Sunday, December 27, 2009

Brave New World in YA Fiction Part II

Skinned by Robin Wasserman

Imagine a brave new world where cities are abandoned radioactive ruins inhabited by gangs, where everyone is perfectly engineered IF you have enough credit to select for the traits you want, where people have the latest nip and tuck to keep them looking perfect. Imagine a world where a person in danger of dying, can have their brain sliced, scanned and uploaded into a new body - a mech body.

That's what's happened to Lia Kahn, 16 years old, spoiled, glamorous, rich leader of the pack who was loved and fully alive. A terrible car crash has destroyed Lia's physical body and she awakes to find herself inside a new mechanical body that's indestructible. But Lia's new life comes at a terrible price to herself and her family.

Is Lia a mechanical/digital copy programmed to behave like the human Lia? Or is Lia a human downloaded into in a mechanical body? These are questions the new Lia must try to answer as she struggles to live after "death". Wasserman presents a society of "orgs" fully human people and "mechs" humans who have had their brains downloaded into mechanical, programmed bodies. Faithers are the people who oppose the mechs arguing that they are an abomination and sinful.

Wasserman deals with issues of death, faith, immortality, and what it means to be human. She presents a society where belief in an afterlife, in spending eternity with a higher being has long since passed away, hence the emphasis on living a perfect life in a perfect body and a fear of death which leads to... nothingness.

"Upstairs, I sat on the edge of my bed, alone again. I didn't want to be dead, I knew that. Even living like this...It was living. It was something. I couldn't imagine the other option. I tried, sometimes, lying in bed, thinking about what it would be lie: nothingness. The end. Sometimes I almost caught it, or at least, the edge of it. A nonexistence that stretched on forever, no more of me, no more of anything......."

Lia must decide whether she belongs to the mechs who can think but not feel, who live forever or if her past matters and if forgetting it somehow means she loses her last hold on humanity. Auden, a classmate from her school, and the one human she meets who hasn't been genetically designed, acts as a foil for Lia to explore the questions her new existence presents.

Wasserman leaves alot of unanswered questions. What happened to society in the past that all the "good" people are now living in Corp towns? There are allusions to nuclear war etc but no concrete details. Who are the Faithers and what impact are they having on people's view of mechs? Their leader appears briefly in the book to present his side of the argument against mechs but we don't hear from him again. Who pays for the upkeep of the mechs? Have other mechs been more successfully integrated into society or has society as a whole simply rejected them? Are Lia, Jude, Riley, Ani and the other mech's we meet in Skinned simply teen mechs who have not been integrated into human society? Are they just a bunch of rogue mechs seeking the next high in their attempt to "feel"? These are areas of the book that I believe Wasserman needed to explore and develop more.

If you enjoy reading Skinned, try the next book in what will be a trilogy, Crashed:

Friday, December 18, 2009

Brave New World in YA Fiction Part I

I've recently been on a roll reading Young Adult/Teen fiction that deals with bioethical issues akin to Brave New World; cloning, artificial bodies, genetic manipulation and so forth.
In this post and the next few, I'll begin to discuss a few of the books I've read and list a few others for your perusal.

Double Helix by Nancy Werlin

Although it’s described as a mystery for teens, Double Helix is more a discussion about genetic manipulation and IVF and how children created through the science of genetics might be affected emotionally and psychologically. The author, Nancy Werlin uses the genetic disorder, Huntington’s as the platform for this discussion.

With the opening pages, we get the sense that Eli Samuels is very different from your average teenager.
“And though anyone would find the chairs uncomfortable, they were particularly bad for me. My knees stuck up awkwardly, making the pant legs of my borrowed suit look even shorter than they were. There was nothing I could do about that – my father was only six foot three. His jacket, also, was too tight across the shoulders on me.”

It soon becomes apparent that Eli is physically and intellectually gifted . Werlin highlights just how different Eli is when he partakes in a brief game of pick-up basketball with a few older men in his neighbourhood. But for Eli, there is a sense that there is something about himself that he doesn’t know, something that is possibly, deeply disturbing. Maybe that is why instead of heading off to college as his father expects, Eli shows up at Wyatt Transgenics seeking a job. When Dr. Quincy Wyatt, head of Wyatt Transgenics offers Eli a job, his father’s warning to refuse the offer merely confirms his suspicions that there is some secret to his past. This mystery is further compounded by the fact that Eli’s mother is dying of Huntingtons.

Werlin also explores the impact of Huntingtons on families since this is an inheritable genetic disorder. Eli’s family has been fractured by his mother Ava’s rapid descent into Huntingtons. He and his father are emotionally distant and We see Eli struggle with whether he should get tested and how he emotionally isolates the one person he knows loves him unconditionally, his girlfriend Viv Fadiman.

When Eli meets Kyla Matheson, a beautiful, seemingly perfect young woman, he has no idea just how quickly and drastically his world will change. For Eli, Kyla, is the key to all of his questions.

Werlin does a good job of exploring many ideas and bioethical questions associated with genetic manipulation. Do we, should we trust scientists opinions in difficult scientific matters? Does genetics enforce one’s destiny? Should scientists be allowed to experiment simply because they can? Should we always do something medical because we can without ever considering the social and moral implications of these actions?

Double Helix ends with a brilliantly written final chapter that asks us to look more deeply into the biomedical issues that our society is facing today, and to ask ourselves if, in the interests of trying to eliminate suffering we are in fact, losing our humanity.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Breaking the Silence by Ted Barris

We shall not forget....

