Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Year in Review: Best and Worst of 2011

I've read many books this year, some have been fantastic, enjoyable reads, others not so much.
Below are a few of my top reads for 2011. I haven't put them in any specific order but definitely Delirium is up there along with a 2010 book, Matched (which my library system didn't receive until 2011) as probably my overall favourites.

Top Young Adult Fiction Books:

1. The Future of Us by Jay Asher
2. Delirium by Lauren Oliver
3. Divergent by Veronica Roth
4. Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggari
5. Bunheads by Sophie Flack
6. Queen of Water by Laura Resau
7. How To Save A Life by Sara Zarr
8. Karma by Cathy Ostlere
9. Eve by Anna Carey
10. Goliath by Scott Westerfeld
11. The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan
12. Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Septys

Most Disappointing Books:
These books I anticipated reading but ultimately were very disappointing for one reason or another.

1. The Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson
2. The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller
3. David by Mary Hoffman
4. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer
5. You Have Seven Messages by Stewart Lewis
6. Wither by Lauren DeStefano
7. In Trouble by Ellen Levine

Top Adult Fiction Books
I managed to squeak in a few adult fiction novels but there are still many left untouched this year (again).

1. Left Neglected by Lisa Genova
2. Far to Go by Alice Pick
3. Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson
4. Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami

Best Movie:

Hands down, it was Hugo.

Weirdest Movie:

By far, it was The Three Musketeers, which despite the very original twist, I did enjoy.

Friday, December 30, 2011

An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo

This delightful little book, suitable for children between the ages of 9 to 12, is based on a true story about two children and their mother who escape from the bombed city of Dresden with a young elephant, in February, 1945. The story is told by an elderly woman, Lizzie, who is a resident of the nursing home where the narrator of the novel works as a nurse.

The nurse's son, Karl, has developed a friendship with the elderly Lizzie and she frequently tells him about how when she was a girl, she came to have "an elephant in the garden". At first Karl's mom is skeptical but on February 13, they find the old woman very upset in her room. When Karl's mom asks Lizzie if the date has any special meaning for her, Lizzie tells her that it was the day her life changed forever; "On February the thirteenth I am always sad. The wind in the trees, it makes me remember."

At this point they encourage Lizzie to recount the events some 65 years earlier. Lizzie who was known as Elizabeth then, her mother whom they called Mutti and her younger brother Karli, lived in Dresden. Elizabeth's father was a German soldier serving on the Eastern Front, fighting the Russians, while her mother worked at the zoo in Dresden. The people of Dresden worried about the bombing of their beautiful city, which so far had been spared. But the Allies where concerned that Dresden would be used as a headquarters to attack the advancing Russians and so there were rumours that a bombing was coming. Because of this Mutti and the staff of the zoo worried about what they would have to do to the animals should such a thing occur. They knew that all the wild animals would have to be shot. Karli was very distraught over this and Mutti hatched a plan to save Marelene, a young elephant.
One night Elizabeth and her brother, are surprised to see an elephant in the garden. Mutti has brought Marlene to stay with them at night. The young elephant has become increasingly distraught over the death of her mother and Mutti is trying to help the animal cope.
On the night of February 13th, Elizabeth, Karli and Mutti decide to take Marlene for a walk in a nearby park. When Marlene is enraged by a barking dog, she takes off after it, leading them away from home and the center of Dresden. Suddenly, they hear the air-raid sirens and soon after the bombers approaching the city. Too late for them to hide, Elizabeth, Karli and Mutti can only watch in horror as waves of Allied bombers fly over the city dropping incendiary bombs. With Dresden burning, they have no choice but to flee to the countryside to escape the flames. One of the strongest memories Lizzie has is of the burning, sucking wind that threatened to draw them back towards the burning city.

Eventually they do make it into the countryside traveling with the elephant seeking food and shelter and heading towards the west and safety. As a result of this journey, Elizabeth's family meets up with a downed Canadian airman hiding in a barn. This chance meeting changes Elizabeth's life forever.

