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” - the wealthy, 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. His character 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. Bacagalupi gradually reveals his dystopian world in Ship Breaker such as the Harvesters and the half-men. Ship Breaker  is thrilling and engages the reader's attention right to the exciting conclusion. Look for more world-building in the next installment.

Book Details:

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Little, Brown and Company            2010

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

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.

Friday, July 16, 2010

WorldShaker by Richard Harland

Worldshaker is my first taste of the recently new and popular genre, steampunk. Steampunk is defined as a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy that incorporates advanced Victorian technology. The stories usually take place in an era when steam power is used and so are often set in the 19th century. Most steampunk fiction like Leviathan by Scott Westerfied,  follow alternate history storylines.
Worldshaker is a juggernaut, a mobile city on rollers. An iron colossus, mechanical mountain, Worldshaker is divided into the Upper Decks inhabited by the elite classes who run the juggernaut society, and the Below, inhabited by the Filthies. It is the Filthies who run the coal-fired engines that power Worldshaker.
It is in this setting that we meet 16 year old Colbert Porpentine, whose grandfather, Sir Mormus Porpentine is the Supreme Commander of Worldshaker. The Porpentine family is one of several ruling families of Worldshaker.
Col's world begins to unravel with the sudden appearance of Riff, a young Filthy who hides in his cabin. Riff was "hooked" from Below to serve as a Menial but she managed to escape. Riff's appearance causes Col to reconsider everything he knows and understands about his world.
"How much did he truly know about Filthies?....In polite society people only ever hinted at the existence of Filthies."
From Riff, Col learns that Filthies are not what he has been told. They can speak and think.
"He had always pictured Filthies as slow and brutish, but not this one." "Fearful images from old nightmares floated before him. Heavy lumbering shapes, hairy unclothed bodies, hideous cannibal faces with leering mouths. Doing thinks, filthiness - he couldn't even imagine the things they might do."
Despite his contact with a Filthy, Col seems destined for greatness when he is chosen as successor to his grandfather, Sir Mormus. That is,until the unthinkable happens to him and he ends up Below, in the world of the Filthies for a brief period. When he is helped back to the Upper Decks in exchange for helping Riff investigate Worldshaker in planning a Filthies revolution, Col finds his world his place in it forever altered. Now seen as "contaminated", Col begins to question Upper Deck life. He asks a friend to research the Filthies.
Although Col's world has decidedly Victorian morals, he learns that beneath this veneer lies an unjust and cruel class system where Filthies are tortured and starved so that the Upper Deck people can live in wealth and comfort.
Eventually the shunning Col and his family experience leads them to take drastic action - one that changes Col's life forever and forces him into an alliance with the Filthies. In the end the revolution succeeds and the story races to a satisfying ending.

Worldshaker is an alternate history story in which Britain was invaded by Napoleon in 1802. Eventually, the French were defeated in the Fifty Years War but mass industrialization brought on by the war led to severe industrial competition between all European states. The labour force needed for the industrialization was eventually enslaved and these people became the Filthies.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and found the steampunk genre to be unique and exciting. The alternate history was fascinating. As Col uncovers the lies his society and his place in it are built upon, he must decide whether he can live with those lies or  whether he must choose a different course. A question remains for me: What happened to Col's wife, Sephaltina?

Book Details:

Worldshaker by Richard Harland
Simon & Schuster 2010

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall

Tarquin Hall has struck gold again with another installment of super-sleuth Vish Puri. This time Puri takes it upon himself to investigate the mysterious death of renowed Guru-Buster, Dr. Suresh Jha. Dr. Jha spends his time debunking the multitude of swamis and godmen who prey upon India's vulnerable. A rationalist by nature and training, he deplores the fact that his fellow Indians will believe almost anything. But one morning while participating in a regular session of the Rajpath Laughing Club, the goddess Kali, apparently angered by Dr. Jha's mockery of her power, appears and plunges a sword into his heart. Or does she? That is the question that Detective Puri simply must investigate.
And so begins another of Vish Puri's adventures in which we find him travelling to Delhi's Shadipur slum to learn from the city's magicians and also to Haridwar on the Ganges. Suspecting that things may not be as they appear he sends one of his "operatives", Facecream, to infiltrate the Abode of Eternal Love, the ashram of a prominent swami known as Maharaj Swami. Maharaj not only has a huge cult following but there was a mysterious death of a young woman at his ashram in recent months.
And as if that isn't enough excitement, Puri must deal with family troubles and the impending birth of a grandchild. All the while, his mommy-ji and Rumpi, Puri's devoted wife are super-sleuthing themselves, trying to solve a robbery.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing was better than Hall's first offering in several ways. The focus is not so much on Puri whom Hall was developing as a character in the first book but has expanded to other lesser characters such as Facecream. Although not as openly humourous as The Case of the Missing Servant, Puri's second adventure is much more exciting. Some of the twists are predictable, but I felt the storyline was better developed in this second book. In the end I was satisfied that Vish Puri had solved yet another dastardly crime and in fact did some "guru-busting" of his own.

I can't wait for the next book. I recommend this book to fans of mysteries who like something a little different and more genteel.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Based on the book of the same name, this up and coming movie, Flipped, looks like it might be very good.
I'll be reviewing this book in a few weeks, when it is returned to our library. The movie is produced by Rob Reiner.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy

Yellow Star is a fictionalized account of one of only 12 children who survived in the Lodz ghetto during the Second World War. In 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. As they did in other Polish cities, all Jewish persons in Lodz were forced into a small area of the city. This area became known as the Lodz ghetto. The ghetto was formed in the spring of 1940 and was sealed off from the outside world on May 1, 1940. After this, the Nazis began the systematic deportation of it's residents to various concentration camps.

One Jewish family forced to relocate to the Lodz ghetto was the Perlmutters. Syvia Perlmutter was 4 years old when the war began. She lived in Lodz with her mother, father and her older sister, Dora. Her father became a leader in the ghetto and through various means was able to save his family from deportation to the gas chambers and in a miracle was able to save Syvia and 11 other children.

Syvia's story is told from her perspective, in free verse. It is a touching and remarkable telling of a very tragic story starting from the beginning of the war, continuing through the gradual deterioration of society in Poland, to the devastating end with the discovery of the survivors of the Lodz ghetto by the Russians.

The book also contains significant notes on the historical setting of the Second World War, and also on how this story came to be told.

Book Details:
Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy
Marshall Cavendish Corporation 2006
227 pp.