Breaking The Silence explores the realities of war from the point of view of soldiers who have been there and experienced the trauma and shock. Most of Barris' book details the experiences of World War II and Korean war veterans in a more personal and unique manner. There are a few interviews with Canadian veterans of the Afghanistan mission. Instead of the sanitized and glorious stories we normally hear from vets, we get the a more in-depth treatment of how their war experiences affected them over the years and what those experiences were actually like.
Barris details his work putting a human face on war and how he has helped younger generations meet up with Canada's war vets in a way that cuts through the ceremony of Remembrance Day. Inviting war vets to come and speak in schools has helped younger Canadians see that these men and women were real people who often had to make difficult decisions under a great deal of stress.
For me the most poignant part of the book was the description by Afghanistan veteran, Jeff Peck of his travel along the Highway of Heroes in 2007 when he accompanied the body of Capt. Dawes to Toronto. Since I don't live in this part of Canada, I've posted a few pictures:

Peck's told about the effect of seeing so many Canadians support the families of these fallen soldiers. In a country with so little national pride, this was heart-warming.
Breaking the Silence is a grim reminder of the cost of war and the price of freedom. Well written with photos of many of the vets Barris had contact with.

Highly recommended for all interested in war veterans and in particular Canadian war veterans.

Book Details:

Breaking the Silence.
Veteran's Untold Stories. From the Great War to Afghanistan. by Ted Barris

Thomas Allen Publishers, 2009


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

World War novels

With the close of November, the month we remember our dead and in a special way, our war dead, I thought I'd review a few books I've read lately.

Age 14 is a searing, heart-rending account of a 12 year old Irish boy who ran away from home to become a soldier, only to find himself thrust into the bloodbath of World War I.

This novel is based on the unsubstantiated story of a Patrick Condon from Waterford, Ireland who possibly swapped names with his older brother, John and joined the Second Battalion Royal Irish Regiment and was mobilized in April 1914 at the age of 13. Spillebeen wrote his novel in 2000 and since then much discussion continues as to the veracity of the John Condon legend. (See Campaign for War Grave Commemorations)

Despite this, Spillebeen effectively captures the naivete of young John Condon who sees war as adventure and thrill. Nothing seems to be able to dampen young Condon's enthusiasm for war, not even meeting a seriously injured and disfigured British soldier, only weeks before he travels to Belgium.

The novel's poignant descriptions makes the reader wonder at the futility of thousands upon thousands of men dying for mere inches of ground. Through Tom Carthy, John's elder companion by 30 years, we are given a sense of forboding for not only these two characters but for all the soldiers going over to France and Belgium to fight "the war to end all wars". He is the foil to John Condon's naivete, youth and feelings of invincibility. We KNOW how it ended.

Carthy also laments the destruction of the beautiful historic towns and cities of Europe, pointing out the incomprehensible loss of heritage when the two soldier's arrive in Ypres and see the "grievous traces of the German artillery".
"Look there-the Bell Tower. God, what destruction. Centuries of history in ruins!"

The climax comes with the German gas attack on Ypres, May 24, 1915. Spillebeen chronicles the German experiments with chlorine gas before the attack and provides historical notes at the end of the novel on Fritz Haber, inventor of the chlorine gas warfare, and unbelievably, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the Haber-Bosch process which allowed for the mass production of ammonia and thus artificial fertilizer.

This book is well written,short, and guaranteed to hold the attention of juvenile and teen readers.

Highly recommended Gr.'s 6 to 12

Second up, is a novel about a young boy from World War II, The Boy Who Dared, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
This book, although a work of historical fiction, tells the story of Helmuth Guddat Hubener who was executed by the Nazi's at the age of 17 for treasonous support of the enemy.
Told in flashback, Bratoletti explores the life of Helmuth who was only eight years old when Hitler came to power in 1933. Helmuth's mother, Mutti divorced his half-brother's Han and Gerhard's father and never married Helmuth's father. His family lives next to his mother's parents. At first Helmuth, like many young boys in Germany, is willing to fight for a Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. He hangs on every word uttered by Hitler all the while being puzzled by his Opa and Oma's fear of Hitler. Helmuth doesn't understand why many of the adults in his life are disagreeing over Hitler's plans for revitalizing a demoralized Germany. Gradually however, as Germany begins to ostracize and terrorize it's Jewish citizens, Helmuth grows more and more uncomfortable,

....But all the things Herr Zeiger says about the Jews feel terribly wrong. Unease crawls over Helmuth.
Herr Zeiger glares at Benno and lowers his pointer, aiming it like a sword. "You see, class, Jews are traitors who want to destroy Germany. And what does the Jew Seligmann say to that?"
This shocks Helmuth. Benno Seligmann and his family, traitors? How can that be?...

Eventually, actions against the Jews increase, with even school children being indoctrinated in anti-Jewish hatred. When Mutti becomes romantically involved with Hugo Hubener, an SS Rottenfuhrer, Helmuth begins to question Nazi policies. Hugo represents the arrogant, hateful Nazis and Helmuth cannot understand what his mother sees in this man. Mutti has told him that people sometimes get on (cope) by being silent. Eventually, Helmuth decides that he can no longer be silent against the Nazi regime, with terrible consequences. In the end we learn just how truly brave Helmuth Hubener really was.

The mood of The boy who dared is dark and suspenseful. The reader knows what the book is leading up to, it is the filling in of the reasons why that matter. The suspense is relieved only by the fact that we know how the war ended and that Helmuth's sacrifice was not in vain. "Helmuth feels something. His chest swells. A warm calmness fills him, and he knows that he has lived a life that stood for something."

The back of the book contains a map of the borders of Europe in 1936, photos of Helmuth and his family, a Third Reich timeline, a bibliography for further reading, and a detailed Author's Note in which we learn what happened to Helmuth's friends and family during and after the war.

