When We Wake focuses on Abdi Taalib and Tegan Oglietti's attempts to stop the cryonics program.

In the first novel Tegan who had been revived after being frozen in the year 2128 uncovers what seems like a sinister program run by the Australian government. Terrified after awaking, Tegan escapes the compound she is being held in, only to be recaptured. She is sent to live with Dr. Marie Cameron, the scientist who successfully revived Tegan. Tegan along with a fellow classmate and "thirdie" student, Abdi Taalib uncovered the real reason behind the cryonics program. A rebel group known as the Inheritors of the Earth group told them about the Australian government's secret project whereby thousands of Third World refugees were being imprisoned and frozen so they could be used as slave labour for the colonization of a new world. Earth is gradually succumbing to pollution and overpopulation and a group of select people are looking to recolonize a new planet. Tegan believing what the Inheritors of the Earth had told her, reveals all this to the world in a live broadcast. However when Dr. Marie is captured, Tegan turns herself in to try to help her.

This novel opens with both of them in captivity, heavily secured and monitored as they are forced to speak on tour promoting the cryonics and the Australian government's starship project. Tegan is touring internationally and while Abdi is in Australia, to explain to the world that they were mistaken and that these "thirdie" refugees are in fact, volunteers. Tegan explains her revival and how she was wrong about the Third World refugees. The refugees agreed to cryosuspension and kept it secret for fear of sabotage. Abdi's function is to talk about this and the benefits of the refugee camps in Australia.

Both Tegan and Abdi have brutal handlers and both have implants in the base of their necks that are activated to cause extreme pain whenever either one of them resists.  Abdi's handler is Diane, a cruel woman who has no conscience while Tegan's handler Lat also seems similar. 

At a dinner party hosted by criminal Valda Simmons, Abdi meets Valda's daughter Ruby who despite her mother's reservations about the ArkProject will be undergoing cyronic suspension the very next day before she turns thirty. Abdi is shocked at Ruby's decision and when they are alone as Ruby attempts to seduce him, Abdi both refuses and tries to warn Ruby about what she is doing. This is unsuccessful and Abdi is punished by the implant and blacks out, only to awaken in his cell back at the compound. There is he warned that he MUST cooperate because every time he does not, Tegan will be punished. He is forced to watch as Tegan is mercilessly punished by her handler Lat.

However, Tegan and Abdi escape during the Presidents Ball with the help of Joph Montgomery, and Lat who turns out to be part of the Save Tegan organization. They are taken to an abandoned underground shelter built by Joph's great-great-aunt, Celia Davies. Carl Hurfest, the journalist who helped Tegan broadcast her statement about the truth of the ArkProject is there, along with Bethari Miyahputri who created a twelve kilometer EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which knocked out all electronic equipment, allowing Joph and Lat to spirit Tegan and Abdi away.

Abdi learns several things from this; first that Tegan KNEW they were going to be rescued since her handler, Lat, told her this and secondly that likely some people died as a result of the EMP cutting power to life saving equipment at two hospitals within the radius of the pulse. Abdi struggles to trust Tegan and to control his anger over her not telling him somehow about their rescue. He almost sacrificed his life on stage during the President's Ball because he could no longer go on living under the torture and abuse he was suffering at the hands of Diane. Abdi also suffers from guilt when he learns that his mother, Madame Taliib resigned from the ruling party in Djibouti, Somalia, due to pressure from the opposition on the President there.

Abdi and Tegan are told that Dr. Marie Carmen has also been rescued. She is brought to the safe house by Zaneisha Washington, Tegan's former bodyguard. Marie, who has been heavily sedated,  had been tortured in order to extract information about the revival process and is unable to walk.

When Washington lets slip about a Phase Two plan, Tegan and Abdi, Joph and Bethari discover that that they are planning to use Tegan to help take down the Australian Prime Minister, Nathan Cox. Tegan cannot do this and they decide to play along until they can find a time to leave. However, when deadly bushfires sweep over the desolate Australian land, they must flee into Bendigo.

In Bendigo, the divide between Hurfest and Lat, and the rest of the group is revealed when Abdi confronts Lat about the plans to take down President Cox. With Bendigo in ruins due to the fire, President Cox has decided to visit the devastated area. Hurfest and Lat decide that this will provide them with the opportunity to implement their plan. However, Tegan and Abdi make it clear they will not cooperate with such an undertaking. Zaneisha agrees to escort Tegan, Abdi, Bethari, Joph and Marie out of Bendigo, leaving Hurfest and Lat behind. But when they run into trouble on their way to Crib Point, Marie reveals a shocking truth about the cryonics program that changes Tegan and Abdi's plans about fleeing the country. Who can they trust to help them stop the cryonics program and save thousands?

While We Run is a fine conclusion to this well written duology. Healey truly engages her readers with the unique voice of Abdi, who narrates this novel. Abdi is being physically and emotionally abused by Diane and appears to have no hope of escaping. The terrible predicament he and Tegan are in, is the hook that draws readers in to the story.

Having Abdi narrate this novel further develops his character. Healey allows her readers to get into Abdi's head and to feel what he is feeling. Abdi was prepared by his politician mother to effect positive change in the world. He was trained by her to never show his feelings, to work towards having the perfect politician's face. Eventually all this training pays off in the end, saving their lives and working towards a resolution of the crisis. He is a sensitive man, as evidenced by his wonderful ability to reach people through his singing ability and he has a strong sense of conscience. He protests strongly against the use of the EMP weapon, even if it was to free himself and Tegan and he wants no part of the assassination of President Cox. He is also determined to come up with a plan to save as many of the people in cryonic suspension as possible.