An Elephant in the Garden is an engaging short novel for readers in the 9 to 12 age range. The are lovely ink and wash sketches throughout the book, which aid in bringing the story to life. But those wanting a story with a bit more depth will be disappointed. Morpurgo's style is unadorned and there is appeal in telling a story in this way.

Historical notes on this important event and a map at the beginning of the novel would have helped young readers immensely. The bombing of Dresden is an important and controversial historical event within World War II and some background material at the end would have added a nice touch to this book. That is part of the depth that is characteristically lacking in his books. Nevertheless, this story is a great introduction for young readers to an important event.

One complaint I do have is the cover of the HarperCollins I read here in Canada. This is the cover of the book I read. Meh. My favourite cover is the top one.

Book Details:
An Elephant In The Garden by Michael Morpurgo
London: HarperCollins Childrens Books 2010
233 pp.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Warhorse. Movie Review

I went to see War Horse over the Christmas holidays and overall, I enjoyed this movie very much. It is a drama about a boy and his beloved horse, whom he loses to the cavalry in theGreat War (World War I).

Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his parents, Ted and Rosie, are tenant farmers on the estate of a wealthy man named Lyons (David Thewlis). When Ted attends a local auction, he gets into a bidding war with Lyons and ends up paying 30 guineas that he cannot afford, for a thoroughbred horse that is skitterish, stubborn and completely useless to him.

When Albert sees the horse his father has purchased he is thrilled because he has loved this horse from afar for some time. He reassures his father that he will train the horse whom he names Joey, to pull the plough. Despite ridicule and hostility from Lyons and his sons, Albert does succeed in training Joey to plough and his gentle ways with the horse calm and tame him. They form a bond that is deep and lasting.

However, when disaster strikes, Ted is forced to sell Joey to the British cavalry in order to save the farm. World War I has just broken out and this means that Joey will go overseas with the British army to fight in the war. Albert is stricken to learn this but he is reassured by Captain Nicholls who has purchased Joey, that he will write to him and take good care of Joey.

What follows are the adventures of Joey throughout the Great War, as he passes from Nicholls who dies during a cavalry charge against the Germans, into the hands of many different people including the German army. Joey is deeply traumatized as a workhorse in the German army and flees through the trenches and into No Man's Land, in a final effort to escape. There in a frenzied terror, he is trapped in the barbed wire, unable to free himself and horribly wounded. When the English and Germans realize what has happened, they work together to free the injured animal. Who he will go with is determined by a toss of a coin; the English win and Joey is taken to a field hospital.

Meanwhile when Albert comes of age, he joins the war effort and is sent overseas. Albert is seriously injured in a gas attack and is taken to a field hospital to be treated. It is there that he is reunited with his beloved horse.

Director Steven Spielberg has taken an great animal story and made it into an old style Hollywood movie. The cinematography is incredibly beautiful with the gorgeous Devon countryside in stark contrast to the stark, macabre reality of No Man's Land. The acting is superb; no actor overwhelms the story and takes it away from the main character - which is of course, the horse. Jeremy Irvine is an adequate Albert.

War Horse is a book written for children ages 9 to 12 and the movie takes this into account. Spielberg captures the reality of war without all the gore and blood. For example, when the two young German deserters are caught, their execution in a field is blocked out by the timely passing of the blade of a nearby windmill. No Man's Land, pock marked, filled with corpses, smoke and fire, is eery but not overly frightening. Even Joey, when completely caught in the barbed wire, has injuries that are suggested but not really shown. A horse racing through fences and fences of barbed wire would be a bloodied mess. Just watching Joey race through the black doom of No Man's Land is enough to convey the absolute distress of the horse and the horror of it all.

The occasional use of humour to provide comic relief is well done. One of the best scenes in the movie is the interaction between the British and German soldiers as they work together briefly to free Joey. In fact, I thought that many of the soldier characters were especially well cast.

I would love to see the broadway play of the same name, in part because of the unique design of the horses.

 And I plan on reading Morpurgo's short novel.