Highly recommended for Gr's 5 to 9.

Book details:

Age 14 by Geert Spillebeen
Translated by Terese Edelstein

Houghton Mifflin, 2009

The Boy Who Dared
A novel based on the true story of a Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Scholastic Press, 2008

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jay Asher Interviewed

Barnes and Noble's Steve Bertrand interviews Jay Asher, author of Th1rteen R3asons Why. Some interesting insights into how Asher came to write this novel.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Th1rteen R3easons Why by Jay Asher

Hannah Baker killed herself. When Clay Jensen receives a box of tapes in the mail, he is stunned to hear Hannah's voice on them. Before her death Hannah made tapes covering 13 sides of cassettes because there are "13 sides to every story". Hannah recorded these tapes and has sent them to the people she considers responsible for her suicide. The rules are that each person listens to all the tapes and then passes them onto the next person. If the chain is broken there is a second set of tapes which will be publicly revealed.

Thus begins Jay Asher's unusual novel about teen suicide. The novel opens with Clay Jensen, the ninth person to receive the tapes, mailing the tapes onto the next person. What follows is a narrative in Clay's voice of his experience listening to all the tapes, juxtaposed with Hannah's voice on the tapes - a dual narration.

We see how Hannah fails to cope with situation after situation in her life; failing to make close friends or developing a support system both at home and at school. She pushes people away, when she either has the chance or is offered the chance for help and support. It's a recipe for loneliness and disaster.

There are lots of ideas for teens to consider in this novel, making it a great book for a teen group discussion. Possibilities include to what degree are we responsible for friends; signs that someone is contemplating suicide, what teens can do to help a friend in trouble and so forth.

A sad but thoughtful novel that is sure to engage teens on a difficult subject.

Book Details:

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
New York: Razorbill     2007
288 pp.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

This Is It

This Is It is a must for die-hard Michael Jackson fans, for those who simply liked the music of this amazing musician and songwriter and for anyone who wants to see "The King of Pop" perform one last time. The documentary is a montage of film footage of interviews, auditions and rehearsals for what would have been his 2009 concerts at London's O2 Arena. These were filmed for Michael's later private use and with the permission of the Michael Jackson estate were pieced together to make This Is It.

This Is It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience (in spite of my recovering from a viral illness). I was delighted that Michael's voice, at age 50, was almost as good as I remembered from the 1980's. Jackson spoke constantly during rehearsals about his need to conserve his voice, which he often seemed unable to do perhaps because he got carried away by the music and his need for perfection.

I also thought Jackson's face didn't look as bad as I expected. It was apparent he'd had an immense amount of plastic surgery but he didn't look as strange as some of the pictures I'd seen of him. I was impressed by his respectful attitude towards all the performers whom he treated very professionally. It was also interesting to see MJ's use of modern digital and CGI effects for some of his songs, especially Smooth Criminal and They Don't Care About Us.

There are interviews with dancers, band members including the talented Australian guitarist, Orianthi Panagaris, costumers and trainers.

In the end, I was left with a mixture of feelings; thrilled to have seen what would have eventually been concert performances, sad at Jackson's untimely death, and wondering if he could have redeemed himself if he had been able to perform again.

You can view various clips of the rehearsal footage at the This Is It website.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

After by Amy Efaw

Update February 10, 2011: After contacting the author Amy Efaw in late 2009 via facebook and discussing the error in her book, After, regarding pregnancy, Ms. Efaw assured me that a correction would be made to the paperback edition. I had provided her with a link to a website which details fetal development and information on the fertilization process. Sadly, the paperback edition which my library received does not contain a correction. It does not take a woman SIX WEEKS to become pregnant. I am disappointed that this misinformation was not corrected because many teens will incorrectly believe that at 6 weeks of pregnancy a "fertilized egg" will not yet have implanted. This of course could have consequences in the decisions they may make in situations of unplanned pregnancy.

"Who would leave her own baby in the trash to die", asks the inside cover of After. This gripping novel about dumpster babies, opens with Devon Sky Davenport, model student, and elite soccer player, in crisis on That Morning. Devon has just given birth to a baby whom she has spent the previous nine months denying exists. Devon, always in control, has made it her life mission NOT to be like her mother, who was an unwed mom at age 16. But after a brief sexual encounter with an "older" boy, Devon goes into deep denial and dissociation by rationalizing away her sexual activity, her missed periods, morning sickness and growing abdomen. Until That Morning.

Through the use of flashbacks, Amy Efaw takes us along Devon's path to That Morning when she went from being a star athlete and student to a new mom confronted finally with the reality of IT, the baby whom she just gave birth to and whom she wants dead. The flashbacks occur during the sessions that Devon has with her lawyer, Dominique Barcelona, who acts more like a mental health therapist than legal counsel.

At times, the scenario's Efaw portrays are heartrending - a little girl often left alone and scared while her mother is gone for weekends at a stretch, her mother's steady stream of boyfriends and the frequent moves and jobs. Added to this is the apparent emotional immaturity of Devon's mom and Devon's attempt to meet her mother's needs. Sadly, what Amy Efaw has described here are none too familiar to many children growing up in single parent homes.

These glimpses into Devon's past help us to understand how Devon goes into such deep denial of her sexual activity and her subsequent pregnancy. But with the help of her legal counsel, we gradually see Devon facing up to the fact that she deliberately chose to isolate herself from those who could help her including the boy she was involved with, her mother who faced the exact similar situation 15 years earlier and who for the first time in Devon's life might have been able to be there for her, and her soccer coach who was like a father to her.

