Sunday, December 19, 2010

Search and Destroy by Dean Hughes

Rick Ward has just graduated from Milliken High School in Long Beach, CA - Class of '69. He has no set plans. He hasn't applied to college like his girlfriend Judy who will be heading to Cal, Berkley in the fall. He thinks he's like to be a writer but he doesn't have much to write about at this point in his life.
He's on the cusp of adulthood; life is changing and his relationship with Judy is changing too. Judy looks more like a hippie now in bell bottom jeans and peace beads. Rick still wants to hang and have fun.

Rick is curious about experiencing war and with the ongoing Vietnam War this might be his chance. He hopes some life experience will give him something more substantial to write about and what could be better experience than that of war. He's filled with self-doubt though.

When he quits his job and gets thrown out of the house by his abusive dad, Rick impulsively decides to enlist. He decides he wants in to Special Forces - a goal he ends up achieving. But both Vietnam and war is not what he ever thought it would be. The stifling heat and sheer terror of each recon mission is almost more than Rick can handle.

Assigned to Charlie Rangers near Phan Thiet, Rick is befriended by Kent Richards, a young Mormon draftee whose gentle demeanor and maturity provide Rick with an anchor. Kent is the male role model Rick lacked in his father. Both men suffer devastating wounds but despite this it is Kent who helps Rick put his life back together.

Author Dean Hughes read numerous books on war, the Vietnam conflict and also reconnaissance units and this is quite evident throughout. Search and Destroy accurately portrays the realities of war and the dehumanizing element for soldiers from both Vietnam and the US as well as the Vietnamese people. The book brought back memories of watching the nightly newscasts on American TV and the fear it brought into my life (since I was too young to understand fully what I was watching).

Hughes also effectively relates the disconnect that existed at the time (early '70's) between the peaceniks in the US and the Vietnam veterans who returned home after fighting in the conflict. The idea that the veterans of this war were heroes was a preposterous one to the average civilian like Ricks girlfriend Judy. Thankfully, it no longer remains so.

Short and to the point, well written and a great read for teen guys.

Book Details:

Search and Destroy by Dean Hughes
Simon Pulse 2005
216pp

Thursday, December 16, 2010

OH NO She Didn't by Clinton Kelly

Straight-shooting Clinton Kelly, cohost of the American version of What Not To Wear (officially my favourite TV show of all time!), sets out to rid America (and the Western world) of the worst 100 fashion faux pas' imaginable. In his book, OH NO, She didn't, Clinton takes on (among other things)
  • tattoos and evening wear - they don't mix
  • gnarly feet (hide them)
  • tracksuits (forget them unless you're in the mob)
  • hairy legs under hose (ewwwww)
Clinton is irreverent, funny and desperate to eliminate these and much, much more! He's also quite insightful:

"Animal print wearers, based on my vast experience, have strong opinions, enjoy their feminity and usually like to have a good time." 


This certainly applies to the one person I know who wears alot of animal prints. She even went skinny dipping which is quite risque for my crowd.....

Although Clinton's attack is hiliarious he really does believe that all women can and should dress properly. Most of the mistakes here are simply from a lack of common sense.


A great book, with great fashion tips and lots of sage advice!


Book Details:
OH NO She Didn't, The Top 100 Style Mistakes Women Make and How To Avoid Them by Clinton Kelly
New York: Gallery Books  2010
202pp.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

you are not here by Samantha Schutz

you are not here is a wonderfully written exploration of a young woman attempting to make sense of her life and her brief relationship with a young man who suddenly dies.

AnnaLeah and Brian's relationship was a clandestine one - neither of their families knew about it. AnnaLeah's friends were not supportive of her relationship with Brian, telling her to find someone else. But when Brian dies suddenly, AnnaLeah finds that she has no outlet for her grief and because the relationship was secret, she cannot grieve publicly. She has no one to share her grief and loss with. So AnnaLeah takes to visiting Brian's grave regularly.
As AnnaLeah withdraws more and more, her friends who are concerned, give her a book about grief and encourage her to reach out. This combined with a few choice words of wisdom from Brian's grandmother who tells her at Brian's gravesite that "Nothing grows here besides grass." help AnnaLeah to free up some of space in her heart for the rest of her life.
New information about Brian also helps AnnaLeah to revisit the nature of their relationship and to see it in a more realistic way. And a new blossoming relationship with Ethan at her new job help to convince AnnaLeah that she must move on.

Samantha Schutz's free verse is elegant, poignant and on the mark. Excellent and considering the subject matter, a great read. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and loved the poetry. Beautiful!

There are spaces in my heart
that are being filled
by what could have been with Brian,
and the stories
about my father and the Dearly Departed.
I think I need to free up some of the space
for the people in my life
that are actually here.
I need to not keep that space reserved
for people who are never coming.


Book Details:
you are not here by Samantha Schutz

New York: PUSH 2010
292 pp.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Girl, Stolen by April Henry

Lying in the back seat, Cheyenne is sick and waiting for her stepmother to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. Her stepmom has left the car keys in case she gets cold. Covered up with a blanket, Cheyenne hears someone enter the car and start it up, racing out of the parking lot. From the way the person is driving she knows this is not her stepmom. Who is this person and what is happening? Cheyenne doesn't know because she's blind.
Griffin is a young man a few years older than Cheyenne. He lives with his dad Roy who runs a chop shop. Griffin's mom use to be around until he was seriously burned in an accident when she mysteriously left to go live with her family. When Griffin sees the Cadillac Escalade SUV with the keys in, he knows he just has to take it. He wasn't there to steal cars, only Christmas packages from the cars at the mall. How could he be so stupid not "to see past the keys dangling in the ignition." Now he has a bigger problem on his hands - a blind girl in the backseat. He can't just let her go. The cops will find him too quickly.
So Griffin takes her back to his dad's house and shop. Griffin wants to let Cheyenne go, but when his father learns that she is Cheyenne Wilder, the daughter of the president of Nike, he is determined to ransom millions from him.

But things turn ugly quickly and both Griffin and Cheyenne must make difficult choices. Will Griffin help Cheyenne escape? Can Cheyenne trust Griffin to protect her from Roy and his men?

April Henry's book is another twist on the kidnapped girl theme that is currently very popular in YA fiction. It follows books like Stolen (Lucy Christopher), Living Dead Girl (Elizabeth Scott) and The missing girl (Norma Fox Mazer).

In Henry's tale, there is the added tension of not knowing just where Griffin's loyalties lie. Griffin is portrayed as a basically good kid caught in bad circumstances. He is a thief but Henry shows us that he does have some redeeming qualities. He seems to want to do the right thing but is terrified of his father. He develops a growing attraction to Cheyenne whose helplessness and illness seems to bring out the protector instinct in Griffin. When Griffin gradually comes to the realization of what his father is planning to do, he realizes the situation has escalated far beyond auto theft.

The twist at the end seems highly implausible. But Henry leaves it open to the reader's interpretation. Told from both Cheyenne and Griffins perspective, Girl Stolen is an enjoyable, suspenseful read!

Book Details:
Girl, Stolen. A novel by April Henry
New York: Henry Holt & Company 2010
213 pp

Girl, Stolen

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The year of finding memory by Judy Fong Bates

Synopsis:
Judy Fong Bates came to Canada with her mother in 1955, reuniting with her father who had lived in Canada on and off since 1914. Her father ran a hand laundry business in small-town Ontario.
In 2006, after both her parents were dead, Fong Bates returned to China with 12 other relatives and more than thirty pieces of luggage in what she thought would be a kind of tourist trip to see her parents ancestral villages and to learn more about her family history. She was also interested in learning more about her parents and why they were so unhappy in their marriage. What led these two very different people to marry in the first place. What WAS their story?
What Judy Fong Bates discovered offered a very different picture of her parents lives. She was able to fill in many blanks and to uncover some shocking truths about her mother.

I wanted to enjoy this memoir but I felt in some ways it didn't meet up with my expectations.

First off, I found the number of family characters simply overwhelming. It was hard to keep track of who belonged to whom despite the list of family at the beginning of the novel. Perhaps a family tree would have been beneficial. After finishing the book I felt that I didn't know any of the authors family, including herself and her husband, any better than when I started. The lone exception was the mother to some degree. None of Fong-Bates family are portrayed with any depth, including her husband whom she seems to adore. I also didn't know she had two daughters until well into the book.