This is a great movie, well suited for boys aged 9 to 12 years of age. At almost 2 hours in length, it's a bit long and could have been shortened somewhat by about 20 minutes. But otherwise, I highly recommend it because it's something quite different than the usual fare being pumped out by Hollywood these days.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Far to Go by Alison Pick

Either way, when I think of the human potential stolen, of the millions of little lights snuffed out, I can't help but wish that the living, at least, would embrace what was taken from the dead.

Far To Go is the interweaving of two stories - a current narrative which overlaps a historical one. The present day narrator is an elderly woman whose identity I can't reveal because the reader doesn't learn this until almost the end of the novel. The past narrative is the dominant one of the book and recounts the story of a Jewish Czech couple, Pavel and Annelise Bauer who are living in the Sudetenland in 1938 and who struggle to survive in the rapidly deteriorating conditions prior to the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland and the beginning of World War II. It is told by the Bauer's governess, Marta Mueller, 23 years of age, who comes from a troubled background.

Pavel and Annelise live with their son, Pepik, in a small town in the Sudetenland, where they own a factory built by Pavel's father. Pavel, whose father fought for the Germans in World War I, is a Czech nationalist. Pavel is the eternal optimist while Anneliese is emotionally distant, fashionable and more practical.

The Bauer's story, as told by Marta, opens with ominous indications that the Germans will occupy the Sudetenland, which they lost after World War I. Czech Jews are beginning to experience the effects of marginalization, their factories and businesses are being occupied,  including Pavel's factory. Other Jews are beaten to death or attacked. Anneliese wants to leave while they still can, but Pavel refuses, saying that they must "live what we believe in". Because Pavel insists upon staying, Anneliese decides to take matters into her own hands and does something that drives a permanent wedge between her and Pavel.

Eventually, the family along with many other refugees, relocates to Prague amid further chaos, in the belief that Czechoslovakia will safe. They are mistaken and as the crisis intensifies, they see their options slowly dwindle and eventually disappear. Unable to obtain the necessary exit visas and travel permits, in desperation, the Bauers make a decision that changes their lives forever. They decide to try to get Pepik onto the Kindertransport out of Czechoslovakia to safety in Britain.

Within Pavel and Anneliese's story is that of Marta. Marta is sexually involved with Ernst Anselm, a married man and Pavel's assistant at the factory. But Marta learns that Ernst is not loyal to Pavel and is a Nazi sympathizer. In fact, he is a sadistic and cruel man who thinks only of himself. Marta is a complex person, undecided about who to be loyal to and quite frightened of being abandoned. She has no family and is terrified she will be left behind by the Bauers, whatever they decide to do. Ernst warns her that she will ultimately have to choose and soon. Marta experiences great conflict, changing her mind frequently based on what happens in the Bauer household. The choices Marta makes directly impact the Bauers, in ways she could not have fathomed resulting in tremendous guilt. However, this guilt never seems to really impact how Marta behaves. She simply does what she feels she needs to - perhaps what many people do in dire situations.

Interwoven, infrequently with the Bauer's story, is the present day story told by an elderly narrator who is a Holocaust researcher by the name of Lisa. Among her many areas of research, Lisa also has studied the Kindertransport. The Kindertransport was a program in which Jewish children were sent out of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany to safety in Britain. It began after the pogrom of November 9 and 10, 1938, known as Kristallnacht.  Lisa is trying to make contact with someone, a person she has spent her entire life looking for. Finally, after all her years of hard work, cutting through the reticence of Holocaust survivors to share their stories, she has managed to locate this one person whom she has more than a passing connection to. Lisa sets up a meeting with this survivor which eventually reveals to the reader how all the narratives fit together -the past finally catching up to the present.

Overall, the writing in this novel is brilliant and eloquent. It's difficult not to read the Bauer's story and feel a sense of impending doom and overwhelming tragedy. We know that if the Bauer's don't act quickly, it will be too late and we know what lies in their future. Their story is all the more poignant because as Europe careens towards war, their relationship unravels, the result of personal tragedy, personal loss, betrayal and the developing crisis in Czechoslovakia. There is tragedy on many levels too - ethnic, national and personal.

