Sunday, February 28, 2010

jumping off swings by Jo Knowles

jumping off swings is a story about a young girl desperately looking for love by having sex with boys...until the inevitable happens.
The story is told in four voices: those of Ellie, the young girl who gets pregnant; Josh, the troubled father of her baby; Corinne, Ellie's best friend; and Caleb a boy who likes Ellie but ends up falling for Corinne.
We see how each character copes with Ellie's difficult situation and with the reaction of parents and students alike.
Even though Ellie has a poor view of herself, she takes her first steps towards understanding what she did and why, and begins to change.Ellie finally decides to turn things around by saying "no" in a life-changing decision. Her situation also serves as lesson to Corinne and Caleb.
Knowles characters are believable and I liked how she presented Ellie as making another "choice" when pregnant! Jumping off swings touches on many interesting issues in this book including those involving sex, love, teen pregnancy, teens and families.

Book Details:

jumping off swings by Jo Knowles
Massachusetts: Candlewick Press 2009
230pp.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Princess of the Midnight Ball is a retelling of the fairy tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses. In this story, Princess Rose is the eldest of twelve sisters who have been cursed to dance each night for King Under Stone in his dark realm. Princess Rose's father, King Gregor, ruler of Analousia, suspects something is wrong because his daughters dancing slippers are worn to tatters every third night. As part of the curse, Rose and her sisters cannot even provide the slightest details as to what is happening to them.
In an attempt to learn what is happening with his daughters, King Gregor offers the choice of his daughters to the prince who is able to discover the secret behind the worn out slippers. After numerous young men fail in their attempt, Galen Orm, the nephew of the king's gardener decides to give it a shot. But Galen has a few tricks up his sleeve and a stout heart on his side.
This novel is well written, fast paced and exciting to the very end. We all know the ending, so it's no surprise, but George's book is entertaining nonetheless.


Book Details:

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George
New York: Bloomsbury 2009
276pp

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Unresolved by T.K. Welsh

Unresolved is a fascinating blend of ghost story and historical fiction. The historical event that forms the basis of the plot is the sinking of the paddle steamer ferry, General Slocum, June 15, 1904. The steamer was ferrying members of the St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church when fire broke out in the forward Lamp Room. It was thought that a careless discarding of a lighted cigarette onto straw ignited the blaze, which rapidly spread throughout the steamer. Contributing to the terrible loss of life (over 1000 persons perished) was the lack of working fire hoses and life jackets which caused women and children to sink like stones. It was considered the worst disaster in New York city until the events of 9/11.

The author, T.K. Welsh takes many of the facts known about the disaster and the subsequent inquest and incorporates them into her story. She tells the story of the disaster from the viewpoint of 15 year old Mallory Meer who is on the General Slocum with her mother, her younger sister Nixie, her older sister Louisa and her brother Helmuth. Also on the excursion is Dustin Brauer, the boy Mallory is falling in love with. Unfortunately, Mallory does not survive the disaster - she is a ghost relating the events to us, the reader.
The book opens with Mallory who lingers as a ghost recounting the tragedy and who cannot find peace until she helps bring to justice those responsible for the fire and the loss of life. From the character of Mallory, we trace the events that happened just prior to the fire, the disaster itself and on through to the inquest. It is through Mallory, as a ghost, that we learn what people think and feel. We learn about Dustin's past and the history of Mallory's family too. We are told about the German community in New York city, Kleinduetschland and about the Knickerbocker Steamship Company who owned the steamer.
As happened in real life, in Unresolved, those truly responsible are not held accountable and punished. Or are they?
This gripping historical novel held my interest to the gripping and shocking end.
For those who would like to do further reading on the General Slocum disaster please see the following website:
General Slocum

You can read "History of the General Slocum Disaster" by J.S. Olgivie:
scroll down using the arrow to get to the title page.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Red Moon At Sharpsburg by Rosemary Wells

Red Moon At Sharpsburg is a vivid recounting of the Civil War from the perspective of a young girl living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.  This well researched novel focuses on two families whose lives are forever changed by the Civil War. Although the war lasted four long years, Rosemary Wells highlights the battle at Sharpsburg, also known as states that she spent twelve years researching for her novel because she wanted to ensure its historical accuracy.