Fong-Bates mother married at age 16 to a handsome but "very no-good man" who had a serious addiction to opium and was abusive. She left him and went to live with her brother. Eventually in 1930, her mother was hired by her father to teach in his village of Ning Kai Lee. After many years, and a very convoluted life in which circumstances worked against her, her mother married her father who was much older and was living most of the time in Canada working as a launderer. They soon had a daughter, Judy. When she and her mother joined her father in Canada in 1955, life was difficult and her parents fought a great deal of the time. Judy was often caught in the middle. This made her wonder why they had married in the first place and whether they had ever loved one another.Thus the trips to China.

Through meeting her many relatives in China Fong-Bates was able to piece together her mother's life and why she entered into this marriage. Unfortunately, we know little of her father's story, which also would have been interesting since he came to Canada in 1914 and was, at the end of his life, a broken man who eventually committed suicide.

The story that emerged was one of thwarted dreams and of two people who were victims of circumstances and events well beyond their control. There is great tragedy in both lives. The sense of tragedy comes out in The year of finding memory but at times gets lost in the telling. This is because the revelations are mixed in with a sort of touristy account of visits to various relevant areas of China, intermingled with conversations of relatives, Fong-Bates life in Canada, and her mother's life. It made the storyline of what is primarily her mother's life very difficult to follow. In fact, I found at times I had to go back a reread portions of the story to help me fit in the new information as it was revealed. Still, there are some parts of the book that are particularly heart-rending; the account of Fong-Bates father's suicide is one such portion.

Another difficulty is the author assuming that readers will know their early 20th century history of China. To this end, a prologue perhaps outlining this period would have been most helpful for setting the background. As an example, I am sure there will be some readers asking who are the Kuomintang?

The map at the front of the book was bland and too small to be useful. The book could have been significantly enhanced by larger photos of family members as well as pictures of her parents ancestral villages, the homes, rice fields and even some photos of family members they encountered on their two trips to China. After all, we got a verbal account of this part of the whole discovery process so why not enhance it visually?

All in all, this was an average book done in the form of storytelling that I felt could have been truly exceptional if done in a different manner. I still plan to read her "Midnight at the Dragon Cafe".

Book Details:

The year of finding memory by Judy Fong Bates
Random House Canada 2010
296pp

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Movies in the works......

There are lots of new and what I hope will be exciting movies in the next few months.

First off Jane Eyre is being remade (again) but this version looks equally interesting with Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre and Michael Fassbender cast as Mr. Rochester. The film is due in theatres in March 11, 2011.

Check out the trailer:




The other movie I'm very interested in is The Eagle which is another book to movie adaptation. This time the book is Rosemary Sutcliff's historical fiction classic, Eagle of the Ninth. If you haven't read the book (and you should have!) do so before seeing the movie which is due out in February, 2011. Director Kevin Macdonald has tried to ensure the film is historically accurate. Channing Tatum has been cast as Marcus Aquila.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Amy By Any Other Name by Maureen Garvie

Amy By Any Other Name is a kind of redo of "Freaky Friday" that doesn't end quite so happily.
Two teen girls have accidents on the same day in May; 15 year old Goth girl Krystal Maria Marques steps in front of a car in downtown Toronto while 16 year old wealthy over-achiever Amy Wexford dives off a cliff in a quarry hitting a rock. Both girls begin to die and when they are brought back to life at the same hospital in Toronto, their out of body souls collide and they end up switching bodies. This soul switch leads to some serious identity crises for both girls, which in my opinion is somewhat glossed over in the novel. I would think anyone undergoing this experience would have some serious emotional and mental health issues. Instead, Amy seems to approach the entire situation with a maturity that seems almost super-human.

Despite this, I thought  Amy By Any Other Name was well written and fascinating. The story is told from the point of view of Amy inside Krystal's body. Amy and Krystal are complete opposites both in body type, looks and likes. Although both girls have been seriously injured, Krystal's body has suffered the more severe injuries. Amy not only has to cope with being in a different body that's injured but also with being in a body that is completely unsuited to the life she led as Amy. Amy essentially has to remake Krystal's body to fit the person she was in her own body. But she also now has Krystal's life, which was not going well and which was not a privileged as Amy's former life. Amy tells a few people whom she thinks she might be able to trust, what has happened to her. These people do not really believe her because the whole idea is preposterous.
We eventually learn how Krystal is coping with being in Amy's body and adapting to Amy's life when the two meet later on. Although Krystal gets the better deal, in some ways her life is just as much a struggle as Amy's is.
Amy is determined to recover her body and sets out with a plan and the same sort of determination she had when she was Amy the elite rower and top student. But will her plan succeed or will she be forever trapped in a body that is not hers? Either way, she and Krystal will face many challenges.

This story has us consider what defines us. Are we just our souls, thoughts, feelings and experiences? Do our bodies matter? Can we really exist in another body? What Garvie wants us to consider is both disturbing and unique.

A well crafted book suited to teens and adults.

Book Details:
Amy By Any Other Name by Maureen Garvie
Key Porter Books
256pp.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tangled

I went to see Tangled on Friday night and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Generally I'm not a big fan of Disney movies and especially their fairytale animations. I saw the Frog Princess in the summer and thought it was terrible. The two lead characters were frogs for most of the movie. Not exactly exciting to watch. I also wasn't keen on the use of voodoo in the movie which my younger daughter thought was creepy.
Tangled was in a different class all together. Tangled is the title Disney gave to it's animated version of the fairytale, Rapunzel. Although initially the studio focused on the female character, Rapunzel, it was decided to redo the movie from the point of view of the prince. The story begins with the king and queen of a country having a baby. When the queen has difficulty during the birth, the citizens of the kingdom scour the countryside looking for a rare healing flower. Once found, the queen is given the essence of the flower to help her recover. A baby girl, Rapunzel is soon born. However, that flower had been hidden for years and used by an old witch to remain young. Now that the flower is gone she decides to kidnap Rapunzel who retains the flower's power to heal and restore youth. Rapunzel is imprisoned in a tower hidden deep within the forest. The story picks up when Rapunzel is 18 years old.

Along comes Flynn Rider, not a prince but a thief on the run after stealing the princess's crown and who escapes into the forest to hide. He finds Rapunzel in the tower. This "prince" however is NOT interested in rescuing Rapunzel and she must convince him to help her escape so that she can see the special lanterns that float into the sky every year on her birthday.
What follows is a series of exciting adventures leading to Rapunzel eventually reuniting with her royal parents.

In many ways, Flynn Rider is typical of many modern young men - self-absorbed, immature, uncommitted and interested in only saving himself. But Rapunzel is not to be put off. She is a take-charge kind of girl whose virtues of loyalty, purity and honesty gradually rub off on Flynn. For Rapunzel the decision to leave the tower is a difficult one because she is torn between being an obedient daughter and doing what she so desperately wants – to be a grown up making her own decisions in life.

Gradually Flynn Rider changes and becomes a “knight in shining armor” in part due to Rapunzel’s influence on him. She is the classic young woman of virtue and beauty who redeems a man. In the end, there is a "happily ever-after"!

This movie was excellent because it had an interesting plot, absolutely incredible animation, excellent singing, and some great characters. The horse, Maximus, stole the show in this movie. He was hilarious and most of the adults in the theatre seemed to enjoy this character the most. The medieval bar characters are also well done.

The animation is beyond belief especially well done when combined with the 3D. The lantern scene has to be one of the best to date.

Enjoy the trailer and then go see Tangled!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

The much awaited second book in Westerfeld's WWI steampunk trilogy, Behemoth was exciting but at times, confusing.
Like the first book, it was jam-packed with action, racing from one exciting adventure to the next. While this kept me as a reader engaged, at times it was confusing to follow and difficult to see just where Westerfeld was going with the plot.

The book opens with the Leviathan encountering two German warships and almost being destroyed by a Tesla cannon - a type of electrical weapon whose purpose is to ignite the hydrogen warships that Britain flies, thus destroying them.