Abdi also has another redeeming characteristic, that of sacrificial love for Tegan which he demonstrates by enduring torture and humiliation at the hands of Diane in an effort to protect Tegan. But Abdi also has many inner conflicts too; he is jealous of Lat whom he thinks might love Tegan and he suffers from guilt and anger towards Tegan for not revealing their plan to escape, as well as his decision to return to Somalia. Abdi also struggles under the burden of guilt over his mother's destroyed political career - the direct result of his involvement with Tegan and his smuggling of vaccines into Africa.

Tension is maintained throughout the novel in various ways. Abdi voices the conflict many of the characters feel as they struggle to determine who they can trust. Abdi has a difficult time trusting Lat mainly because he witnessed him torturing Tegan. They wonder if they can trust Zaneisha Washington, a former government soldier.

Healey does a wonderful job of portraying a government intent upon manipulating its own people and willing to go to greats lengths to do so. She shows how a hostile government can manipulate media and use force to trick people into believing a lie.

While We Run is an excellent conclusion to a duology that explores the possibility of cryonics, what it might be like to awaken in a future world, the ethical implications and potential abuse of such a technology.

Book Details:
While We Run by Karen Healey
New York: Little, Brown and Company     May 2014
327 pp.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco

The Blessing Cup is the prequel to The Keeping Quilt which told the story of Polacco's great-grandmother coming to America as a child. In The Blessing Cup Patricia Polacco tells the story of her Great-Grandmother Anna's life in Russia before she emigrated to America.

The night before Shabbat and after Anna and her family experienced harassment at the hands of the csar's men, her mother takes out a beautiful tea set. Anna asks her mother to tell the story of the wonderful story of the tea set.

Anna's mother and father lived in Roynovka, Russia (near present day Belarus). The tea set came from her Aunt Rebecca in Minsk who sent it to her mother with a special note about the blessing it would bring her family.

Despite the poverty of Anna's family, life in Roynovka was good. But one night the temple is burned down and Anna's family learns that the czar has ordered all Jews to leave Russia. Terrified and shocked, Anna, her parents and her baby sister, Magda,  must pack up only what they can carry or take with them in a cart. They take their menorah, the shofar, their holy books and of course the exquisite tea set. They face a long journey through Russia and possibly to America. How will they manage to survive such a journey and travel so far?

The book's beautiful illustrations were created by acclaimed author-illustrator,  Patricia Polacco, using 2 and 6B pencils and acetone markers. The free-hand sketch-like quality of Polacco's illustrations conveys the hustle and bustle of village life, the comraderie of the Jewish people, the warmth of family life, the physical hardship of their journey out of Russia, the joy when they are helped by a Russian man and the love for each generation as the cup is passed on through the generations. The expressive faces and the sense of motion conveyed in each of these beautiful drawings enhance the story of Polacco's ancestors.

The heartwarming story of hardship overcome and devotion to family and God make The Blessing Cup one of Polacco's best books. It's a story many families will be able to relate to.

Book Details:
The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco
Toronto: A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers 2013

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gasp by Lisa McMann

Gasp is an exciting conclusion to the Vision Series.

In Gasp, Jules Demarco and Sawyer Angotti have successfully navigated through two visions, saving people destined to die. Now they are desperate to learn who among the students they saved at the University of Chicago campus shooting is experiencing the next round of visions. A week after the shooting and Jules and her brother Trey, along with Sawyer meet up with Ben Galang to learn if he is the one having the visions. Ben is not however and they need to determine who is. With Ben's help, they put together a list of people to contact and Jules suggests that they have a support group meeting to see if they can glean who might be having the next vision.

The group of students gets together but no one claims to be having any problems. At this point Jules and Sawyer decide to visit Tori who was badly wounded and who is still in hospital. But when the arrive, Tori tells them she hasn't experienced anything weird.

The visions are temporarily forgotten when tragedy strikes Jules family and their restaurant and home above burn to the ground. It turns out that the fire was the result of a worn electrical cord that ignited all the books and papers that Jule's father has been hoarding over the years. Now homeless, Jules and her family move in temporarily with her Aunt Mary and Uncle Tito.

A breakthrough comes in the visions when Tori Hayes texts Jules telling her she wants to talk about the visions but when Jules and Sawyer show up at the hospital, Tori is reluctant to talk about them in front of her mother. Jules eventually manages to have Tori reveal that she has been having scary visions involving a house, ambulance and plenty of bodies. However, any further information is not forthcoming from Tori except taht the incident is on Loomis Street. Eventually the incident does happen and this upsets Jules and Sawyer.

They decide to visit Tori once again in the hospital to show her what happened  and to impress upon her the gravity of trying to determine what is happening and where it is happening in the visions. At first everyone believes that the visions for Tori have ended but several days later a new, more sinister vision begins. Now both Tori and her mother seek the help of Jules and her friends. But can they save a large number of people this time around?