Twelve year old India Moody lives in the Shenandoah Valley in the town of Berryville with her Pa, Cyrus Moody, her mother and her well-to-do best friend, Julia Pardoe. Julia's parents are India's godparents.

The novel opens in 1848 Virginia. Calvin Trimble, badly injured after having been thrown from his horse is carried to his home, Longmarsh Hall, by Cyrus. Longmarsh Hall is the home of Calvin and Geneva Trimble who have three boys, Emory, Rupert and Tom. The Trimble's head house servant, Micah Cooley, fetches Doctor Junius Hooks, who after examining Calvin, declares that he will soon die from a fractured skull. The loss of a father to a family of boys would be devastating. However, when Micah's wife, Ester, prays over Calvin he makes a miraculous recovery.

In gratitude for Calvin's life being saved, Geneva Trimble makes a promise to Cyrus Moody:
"Calvin and I will protect your household and children for all the days we have left on the earth..."
In gratitude to Ester and Micah, they are granted their freedom and their own orchard land - ten acres of their best Belle of Georgia peach trees.

A third promise is also made that day - by the Spreckle sisters, Eloise and Grace, who had followed Cyrus, unseen, as he carried Calvin to Longmarsh. They saw everything that transpired and promised Geneva to keep secret what they had seen and heard that day.

In narrating her story, India states,
"Geneva Trimble's two promises at Calvin's bedside were kept. As for the Spreckle sisters' promise, it, too, was kept faithfully until it was dusted with a little time."
The novel skips ahead twelve years to July 30, 1861. India is waiting for her best friend, Julia Pardoe to arrive at a party at the Trimble's to celebrate the Confederate victory at Manassas. Mr. Pardoe predicts "The war will be long and brutal" and that "The North will draft as many young men as they need into a war machine and they will slaughter us." The Pardoes are Quakers who are pacifists and do not bear arms nor fight in wars. Julia tells India that her family is leaving the Valley to live with her father's cousins in Ohio. Her brother Alden will be sent to Oberlin in September to prevent him from enlisting. Julia begs India to come with them but she does not.

Because of the war, life for India changes drastically. School closes and her father enlists in the Southern army despite the fact that he knows he cannot kill another man. Cyrus arranges for Emory Trimble, now twenty and well educated to tutor India in scriptures and penmanship. But India has other ideas; she is fascinated by Emory's glass room which contains all of his scientific experiments. India manages to convince Emory to teach her about chemistry and biology, especially about bacteria and molds.

Emory squirms in his chair. "...Girls aren't supposed to read chemistry or botany. Lots of men say they can't use it in life, and it hurts girls' minds to think like men."
"Do you believe that?" I ask him.
He toys with a pencil and then meets my eyes. "No. Not for a second do I believe that,..."
"Supposing this?" I tell him. "When science commences to hurt my mind, I'll scream, and then we can stop and go back to the Godly river."
It is Emory who carefully nurtures India's love of natural science and in doing so, encourages her to work towards her goal of entering the college in Oberlin, Ohio which she has learned about from Julia. Emory prophetically tells India that after the war, a new world will appear.

"There will be a new day," says Emory. "The war will be the end of more than slavery. Women are going to do all kinds of things they were never allowed to do.....Women will go to college, own property, everything. You wait and see."

At Christmas the Trimbles are visited by a doctor from Germany who explains that the death of soldiers could be prevented if only the American doctors would sterilize their scalpels. But Dr. Junius Hook is offended by such a suggestion. At this dinner there is a confrontation between Tommy Trimble and a neighbour, David Hunter Strother who tells Tommy he is fighting for slavery. 

Like most other women during this era, India watches as the men around her are gradually sucked into, and consumed by the Civil War. in the New Year, Stonewall Jackson's brigade passes through on their way to West Virginia. Tommy Trimble is among the men and he tells India that her father has been assigned to the quartermaster's corps. After a severe ice storm, India learns that Tom Trimble died of pneumonia. Tom's death makes Emory more determined to continue his research into saving the soldiers from dysentry, typhoid and pneumonia. Tom never finished the pills Dr. Germany gave him and Emory suspects that bacteria causes many illnesses.