Since Efaw's husband was a prosecuting attorney at one time, it would seem that the American justice system as portrayed in After is reasonably accurate. However, there is one glaring error which young readers likely won't pick up on and it's in the realm of biology.

On page 294, Efaw describes an exchange between defense attorney Barcellona and physician Dr. Katial who examined Devon when she was 6 weeks pregnant, ostensibly for a soccer physical. Katial did not know that Devon was pregnant although during the exam he most certainly would have picked up some clues (her enlarged uterus for one thing). Devon had told Katial that she had on a pad because she had her period. Barcellona is questioning Dr. Katial on spotting during pregnancy and Katial replies
"Spotting can occur when the fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall, usually around the sixth week of pregnancy."

This statement is scientifically inaccurate and no doctor with ANY knowledge of fetal development would make it. First of all, there is NO such thing as a "fertilized egg" and secondly, the blastocyst implants around day 5 or so. By day 10 following conception, implantation is complete. By 6 weeks, Devon's baby would have a contracting heart, and developing facial features and arm and leg buds.

It's this kind of inaccuracy that bothers me in books. And to be honest, the entire sentence really never needed to be put in there in the first place since the author's intent was have the lawyer demonstrate that Devon could have been experiencing spotting which she misunderstood to be her period. I considered the possibility that this was a typo but since Efaw returns again and again to the 5 and 6 week stage during this entire page of interaction between the two characters, I think it's simply an error.

Overall, this is a well written and unique novel that will encourage teens to think seriously about sexuality, pregnancy, relationships and about the consequences of actions. The well described plight of Devon and her mother make a strong case for abstinence in the teen years.

Kudos to the unique cover.

After website

Friday, October 2, 2009

Monsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins was born in Kolkata, India and lived in various countries before emigrating to the United States. If you'd like to find out more about her, please do check out her website, Mitali's Fire Escape. Her website has poetry and short fiction contests, webpages about her fiction and about her personal life.

I have read two of Mitali's books, Rickshaw Girl and just recently, Monsoon Summer which I enjoyed immensely. The latter is about an American born East Indian girl named Jasmine "Jazz" Gardner who spends the summer in India. Summer is the monsoon season in India, and that means it's a time of madness and magic.
Jazz's father is American while her mother was an Indian orphan who was adopted by an American couple. Her mother arranges this trip to her native India to help the orphanage she was adopted from and the entire family tags along to help out as well.

But for Jazz, the trip means leaving behind the boy she's fallen in love with - Steve Morales who is also her business partner and best friend from kindergarten. The trouble is, while Jazz has come to acknowledge her feelings for Steve, she is certain Steve does not share feel the same way about her.
This novel deals primarily with Jazz opening her heart up to helping out others as well as opening up to Steve about her love for him. It is Danita, a lovable, warm and realistic character who really helps Jazz the most and who adds so much charm to this novel. Danita helps Jazz reconcile her Indian heritage and learn to feel comfortable with who she is, and who helps her to feel comfortable with her feelings for Steve. She also helps Jazz to step outside her own narrow world. In return, Danita gets a chance to make a better life for herself.
A subplot about her mother learning more about her background and time at the orphanage is never really developed. The book focuses more on Jazz and her long distance relationship with Steve over the summer and her relationship with Danita.

This is a romantic, coming of age novel that will appeal to younger teens, with a side focus on helping others along life's journey and on a first world teen reaching out to third world peers.
Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

FOB DOC by Captain Ray Wiss, M.D.

FOB Doc was not what I expected. I expected a diary filled with medical terms and situations but what I got was much, much more.

Dr. Ray Wiss, an emergency medicine specialist at Sudbury General Hospital, re-enlisted in the Canadian Forces with the intention of helping support the Canadian mission to Afghanistan. He served overseas with Task Force Afghanistan from November 2007 to February 2008. During his time in Afghanistan, he kept his family informed of what he experienced by mailing diary entries to them. This writing helped keep him busy and was also beneficial to his family and friends. When his hometown newspaper wanted to publish part of his diary, he sought the approval of the CF. It was felt that the diary could benefit a wider audience and eventually Wiss found a publisher willing to take his book. Any profits made through the book's sale go to the Military Families Fund.

This is a book that focuses on many aspects of the Canadian mission to Afghanistan rather than on the medical trauma a medical specialist might encounter in the Middle East. Dr. Wiss is totally committed to the Canadian presence in the country and I found his candor a refreshing contrast to the offerings of Canadian mainstream media. He discusses how the Western media is very focused on the body count rather than the major accomplishments Canadian forces have achieved over the years. He writes:
"I mentioned that the media play a lot of attention to us whenever a Canadian is killed. I am conflicted about this. On the one hand, I wan the sacrifice of our fallen to be recognized. On the other, I wish they would do a better job of placing our losses in context. For the media to place so much emphasis on the death and not on the conflict in which it occurred does a real disservice to the Canadian population. This is a war we're involved in. There are going to be casualties. They should be honoured, but they should not be the whole story.
I am most bothered by the way the media make a point of keeping a running total of our deaths but not of our successes.....Why do we almost never hear the statistic that makes those deaths worthwhile: under the Taliban, there were 600,000 students of all kinds (primary, secondary and university) in the country, 2 per cent of them female. Now, there are six million, 20 percent of them female. And why are Taliban atrocities, which routinely kill dozens of civilians, never given more than a passing reference?"
Wiss also discusses combat psychiatry and how the modern Canadian army treats soldiers suffering combat stress reaction. There are entries about how Wiss and CF members react and cope with the constant threat of IED's, the stress of being away from home and army protocol. Wiss's writing is direct and passionate at times.