Eventually the Leviathan reaches its destination of Constantinople, Turkey where Dr. Barlow has a secret mission to the Sultan. At this time, Alek, Volger, Klopp, Hoffman and Bauer attempt to escape the Leviathan as they come to realize that they are now in fact, prisoners of war. Alek, Klopp and Bauer are successful but instead of going into hiding, Alek becomes involved in with the revolutionary Committee of Union and Progress to overthrow the Sultan. While in Instanbul they come to realize that the Germans have managed to bring the Sultan to their side and have heavily mechanized the city.  The Germans are also constructing a enormous Tesla cannon above the city. The Germans wish to block the supply lines to Russia, thus starving the army and preventing them from aiding the British in the war. To accomplish this they want to close the Dardanelles.
To prevent this from happening, Deryn (as midshipman Dylan Sharp) is sent on a secret mission to open up the Dardanelles Strait so the Leviathan can lead the Behemoth in to destroy the German warships and thus keep The Straits open. Deryn's attraction to Alek, leads her back to Istanbul to try to locate and help him. She too is eventually drawn into helping Alek and the revolutionaries in overthrowing the Sultan. This all builds to an exciting confrontation on various levels.


To be honest I don't feel the book is accurately titled. There is very little in the way of build-up as to what the behemoth is and in fact, the Behemoth plays only a very small part in the overall storyline.

There is no doubt that the book has breathtaking action, imaginative creatures (vitriolic barnacles and Spottiswoode Rebreather, "an underwater apparatus created from fabricated creatures...."), outrageous machines of all types including djinns, golems and elephants, and colourful characters (Eddy Malone, an American with a talking bullfrog). There are the wonderful pencil illustrations by Keith Thompson which add to the overall visualization of the storyline, although a map would have been a welcome addition to the book since geography is pivotal to the plotline.

It is interesting to see how Westerfeld has created two societies who are the extreme opposite of each other. Clankers have taken technology to an extreme with their highly mechanized society. The Darwinists have taken genetic engineering to its extreme with their fabricated creatures. Of the two cultures, the Darwinist culture seems to be the more humane in some ways, showing an understanding of the ecological relationship between living things they have fabricated. The Leviathan is an ecosystem by itself. The Darwinists however, draw the line at these creatures not being capable of independent thought.

Although both Clankers and Darwinists show repulsion for the other's society, it seems that when each is exposed to the other's culture their views are modified somewhat. This is especially true for Alek who tells Dylan "Perhaps I'm putting this stupidly. But it's almost as though...I'm in love with your ship (the Leviathan)."
"It feels right here." Alek shrugged. "As if this is where I'm meant to be."

Overall, a good second part to this trilogy and highly recommended!


Book Details:
Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse: New York 2010
485pp.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams

The Chosen One is one of several titles released in 2009 that deal with plygamist cults. Sister Wife explores the issue of forced marriage of young girls in these cults in Canada while The Chosen One is set in rural United States.
Kyra Carlson, 13 years old, is part of a polygamist family made up of 20 children her father and his three wives. The story opens with her family receiving a visit from The Prophet, Mark Childs and his Apostles who inform Kyra's parents that she will be her Uncle Hyrum's 7th wife! Kyra is horrified and determined to avoid this marriage even if it means leaving the cult. But she is fearful too becuase she knows people have disappeared in situations similar to hers where there was resistance and she knows the girl is always forced into the marriage.
Complicating matters is the fact that Kyra is attracted to 16 year old Joshua Johnson, whom she has been secretly meeting for the past 7 months.

Kyra's father attempts to intervene for her but is unsuccessful. Joshua's request to marry Kyra is disastrous, leading to violence and his being run out of the cult. The entire situation further escalates to the point where Kyra must make a decision that may place her not only herself but her family in great danger.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Kyra has been secretly visiting the Ironton County Mobile Library van that has been stopping on a rural road near her cult's commune. She befriends the driver, Patrick and it is he who offers to help her in her dire need. But the cult is not willing to let Kyra get away so easily.

The Chosen One deals with the many concerns the we as a society have about polygamous cults including issues of control, forced marriage, violence, isolation and the social displacement of young men who are referred to as "Lost Boys".

Overall, this novel was well-written and fast-paced. We walk with Kyra as she explores her options and how she reasons her way through, hoping to find a solution. A few loose ends could have been tidied up by the author but otherwise this was a good presentation of an unusual, but important topic.

Sister Wife and The Chosen One are very similar in many ways but the subject matter is more realistically portrayed and better balanced in the former novel. Both touch on the difficulties former members of polygamous cults must face when attempting to assimilate into modern culture. In these novels we see how young children are conditioned to accept forced marriage and how every aspect of life is controlled. Kyra seemed less troubled by the effects her choices might have on her family than Celeste in Sister Wife.

It's hard to understand how such cults have continued to exist in our society today when it's obvious that they cause great harm to both young women and men.

Book Details:

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams
St. Martin's Griffin: New York 2009
213pp.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Double Identity by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Double Identity is a strange exploration of the issue of cloning and especially cloning humans.
Just before Bethany Cole's 13th birthday, her parents pack her into the family car and drive thousands of miles nonstop to the small town of Sanderfield, Illinois. Once there, she is left with Myrlie an aunt she has never met, with no explanations, some strange bits of conversation overheard and no idea when or even if her parents will return. Overhearing her father mention that she "does not know about Elizabeth" only adds to her fears. Who is Elizabeth?
The puzzles deepens as Bethany discovers her aunt seems to know many of her personal perferences and that she seems to resemble someone familiar to Sanderfield residents. When Bethany receives a package from her father containing 4 different sets of ID and a large amount of cash, the mystery and fear escalate. Who are her parents running from and why have they hidden her here?
Haddix gradually reveals who Elizabeth is (although the reader likely figures this one out very quickly), who Bethany is and the tragedy that led to the secret now unraveling Bethany's family and life. But the mystery of why her parents are in hiding is not revealed until the very end and in a somewhat contrived manner.
Double Identity explores issues of identity, selfworth and especially how new reproductive/scientific technologies might impact the people created by their use.
Athough this novel was written in 2005, we are beginning to experience a consideration of these issues in society at large today. Children created through the use of artificial insemination (AI) from anonymous sperm donors are seeking the right to know details about their biological father. They are asking society to consider the rights of the child and the right to know who he or she is.
Similarly Bethany feels betrayed and as though she has no real, unique self or value. But by the end of the novel, she begins to discover that her life had meaning before and will continue to do so.
I am thirteen years old now - nearly thirteen and a half. And with each second that passes, I mover further into territory Elizabeth never entered. Nobody knows what Elizabeth would have been like at fourteen, at fifteen, at sixteen. She is a ghost that will haunt me less and less, the older I get.

Although the ending is somewhat contrived and it seems that events come together in a too easy manner, this conclusion is typically satisfying. There is lots to think about here, in particular, the age old question regarding the use of scientific technology; just because we are capable of doing something, does this mean we ought to do it?

Book Details:

Double Identity by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers: Toronto
218pp

Friday, November 12, 2010

Turnabout by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Turnabout explores the themes of ageing and perpetual youth. Could we live forever? Would we want to? What if we could unage or stop aging altogether?

Turnabout tells the story of two of 50 elderly volunteers at a nursing home who are selected to participate in Project Turnabout. They will undergo a series of injections of PT-1 - a drug that caused laboratory rats to unage. The unaging process was then stopped in middle age and the rats simply stopped aging. Among the volunteers are 100 year old Amelia Lenore Hazelwood and 102 year old Anny Beth Flick. Unexpectedly, there are glitches from the beginning of the experiment. But when the second stage of the experiment fails, Amelia (Melly) and Anny decide to leave "The Agency" nursing home and live their unaging lives in freedom and quietly.

Haddix tells her story in alternating time frames. The first time frame is from a current perspective, from April 21 to June 3, 2085, as Melly and Anny try to cope with unaging from adolescence. Melly having just had her 16th birthday is becoming increasingly distraught over who will be her caretaker as she unages to babyhood. The second time frame tells the story in flashback from 2000 when the experiment was undertaken, to the present in the story which is the year 2085. So although time moves forward from 2000; instead of aging, Amy and Melly are growing younger and reliving their lives.

This book was fascinating to read because the author explores how we might feel if we had a chance to live our lives over again. The two main characters, Melly and Anny have different perspectives on this. The novel also explores the idea that when we go against our nature, disastrous things often happen.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of Dawn Treader

It will be interesting to see just how much the movie follows the book which was exceptional. At any rate, have a look and see what you think:





Here's the international version:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sphinx's Princess by Esther Friesner

Sphinx's Princess is historical fiction at its very best. This novel tells the fictional story of Egyptian princess Nefertiti, - her life before she became queen of Egypt.
Esther Friesner has crafted an exciting story that captures the intrigue of the Egyptian Royal Court and provides young readers with an imaginative and informative look into life in 14th century BC Egypt.