When India tells Emory about Oberlin accepting women he tells her he will prepare her to write the entrance examination. However, after a visit by Jeb Stuart, a general in the Confederate Army, during which Emory again fails to convince Stuart of the need to keep the drinking water clean and sterilize instruments, Emory accepts a commission in the Confederate army as a captain in the medical corps. He is stationed at Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond.

In August of 1862, India's Pa comes home suffering from dysentery. He is forced back into the army by Captain Davis in September, still unwell. India has just received from Emory, a box of salicin pills for her father. India decides to take the medicine to her Pa and races to catch up to Captain Davis. India crosses into western Virginia and at Shepherdstown is told that a terrible battle is raging at the town of Sharpsburg. Near Sharpsburg, India encounters a group of people watching the battle from the hills and witnesses firsthand the slaughter.
"On the actual battleground below us the great mortars and Napoleon cannons boom, shooting their screaming shells, load as direct-overhead thunderstorms. From deep in the innards of the earth where I stand...come echoing rumbles. At each new fusillade the ground under my feet shudders and bucks with exploding rage."
India sees "thousands of mouse-colored mounds", some of which move. A reporter tells her these are the wounded and dying soldiers. The battle only stops when night descends and the army of medics come to save those they can. A blood red crescent moon rises over a battlefield filled with thousands of dead and dying men. As she walks through the battlefield looking for her Pa, India sees people scavenging the dead and she herself takes the wallet from a dead Union soldier.

India returns home with the retreating Confederate army and learns the next day from Captain Davis that Pa passed away from a fever. He tells her that her father is buried on the north side of the Sharpsburg church. In an effort to help India heal her mind from what she has experienced, Calvin Trimble teaches her Latin while Geneva teaches her piano and water colours.

Death and destruction rage on, consuming more and more lives. Rupert Trimble dies in the bloody battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and Longmarsh Hall now becomes a field hospital. Emory and India grow closer together as Emory asks her to transcribe all his field notes so he can publish a paper on bacteria. But later as conditions worsen in the South, Emory asks India to leave the Shenandoah Valley because rumours indicate that Ulysses Grant will be Lincoln's next general and he plans to burn the Valley to starve the south. In March 1864, the rumours blossom into truth and India's Uncle Peter and Aunt Divine arrive to take India and her family to Kettletown. But life with her Aunt is unbearable and India leaves to return to Shenandoah Valley.

India returns to find the Shenandoah Valley burned, the crops destroyed and the beautiful orchard at Longmarsh Hall ruined. She now fears Emory is dead having not heard from him in many weeks. At Longmarsh Hall, Geneva and Calvin take in a wounded Confederate soldier. David Strother, now a captain in the Union Army arrives one day and demands they turn him over. Known for his temper, Strother has the Trimble's possessions burned and takes them away as prisoners of war, while India manages to escape.

India, Micah and Ester return to Longmarsh Hall and this time discover an injured Yankee soldier, Henry Bedell, has been abandoned to his fate. Bedell who was Strother's lieutenant is badly wounded and almost dead but India rides to Harper's Ferry and gets the necessary medicine and food.  When the Spreckle sisters discover India's secret they tell Dr. Hook. It now appears that the South will lose the war and like many southerners, Hook furious at the black slaves, threatens Micah and Ester to turn over their soldier. However, at the urging of Micah, they manage to get Bedell to the Union Army at Harpers Ferry. There she meets up with David Strother who tells her he knows where Emory Trimble is and that he will help her. On their journey to Point Lookout Prison in Maryland, Strother confesses to India that he is ashamed of what he did at the Trimble's home.

India and Emory meet again and as they wait for the war to end, Emory encourages her to travel to Oberlin and enroll in the college there. He tells her he will wait for her.

Wells spent twelve years researching the Civil War and it pays off handsomely in this well written, realistic portrayal of life during the Civil War period. The story is told from the perspective of a young Southern girl whose views mirror those of the adults around her, that the war is about "the preservation of our way of life" in the South which the Trimble's neighbour, David Strother tells Tommy Trimble is a euphemism for slavery. Strother tells Tommy it's about "blacks down in the Delta get worked till they drop dead. Pregnant women. Children." However, Tommy argues that the South needs the slaves; "Without our slaves there would be no one to work the fields, Strother, ..." But it's apparent the people of the South know exactly what slavery entails as India states that "Polite Virginians actually prefer the word servant to slave. The newspapers call slavery Our Peculiar Institution, or sometimes The Southern Way of Life, but we all know what we mean by that." which sees the war as a fight for the euphemism of "the preservation of our way of life". Even Geneva Trimble tells India later on that "...No matter how slavery is justified, we know in our hearts it is wrong..."