There are number of interesting features of this book besides the diary itself. First all the members of who died in action during Wiss' time in Afghanistan are remembered and honoured in a photo gallery which is at the end of the book. Many of the faces will be familiar to Canadian readers. This was a very gallant gesture on the part of Wiss and a very necessary one. It put a face on those who gave their lives to help make life better for Afghanistani's.

Secondly, there are lots of relevant colour pictures throughout the book which help to place the diary entries in their proper context including shots of ramp ceremonies, mine-clearing vehicles, living quarters, FOB's and even the local Tim Horton's.

Check out the limited preview from Google books:

Highly recommended.
The following links may also be useful:

Publisher profile of Dr. Ray Wiss

Sudbury Northern Life article

National Review of Medicine 2008 article

Serialized version from the Sudbury Star

Book Details:

Book Details:
FOB DOC A Doctor on the Front Lines in Afghanistan. A war diary. by Captain Ray Wiss, M.D.

Douglas & McIntyre Publishers Inc. 2008

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

When I was in my local public library last week, this book's title caught my eye . I have to preface my review with the fact that I'm enamored with the history of Niagara Falls. This is in part due to the fact that when I was a child, my music teacher, for reasons unknown to me, always had lots of books in her studio on Niagara Falls. The result is that I grew up knowing all about Blondin, Farini, Annie Taylor and the ice jam of 1848. I was thrilled to read about the people who went over the Falls in various contraptions, some of which worked, many of which, did not. Added to this, was my family's yearly visits to Niagara Falls to picnic in a small meadow beneath the huge black water tower - both long since gone. So, little wonder the title alone was enough to push me to pick up the book!

Cathy Marie Buchanan, a native of Niagara Falls, who has the eclectic mix of degrees in biochemistry and business from the University of Western Ontario presents an astonishingly good first offering with The Day the Falls Stood Still.

This historical romance opens with Bess Heath, the protagonist, leaving Loretto Academy at the end of her junior year. Her father, is director of the Niagara Power Company and her family has led a privileged life up to this point. But Bess's life begins to unravel right from the start.

Her father had recommended to all his friends that they invest in aluminum but with the war, the price of aluminum plummets, the smelter fails and many suffer severe financial losses. This leads his boss, Mr. Cruikshank to fire him and his son, Boyce Cruikshank, to call off his engagement to Bess's beautiful, older sister Isabel. Bess's father reacts by drowning his sorrows at the Windsor Hotel while Isabel struggles with depression and some other hidden worry.

When her father does not show up for Bess's final night at Loretto, she and her mother must take a trolley home. Along the way, they are offered help with Bess's trunk by a handsome, young man, Tom Cole, who deftly carries the trunk to Glenview, the family mansion in Silvertown, Niagara Falls.

Bess falls for Tom Cole who we learn is the grandson of Fergus Cole a legendary Niagara Falls figure in the 1800's, known for his fearless rescues and his knowledge of the river. Tom Cole lives at the Windsor Hotel, serving drinks and also works fishing "floaters" out of the river. Not surprisingly, Bess's family are not impressed and her older sister Isabel advises her that "while the Boyce Cruickshanks of the world might be out of the question" she doesn't have to "settle" for a fishmonger.

Despite an attempt to please her family and choose a man they approve of, in the end Bess follows her heart. The second half of the book is therefore devoted to describing her life with Tom Cole and her family's struggles set against the backdrop of life in the early 1900's in Niagara Falls and that of World War I. Buchanan bases the character Tom Cole loosely on William "Red" Hill, Niagara's most famous riverman.

The prose is often elegant, filled with delightful descriptions.
At first blush, Mother's garden seems as immaculate as always. Intricate blooms of columbine nod in midmorning sun. Coneflowers stand erect, their central cores thrust forward, bristling with seeds. But all except the hardiest spires of foxglove and delphinium lay toppled, stalks collapsed under the weight of their own flowers. Peonies droop, their heavy blooms, unsupported by stakes, decaying on the ground. Beneath the garden's canopy of foliage, purslane spreads its weedy tendrils. Fronds of yarrow and tapered blades of crabgrass poke through once orderly beds of hosta and cranesbill.....
Pictures and drawings of the environs of Niagara Falls add to the overall sense of history and understanding of the Falls. Buchanan also drew from the considerable canon of literature on the Falls as evidenced in her acknowledgments at the back of the book.

However, The Day the Falls Stood Still is more than just a historical romance. It is filled with tragedy and sadness. Buchanan writes about Bess's loss of faith in God, the separation of people due to different classes in society, the aftermath of World War I on soldiers, marriages and society, the controversy over the construction of the power dams on the Niagara River and the struggles of ordinary people at the turn of the century to survive personal tragedy. Buchanan's writing also imparts a sense of what life was like for single and married women in Canada during the era of World War I.

Although this book didn't have the ending I longed for, I thoroughly enjoyed this first novel and can't wait to see Cathy Buchanan's next offering.

Book Details:

The Day the Falls Stood Still  by Cathy Marie Buchanan
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd        2008

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Silent In An Evil Time by Jack Batten

Silent in an evil time: The brave war of Edith Cavell by Jack Batten tells the story of Edith Cavell, a British nurse who helped to rescue hundreds of British and French soldiers trapped behind German lines during World War I.