The story opens with Nefertiti's early life in Akhmin with her father, Ay; her stepmother Mery and younger step-sister, Bit-Bit.
From this beginning, Friesner presents Nefertit as a strong, young girl who knows her own mind. And what Nefertiti wants is to learn to read and write, a skill not usually taught to women. She develops a true friendship with Henenu, a scribe whom her father has known since boyhood. Henenu agrees to teach Nefertiti. Nefertiti is also characterized as a kind, just woman. Horrified at the murder of a young slave girl, Nefertiti takes in her younger sister.
Nefertiti's life undergoes a dramatic change when she is ordered to marry Thutmose, son of Pharoah and his Great Royal Wife, Tiye who is Nefertiti's paternal aunt. However, Nefertiti wishes to marry for love and her father, Ay manages to get his sister to agree to wait 3 years before marrying Nefertiti to her son. Instead, Nefertiti is sent to the royal court at Thebes to learn her duties. She encounters intrique, plots and a royal prince Thutmose who is less than eager to marry her. When Pharaoh and Tiye decide to go to Dendera and leave Thutmose in charge, Nefertiti is placed in grave danger.

Although a little slow off the mark, this story gradually draws the reader in. The action itself is evenly paced throughout the rest of the book and the ongoing intrigue within the palace kept my interest to the end. I enjoyed the fact that Nefertit is portrayed as a likeable, sensible young woman who treats others kindly and with a great sense of equanimity.

The second book in this series, Sphinx's Queen, tells the story of Nefertit's continuing struggle to cope with royal politics and in particular Thutmose, the Royal Prince Nefertiti is expected to marry. Although this book began in a promising way, it was largely anticlimactic. The most exciting part of the storyline occurs in the middle of the book. leaving little to be settled at the end. Nevertheless, fans of historical fiction will enjoy both of Esther Friesner's books about Nefertiti. For one thing she is a historical figure who hasn't often been written about and since we know very little about Nefertiti, this gives the author a great deal of freedom to work with.

Highly recommended.

Book Details:
Sphinx's Princess by Esther Friesner
Random House 2009


Sphinx's Queen by Esther Friesner
Random House 2010
352 pp.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

I am Number 4 opens with “John” on the move again. He fled his home planet Lorien when he was almost too young to remember in an attempt to escape a devastating surprise attack by the dark, evil Mogadorians. The Mogadorians attacked Lorien to rape it of its resources and take the planet for themselves. In an attempt to save what was left of their race, the Loriens sent 9 Garde children and their Cepan guardians to Earth to regroup, mature and come back to retake their homeland. However, their plan was discovered and the Mogadorians pursued the Loriens to Earth.

The nine Lorien children dispersed thoughout Earth. A charm had been placed on all 9 guaranteeing that they can only be killed in the order of their numbers. If they come together the charm is broken. When one is killed a circular scar wraps around the right ankle of those still alive. The first scar came when John was 9 years old. There have been two more scars as Number 2 and Number 3 have been hunted down and killed by the Mogardorians. John is next, hence the title of the book.

“John Smith” and his guardian, Henri are moving to Paradise, OH. At first John has trouble fitting in at the local high school. It’s important that John blend in and remain unremarkable but things just don’t work out that way. There are confrontations with Mark James, the son of the local sheriff and the ex-boyfriend of Sarah Hart who begins to develop a crush on John. Besides trying to fit in, John must cope with the development of his first “legacy” or special power, his growing feelings for Sarah, and his desire to settle down somewhere.

Their lives are permeated by the “cat and mouse” games that they must play in order to outwit the Mogadorians while remaining simple human folk to the inhabitants of Earth. John's cover is finally blown when disaster strikes at a party he and Sarah attend. And from this point on, events develop to the final breathtaking and heartbreaking confrontation.

I am Number Four is suspenseful and definitely a page-turning read. There's no doubt that I very much enjoyed this book for that reason. Author, Pittacus Lore (who it turns out is the disreputable James Frey and newbie Jobie Hughes) gradually reveals the details behind Lorien’s demise and the escape of the nine Lorien “Garde” who have come to Earth. These details are fascinating and fill in periods where there is less action in the story. While details about John’s life are missing, we get a sense of what life was like on Lorien from John’s flashback dreams of his early life and also through Henri’s eyes.

I have several complaints about the book though. 15 year old John is remarkably assured and confident for a teen, and an alien teen living on a strange planet! His relationship with Sarah has no depth to it, naturally because he’s only known her for a few months and yet he seems incredibly set on loving Sarah and staying with her even when Henri tells him it’s not the way of Loriens who love completely for life.

The book itself seems to have been written as movie script first and as a novel. And in fact, I am Number Four is being made into a movie:



At times the action seems paced as though the writer is envisioning how the action might play out on the big screen. I am Number Four is one of those books that could be made into a very good movie or it could be a monumental flop.

There is also the similarity to the Superman storyline - a superhero who can run fast, fly and is impervious to heat. Pittacus Lore covers himself by indicating at the very beginning that Lorien's are like the superheros that humans admire and dream about. There are also a few cheesy onliners in the dialogue.This is sci fi, after all!

Still, for young adult science fiction fans, I am Number Four promises to be an exciting new series.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks

Queen of Hearts is a coming of age story set in the 1940's when tuberculosis and TB sanatoriums were a significant part of twentieth century life. Marie-Claire Cote is a headstrong 15 year old who contracts TB from a beloved uncle. She is sent "chase the cure" at Pembina Hills San along with her younger brother and sister who have also become ill with TB. At Pembina Hills she is placed in a room with Signy, a young woman like herself but whom she finds annoying and needy. Signy has been at the San for years now and has suffered through many different procedures in an attempt to beat her TB. All Marie-Claire wishes to do though, it to get out of the San and get on with her life. In typical teenage ways, she doesn't care much about Signy, who has been abandoned to the sanatorium by her wealthy parents.  Marie Claire discovers that the sanatorium has a life all its own, with patients who marry and people who are cured who come back to work there. She gradually understands that she must learn to be a "patient patient". During her time there, Marie-Claire begins to mature and even falls in love.


This book provided a fascinating glimpse into a era that passed away only a decade before I was born. I remember asking my parents about the local sanatorium with its huge windows. This era ended with the widespread use of antibiotics which cured TB.
I have to say that throughout most of the book the character, Marie-Claire was not a likeable one. In fact, I had most decidely disliked her but then suddenly she grew up and seemed to change at the end. This was reflected in her decision at the end of the book which redeemed her in my eyes.

I'm not sure how attractive this book will be to ordinary teen readers, but those who like historical fiction will enjoy this short Canadian novel by acclaimed author and playwright, Martha Brooks.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The End and the Beginning by George Weigel

For those who were fans of George Weigel's John Paul II bio, Witness to Hope, there comes now over 10 years after the first, a second biography which deals with the final years of John Paul's life and his legacy. This new book, released yesterday, September 14 delves deeply into the part the late pope played in the demise of the Cold War and attempts made by communist Europe to destroy both the papacy and Catholicism. Yet another sign of how God in his infinite goodness has protected the one true faith.

The National Catholic Register has an interview with author Weigel which bears reprinting here:

George Weigel Talks About His New Biography of Pope John Paul II

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09/14/2010 Comment
George Weigel had unprecedented access to the papacy when he wrote Witness to Hope, his biography of Pope John Paul II. Then, for the sequel, he mined the extensive archives of Soviet-bloc spy agencies that were released in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, released today by Doubleday Religion, examines John Paul’s struggle against communism from his early days as a Polish bishop to his election as Pope and his orchestration of a nonviolent conclusion to the Cold War; it then skips to the high points and challenges of John Paul II’s last six years, with special attention to the Great Jubilee of 2000, his struggle to deal with the U.S. clergy abuse crisis of 2002, and the onset of Parkinson’s disease that imprisoned his body — even as it drew him closer to the cross and the path of “salvific suffering.”
Weigel spoke with Register correspondent Joan Frawley Desmond about the book.

You published your bestselling biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, in 1999, more than a decade ago. Summarize some of the fresh and deepened insights regarding his pontificate that you distilled in The End and the Beginning.
The End and the Beginning offers an extensive account of the last six years of John Paul II’s life and pontificate, years not covered in Witness to Hope. In the new book, I am also able to retell the story of Karol Wojtyla’s 40-year struggle with communism in much greater detail thanks to the recent availability of communist secret police and government documents — and there are some remarkable stories to tell. Finally, The End and the Beginning includes a comprehensive assessment of John Paul II, man and Pope, which was not possible in 1999. 