Wells does an outstanding job portraying the horror of the Civil War without being too graphic. The author is able to convey how easily it is to make war but how hard it is to find peace. The reader comes to understand both the physical and emotional toll on soldiers and families who had to cope with severe trauma without the benefits of modern medicine. Ironically, the knowledge that would have saved thousands of American soldiers existed in continental Europe at the time. However, the practice of medicine in America during this period was significantly behind that of Europe. Thousands of soldiers on both sides lost their lives because doctors did not wash their hands.

Another aspect of war effectively portrayed in this novel is the conflicting loyalties that result when friends and brothers must fight against one another, neighbours against neighbours and soldiers who trained to together at military camp are now on opposing sides. David Strother is a Virginia boy, a neighbour of the Trimbles, but he enlists in the Union Army because he believes slavery is wrong. Micah and Ester's son, Caesar, fights for the North, because his parents were once slaves.

Wells also points out how war changes people. Strother was a man known for his temper prior to the war, but war weakens him further when he behaves badly at the Trimbles home when searching for the Confederate prisoner. He tells India that "War takes all humanity from a man," although India states that only some men experience this. Henry Bedell, a Union soldier who helped burn all the Trimble's belongings is a husband and a father to three small children. Yet after being helped by Micah and India, he realizes what he has done and tells India "I am ashamed of my army...We came to free the slaves, and all we've done is ruin your beautiful valley and humiliate your people." He tells her the pure, romantic notion of war is nothing.

At the center of novel is the main character, India Moody who grows into womanhood during the war. India holds fast to her dream of obtaining an education despite the fact that she is a woman and poor. Both her Pa and her Mama tell her it is impossible, but India is determined. India, with her determination to forge her own life and her perseverance during this difficult time, is determined  to achieve a different, promising life for herself. Mama tells her that she is worried if India lives her life in a way other than what God has ordained she will not see her in heaven. But India feels that she cannot live the same life her as her mother; "'Mama, I cannot live a life such as yours,' I say as gently as I can." She has a desire to learn about the world around her and to help Emory make the practice of medicine actually help people.

Red Moon At Sharpsburg is a brilliantly crafted and historically accurate novel from the well-known author of the beloved McDuff stories.

Wells draws many well known Civil War figures into this book including Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and Uylsses Grant to mention a few. Despite the overall sad tone of the book, it ends on a hopeful note, with the possibility that Emory and India will share their lives together.

Those readers interested in learning more about the Civil War are directed to the following links:
Civil War Facts

Causes of the American Civil War

The Battle of Antietam

Highly recommended.

Book Details
Red Moon at Sharpsburg by Rosemary Wells
New York: Viking Penguin Group  2007
236 pp

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Shadow of His Wings by Fr. Gereon Goldmann OFM

This book is the wartime story of Gereon Goldmann, a German who eventually became a Franciscan. Fr. Gereon grew up in Fulda, a city renowned for being very Catholic. Although his mother died when he was a young boy, Gereon grew up in a large Catholic family. His father married his mother's younger sister and together they had 5 more children.
Gereon's story is about coming of age in a desperate time, when Nazism gripped Germany. When Adolf Hitler came to power, Gereon had to confront Nazi ideologies head on. His strong Catholic faith was his weapon, along with a deep, intense prayer life. But Gereon was not above physical confrontation with Nazi youth groups and he often debated zealous Nazi teachers. He was also arrested and punished for his opposition to Nazism.