Author Jack Batten accomplishes a great deal in this book, providing historical information on the development of the nursing profession from the late 1800's into the early 1900's, as well as background information on the events and conditions that led to the start of the Great War. In this way, Silent in an evil time is much more than just a biography about a remarkable woman. Young readers will be familiarized with many prominent figures of this era and in the years immediately preceding the early 20th century, including Florence Nightingale and Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

I will leave it to readers to discover the significance of the phrase, "Silent in an evil time" to Edith Cavell. In the end Edith was not only known for her nursing and for her heroic efforts in helping Allied soldiers during the war but also in her belief that "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone."
Batten directs his young readers in an informative and captivating way to this book's sad ending.

Highly recommended for ages 10 to 15.

Book details:

Silent in an evil time: The brave war of Edith Cavell
by Jack Batten

Tundra Books 2007

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Canadian YA Historical fiction

Here's a few Canadian historical fiction I plowed through in the past week:

Bridget's Black 47 by Dorothy Perkyns

A quick read at 157 pp, this YA novel deals with the Irish potato famine and the subsequent Irish immigration to Canada. This book is not an indepth treatment of this period in Canadian history but gives a general idea of what happened in Ireland in the 1840's and how the Irish were forced to immigrate to North America. The story ends on a positive note and is sure to interest readers from Gr.5 to Gr. 9 inclusive.

The way lies north by Jean Rae Baxter.

A great story that held my interest throughout. Centered around Charlotte Hooper whose family are Tories and the effect the Revolutionary War has on their life, this historical fiction is filled with excitement. Forced to flee their home in the Mohawk Valley, Charlotte and her parents begin the long journey to freedom, to Canada. The Way Lies North mixes a bit of romance, tragedy and adventure with historical fact to provide a read that is both engaging and informative. A little lengthy at 340pp for some YA readers. Once Charlotte's family arrives in Canada, the plot slows but soon picks up to the satisfying end that most YA readers will expect.

Highly recommended for ages 12 to 15.

Book details:
Boo Details:
The Way Lies North
by Jean Rae Baxter

Ronsdale Press 2007

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Death Of A Pope by Piers Paul Read

One of several new offerings this year by Catholic publisher, Ignatius Press, The Death of A Pope was a disappointment for me mainly due to the large number of implausibilities in the book.

The book opens with the trial of Fergal O'Brien, Asier Etchevarren and Juan Uriarte who are charged with conspiring to cause an explosion with the intent to take life. All three are on trial over their attempt to obtain Sarin and VX, both nerve gases that have been used in previous terrorist attacks in Japan. Uriarte is acquitted because he claims he intended to use it against the "camels" of the Arab militias in Africa as a deterrant and not with the "intent to take life".

Uriarte, a suave handsome ex-priest who works with a Catholic charity, Misercordia, helping the poorest of the poor in Africa, as a potential terrorist, is the first implausibility in this novel. Although Piers Paul Read gradually develops this character into a manipulative scheming person, the portrayal is at times, not very convincing.

It is during his trial that we are introduced to Kate Ramsey, a journalist, and David Kotovski, a secret British Security Service agent who is posing as a journalist, both of whom are sent to cover the trial. When Ramsey gets sacked by her paper, she decides to freelance and follow up on Uriarte, with whom she soons finds herself entangled romantically.

Ramsey's character is also not so convincing - she seems incredibly naive, especially when we are told how she sees through the immaturity of her previous lover, Barney, but is so obviously blind to Uriarte's flaws and when she is warned about Uriarte by her uncle, Father Luke.

In the meantime, Kotovski believes that Uriarte is in fact plotting some kind of major terrorist action and he races against time to find out what and where this action will go down. It is through this character that we begin to see the pieces of the puzzle fall together. The main backdrop of the remainder of the book now moves to Rome with the approaching death of Pope John Paul II (hence the title of the book)and onto the conclave which elects the new pope.

Uriarte gradually draws Kate into his plans and this is another implausibility. Would a young savvy journalist agree to carry a thermos containing the Nag Hammadi scroll out of Cairo for a man like Uriarte? Would she never check to see that this is what she is in fact carrying? Would she do this, for love, knowing the consequences if she were caught in Cairo? I found myself having difficulty believing that Kate Ramsey would so blindly co-operate with the manipulative Uriarte. Would the love of a charismatic, but somewhat suspect man, draw a woman into such complicity, especially after she learns details about Uriarte which should make her think twice?

In the end the disastrous plot is averted, though few of the characters really know the full details. It seems almost by chance that this happens, although the character least likely to affect the outcome does so, again, without really knowing what he's doing!

Ried's book is a short, fast-paced read that will appeal to those with a good handle on Catholic teaching and theology and who don't mind overlooking a few problematic aspects. Overall an enjoyable read.

You can preview the book below:

Book Details:

The Death of A Pope
Piers Paul Read

Ignatius Press 2009

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

I could hardly wait to get my hands on this book and in some respects I wasn’t disappointed and in other ways I was. Mix a good story with a bioethics plot and generally you’ve got me hooked.
Holmqvist’s dsytopia involves a society where single men (60 +) and women 50 (+) must report to The Unit, also known as the Biological Materials Unit. They live there, in relative luxury, making body-part donations and undergoing experimentation, until they make the final donation.

We follow 50 year old, Dorrit Weber as she enters the unit. A writer who followed her mother’s advice and put career first ahead of marriage and family, Dorrit finds society at 50, very different from the one her mother grew up in. Utilitarian ethics now dominate the way society functions and a person’s worth is determined by who needs them. And Dorrit has no one who needs her: she is as independent as her mother recommended thus the dreadful situation we now find her entering.

Along the way, we do get some sense of what life is like for people in the unit as we meet people who have made “donations” and people who have suffered through experiments. But, Holmqvist always seems subdued in her descriptions of how characters behave, what they have endured and what they are feeling and this was frustrating. The portrayal of the suffering, the personal tragedy and even the camaraderie never quite matches the intensity of the situation.