One aspect that Pick is exceptional at depicting in her book is the gradual descent of Europe as a region and also on an individual level, bit by bit into racial hatred and war.  This is especially well demonstrated by the character of Ernst, who whispers to Marta, asking her if she's noticed whether Jews smell.When he blurts this out during one of their clandestine meetings, he immediately retracts it. He's not sure what he should or should not say. Later on Ernst talks about how he's is beginning to feel that Germany and the Sudetenland would be better off without Jews and that it's not about religion but race. While Marta doesn't know what she believes, she does make a point of noting whether or not Pavel smells. However Ernst is an opportunist, or maybe worse yet, a predator. He begins to actively try to seize all of the Bauer's assets. But he still has a glimmer of conscience when he appeals to Marta for affirmation. 
"He was more uncertain than he was letting on, about  his feelings towards the Jews and how his old friend Pavel might fit in with them. He wanted to be bolstered, reassured. Ernst too, Marta realized, felt guilty. Even if he himself was unaware of it."

Pick keeps her readers engaged by the ongoing mystery of the identity of the book's narrator and her connection to the Bauer family. It works well and creates a multi-faceted story that holds till the very end. Far To Go is a unique blend of historical fiction with modern mystery. There are themes of identity, loss, and betrayal throughout. A few unnecessary items creep into the story but overall a brilliantly conceived piece of story-telling.

For more information on the Kindertransport please check out the Kindertransport Association website at

Listen to Oliver Gebhardt, an 8 year old German Jew who left his mother and grandmother and was placed on a Kindertransport to Britain.

Book Details:
Far To Go by Alison Pick
Toronto: House of Anasi Press    2011
314 pp.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Under The Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

a mesquite 
in the rose garden

In the squint of morning,
before anyone else is awake,
when the roaring sounds
of unbridled verses 
rush furiously through my head,
the mesquite is my confidant.
I lean back against its sturdy trunk
and read aloud every word
imprinted en mi corazon.
The mesquite listens quietly --
as if the poems budding in my heart,
them blossoming in my notebook,
are Scripture -- and never tells a soul
the things I write.
Under The Mesquite is another fine young adult novel written by a newcomer and Mexican-American author, Guadalupe Garcia McCall. This exquisitely crafted novel in free verse tells the story of fourteen year old Lupita from Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. When she was six years old, Lupita's family left Mexico for the United States, moving to Eagle Pass, Texas. Lupita is the oldest in a family of eight children, six girls and two boys, the four youngest children having been born in the U.S.

The novel is divided into six parts each following Lupita and her family's life over the past eight years. Part One, The Weight of Words sets the stage by providing the reader with some background information important to the storyline. In addition to telling us about her family we also learn that when Lupita was in her first year of high school in Eagle Pass, she learns that her mother has cancer. This knowledge is unspoken between them. Her mother will not speak THE word because of what it means, hence the title, "The Weight of Words."
"It's okay," I whisper
against her cheek. "I know."
My heart aches
because I have heard the word
that she keeps tucked away
behind closed doors.
There is also the weight of the words from Lupita's friend, Mireya, who tells her that cancer means her mother will die. These words are poison to Lupita.

Lupita tries to bargain with God, telling him she will become a nun if her mother is cured. But, when the nuns come to get her, Lupita's mother whom she affectionately refers to a Mami, turns them away.

Part Two, Remembering tells the family's story in Mexico and their move to America. At this time Lupita lives with her Papa and Mami, her sisters Analiza and Victoria, and her brother, Paco. Soon they move across the Rio Grande to Eagle Pass, Texas. This set of poems tell of Lupita longing for the culture and landscape of Mexico.Garcia McCall's lyrical poems convey the beauty and simplicity of life in Mexico and the difficulty assimilating into a new culture. But at the same time, her family is doing well, with money saved and her mother giving birth to four more children. It is a time of prosperity and health with the family living "the American dream".
"And I doubted los girasoles
would understand me anymore,
because now I was speaking
a different language.
I swallowed consonants
and burdened vowels with a sound
so dense, the works fell straight
out of my mouth and hit the ground
before they could reach the river's edge."
Part Thee, Crossing Borders continues the story after Lupita's freshman year. On the homefront, Lupita's mother receives treatment for her cancer while at school Lupita gets help from her new drama teacher, Mr. Cortez, who recognizes Lupita's talent and encourages her to work at developing her drama skills. Lupita also struggles with assimilating into American society, while still retaining her Mexican identity.
"Being Mexican
means more than that.
It means being there for each other.
It's togetherness, like a familia.
We should be helping one another,
cheering our friends on, not trying
to bring them down."
Part Four, Give Us This Day chronicles the family's struggles when Mami's cancer returns. Lupita must try to come to terms with her mother's situation as well as the fact that the family is now struggling financially under the burden of her mother's treatments. While her father stays with her mother in Galveston, Texas, Lupita remains at home taking care of the younger children.