There are plenty of family details at the beginning of the novel, and while not necessary to the plot, they help to develop the characters and their relationship to one another. Jules sister, Rowan is more involved in the storyline and we learn more about Jules father, who manages to redeem himself admirably, fighting to overcome his hoarding addiction. There's an entire chapter devoted to a steamy makeout scene involving Jules and Sawyer, which was out of place in the storyline and felt somewhat gratuitous in its inclusion. All of this means that it takes a few chapters to get fully into the visions part of the storyline, but once it does, events move quickly. McMann has the perfect vehicle for creating and maintaining suspense because details of the upcoming tragedy can only be obtained gradually from the person having the visions. The time constraint and the lack of details help develop reader suspense.

As with the first novel, events in Gasp are narrated by Jules, whose witty, intelligent voice feels more natural than Sawyer's was in the second novel, especially when relating information about the visions.

As with the first two novels, a hint of the vision is given in the iris of the eye on the front cover. McMann also reveals where Jules might have gotten her vision from and where it definitely did not come from. Overall, this was an original story that was concluded in the only way possible with an exciting and satisfying resolution that is somewhat open-ended.

Book Details:
Gasp by Lisa McMann
Toronto: SimonPulse    2014
273 pp.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The One by Kiera Cass

The One is the final installment in the Selection series which sees Prince Maxon Schreave finally chose his princess from the remaining four girls, Elise, Kriss, Celeste and America, collectively known as the Elite. This novel has two story lines; the Elite and the final choosing of the princess, and the civil war with the Southern rebels.

Attacks on the palace by the Southern rebels continue while America is now thoroughly in King Clarkson's bad books for her statement on the Report. Maxon tells America that they need to make her the people's favourite.

The Elite share how far they've each gotten with Maxon and discover that all of them are about the same in their relationship status when it comes to physical affections. When Maxon learns of this he is upset at America for triggering such a discussion.

The next day, Maxon and America are summoned to meet to rebels from the Northern camp who are interested in forming an alliance with the King and especially Prince Maxon. They introduce themselves as August Illea, a direct descendent of the ruling Illea family and Georgia Whitaker, his finance. August is a direct descendent of Gregory Illea, his grandfather was Spencer Illea who was thought to have died. Instead, Spencer fled to the north where he had a family. August tells Maxon that they would swear allegiance to him, promise never to attack the palace and do their best to stop the Southern rebels if he will give them some indication that he will allow the people of Illea to determine their own lives. They also tell Maxon that if the Southern rebels win, things will be worse.  August asks Maxon to choose America as his wife because they know from her statement on the Report that she too wants to abolish Illea's caste system. Maxon agrees to an alliance but tells August he cannot arm them and take the risk that they might turn on him.

Gradually the four young women grow closer together as they wait for Maxon to make his choice. Meanwhile Maxon and America's relationship grows increasingly tense; Maxon is waiting for America to tell him she loves him but America feels Maxon should reveal how he feels. Maxon tells America "Because half the time I've been sure you loved someone else and the other half I've doubted you could love me at all,..." America tells him that he should spend more time with the other girls to see if he really does love her .

The rebels begin to step up their attacks by announcing that they will be attacking the castes of the Elites, levels 2, 3, 4 and 5 unless the four remaining girls withdraw from the Selection. The King tells them that guards will be provided for their families. Maxon tells America he wants to find out how bad the death toll is from these attacks. America decides that she will enlist Aspen's help and he manages to arrange for her and Maxon to sneak out of the palace one night and travel to meet August and Georgia. Although they learn that the loss of life for now is low, their mission take a turn for the worse when America is injured in an attack.

The final test the Elites must undergo is The Convicting ceremony where each girl must demonstrate her willingness to submit to the laws of Illea. When America is faced with an impossible situation she finds an innovative solution that angers King Clarkson.

Three days before Christmas, King Clarkson gives America an ultimatum: if she wants to stay she needs to read a message telling the castes to accept their lot in life. This is something America cannot do. All this is put on hold when tragedy strikes.

The One is an entirely predictable story with a disappointingly predictable ending that is likely to thrill many readers. Cass attempts to stave off the inevitable predictable ending with several contrived twists, but events transpire exactly as the reader expects. "The Bachelor" aspect is the strong point of this novel as Cass expertly draws out the romantic tension and personality clashes between Maxon and America. It's a story that focuses exclusively on the relationship between Maxon and America, the girl whose ability to break the rules and do the unexpected rule the entire Selection.

My biggest disappointment was the way the storyline between Aspen and America simply wound down, again to a very predictable conclusion. America told him she would always love him and yet, the glamour and wealth of the palace and Maxon's status simply overwhelmed her and changed her forever.It was all very contrived and unoriginal.

Young readers who want a girl-becomes princess-and-lives-happily-ever-after story will enjoy this series and especially the final novel. As expected, the third book also has an appealing cover of a beautiful woman wearing a deliciously gorgeous wedding gown.

Here's the book trailer from HarperTeen:




Book Details:
The One by Kiera Cass
New York: HarperTeen 2014
323 pp.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier

Cleo Berry lives in Portland Oregon with her brother Jack and his French wife, Lucy. It is September, 1918, and the First World War continues to drag on. Jack and Cleo's parents were killed four months earlier when their carriage ran off the road into a ravine. Jack and Lucy were living in France but returned to Portland to care for Cleo.

The novel opens with Jack and Lucy planning a trip to San Francisco and then onward to Australia. It is mid-September and they have decided that Cleo will board at her school, St. Helen's Hall until Jack and Lucy's return on the third of November. At St. Helen's Hall, Cleo and her classmates, Margaret Kesey, Grace Skinner, Emily Tobias and Anna, have barely settled in when rumours of the Spanish influenza begin to circulate. They have heard that the influenza is raging in Boston and Philadelphia with many people sick. So many people have died in Philadelphia that they have run out of coffins and are burying people in mass graves.