As an example, Dorrit had an abortion when she was in her late teens. Of course, the reader immediately realizes that if Dorritt had kept her baby she would not be in the Biological Reserve Bank Unit because she would be an “indispensable” person, having had a child who needs her. How Dorrit feels about this was only superficially explored.

I wanted to feel an empathy or even antipathy for the characters in their various situations but Holmqvist didn’t take me there. Perhaps, Holmqvist leaves much unsaid so the reader can consider for themselves the implications of a society like this. Nevertheless, the book was somewhat unsatisfying for me and therefore, unconvincing.

Holmqvist's book could have provided a fascinating examination into a world that we already share many characteristics with in terms of ethics. The trend towards utilitarian ethics in our society already matches the changes society in Dorrit's world during her stay in the Unit. In this regard, The Unit is creepy, relevant and left me queasy.

Recommended for adults. Mature sexual content.

Book Details:

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
English translation published by Other Press, 2009
272 pp

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Soldier's Secret

The soldier’s secret: the story of Deborah Sampson by Sheila Klass is a historical novel based on the true story of Deborah Sampson. The time is 1776 and Sampson enrolls in the Continental Army to fight the British. The opening chapter is riveting, with Sampson under the name of Robert Shurtliff, in an army hospital and taken for dead.

Although very much not dead, Sampson must pretend to be so because to be discovered a woman, would be as good as dead. Her secret however, is discovered by army doctor who removes Shurtliff from the hospital and cares for her. At his request, she writes her story, telling about her difficult childhood and her motives behind deciding to serve in the army. Along the way there is a tender love story and a bit of tragedy too that will pull young readers in.

Two major reasons I enjoyed this book were the beginning chapter: Klass’s hook is excellent, drawing the reader into what promises to be a fascinating story and that promise is fulfilled. The book begins in the present and then proceeds to fill in the history.

Secondly, the book is a quick read, not drawn out and therefore likely to interest young adult readers.

Highly recommended for ages 12 and up.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

I"m not really sure just what to say about this one! If you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, then Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is the newest mashup for you! This book trailer is well done and better than P&P& Zombies.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The case of the missing servant

Vish Puri (also known as Chubby) is the Punjabi equivalent of Hercule Poirot. Described as stout (he needs to lose thirty pounds) and a “self-confessed master of disguise” with a military moustache waxed and curled at the ends, Puri runs a thriving private investigation business in New Delhi, India.

Puri, who has a penchant for scorching hot chilies, has nicknames for most of his employees (Tubelight, Facecream and Handbrake). His devoted wife Rumpi and his mother, Mummy-Ji are delightfully real life characters.

Ajay Kasliwal retains Puri to investigate the disappearance of his servant, Mary. Kasliwal is a lawyer residing in Jaipur and Mary’s disappearance has everyone talking. Puri’s task is to locate one missing female maidservant out of India’s population of one billion.

Alternating between Puri’s investigation into Mary’s whereabouts and his “Pre-Matrimonial Five Star Comprehensive Service” investigation into Ramesh Goel, the potential husband of Vimi Singla, Hall weaves an engaging delightful story. The story leads inevitably to its final climax with the solving of both investigations and the promise of more Vishi Puri cases in the future as hinted by the secondary plot involving an unsolved attempt on Puri’s life.

Hall’s dialogue is both humorous and rich with Punjabi influences and his descriptions of life and people are vivid as Puri travels from various locales in New Delhi to Jaipur, the Pink city and to the remote uranium mines of Jharkhand.
Horns blared constantly, a clamour as jarring as a primary school brass band. Loudest of all were the Blueline buses. Driven by charas-smoking maniacs who were given financial incentives for picking up the most passengers, even if they ended up killing or maiming some of them. ‘Bloody goondas,’ Puri called them.

This is a mystery with a different flavor and will definitely appeal to those who like a light read that includes an exotic cultural flavour. To aid in the latter, The case of the missing servant has a glossary at the back for the many punjabi words used throughout the book.

Book Details:

The case of the missing servant by Tarquin Hall.
Meet Vish Puri, Most Private Investigator.

Sacred Cow Media 2009
312 pp

Friday, June 12, 2009

War Brides by Melynda Jarratt

War Brides. The stories of the women who left everything behind to follow the men they loved by Melynda Jarratt provides younger women like myself wonderful insight into exactly what it was like to leave everything familiar and come to another country - all for love.

When Canada joined Britain in its declaration of war against Germany on 10 September 1939, the last thing on anybody's mind was marriage.
But less than forty days after the First Canadian Infantry Division landed at Greenock, Scotland, on 17 December 1939, the first marriage between a British woman and a Canadian soldier took place at the Farnborough Church in Aldershot on 28 January 1940. That marriage, and the nearly 48,000 which followed over the course of the next six years, formed one of the most unusual immigrant waves to hit Canada's shores: all women, mostly British, and all from the same age group, the story of the Canadian War Brides of the Second World War is one worth telling.

While the book which is mostly the stories of many war brides who settled in different regions of Canada, such as Ontario, the Maritimes and so forth, there are also chapters which focus on specific aspects of the war brides. There is a chapter devoted to the unique issues of faith and language differences war brides of French Canadians encountered. Jarratt also has a chapter of the stories of the war widows of Canadian soldiers, and on war fiancees - that is, women who were not yet married to their Canadian soldiers when they arrived in Canada.

What I hadn't anticipated is the fact that many of these stories are a testament to the resourcefulness, resilience and courage of war brides, many of whom were not accepted by their husband's families and communities and many who struggled mightily with the huge cultural differences they encountered when they arrived in Canada. Many British war brides came from communities that had running water and inside toilets and arrived in Canada to find living conditions, particularly in rural areas, very primitive at best. Some found the isolation to be overwhelming.