In Part Five, Cut Like A Diamond, Lupita is in her senior year at school when her Mami dies. As she watches her mother weaken, Lupita's pain almost overwhelms her. When she confides in Mr. Cortez, he is sympathetic and urges her to use that pain to become someone else - to use it in her acting. He encourages her to reconsider her involvement in the spring play.
"...True performers are able to turn
their most painful experiences
into art that other people
can connect with.
You do this exceptionally well..."
Part Six, Words On The Wind sees Lupita coming to terms with her mother's passing and learning to live again. At first she has a difficult time coping and spends some time in Mexico with her grandmother.  She doesn't know how she's suppose to go on living without her mother. When the laundry gets dirty after being blown onto the ground, Lupita's abuelita tells her that sometimes it's best to start all over again.

Guadalupe Garcia McCall's novel is a beautiful rendering of a teenager's struggle to cope with life changing events and the transition to another culture and to adulthood. The poetry is simple, easily conveying the beauty of life in Mexico and alternatively, the struggles in America; the happy family days and  in contrast, the tragedy of Mami's illness.

I found myself quickly rooting for Lupita and easily identifying with her struggles in life, even though I have little in common with her. Some tragedies transcend location and time and Garcia-McCall's poems reflect this.  The poem, A Night To Remember which tells of Lupita's family receiving a late night call telling them that Mami has died, tugged at my heart because I too had a similar experience when my mother died.
"Our bare feet cold
on the old linoleum,
we huddle and cry together,
fingers, hands, and arms
all intertwined.
We are tangled up"
The mesquite tree is a metaphor for the tragedy in Lupita's life. It appears one day in the middle of Mami's rose garden which like her family she has tended and it has flourished. Like the cancer, despite being repeatedly pulled out by its roots, the mesquite returns and thrives. Eventually it becomes part of the family garden. When Mami dies, the rose garden perishes too, but the mesquite is now a sturdy permanent thing. At first when Lupita sits under the tree, leaning against its trunk, the poems she writes reflect this overtaking of their lives by the tragedy. But later on, against another mesquite tree she finds hope and a new beginning. She learns to begin again.

Garcia-McCall has succeeded in writing a novel that allows readers everywhere to identify with Lupita's life, the problems she encounters, her loss and her Latino culture. Beautifully written and deeply authentic.

Book Details:
Under The Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
New York: Lee & Low Books Inc. 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

You Have Seven Messages by Stewart Lewis

Fourteen year old Malia Clover, lives in Manhattan with her father, Jules Clover, a famous film director and her younger brother Tile, so named because her mother would lay on the Spanish tile in the bathroom for comfort when she was pregnant with him. Known to all as Luna, and to her father as Moon, Luna's mother who was a beautiful model, was killed in a car accident almost a year ago. Luna is having a tough time coping with the loss of her mother partly because her father hasn't really told her much about what happened. So she decides to go to her mother's studio which has remained untouched since her death.

She finds two things of interest; "a cufflink made to look like the face of a sad theater mask" on the nightstand and her mother's cell phone which still works. Luna is puzzled by the cufflink because she is certain it doesn't belong to her father. This mystery makes Luna somewhat uneasy and she wonders if her mother was having an affair. She also is startled to see that her mother's phone has seven new messages. Luna decides that she will listen to these messages in the hopes that they will help her learn more about the circumstances of her mother's death.