Their worst fears are confirmed though, when Miss Abernathy announces that the school will be closed immediately. A train carrying soldiers arrived at Camp Lewis, from the east and most of those soldiers are sick with influenza. Miss Abernathy reveals that there are now 200 cases of flu in Portland.

Although Cleo receives a telegram from Jack telling her they will be in Portland as soon as arrangements can be made, Cleo decides that she will not wait for her brother to pick her up at the school where she will be under quarantine. Instead, she decides to sneak out of the school and go home.

At home, Cleo is alone, since their housekeeper, Mrs. Foster is away in Hood River. Cleo sees an ad in the local newspaper, the Oregonian, for nurses to help out and women to enlist with the Red Cross. Cleo thinks of her parents and how her mother died when help did not arrive on time and this motivates her to enlist to help with "unattended" cases of influenza, that is those people who take sick but have no one to care for them.

At the Portland Auditorium, which has been made into a temporary hospital, Cleo meets Hannah Flynn, a young nurse who is running the site and who has no qualms about sending Cleo out to canvass the nearby neighbourhoods for sick people.

On her first day, Cleo is sent to South Portland where she rescues a desperately ill mother and her two young children. When she arrives back at the Auditorium she encounters Lieutenant Edmund Parrish, a young man who fought overseas in France and was badly wounded. Edmund has recovered from his wounds and is now a medical student. There are no doctors left as most have gone overseas or are working in the military infirmaries. Cleo also meets seventeen year old Katherine (Kate) Bennett. Cleo is shocked to see how many people are desperately ill and how the influenza kills so quickly. She asks Hannah and Kate if they are afraid and it is Hannah who states, "...these people need help. If not me, then who?"

Edmund Parrish tells Cleo that she doesn't have to help, to place herself at risk. He warns her that the influenza is taking more young people than old and that there is no shame in leaving to keep herself safe. But Cleo does stay.

Jack phones Cleo to tell her that because Lucy is pregnant they have been advised to postpone their travel arrangements for several weeks. Lucy tells him that Mrs. Foster is due back soon and that she has enough money for food and other necessities.

As the medical crisis deepens, Cleo watches as neighbours sicken and die, the hospitals run short of morphine and undertakers of coffins. Although their relationship began with a misunderstanding, Cleo begins to warm to Edmund, whom she discovers is kind-hearted and deeply concerned about her living alone. When Mrs. Foster does not return, Cleo is left wondering how long it will be before she too becomes ill.

A Death-Struck Year is Makiia Lucier's debut novel. Lucier enjoys historical fiction and her love of this genre definitely shows in this finely crafted novel about the influenza pandemic of 1918. She wanted to write a coming of age novel set during the time of the Spanish Influenza and in that regard she has succeeded admirably. Although the subject matter is grim, A Death-Struck Year never overwhelms the reader with that era's bleak atmosphere. Instead, Lucier incorporates plenty of historical details into her story in a manner that will be interesting to young readers. She also manages to imbue her characters with a sense of hope, that eventually life will soon return to normal.

And of course, there is the budding romance between Cleo and Edmund that feels natural even though the world is falling apart between a terrible world war and an influenza pandemic. This relationship, delicate and slowing developing, seems realistic and adds a measure of hope - life goes on even in spite of terrible tragedy and difficult times. Lucier avoids having their budding romance overwhelm the story arc as both Cleo and Edmund have plenty of other difficulties to capture their attention.

Lucier gradually reveals her characters through their actions in the novel; Cleo is brave, quick-thinking, Jack is firm but gentle with his younger sister, while Edmund is intelligent and thoughtful towards Cleo. The author balances these noble characters with the darker side of human nature; those who steal from abandoned homes and shops, spouses who abandoned sick family and those unwilling to help others.

Lucier has done her research on her subject matter and it shows. There are plenty of facts about the 1918 influenza that will inform readers, from its gruesome symptoms and progression, the numbers of dying, to the effects the pandemic had on life in American cities.  The author has included a short historical note on the 1918 pandemic as well as a short booklist.

A Death-Struck Year is an excellent historical fiction novel that I highly recommend. I would love to see a follow-up novel that tells Edmund and Cleo's story fifteen years into the future!

Book Review:
A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt     2014
276pp.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars - Commentary by Father Robert Barron



Father Robert Barron has some interesting comments on the popular book and movie, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

In this first video, Father Barron discusses John Green's novel, The Fault In Our Stars which deals with the lives of two young people suffering from terminal cancer. Father Barron discusses Hazel Grace's nihilistic view of life and how it affects her relationship with Augustus Waters. Please note this video contains spoilers.



The second video focuses on the meaning of the book's title, The Fault In Our Stars, and on the symbolism of the Sacred Heart image on the rug in the cancer support group. Father Barron's website Word On Fire has many other excellent videos relating to culture and faith.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Catch A Falling Star by Kim Culbertson

Catch A Falling Star makes use of a popular trope in young adult literature these days - a down-to-earth, small town girl has an unlikely meeting with a famous teen acting star whom she expects will be insensitive and self-absorbed. Instead, she learns he's just the opposite and they fall in love in what proves to be an impossible to sustain relationship since he will eventually leave town.