There are many stories of women who came to Canada and never looked back. Though these women were homesick at times, they were warmly welcomed and had happy productive lives and long happy marriages.

War Brides has an extensive bibliography with listing of primary and secondary sources as well as various summary tables on marriages and births for Canadian servicemen serving outside Canada during WWII. There are photographs of the war brides and maps.

Highly recommended. An informative read.

Book Details:
War Brides. The stories of the women who left everything behind to follow the men they loved.
By Melynda Jarratt

Tempus Publishing Limited 2007

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fashion, fashion, fashion

Thought I'd post something a little different on here. A little something to get me into thoughts of spring!

Ever wonder what clothes you should wear for your body type? Ever wonder what basics you need for a good wardrobe? Have you ever gone shopping for a day only to leave the mall after an hour thinking "hopeless". Well Clinton Kelly and Stacy London from TLC's "What Not to Wear" have put together the definitive guide, Dress Your Best, to help you achieve this end.

The book's dedication reads "This book is dedicated to anyone who has ever looked into a full-length mirror and thought, "It's hopeless." It's not! We promise. "

And to that promise they definitely live up to. There are chapters for both men and women. What really appealed to me was the books organization: it is divided into chapters based on body type. Each body grouping has three categories, petite, average height and tall. Some examples of the body types listed in this book include "Bigger on top", "A little extra in the middle" and "Not curvy".

For each type there is a picture of a woman in a black body suit who represents that specific body type. This allows you to determine if you really do fit into the body type you think you might be. Then Stacy and Clinton work their magic and give tips on what works best for that body type, how to play up certain good features (yes, we all have a few of them) and how to disguise other "problem" areas.
For men, the body types are more simple with such categories as "Short", "Average", "Barrel-chested" etc.
This is a great book for those who might need to re-evaluate their dress code for work or a serious round of job-hunting. For the rest of us, it just might help us buy less and shop more efficiently.

The second book I found very useful is "InStyle. instant style. Your Season-By-Season Guide for Work and Weekend"

This book has lots of tips on how to build a wardrobe with basics and looks a fall/winter and spring/summer fashions. For example, the Fall/Winter Wardrobe chapter explains how to use one suit , four ways. There are plenty of pictures of actual pieces and what to pair them with. Even though this book was published in 2006, it's advice is still up-to-date.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Germania by John Wilson

I've just discovered Canadian writer John Wilson and I must say that like what I've found! According to the book's jacket, Wilson, a self-described ex-geologist (like moi!) and frustrated historian writes primarily YA historical fiction - fourteen to date. He's also written hundreds of freelance articles, a book about the geology of Canada, Dancing Elephants and Floating Continents and a novel for adults entitled North with Franklin.

I haven't had a chance to read his other books but I thoroughly enjoyed Germania, a novel about a Roman legion ambushed and slaughtered in the wilds of Germania. And if they are half a good as Germania, young teens who enjoy historical fiction will have much to look forward to.

The story is told by Lucius Quintus Claudianus, a member of the 19th Legion Scorpio, specifically the IXth cohort.

Wilson's writing is exceptionally good, and Germania has several qualities that make it a great read for YA's. For example, in the opening chapter of Germania we find Lucius, nearing 100 years of age and living at his sister's grandson's villa just by the northwestern gate of the town of Herculaneum in 79 AD - the year of Mount Vesuvius' famous eruption which destroyed both Herculaneum and Pompeii. Lucius decides to write his story because he as he writes,
"I have just returned from the roof and it is what I saw there that has prompted me to begin this tale. Although the sun still shines above and the sky to the west is as blue as a robin's egg, the picture is altogether different to the east. There a cloud hangs, turning the landscape below it as dark as midnight. It is no ordinary cloud, such as presages a thunderstorm, but an unnatural one that blossoms up in a vast column from the unknown depths of the mountain."
And so Lucius begins to tell us about the events that led up to a long forgotten tragedy, all the while unaware of the disaster about to unfold before him in Herculaneum. As a young apprentice signifer to the IXth Cohort, Lucius and a group of warriors are ambushed and captured by barbarians while on their way to Vetera to join the 19th Legion. They are quickly rescued by Cherusci warriors who are loyal to Rome and are part of the Roman Auxilliary forces. It is at this time that Lucius meets Freya, a Cherusci warrior who is travelling with her uncle Arminius. It is through Freya that Lucius begins to understand what life is like for the barbarian tribes that live on the borders of the Roman territory and what it is like to serve Rome but never be accepted as a an equal in Roman society. When Lucius offers Roman ways as a means to be civilized, Freya questions what being civilized will mean to her way of life and her tribe. It is this struggle to see the benefits Rome offers in contrast to the loss of a way of life and freedom that precipitates barbarian rebellion against Rome.

When the 19th Legion enters Illyria, Bato, leader of the Bruesci tribe rebels and attempts to force the Romans out of Illyria. The ensuing battle is described vividly and provides thrilling insight to Roman warfare. Although Bato is seemingly defeated this time, Freya soon comes to understand what her uncle Arminius is planning. When Arminius must choose between Rome and Cherusci, Freya must decide who she will be loyal to, Arminius, the Cherusci and their way of life or Lucius and Rome.

Wilson's writing is vivid, exciting and he manages to include a great deal of historical fact and information about Roman legions in Germania. The ending while tragic is supremely satisfying. Highly recommended.

Book details:

by John Wilson

Key Porter Books Limited 2008