Describe your relationship with the Pope. 
Although I had been writing about John Paul II since his election to the papacy, and I think he knew of me as one of those who were interpreting him to an American audience, I had my first serious conversation with John Paul II shortly after the 1992 publication of my book The Final Revolution, which was the first study of the collapse of communism to stress the crucial roles played by the Church and the Pope in the revolution of 1989. I think John Paul was far less interested in my analysis of his role than in my claim that moral power — the power of aroused consciences — had been decisive in shaping “1989.” Our conversation deepened over the following years, and of course I spent dozens of hours with him while I was researching Witness to Hope. Happily, the relationship continued after that, and the many conversations and meals I shared with John Paul between 1999 and 2005 help, I hope, to give a richer human texture to The End and the Beginning.
It’s worth noting for the record that neither Witness to Hope nor The End and the Beginning is an authorized biography; no one had any vetting rights over anything, and no one in the Vatican, including the Pope, saw a word of Witness to Hope until I handed the Pope a copy of the book in September 1999. Our conversation over the years was both very friendly and completely adult: There were joys to share, disagreements to explore, problems and dilemmas to consider.

What is the value of time for a biographer, even one who knew the flesh-and-blood man he is writing about?
Obviously time gives one some emotional distance on the person about whom one is writing. But in my case, the most important “time factor” was the fact that I came into possession, after the Pope’s death and through the courtesy of Polish academic colleagues, of a cache of remarkable materials from the files of the Polish secret police and communist-era foreign ministry, the East German Stasi, the KGB, the Hungarian secret police, and the White House, none of which had been previously available. Those materials allowed me to explore the communist war against John Paul II in considerable (and dramatic) detail; some have said that the first third of The End and the Beginning reads like an espionage novel. And I expect there’s something to that.

The End and the Beginning conveys the impression that Soviet-bloc spy agencies devoted considerable resources to monitoring the Church, both in Eastern Europe and the Vatican. Why did they fear the Church?
From the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution on, the Soviet Union considered the Catholic Church its most serious ideological opponent, and thus did everything possible to destroy it, impede its work, blackmail its leaders, and foul its public reputation. To take one example: No small part of the “black legend” of Pius XII’s alleged Nazi sympathies and indifference to the fate of European Jewry was launched by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in an attempt to ease the communist takeover of east central Europe in the aftermath of World War II. In the case of John Paul II, of course, the threat was even greater, because, as KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov understood shortly after the Pope’s election, a Polish pope with John Paul II’s convictions and skills not only threatened the Soviet position in Poland (and thus the Warsaw Pact) but also the Soviet position in such Soviet “republics” as Lithuania and Ukraine. Andropov was, of course, right, although the Pope’s power was not of the sort that Andropov ever understood — another issue I explore in the book.

Tell us something that surprised you about these records from the KGB and other spy agencies.
Anyone who knew anything about how this deadly game was played knew, of course, that Soviet-bloc intelligence agencies were bending serious efforts to undermine the Catholic Church. I suppose what most surprised me was the sheer magnitude of the effort, which involved millions of man-hours and billions of dollars. I was also unaware of the degree to which Soviet-bloc intelligence agencies attempted to manipulate the Second Vatican Council for their purposes — and how unaware of this assault the Vatican seemed to be (and continued to be until 1978).

How were these spy agencies able to infiltrate Catholic institutions, and what were the motivations of the collaborators that reported on the Church?
There were any number of recruitment or blackmail techniques, which I describe in the book. As for the motivations of collaborators, I think one has to distinguish between various levels of contacts with the secret police. Some were relatively innocent. Others were motivated by ambition, intraclerical intrigues, venality and other forms of corruption. I should emphasize, however, that there is no evidence that any of this nastiness had the slightest effect on John Paul II’s conduct of the papacy.

John Paul II sought to transform the Holy See’s policy of Ostpolitik by creating the foundation for the nonviolent overthrow of the Soviet empire. Yet he appointed Cardinal [Agostino] Casaroli, a strong advocate of Ostpolitik, as his secretary of state. Why did he do that, and what does that decision reflect about his approach to foreign policy? Other examples?
I have long argued that the appointment of Casaroli, architect of the Ostpolitik of Paul VI, as John Paul II’s secretary of state, was an extremely shrewd move on John Paul’s part. With Casaroli as principal Vatican diplomatic agent, no communist government could accuse John Paul of reneging on Paul VI’s agreements or dramatically changing the Vatican’s policy line. Meanwhile, John Paul II himself went around and over the heads of governments with moral appeals to oppressed peoples around the world, calling them to live in the truth, which was his basic weapon against communism. It was a classic good cop-bad cop strategy.

What was John Paul II’s primary accomplishment during the final years of his pontificate?
I would say the Great Jubilee of 2000 and the manner in which he lived his last months, a kind of public dying that constituted what I call in the book his “last encyclical.”

Catholics that love and honor John Paul II were dismayed by his handling of the U.S. clergy sex-abuse crisis. How did you research this issue, and did any of your findings surprise you?
I had, of course, discussed a lot of this in The Courage to Be Catholic and then again in God’s Choice, and in the new book I try to bring this all together in a long-range view.
The first thing to be said here is that John Paul II was a great reformer of the priesthood. When he came to the papacy in 1978, the Catholic priesthood was in severe crisis throughout the world. He changed that, dramatically, by lifting up and embodying a heroic model of priestly self-sacrifice, by his constant personal attention to priests, and by his reform of seminaries (mandated by the apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis).
As I indicated in The Courage to Be Catholic, John Paul II (and indeed much of the rest of the Vatican) was about four months behind the real-time curve of the “Long Lent” of 2002. In April of that year, the Pope was only learning things he should have been told about by his nunciature in Washington in early January. So what could seem like indifference or inattention was in fact a very bad line of communication between Washington and Rome. Finally informed of what was in fact happening, the Pope acted, decisively. 

The End and the Beginning suggests that his difficulty dealing with the crisis reflected a disinclination to accept allegations against priests, in part, because Soviet-era regimes unjustly raised similar allegations against priests.
I don’t want to get into speculations about papal psychology, but the fact that charges of sexual impropriety were a standard communist tactic against the Catholic clergy had to have been part of the “filter” through which John Paul II “heard” the stories of abuse that came to the surface in 2002.

You note that Poles were with the Pope during his final hours. How would you describe these bonds between countrymen? What constrained his relationships with non-Poles?
I don’t think it was so much a question of constraint with others as it was the inability or unwillingness of the rest of the Vatican to change its inbred ways. The election of a non-Italian pope was a great shock to the system, and the shock waves endured for more than a quarter century.
As for those around the Pope when he died, well, I rather imagine we’d all like to be surrounded by those to whom we are closest when we begin the final journey to the Father’s house.

What was the impact of a highly visible Pope struggling with all the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease? Offscreen, how did it affect the workings of the Vatican?
Evangelically, the Pope’s witness during his holy death (and throughout his years of physical struggle) was a priceless gift to the Church and the world: his last priestly invitation to believers and nonbelievers alike to enter into the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
Bureaucratically, things slowed down, undoubtedly. But John Paul II remained the master of the scene until the very end.

In your reappraisal of his pontificate, his spiritual paternity and his deeply mystical spirituality are especially distinctive qualities.
In the book, I try to figure out why this man was so compelling a figure to people who did not share his convictions and commitments. And I decided it had something to do with his remarkable capacity to embody the key traits of fatherhood (strength and mercy) in a world bereft of true fathers. That he also communicated, through that paternity, the reality of a transcendent order in which we participate and which breaks into our mundane reality at surprising moments of grace simply added to the attraction of the man.

What about the broader goals of his pontificate? Within the Church and beyond it?
In sum: His goal for the Church was for Catholicism to rediscover its essence as an evangelical movement in history, the bride of the Lamb inviting the world to the Supper of the Lamb.
As for the world, he was the great defender of universal human rights in our time and proposed that “rights” understood according to the natural moral law could be a kind of grammar by which a fractured world could engage in real conversation.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Jezebel by Irene Nemirovsky

The latest offering of Nemirovsky's works is Jezebel, a short novel study of a women whose idol is beauty and youth.

Jezebel opens with an account of the trial of Gladys Eysenach, for the murder of Bernard Martin. Gladys does little to defend herself nor does she divulge her motive for the murder.