Carter Moon's family owns a small cafe, Little Eats, on the main street in Little, California where Carter lives with her mom, dad and her nineteen year old brother John. John is a compulsive gambler who has spent the last three years in and out of support programs without much success.  He is estranged from their parents after stealing from the cafe safe. His gambling has resulted in him becoming indebted to a local small time gangster named T.J. Shay.

Carter likes to hang out with her best friend, Chloe and her boyfriend, Drake Masuda, who goes by the name of Alien Drake due to his interest in aliens and UFO sightings. Alien Drake and Carter go way back as childhood friends who both have an interest in stargazing and astronomy. Drake and Carter also co-author a blog titled Yesterday's Sightings.
  
One afternoon while clearing tables with Chloe, Carter sees Adam Jakes, famous teen actor, entering town where his next movie shoot is to take place. Jakes is in town to film a Christmas movie, A Christmas Cheryl which is to be a modern remake of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Jakes has a bad boy reputation stemming from a recent scandal. involving drugs, a car wreck and a very public break-up with a famous actress, that sent him into rehab.

Things turn strange when Adam Jake's manager, Parker Hill, approaches Carter to be Adam's girlfriend for the weeks he is shooting his movie in Little. Parker wants Adam to spend "some time with a 'small town girl with proper values'", someone who can help repair Adam's tattered image. Parker seems to know a lot about Carter and her family, including the trouble they have had with John, so when she refuses, he lets her know that this offer is for real and will pay handsomely.

Carter decides to take Parker up on his offer and become Adam Jake's fake girlfriend for the several weeks he is shooting in Little. Parker has scripted their entire "relationship" meaning that he has planned when they will have their first public kiss and when and where they will be seen and photographed together as well as when they will break up.

Carter assumes she will be dealing with an entitled, self-absorbed star and at first that seems to be exactly what Adam is- full of himself.  Adam seems more interested in his iPhone but he is impressed when Carter doesn't seem overwhelmed during their first meeting. As they follow the script Parker has laid out for them, Carter attends shoots and gets a taste of the constant publicity that marks Adam's life. Adam begins to thaw towards her, revealing glimpses of the person he really is and even asking her to hang out with him as a friend. Carter in turn lets Adam into her world; Alien Drake and Chloe invite him to come up to the roof and star gaze with them. She opens up to Adam about the problems with her brother John. But soon the pretend relationship that she has crafted with Adam comes crashing up against the reality of what her heart feels; she has fallen hard for Adam Jakes.

As the days pass and Carter is drawn into the job of being Adam's pretend girlfriend, she comes to realize that the photos taken during their time together present a completely false picture to the public - one that suggests she and Adam have a meaningful relationship. This begins to bother Carter and she confronts Adam about this. He tells her that the tabloids do not tell the real story and that much of it is crafted to entertain people. This is what his life is all about - entertainment. But sometimes what you don't feel when you fake it, eventually becomes real. And this is what Carter is beginning to experience.

However, when Parker inadvertently reveals a secret about Adam, Carter decides she's had enough pretending and quits the job of being Adam's fake girlfriend. She wants to acknowledge her feelings, tell her best friends that she has lied to them, and end the fake relationship. In the end neither is certain they understand the other, but they come to an acceptance that this is the reality of their lives.

Culbertson's novel is a fun, contemporary romance that touches on several themes. First is the irony of Adam and Carter's situation. They are creating a fake relationship for public consumption so that Adam's good-boy image will be repaired. However, in reality, their relationship gradually becomes closer to what they are presenting to the public, as both develop real feelings for the other person. Each believes the other doesn't really care but in reality they both really do. Adam proves his care for Carter when trouble surfaces concerning John and a serious threat to his life and Carter's family. His intervention saves them from a lot of trouble.

Secondly, instead of turning this novel into a completely frothy, fluff piece, Culbertson tackles a host of issues concerning coming of age and making decisions in life. It turns out that besides dealing with her growing affection for Adam, Carter is also deeply conflicted over her decision to stop dancing. She was a dancer good enough to secure a scholarship to a school in New York but turned it down when she attended a camp connected with the school. Discouraged by what she was told at the camp, Carter felt that dance was no longer fun and that she did not want to be a part of the ruthlessly competitive world that characterizes professional dance. All Carter wants is to remain in Little and she doesn't understand why she should consider leaving her small town. She is satisfied with small town life, yet everyone tells her that she needs to go out and experience more of the world.

Adam with his much larger experience of the world, makes a case for trying new things and pushing outside of our comfort zone. He tells her that sometimes whatever you are doing in life, whether it's dancing or acting, is not fun, that hard work, disappointment and struggle are part of the equation. He also tells her not to limit herself to one thing in life, and to stop thinking of all or nothing. She can use Little as her anchor while she goes out and explores the world beyond.

Adam is not the only one who helps Carter. Alien Drake who is disappointed in Carter for dating a movie star, reaches out to her through their blog. His posts which appear sporadically through the novel are the best part of this book.


The weakest area of this novel was Culbertson's portrayal of Adam as a top Hollywood star. Adam was unconvincing in this role and the idea behind the movie he was making, although supposedly a mirror of the issues in his own contrived life,  seemed contrived.

Readers will love the happy twist at the end of the novel. A good summer read for those who like this sort of motif. Fans of Jennifer E. Smith's This Is What Happy Looks Like will definitely enjoy Culbertson's similarly themed Catch A Falling Star.

Book Details:
Catch a Falling Star by Kim Culberston
New York: Point and imprint of Scholastic, Inc.    2014
300 pp.