At the same time, Luna befriends Oliver, a sixteen year old neighbour who plays the cello and whom she has been crushing on since grade nine. Luna confides in Oliver about the cell phone messages and asks him to help her sort out what has happened with her mother. Although he agrees, Oliver doesn't really do much to help Luna. Instead, they start to become friends.

As she listens to each new message, Luna becomes convinced that her father is not telling her the entire truth and that her mother was living a life that Luna knew very little about. The reader expects each message to be unusual and mysterious but in reality they aren't. Instead of this novel developing into a mystery story, it takes off in an entirely different direction with Luna's father giving her a vintage camera and her relationship with Oliver breaking up. Luna's work with the camera eventually leads her to Europe where she reunites with Oliver.

Instead of Luna uncovering information about the accident and her mother's secret life, she learns most of what she wanted to know through two people - her father and her Uncle Richard who lives in Tuscany, Italy. Along the way, Lewis works in numerous references to well known Hollywood stars such as Drew Barrymore and Orlando Bloom.

Readers expecting a mystery will be disappointed, as was I. Although the initial premise of the book was promising, it never really succeeds for me. You Have Seven Messages is one of those books that is difficult to make work. It is a difficult task to craft messages that are both clues, and yet not outside the realm of ordinary.

A strange aspect of this book is that the main character is referred to by FOUR different names; Malia (her mother), Moon (by her father), Luna (by her friends) and Fifteen (by Oliver)! Although initially I liked the character of Luna, as time went on, this changed. Luna seems spoiled and insular, appearing to have few close friends. She is opinionated and at times even creepy.

When Luna confides in a classmate about her budding romance with Oliver, Luna goes on to criticize the choice of abstinence and identifies those who choose abstinence as prudes.
"There are girls at my school who wear these silly bracelets and preach about abstinence. Even our Health Ed teacher tells us that it's our choice, that whatever we choose to do sexually, we just have to make sure we're safe and responsible. Aside from them, most everyone has experimented in my grade...I just got sidetracked and kind of gypped out of last year because of Mom dying."

Luna's view that she wasn't able to experiment sexually in the past year because of her mother's death makes her seem shallow and self-centered. Her parroting of her Health Ed teacher's words demonstrate a character who doesn't really think much for herself.

Other times Luna seems creepy as when she mentions having watched a porn movie with one of her friends. When she thinks about how innocent her friend Oliver is she wonders, "Suddenly, I want him to be mine to corrupt, forever." It's a chilling, sad statement from a fifteen year old girl.

I'd love to be able to recommend this book, but I think there are plenty of more interesting young adult novels to read these days. Pass on this one.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Violet by Tania Duprey Stehlik

Violet is dreading her first day at her new school. She is worried she might not be liked by anyone, but her mother encourages her to just be herself.When Violet arrives at school she sees red kids, yellow kids and blue kids and she tries her best to blend in.

After a day of crafts and fun, while waiting for her dad to pick her up, someone points out to Violet that her father is blue. Caught off guard, Violet realizes that she is not blue or red or yellow like the rest of her classmates. Why isn't she blue like her father or red like her mother?With some help from her mother, Violet learns that it doesn't matter what colour your skin is.

Violet is a poignant story with an important message reminding us that the colour of our skin is unimportant. What is important is to be true to ourselves. Each person is unique in their own way, regardless of skin colour. Violet is beautifully illustrated by Vania Vuleta Jovanovic, a multimedia artist based in Toronto, Canada. Jovanovic's unique style further enhances the message of this delicious little picture book!

Book Details:
Violet by Tania Duprey Stehlik
Toronto: Second Story Press  2009

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

Based on Brian Selznick's juvenile novel, The Invention of Hugh Cabret, Hugo is a beautiful story brought to life on the big screen in a dazzling manner. Directed by Martin Scorsese, Hugo is reasonably faithful to Selznick's story of a 12 year-old orphan boy living in the Paris train station during the 1930's. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lived with his father who was a worker at the museum repairing clocks and other mechanisms.