Despite the growing persecution by the Nazi's, Gereon was able to secretly enter the Franciscan novitiate in Gorheim-Sigmarinen in 1936. He finished his studies in philosophy in 1939 at the age of 22 but was then drafted into the German army. Gereon soon found himself one of 200 young student theologians who became part of the Wehrmacht.
His story is one of God's immense providence in protecting Gereon through the grueling training and the intense persecution by Nazi officers. In 1940, Heinrich Himmler, impressed by Gereon's courage granted him and the other theologians permission to carry out their religious duties without further interference from the anti-Christian officers of the SS.
However, when the SS attempted to force Gereon and the other theologians to repudiate their faith, Gereon was expelled from the SS. None of his fellow Catholics signed Gereon's written rejection of Nazism. He was expelled and eventually sent to Russia and to Italy.
Gereon was able to meet Pope Pius XII and was also granted permission to function as a priest despite never having studied theology. Fr. Gereon writes with wit and directness. His deep faith is evident throughout.

Book Details:
The Shadow of His Wings. The true story of Fr. Gereon Goldmann OFM
Translated by Benedict Leutenegger
Ignatius Press 2000
345pp

Sunday, February 7, 2010

By The Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead.....

Daelyn Rice has tried several times to kill herself. Unsuccessfully. But this time, she plans to succeed. She wants to be a "completer". So she logs on to Through-the-Light, a website she accidentally stumbled upon. Unknown to her parents, she creates an account and has 23 days to self-terminate. Along the way she meets others who have similar intentions and we follow her as she researches potential ways to kill herself.
So begins the story of the final days of Daelyn which she counts down, one by one. During these days we learn that Daelyn was bullied mercilessly for being fat. She suffered through fat camp, Girl Guides and other diastrous situations. According to her, almost every aspect of her life has been a failure and it's time to check-out, permanently. Her last attempt at suicide, was unsuccessful and left her with a damaged esophagus and vocal cords. She wears a neck brace and can't speak as she heals from this latest attempt.
But Daelyn doesn't count on meeting Santana, a boy she soon learns is dying from Hodgkins lymphoma. And so author Julie Anne Peters sets up an interesting contrast; a girl who desperately wants to die meeting a boy fighting to stay alive and for whom life is precious, even if it isn't great. Santana is quirky, kind and likes Daelyn. In his own way he seems to understand Daelyn. Santana is an endearing lovable character who I was able to identify with. Although it's not apparent to him, he gradually seems to be reaching into Daelyn's soul and stirring the hope she so desperately needs.

IN the end, he makes Daelyn an offer that might change the course of her life. She finally has to make the decision to trust one last time, to take a risk or to give up and end it all.

By the time you read this, I'll be dead, is dark and intense. You want Daelyn to open up, to try one more time to make things work out. I felt angry with her that she didn't fight back more and near the end of the book, Daelyn herself seems to be coming to some sort of recognition of this. Her parents, although well meaning, see clueless and disengaged from her inner life. Their relationship with their only child seems superficial and dysfunctional.

An outstanding, riveting treatment of a difficult topic for teens. This book considers many aspects of issues that are all too common for todays teens:the effects of bullying, suicide, and teen depression. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson is yet another teen novel exploring ideas about death, life and what it means to be human.

Jenna Angeline Fox is 17 years old and she's been in a coma for a year. Jenna along with her best friends, Kara Manning and Locke Jenkins were in a terrible accident. She can't remember the accident. She can't remember her name. She can't even remember her life before. To  help her reclaim her memories, her mother makes her watch videos of her past life.

However, more than just her memories are missing. There are things about her situation that Jenna can't understand. Why can't she eat regular food? Why can't she remember her past life very well? Why can't she leave the house? Why has her family moved from New York to California while her father still works in New York at his top secret company, Fox BioSystems? And what about her mother's brilliant architectural career there?
And then there are other odd things. Why won't the birds feed out of her hands? And why is her grandmother so distant and hostile?

But when Jenna cuts her hand, she learns the unbelievable truth about what she is and what has happened to her. Filled with anger and shock, she must now deal with her new self. But what is she exactly?

Well written, although slightly predictable this novel touches on the timeless theme of what makes us human?  Is it just our bodies? Or maybe our souls and minds? Jenna must deal with her new identity. She must also forgive her parents for what they have done to her.  I didn't expect the true circumstances of Jenna's existence to be revealed so quickly in the book but it was interesting to see how maturely Jenna deals with the issues of life, death and what it means to be human.
Highly recommended.


Book details:
The adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
Henry Holt and Company 2008
266pp