Monday, July 7, 2014

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

"I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard."
If I Stay is about a young girl's difficult decision to either live or die after a catastrophic family tragedy. The novel is narrated by seventeen year old Mia Hall who, in an out of body experience, lies between life and death over a period of twenty four hours. Interspersed with the events happening in the present, is Mia's life story told in flashback form. As time passes, as indicated by the time stamps, Mia draws closer and closer to her critical decision.

Seventeen year old Mia and her family are enjoying a snow day in early February in Oregon. When the storm finishes suddenly, they decide to take a trip to visit her parents' old friends, Henry and Willow and their baby girl. They never make it. Their Buick is struck by a four-ton pickup truck and totally demolished.

When Mia "awakes" she is able to survey the accident scene and she sees her father lying dead on the road, her mother looking white as a ghoul. When Mia is unable to locate her younger brother, Teddy, she goes in search of him. But what she finds is her own body lying badly injured in a ditch near their completely destroyed vehicle. Not in her body but near it, Mia watches as emergency and police arrive on the crash scene and work to stabilize her so they can transport her to hospital. She is rushed by air ambulance to a trauma center where doctors work to save her. Mia watches from outside her body as all this happens. While she is out of her body she thinks back on her life, remembering various milestones and special moments which are told in flashback.

Mia began playing cello at age eight and had her first recital when she was ten. She was so nervous for the recital that she almost didn't perform, but her father encouraged her, explaining that everyone experiences this and has to learn to work through the nerves. When she was in grade nine her father found Mia a professional teacher, Professor Christie, who is a retired professor from the nearby university. Her teacher and others felt Mia was exceptional and that she should audition for Julliard in New York.

Mia's musical talent comes naturally as her father had a rock band for years. But when a second baby came along, her father decided to leave his band and become a teacher, much to the chagrin of his band mates and his best friend, Henry. But Mia's father simply tells Henry that some day he will understand.

Mia has a boyfriend, eighteen year old Adam Wilde who is the lead guitarist and singer in his emo-rock band, Shooting Star. The two met when Adam was in his junior year and Mia was a sophomore. He had been watching her practice in the music room and one day announced to Mia that he had tickets to a Yo Yo Ma concert at Arlene Schnitzer Hall in Portland. After the concert, the two gradually grow closer together, having their difficult moments but eventually falling in love.But as they get older and Adam moves on from high school to a nearby college, there relationship continues because of their mutual love of music. Ironically, music which brought them together, might now be the one thing that pushes them apart as they move into adulthood.

Mia's successful audition at Julliard is certain to lead to an offer of admission and with it the necessary move to New York and away from Adam. Auditioning at Julliard was her dad's mother, Gran's, idea. Mia prepared an audition tape, got her letters of reference together and sent in a recording. She was then invited to audition for a spot at the school and ended up going with her Gramps to San Francisco where the auditions were held. Mia played five pieces for her audition; a Shostakovich concerto, two Bach suites, all Tchaikovsky's Pezzo capriccioso and a movement from Ennio Morricone's The Mission.She was passionate and in the moment and her playing demonstrated this.

But despite this love of music, Mia is conflicted over the possibility of going to New York and what that will mean for her and Adam. Adam feels the same way as his band often has gigs in other cities, meaning he is often away from Mia on weekends. It becomes increasingly difficult to co-ordinate their lives.

Meanwhile in the present, Mia learns she has been badly injured; a collapsed lung, ruptured spleen, unknown internal bleeding and contusions on her brain. Her father's parents, Gran and Gramps are in the waiting room while she has surgery. After they see her, Gramps asks Gran about whether or not Mia can make a choice about living or not. It is at this point that Mia realizes whether she lives or dies is up to her.
"...He had listened to that nurse,too. He got it before I did.
If I stay. If I live. It's up to me.
All this business about medically induced comas is just doctor talk. It's not up to the doctors. It's not up to the absentee angels. It's not even up to God who, if He exists, is nowhere around right now. It's up to me."
Adam doesn't arrive until 7:13pm in the evening but when he tries to see Mia he is told only family is allowed in to see Mia. Devastated, Adam enlists the help of Mia's best friend Kim and later on some of his band members in what turns out to be a futile attempt. But when Willow shows up at the hospital she manages to get Adam in to see Mia. As expected, Adam is devastated when he sees Mia.

Both Gramps and Mia's best friend ,Kim Schein, give Mia permission to die if that is what she wants. But Adam decides he wants to give Mia a reason to live. Will it be enough?

If I Stay is realistic fiction that effectively captures the horror and grief that permeates those left behind after a terrible tragedy and the difficult decision to carry on afterwards. Forman has crafted a novel that explores what it might be like to be lying in a state near death, aware of terrible loss and possibly wondering whether dying is the better choice over living. Mia in her in between state, knows her entire family is dead, her life changed forever. What if she has the choice to live or die? Can she find the courage to live?

Forman makes excellent use of flashbacks to give her readers some sense of Mia's family, her passion for music and to build the relationship between Adam and Mia thus setting the stage for her big decision. Both Adam and Mia are wonderfully realistic characters, opposites who attract. Adam is the emo-rocker whose loud music and mosh pits contrast with the refined world of Mia's classical music. They have a friendship and a common interest in music that leads gradually to a deeper relationship and finally to love.