The remainder of the novel then tells the life of Gladys Burnera leading up to the murder. What follows is a description of a woman whose entire life revolves around her obsession with youth. Gladys is a modern-day Jezebel whose idol is that of youth. To Gladys, youth is the only thing that matters. 
"You'll never get old,' said Carmen Gonzales....'because you started looking after yourself when you were still beautiful.'
But that wasn't enough for Gladys: she wanted no part of a kind of beauty that was pathetically vulnerable, threatened by age; she needed the brilliant, arrogant triumph of true youth....
These days she could barely tolerate the presence of Lily Ferrer; she looked at the wrinkles on her friend's face with horror."

Youth and beauty hold power over others, especially men whom she uses one after another to affirm her power. Youth and beauty are to be prized and protected at all cost.


Nemirovsky's Gladys is both a horrifying and yet fascinating character. She lies about everything in her life to protect her age. She pretends her daughter Marie-Therese is younger than she is so that people won't know her age. When Marie-Therese falls in love and wants to marry at age 19, Gladys denies her permission leading to tragic and far-reaching results in many lives. Gladys relationship with her daughter Marie-Therese is a mirror of Nemirovsky's own relationship with her youth-obsessed mother, Fanny. Like Gladys, Fanny also dressed her daughter in children's clothes so that her true age might be hidden.


Sandra Smith who wrote the Introduction for Jezebel states
" Jezebel is a fascinating psychological study that has resonance in our modern culture's celebration of youth and beauty. Dissecting the mind of a woman obsessed with beauty and haunted by the fear of growing old, Nemirovsky delivers a fascinating, tragic study of how such a woman sees herself and is seen by others."


Yet another gem from Nemirovsky.

Book Details:
Jezebel by Irene Nemirovsky
Vintage Books 2010
199pp.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

My second crack at Steampunk and I have to admit that I'm pleasantly surprised by this subgenre of science fiction.
Leviathan is an alternate history of the beginnings of World War I and is set in Austria during the summer of 1914. Aleksandr is the fictional son of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. When the Archduke and his wife, Sophie Choteck are poisoned on June 28, the stage is set for Austria to declare war on Serbia.
Alek knows nothing of this until his tutor, Wildcount Volger and his master of mechaniks, Otto Klopp spirit him away in the middle of the night. On the run from his own people, Alek who is the sole heir to the throne,  must try to make for the safety of neutral Switzerland.

Deryn Sharp is a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. When a routine training run with a "Huxley ascender" - a genetically altered hydrogen breather goes awry, Deryn ends up on the Leviathan, a giant living airship on a secret mission to the Ottoman Empire.


A series of catastrophes for both Alek and Daryn brings them together and they find they must work to help one another against a mutual enemy. Each is hiding a secret from the other but each has to trust the other in order to survive.

Scott Westerfeld has created an intriguing alternate history adventure with the backdrop of WWI. The conflict is between the Germans, known as the mechanistic "Clankers"  and the master geneticists, the "Darwinists" who are British.

This story is filled with fantastical machines and beasts; the elephantine, talking lizards and the books namesake, the Leviathan - a great hydrogen breathing whale "fabricated to rival the kaiser's zeppelins" pitted against the Star Wars-like Cycklop Stormwalkers and eight-legged Herkules landships.

I have to say that despite the weird concoctions Westerfeld has created for this novel, I found it exciting and enjoyable. I'll ignore the fact that the "Darwinists" whole world exists because Darwin himself also discovered the secret of DNA. This book is just pure fun and very very imaginative. I love the many pencil illustrations by Keith Thompson throughout - something I remember was a mainstay of books I read as a young adult. I'd like to see more of this  in YA books because it adds an important visual component to the story. I can't wait to read the next book, Behemoth which will be published in October 2010.








If you haven't yet had a chance to do so, check out the book trailer. It's quite unique because it uses many of Keith Thompson's illustrations.



Book Details:

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse 2010
434 pp.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Book Review: A Long Labour: A Dutch Mother's Holocaust Memoir

I've discovered that there is whole genre of fiction I did not recognize as such - women's holocaust narrative which exists within the larger context of Dutch Holocaust Literature. The book, A Long Labour was written by Rhodea Shandler whose name at birth was Henriette Dwinger. Rhodea was a Dutch Jew born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands in 1918. She was one of the few Dutch Jews to survive the extermination of approximately seventy-five percent of Jews in Holland. In 1951, Rhodea emigrated to Canada with her husband, Ernst and their five daughters. For many years she felt no compulsion to share her experiences with her family until advancing age led her to the decision that her story must be told.She writes,"Strange that the urge to write often comes after a time lapse. Perhaps there is sufficient distance now between the events and my recording of them for my mind to rest, to be able to make sense of those long-ago occurrences."

I found this book provided a window into an aspect of WWII that I've rarely encountered other than in Anne Frank's Diary. Rhodea writes about some of the choices she had to make in order to save her life and the lives of those in her family. But she also writes about how she and other Jews were unable to help most and that they didn't know until after the war that they would never see those family members sent to work camps. In many parts of the book, these choices are stated in a very matter of fact manner, without much emotion. Perhaps, after the passage of so many years, Rhodea has come to terms with her choices. Nevertheless, they must have been extremely difficult ones to make. Her memories of returning home, of the struggle to reunite with surviving family members, of trying to reclaim personal belongings given to so-called friends for safe keeping and of trying to adjust to living in a society complicit with what happened are compelling.
The Long Labour also made me understand what it must have been like for the survivors whose connection to the past after World War II was often completely eradicated. Aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers...sent away, never again to return. It must have seemed impossible.
The pictures put a face to the names in the book, and I was especially touched by the picture of Rhodea's brother Simon, playing his violin. Simon a gifted musician did not survive the Holocaust. The Introduction written by Dr. S. Lillian Kremer, University Distinquished Professor Emerita, KSU is well worth reading.
Rhodea Shandler died in 2006, shortly after the memoir's completion.

Book Details:
A Long Labour
A Dutch Mother's Holocaust Memoir

by Rhodea Shandler
2007 Ronsdale Press & Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre

Friday, August 20, 2010

Secret Daughter. A Novel. by shilipi somay gowda

Secret Daughter is definitely one of the best adult fiction books I've read this year! Incredibly poignant and filled with both tragedy and hope as is India.

Secret Daughter opens with a short but intriguing prologue, the significance of which we don't comprehend until the very end of the book.
This is the story of the lives of three families, on two different continents, tied together by the birth of a baby. Somer Thakker, a 32 year old physician living in California, learns she has premature ovarian failure and therefore will never have the baby she so desperately wants. This leads her and her husband Krishnan to consider adopting a baby from Krishnan's native India.

Meanwhile, half a world away in Dahanu, India, Kavita, wife of a poor farmer (Jasnu) decides to save her newborn daughter, Usha, from certain death by leaving her in an orphanage in Mumbai. After walking three days, Kavita, reluctantly gives up her baby, a heartrending decision that will haunt her the rest of her life. It is Somer and Krishnan who adopt Usha (mistakenly called Asha by the orphanage), the baby with the beautiful gold-flecked eyes,  when she is 1 year old. Asha leaves India to grow up, much loved and well educated in America.

The story is primarily told in the voices of the three principal female characters, Somer, Asha, and Kavita from 1984 to 2009; the period during which Asha grows to adulthood. Added to their voices are those of Jasnu and Krishnan who provide the perspective of  husband and father.


  is a rich study of the motifs of love, family, motherhood, and feminine identity. Somer and Kavita  each struggle with their fears and understanding of all of the above while Asha must deal with the meaning of family, love and identity. As an adoptee, she struggles to learn who she is, what family means and even more importantly how love can sometimes mean giving up something very very dear.

The theme of loss also figures prominently in this story for each of the women - although we also learn of the tremendous loss Jasnu experienced and has kept unacknowledged throughout most of his life - it is a loss that causes his only regret at a terrible price. What ultimately shines through in Secret Daughter,  is the inner strength of these women, their growth in wisdom and how this strength helps them to guide their daughters, daughter-in-laws and grandchildren.
Secret Daughter also focuses on the incredible sacrifices women make for each other and for their children.

Shilipa Somay Gowda brilliantly captures the incredible contrasts that mark the society and culture of India. A strong sense of family and familial obligation is contrasted with the practice of femicide, bride burnings, and a cultural preference for boys. The soul killing poverty of the slum, Dharavi is in contrast to the wonderful resourcefulness of the poor. And that same poverty is offset by Mumbai sari shops containing silk garments in every shade of the rainbow and the wedding in a prominent Mumbai family that features guests in the thousands at a cost of ten million rupees.