One day his father returns home from work with an automaton, an intricate Victorian type of robot that works using clock mechanisms. This automaton is broken and so Hugo and his father set out to repair him, keeping detailed notes in a book. But before his work is completed, Hugo's cherished father dies in a fire at the museum and he is collected by his rough uncle who is in charge of keeping the clocks in the Paris train station in working order. Devastated by his change of circumstances, Hugo cherishes the automaton, which he manages to take with him, and sets out to repair it. When his uncle disappears, Hugo continues to maintain the clocks in the station while hiding from the eccentric station master(Sacha Baron Cohen) who delights in capturing children without parents and sending them to the orphanage.

But fate steps in, in a way that Hugo could never anticipate. Partaking of petty thievery in the station, in order to obtain the parts necessary for his automaton, Hugo is caught stealing by an elderly man who runs a toy booth. He takes Hugo's father's notebook on the automaton and refuses to return it. Desperate to retrieve the last item he has of his father, Hugo follows the old man to his home where he meets Isabelle, the old man's god-daughter. Isabelle is just waiting for an adventure and she agrees to help Hugo recover his book from Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne.

Hugo tells Isabelle he needs his father's notebook back because he is repairing something. Hugo takes Isabelle to the theatre to see the movies, something her "Papa" doesn't allow her. After leaving the theatre, Hugo and Isabelle have an incident at the station and it is at this time that Hugo sees that Isabelle has something he needs - something to make his automaton finally work. This opens the door not only to an amazing adventure for Hugo and Isabelle, but also reveals a secret long kept about Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne. We learn that Papa Georges is the long forgotten but once innovative Parisian filmmaker, Georges Melies. Papa Georges career petered out after the First World War, with most of his groundbreaking films lost or sold to be melted down.

Hugo and Isabelle delve into Papa Georges life and with the help of a film researcher, Rene Tabard, help to recover his lost history.

Hugo is a breathtaking cinematic version of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, with beautiful sets that are well shown in the 3D medium. My only complaint is that the visuals are so intense, especially enhanced by the use of 3D, that the characters sometimes have a tendency to get overwhelmed. It's hard not to focus on the stunning special effects, although Asa Butterfield is certainly able to capture and hold the viewers interest. With his intense blue eyes, Butterfield is a compelling actor with an expressive face. Both Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are engaging young actors, who were well cast for Hugo.

I also feel that although this is a kid's movie, the storyline might be a bit too complex for younger viewers - not entirely the fault of Scorsese. Selznick's books, although meant for juvenile and young teens, have detailed plots with plenty of twists. And the plot does drag a little in the middle. But overall, I felt this was an enjoyable, entertaining movie.

You can check out Brian Selznick's website about the book and the movie here.

You can watch the trailer below:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Seventeen Ultimate Guide to Style. How To Find Your Perfect Look by Ann Shoket

Seventeen, the most popular and best-selling teen magazine has published what it calls its Ultimate Guide To Style. This guide is divided into three parts. The first part is "Your Ultimate Style Guide" which highlights "six iconic style vibes" to help young teens find their own fashion style. The six styles are girly, edgy, boho, classic, glam and indie with each style guide featuring seven sections. Each of the sections are divided into the following pages; "must-haves" including eight essential pieces, a what to wear section featuring how to turn the "must-haves" into an outfit, a girl whose style fits that section, a celebrity whose fashion style matches that of the section, tricks to try with the featured look, a "Look Book" featuring photos from celebs and the runway and finally where to shop to get the look.

The second part of the book is "Your Ultimate Accessory Guide" which features shoes, bags, jewelry and so forth. The third part, "Your Ultimate Fit Guide" has an great section on jeans and the style best suited for different body types.

There are plenty of great photos throughout, making this an excellent visual guide for each of the six styles. The layout is clean and funky with bold fonts and lots of colour. Each style has its own unique design. My only complaint, is that some of the runway models featured in the photos are painfully thin - even anorexic in my opinion. However, the majority of models chosen to present each style type are healthy looking and wholesome.

This is a great book for teens and early twenty- something women to check out their style and get their fashion game on.