Passion for music plays a central part of this novel as all the characters are in some way, invested in music and have a passion for music. Forman's portrayal of the classical music world, especially that of a young aspiring musician is accurate and informative. The author also captures some of the struggles that are common to many musicians; overcoming nerves, the hard work required to master an instrument, exhausting auditions and sometimes just wanting to take a break. It is this passion for music and her love for Adam that ultimately will play a significant part in Mia's final decision. Adam gives Mia something we all need, a reason for living and a reason for going on in the face of such heartrending loss.



Forman doesn't give her readers a sense of the loss Mia experiences - even during the accident scene. Mia's loss is muted on purpose due to Mia being neither alive nor dead. Contributing to this inability to feel is her narrative which focuses on what happened in her life prior to the accident. Mia finally experiences the fullness of that loss in the very last pages when Mia through the music Adam plays for her;
"Yo-Yo Ma continues to play, and it's like the piano and cello are being poured into my body...And the memories of my life as it was, and the flashes of it as it might be, are coming so fast and furious....
...somewhere inside of me I am crying, too, because I'm feeling things at last. I'm feeling not just the physical pain, but all that I have lost, and it is profound and catastrophic and will leave a crater in me that nothing will ever fill."

Overall If I Stay was a well-written, engaging novel. Forman has written a sequel to If I Stay which is titled Where She Went which is even better and is written from Adam's point of view.

If I Stay has been brought to the film screen and is scheduled to be released to movie theaters in August, 2014. 



Book Details:
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
New York: Dutton Books     2009
196 pp.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Push Girl by Chelsie Hill and Jessica Love

push girl\noun

1. A fierce, fearless woman who doesn't let life's challenges get in the way of what she wants.
2. Anyone who overcomes adversity with a never say die attitude and sense of humor.
Senior Kara Moore is a dancer who loves to perform. She's been dating the captain of the water polo team, Curt Mitchell for the past eight months. Kara's upcoming senior year is going to be amazing; she has a new set of friends thanks to Curt and among other things, Curt's water polo club has nominated her for Home Coming Queen. Although Kara finds Curt very handsome she doesn't feel like she can be open with him about the difficult things in her life. One of those difficult things is her home life; her parents are constantly fighting.

After Curt picks her up from the dance studio they plan to meet later on in the evening at Rob Chang's home for a party. Being part of Curt's life has meant that Kara now gets invited to parties she otherwise would not ever attend. When Kara arrives home she tells her mother that she is going to a movie with her best friend Amanda, because she knows her mother would never allow her to go to Chang's party. Although Kara tries to take a nap, she overhears her parents having a terrific argument. After her father leaves the house, her mother tells Kara that they are going to get divorced.

Angry and very upset, Kara leaves for the party. When she arrives, she discovers that Curt is more interested in a drinking game than spending time with her. Wishing to talk to him about what's going on with her parents, she waits for Curt to meet her outside. When he doesn't show after twenty minutes of waiting, Kara returns to the house to find him with another girl in his lap and very drunk. At this point Karla decides to leave and drive to Taco Bell to have something to eat. But she never makes it to the restaurant; her car is struck by a drunk driver who runs a red light.

Kara awakes two weeks later in hospital to discover she has a broken back and is paralyzed from the waist down. Most of Karla's friends from high school do not visit her in the hospital. Conspicuously absent is boyfriend Curt. However Amanda and Karla's ex-boyfriend, Jack Matthews, do visit.They offer her support and continue that support and friendship when she returns home and when she begins school again.

When Kara returns to school she has to confront the attitudes of staff and students as well as physical obstacles. Kara finds students view her with a mixture of shock and pity and she finds a school unprepared to integrate a student with a disability into the classroom. Even more difficult, Kara decides to confront Curt Mitchell's over his treatment of her after the accident. She finds Curt to be heartless and insistent that he has broken up with her because of how she reacted at the party. Speechless at his betrayal, Kara is devastated.

However, Kara soon finds that she has lots of support from the two people she was drifting away from prior to her accident; Amanda her best friend and Jack her ex-boyfriend. Jack drives her to school every day and Amanda is always ready to help Kara and support her in any way she can.

Kara struggles to come to terms with being a paraplegic and the loss of her identity as a dancer. She hates the way people look at her with pity, ignore her paralyzed legs like they aren't there, or  A careless remark by her English teacher, Mr. David infuriates and depresses Kara even more and she decides to withdraw from the Homecoming Queen competition.  As the reality of her situation begins to sink in, Kara first strikes out in anger at those closest to her - Amanda and Jack.

As Kara continues to act out at school she finally realizes she needs help to deal with her situation and a change in medications. Despite her outburst to Jack and Amanda, they stick by her.  And Jack comes up with a plan that just might help Kara work through some of her feelings and give her the motivation to get her life on track again.

Push Girl is an inspiring novel that deals with the sensitive subject of disability and coming to terms with a life-altering event. Kara's struggles to find meaning in her life are realistically portrayed.