Despite the tragedy that abounds in this book, Ms Gowda weaves a story of hope and possibility.  I highly recommend this book, especially as a book club offering. Thankfully, we are provided with a glossary of Indian vocabulary at the back, although I personally enjoy the Indian works used throughout the novel. The Epilogue provides a satisfying conclusion to the Prologue.

Book Details:
Secret Daughter. A Novel. by Shilpi Somay Gowda
HarperCollins Publishers 2010
339pp.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

Historical fiction at it's very best.

Mary Sutter is a young midwife, following in the footsteps of her mother, Amelia. She lives in Albany, New York with her twin sister Jenny. Despite her renown as a midwife, it is a surgeon Mary wants to be. She has been turned away from every medical school and cannot find a doctor with whom to apprentice. When her first love, Thomas Fall marries Jenny, and Dr. James Bleven refuses to apprentice her, Mary takes things into her own hands.
Mary flees to Washington City (which would eventually be known as Washington, D.C.) to answer the call by Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Army Nurses. It is the beginning of the Civil War.However, when Dorthea Dix turns her away, Mary offers her services as a nurse/apprentice at the Union Hotel in Georgetown. In this vermin infested, dilapidated foul "hospital" that Mary finds herself under the tutelage of surgeon Dr. William Stipp.
In the meantime, Mary's mother Amelia is distraught over her sudden departure and begs Mary repeatedly to return home. Although Amelia is also a midwife, she feels that she will not have the skill necessary to deliver Jenny when her time comes.But Mary in her determined quest to become a surgeon and because her intense heartbreak prevents her from facing Jenny, delays until the last possible moment to travel home to help her sister Jenny -with disastrous results. This causes Mary to have a crisis of confidence and she vanishes into the maelstrom of the Civil War, only to resurface at the battlefield months later.
Amid the disorganized carnage of the early Civil War, Mary, William and James struggle to cope not only with their own personal demons but with the blood, gore and exhaustion as they attempt to minister to the overwhelming numbers of injured and dead. Mary and William work amid the chaos to save the lives of soldiers while James believes that if they only knew more, doctors could save the lives of many of the wounded. All three men, Thomas Fall, James Bleven and William Stipp find Mary Sutter an utterly  remarkable, if not incomprehensible woman. None of them quite understand her but are drawn to Mary by her courage and her intelligence.

Ms Oliveira successfully combines a detailed historical fiction with a touch of romance. She is able to weave significant figures of this time period into her narrative, making them believable and three-dimensional. We meet Mr. Lincoln, John Hay and Dorothea Dix. Lincoln seems extraordinarily vulnerable, suffering terribly and undergoing a crisis of faith when his son Willie dies of typhoid.

Something I wasn't aware of and hopefully is realistically portrayed in the novel, was the ineptitude of both sides in preparing for war as well as the incompetence of the each army command which led to failed battles, unexplained retreats and battles that turned into bloodbaths.

Descriptions of childbirth and battlefield are equally graphic, thus realistically portraying what it was like to die for both women and men in the mid 1800s.  I had never considered that the Civil War occurred just prior to most of the major discoveries in modern medicine including basic knowledge about surgical hygiene. It is disheartening to read about surgeons treating severe compound fractures by amputation and to read about how  doctors believed suppuration and fever healed wounds. Water to clean wounds was used over and over again. Patients where regularly treated with whiskey and/or quinine.

There are detailed descriptions of the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Antietam (also known as Sharpsburg) in which over 20,000 men died.

"The day after the battle, the sight of the crowded yard nearly knocked Mary off her feet. Men lay next to one another without room for anyone to walk in between them. She staggered and caught herself....Cries for water and for mothers and sweethearts mingled with sobs of pain. It was a great rabble of suffering, and now it was her great rabble."

Considering the amount of  historical detail in the novel,  it is evident the author did considerable research involving both primary materials (journals, lectures, diaries newspaper articles) as well as consulting historians and  librarians. Among sources consulted, The Library of Congress for Dorothea Dix's letters, Interlibrary Loan of the King County Library for books, The Special Collections at the University of Washington Medical School Library for information on midwifery, the online librarian at the Library of Congress who directed Oliveira toClara Barton's War Lecture and as well as a number of books on Civil War Medicine, Civil War hospitals and Civil War surgeons and doctors.

It is a pleasure to read historical fiction when the author has taken such attention to detail. This small time frame of American history came alive for me - and that is what historical fiction is all about.

Book Details:
My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira
Viking Press  2010
364pp.

For further investigation:
Photographic History of the Civil War

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Night To Remember by Walter Lord

The book that led to the making of the classic movie, A Night to Remember:



Walter Lord's book is well done and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lord wrote his book after interviewing many survivors, crew and relatives of survivors. He studied the Titanic's blueprints, builder's specifications and cargo manifests and also reviewed much of the testimony given at investigations undertaken in London and Washington.
What I liked best about this book is Lord's critical analysis of how class structure in the early 20th century played a part in every aspect of society and in the end determined who would live and die on Titanic,

"And it was the end of the class distinction in filling the boats. The White Star Line always denied anything of the kind - and the investigators back them up- yet there's overwhelming evidence that the steerage took a beating:...."

"...The statistics suggest who they were-the Titanic's casualty list included 4 of 143 First Class Women (three by choice)...15 of 95 Second Class Women... and 81 of 179 Third Class Women....only 23 out of 76 steerage children were saved...."

how prejudices influenced peoples observations:

"With this lost world went some of its prejudices - especially a firm and loudly voiced opinion of the superiority of Anglo-Saxon courage. To the survivors all the stowaways in the lifeboats were "Chinese" or "Japanese"; All who jumped from the deck were "Armenians", "Frenchmen," or "Italians." "

and how the Titanic tragedy changed that and many other things about life and business in the early 20th century.

"Overriding everything else, the Titanic also marked the end of a general feeling of confidence.  Until then men felt they had found the answer to a steady, orderly, civilized life....For 100 years technology had steadily improved.....The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves....Here was the "unsinkable ship" - perhaps man's greatest engineering achievement - going down the first time it sailed."


I enjoyed watching the movie years ago, long before James Cameron's Titanic hit movie theatres. I still believe A Night To Remember is one of the best movies ever made about the disaster. In the same way, Walter Lord's book is also one of the best I've read on the tragedy.
Readers may want to check a post I wrote a while back about recent investigations into what may have really caused Titanic's demise.

Book Details:
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
Henry Holt and Company  1955
266 pp.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The King's Arrow by Michael Cadnum

Historical fiction is one genre that is hard to write well and because of this it often does not appeal to young adults. Michael Cadnum makes a good effort at a long ago event - the mysterious death of William the Conqueror in 1100 AD in his book, The King's Arrow.

It is 1100 AD and feelings are still high after the Norman conquest of Britain. English landholders have been forcibly removed from their land and the English aristocracy has been replaced by the French-speaking Normans. Neither the English nor their Norman conquerors trust one another. There have been gradual social and political changes in the ensuing 35 year since the Norman conquest.

Simon Foldre is the 18 year old son of a Norman nobleman and an English aristocrat. Looking like an Englishman to the Normans and a foreign lord to the English, Simon is struggling to find his place in the new England.

"Simon faced a future of divided happiness, knowing too much of both English umbrage and Norman self-importance to feel at home in either camp."


When he is offered a chance to participate in the royal hunt, Simon hopes he finally has his an opportunity to make a name for himself. He is offered the chance to be an English varlet to Walter Tirel of Picardy. But things go horribly wrong and Simon finds himself fleeing the Normans accompanied by Tirel.

The tragic events to come are foreshadowed by the cruel murder of a local hunter Edric by the royal marshal, Roland Montfort. Montfort is in charge of the king's personal security and does not like the English.  Cadnum fills his story with hints here and there of political intrigue. For example, there is the suggestion that Prince Henry is  anxious to assume the kingship of England, perhaps by any means necessary. This suggests that William's death, although considered by history as accidental, may have happened anyway on that day.

Although the historical event that forms the background of the book's plot is an interesting one in and of itself, I found the book to be somewhat slow at first. Cadnum takes his time creating the setting and atmosphere of the story in order to set up future events. As the tragedy unfolds and Simon is caught up in the events, the pace picks up. In the end, this short novel is a quick read for those interested in English history during the time of the Normans.

Book Details:

The King's Arrow by Michael Cadnum
Viking 2010
208pp.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi is a dystopia set in the American Gulf Coast region. Nailer is part of a light crew that includes Pima, Sloth, Moon Girl and Pearly, all of them children or young teens whose prime purpose is to strip copper from abandoned oil tankers. Nailer lives with his abusive, murderous father, Richard Lopez in a bamboo shack at the edge of the encroaching jungle on Bright Sands Beach.

The American Gulf Coast region has been abandoned due to rising seas and repeated storm damage from “city killers”, severe tropical storms that have destroyed and drowned cities such as New Orleans. Bright Sands Beach is an area where derelict oil tankers are scavenged for scrap by light and heavy crews. The light crews are run by bosses who push the crews to make quota. Those who don’t are replaced and their fate is worse than death.

When Nailer almost loses his life in an accident he is called “Lucky Boy”. His luck seems to hold after he survives a “city killer” storm that strikes Bright Sands Beach. Surviving the “city killer”, Nailer and Pima discover a wrecked clipper and a barely alive “swank”, whom they name Lucky Girl.

At first, Pima wants to kill Nita for her gold and the scavenge they will own if she dies. But Nailer can’t bring himself to do this. He struggles with letting Nita die and claiming her wreck as salvage and letting her live and possibly receiving a reward for her rescue. The former choice will mean certain wealth and freedom from the salvage crew.

When they learn that Nita Chaudhury is the daughter of Patel, owner of Patel Gobal, a company that buys scavenge from a local company, they decide that she is worth saving. However, Nailer and Pima soon learn that Nita’s shipwreck was not accidental. They learn that she was fleeing from her father’s enemies who are intent upon using her to gain control of his company.

Soon after, Nailer’s luck fails when his father and some of his goons discover the wreck and capture Nita and Nailer. The situation is further complicated by the appearance at Bright Sands Beach by Pyce, Nita’s father’s arch-enemy who had been pursuing her over the ocean. What follows is a race to save Nita from the clutches of Pyce and to grab a chance at a new life away from Bright Sands Beach. Ship breaker races to a final, satisfying and thrilling conclusion.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who loves science fiction. Some of Bacigalupi’s dystopian elements included drowned cities (The Teeth which represent New Orleans), half men – genetically designed human-canine hybrids who are brutal but loyal to the death and Harvesters – people who deal in body parts for money.

Characterization was fascinating and well done. Nailer is hardened but not past redemption like his brutal drug crazed father. Although his motives are initially those of self-interest, he does put aside his prejudice towards “swanks” to save Nita. He wants to feel that he is better than Sloth who abandoned him to die in the bilge of the oil tanker. He grows throughout the story from the boy who is always trying to appease his abusive father to one who eventually has the courage to confront him.

I found this book exciting from beginning to end. Some of the characteristics of society in Ship Breaker were gradually unfolded - such as the Harvesters and the half-men. But overall, the novel was captivating and held my interest right to the exciting conclusion.

Book Details:
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Little, Brown and Company 2010
323pp

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Worst Thing She Ever Did by Alice Kuipers

The Worst Thing She Ever Did was......???? Well, you have to read the book to find out! Alice Kuipers has crafted a poignant story about a young survivor trying to cope in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 London suicide bombings. Sophie Marie Baxter's life has changed since her sister Emily died in those bombings. If only she hadn't done what she did, Emily might still be alive. It was the worst thing she ever did. Sophie "knows" she is to blame.
But in order to go on living, Sophie decides that she is not going to talk about what happened and "NOT THINK ABOUT ANY OF THIS EVER AGAIN." In an attempt to help her cope, Sophie's therapist has her keep a journal and it is this journal that makes up The Worst Thing She Ever Did.

As we read through the entries, it becomes apparent that Sophie is struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. She is experiencing flashbacks and sees death and destruction everywhere. She has panic attacks and cannot ride the subway. Sophie feels alienated from her mom and her friends. Strangely, Sophie is angry at her mother's inability to deal with the tragedy, even though she herself is not able to either. School is crashing and to top it all of she feels numb and disconnected. Her life is unraveling and she doesn't know how to stop it all.

However, through all of this there are good things gradually beginning to happen in her life. She makes a new friend in the Canadian girl, Rosa-Leigh who gets Sophie involved in writing poetry. And it is the poetry that figures prominently in helping Sophie begin to express what she is feeling.

When she finds the time, Sophie escapes to the roof of their flat and remembers what life was like before, when Emily was alive. It is through these flashbacks that we learn about Sophie's relationship with her older sister, Emily and eventually what really happened on that fateful day in July.
Brilliantly conceived and well written, The Worst Thing She Ever Did is a great short, intense read for teens looking for something a little different.

Book Details:
The Worst Thing She Ever Did by Alice Kuipers
HarperTrophy Canada 2010
210pp

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My Home is Beyond the Mountains by Celia Barker Lottridge


Home Is Beyond The Mountains by Celia Barker Lottridge is a short historical novel for teens that deals with the Assyrian genocide of 1918. Since I’m doubtful most young people know much about this event, let alone who the Assyrians are, a little background information is in order.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Assyrian peoples lived in the south of Turkey and the northern part of Iran (then known as Persia) with a large population around Lake Urmieh, where this story is set. In 1914, the Ottoman empire declared war on the Allies and fought on the side of Germany. The British who were fighting Germany, gained the support of the Assyrian troops in exchange for the promise of a homeland. They wanted to keep the large oilfields which were part of Persia out of Turkish control. Initially, the Assyrians were successful in capturing these areas and this led the British to control much of Northern Persia.

At the same time the Russian army was intent on protecting itself from invasion by Turkey in the south. However, when Russian troops left the region, the Ottoman Empire saw a chance to obtain land with its mineral wealth and they invaded Persia, ignoring its neutral status in the war. Repeated invasions resulted in massacres of the Christian Assyrians by the Moslem Turks. One of the largest invasions occurred in the summer or 1918 and this resulted in many Christian Assyrians fleeing the area with the intent to reach the safety of the British army in further south in Persia. Many of these refugees were massacred or died of disease and hunger with about half reaching the safety of the British army.

The British eventually moved most of the Assyrian refugees to a large camp at Baquba, Iraq. The refugees stayed at Baquba for a time while a peace treaty was worked out with Turkey and then in 1921, the process of resettling them to their villages began. For many of the orphans, there were no villages, homes nor families to return to. Their families had been massacred and their once productive peaceful villages completely destroyed. This is the story of that time, told for young people, so that they might learn.

Author Celia Barker Lottride has more than a passing interest in the events related in her book. Her mother, Louise Shedd Barker, was the younger sister of Susan Shedd, director of the orphanage for Assyrian children at Hamadan, in 1922. Celia relied on historical accounts, the letters of her aunt Susan Shedd, and the oral history her mother Louise provided.

The story of the Assyrian flight to Hamadan in 1918 is told in the voice of Samira, a nine year old who leaves her fictional village of Ayna one summer day along with her mother, father, older brother Benyamin and her younger sister Maryam. Although they are somewhat organized, bringing food and rugs for their journey, as they suspected, tremendous difficulties and tragedy await them. Samira’s younger sister dies from fever. In the confusion of an attack by Turkish forces, Samira and her mother become separated from her father and brother Benyamin. Eventually, only Samira and her brother Benyamin make it to Hamadan. It is through Samira’s narrative that we try to understand the overwhelming loss she has suffered and the magnitude of coping with her situation. Samira befriends another young refugee, Anna and together they help one another over the next 5 years as they move to an orphanage in Baquba, Iraq and then as they take one step after another to reclaim their lives and journey home to their villages near Urmieh. Susan Shedd is portrayed as a remarkable heroine and an unusual woman. It is the indomitable Ms Shedd who organizes the children into “families” and who inspires them to work and plan for the journey home. Ms Shedd wins the respect of the refugees with her just and kind treatment of everyone and her no nonsense approach to those who tried to take advantage her situation or her being a woman.

For those who don’t know their history well enough (and this event isn’t in too many history books), Lottridge has provided a simple map and a concise explanation of the historical facts for young readers.

I enjoyed this book mainly because it focused on a historical event that isn’t often the subject of a novel. Although it’s not an overly exciting and dramatic read, it was interesting and I ended up doing a little research of my own afterwards. The characters were believable and each had their own way of dealing with their personal tragedy.

For more on the Assyrian and Armenian massacres please read The Flickering Light of Asia.

http://www.aramaicpeshitta.com/Online_Version/books/fla.pdf