"But how could I be fulfilled in my life without dancing? It was tied in to the core of who I was, and who I'd been for as long as I could remember knowing myself. Is this how people felt when they lost a loved one? My grandma died when I was younger but she was sick for a long time before that. Ihad time to get used to her passing. This was different. This was the sudden and absolute murder of the one thing that made me who I was. Kara Moore was a dancer.....
Until I wasn't anymore."
Kara realizes that she is mourning the loss of the person she was - Kara Moore - dancer. Her anger is a normal part of the grieving process in any loss. Eventually as she moves through this process, Kara begins to see positive aspects to her life, even though she can no longer dance. Her journey through the sadness and anger lead to her gradually accepting her life and finding more and more moments were she can truly be happy. A larger part of her successful transition to her new life is her boyfriend Jack, who is a complete opposite of the self-absorbed Curt. Although the reader learns later on in the novel Curt's reasons for his terrible treatment of Kara, they merely reinforce his poor character and immaturity. It's no surprise that Curt's new girlfriend, Jenny Roy, is just like him - shallow and mean. In this respect the characters are somewhat cliched and overly typical, but Hill and Love use them to emphasize the difficulty Kara has in fitting back into life in high school.

Push Girl mirrors the experiences of co-author Chelsie Hill. Hill was seventeen years old when she became a T-10 parapalegic as a result of a drunk driving accident. Chelsie had been a competitive dancer before the accident and her world was changed forever. Undaunted by the loss of the use of her legs, Chelsie began speaking around America about what happened to her and how the choices we make can impact those around us. The Walk and Roll Foundation was started by Chelsie and her father to educate teens on distracted driving which now kills more people than drunk driving. Chelsie is also a cast member of the Sundance Channel's reality show, Push Girls and a member of a wheel chair dance team. You can learn more about her at chelsiehill.com

Push Girl is a quick read that will appeal to fans of the Push Girl series and also those who would enjoy a quick read. It's well written and doesn't become bogged down in sentimentality. Kara is a likeable heroine, a strong young woman who doesn't believe she is "inspirational" because she is simply doing what she has to do now that her life has changed.

Book Details:
Push Girl by Chelsie Hill and Jessica Love
New York: Thomas Dunne Books      2014
227 pp.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Don't Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Seventeen year old Samantha Jo Franco is found walking along a rural road leading out of Michaux State Forest after going missing for four days. She doesn't remember her name and is badly scratched and has blood on her jeans. At the hospital, Samantha is told she has dissociative amnesia and that her memories may or may not return.

Samantha meets her parents, Steven and Joanna Franco and learns she has a brother, Scott, as well as a boyfriend, Del. She also learns that she went missing with her best friend, Cassie Winchester, who is still missing. When Sam returns home, she discovers her family is extremely wealthy and that she lives on a huge estate that belongs to her mother's family.

As Sam tries to pick up the pieces of her life she gradually learns that she was not a nice person. The sticker on her door which reads This Bitch Bites is the first hint of who Samantha was before the amnesia. Several days after returning home, a few of Cassie's friends visit her. After their visit she finds a note under her pillow in her bedroom that says "Don't look back. You won't like what you find." Sam has no idea who placed the note in her room and her brother Scott tries to downplay the note, telling her it is just a cruel joke.

When Sam meets Del she feels uncomfortable in his presence. He returns a necklace he gave her and which she left at his place before she went missing.  Del tells her they started dating at the beginning of their freshman year, that their fathers are in business together and that their relationship is expected by both families. However, both Scott and Sam's childhood friend, Carson Ortiz, intensely dislike Del. This makes Samantha wary of Del and not interested in To complicate matters, Samantha finds herself attracted to Carson, who seems not as self-absorbed as Del. But because of Samantha's previous reputation, Carson is wary of her too.

The more Samantha learns about herself, the more she comes to realize that she was a truly mean girl. She wasn't always like this however. Sam changed when Cassie came to Gettysburg, PA. She and Cassie as well as their friends were often mean to many of the students at school. Sam was once good friends with Carson whose father works as a groundskeeper but that changed after Cassie arrived. She often humiliated other girls in the school. Samantha is embarrassed and ashamed of her reputation.

All during this time, Cassie has pieces of flashbacks and continues to receive the mysterious notes. In an effort to recover her memories, Samantha decides to visit Cassie's home, hoping these visits will help trigger the lost memories. However, when Cassie's body is recovered from the lake, Samantha becomes determined to remember what happened that night, even though her remembering might just place her in great danger.

Armentrout successfully keeps her readers guessing as to what exactly happened to Cassie and Samantha and who murdered Cassie Winchester. There are plenty of suspects including Del, Carson, Scott and even parents. Readers may or may not guess the connection between Cassie and Samantha very early on, which might then lead them to uncovering the real murderer well before the climax of the novel.

Despite this, for those who are not completely certain, suspense is maintained in the novel because every time a memory surfaces, another character becomes a potential suspect. It seems many people had a motive for murdering Cassie, who was hated even more than Samantha.

Armentrout does make use of a love triangle to create tension between the various characters; between Carson and Del, and between Samantha and her socialite mother. But free from her past because of her memory loss, Samantha decides to ignore her parents disapproval of Carson and forge ahead with a relationship with him.

Samantha is a likeable character who gets a second chance essentially because she can't remember who she was. Her voice in the novel is very believable as she struggles to come to terms with her memory loss and how she behaved before the incident with Cassie. However, many of the characters in this novel are stereotypical; Del is the self-absorbed rich boyfriend while working-class Carson is the caring, gentle lover. Unfortunately, this novel, like many young adult novels, portrays parents as the villains, more concerned with class status, opinions and almost always self-absorbed. Samantha's father is generally absent (which is out of character with his final actions in the novel), as is her alcohol-imbibing mother who only surfaces whenever Samantha is with the socially unsuitable Carson.

Readers will understand the significance of the cover of Don't Look Back when they read the ending of the novel.


Book Details:
Don't Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout
New York: Hyperion    2014
369 pp.