Book Details:
Seventeen Ultimate Guide to Style by Ann Shoket & The Editors
Running Press 2011
187 pp.

Friday, December 16, 2011

In Trouble. A Novel by Ellen Levine

In Trouble is a short novel that attempts to document what it was like in the 1950's for young women experiencing a crisis pregnancy, hence the title "in trouble". The novel tells the story of two girls, Jaime Morse and her best friend Elaine over the span of four months, from March to June of 1956. The author sets her novel in the McCarthy era, when Cold War America was on the hunt for any type of communistic infiltration of society. Attitudes towards people who were different were unaccommodating and the strict social norms of that period were not to be broken, for any reason.

Told in Jaime's voice, the novel opens with Jaime talking to Elaine who wants her to help set up a weekend away with her college boyfriend, Neil. Elaine wants to stay with Neil who has been pressuring her to have sex, saying that he has told her "it's a sign I don't love him if I won't". Jaime agrees to help her friend although she doesn't feel this is the right thing for her friend to do.

Eventually Elaine confides to Jaime that she is pregnant. When Jaime offers to get her aunt to "help" her, Elaine tells Jaime that as a Catholic she cannot have an abortion.

Jamie who is in high school also hints that something terrible that has happened to her.
Now when something happens -- I will not think about It. I will not remember It. I will NOT -- I cannot tell anybody, not Elaine, not Georgina, who's my closest friend now that Elaine is gone.
Not anybody.
Not ever.

Although Jaime won't tell anyone and she doesn't want to think about what happened, the reader soon learns that she went to visit her cousin Lois in Greenwich Village and was date-raped by her cousin's friend.

All of this is set against the backdrop of Jaime's father returning home after being imprisoned for just under 11 months for being a member of the Communist party years ago. As well the author sets the tone of what it's like to be pregnant and unmarried in 1956. Girls who are "in trouble" are suddenly sent away when their "time comes". There are the requisite discussion about sex education, condoms and abortion circa 1956.

Soon Elaine's parents learn of her situation and she is taken to Catholic Services where she signs away her baby to be adopted. In 1956, as a single mother, she doesn't have the option of keeping her baby. Elaine loves Neil, who now won't have anything to do with her but who pressured her into sex in the first place. She wants his baby, but she isn't being allowed really to have any say in what will happen to her or her baby. Elaine's parents haven't been much help to her either - telling her that she's ruined their life!

Eventually, Jamie is able to tell Paul, a boy from the school newspaper when they are on a date, what has happened to her. The panic that she feels when she first suspects she might be pregnant is truly heartrending. She can't believe what is happening to her and Levine creates a great deal of empathy for Jamie in her descriptions of how she feels and the terror and helplessness Jamie experiences over becoming pregnant.

Elaine has her baby at a Catholic orphanage but it is taken away from her and she is understandably traumatized. Levine also effectively portrays the loss and the terrible pain Elaine feels in giving up her baby which she truly loves and wants. "They took away my beautiful baby." she tells Jamie.

There are several things I found problematic about this novel. As the representative Catholic character in the novel, Elaine is portrayed as stupid, unrealistic, ignorant and naive. She believes to the very end that her lover, Neil, will come get her at the maternity home and marry her. Although Jamie views Elaine as having been "forced" to have her baby, Elaine tells Jamie that she loves her baby and she loves Neil. Her false hope contrasts with Jamie's realistic view of her predicament.

In comparison, Jamie, who decides upon abortion is portrayed as intelligent, realistic and in some ways very savvy. She knows how to get the information she needs to make the "choice" that will free her from the burden of her unwanted pregnancy.

But Jaime rationalizes her abortion choice primarily by denying the humanity of her unborn child.

She tells Elaine that her unborn child is a "prebaby".
"Elaine, hello. You don't have a baby. You've got a pre-baby in you. Not a baby."
To which Elaine responds,
"A baby, Jamie, it's a baby and it's mine."

Later on she tells her parents:
"I love you both," I said, and I meant it. "But I can't. I don't know all of the why. It's not just going to college." I touched my belly. "This is not a baby yet, and I can't let it be one. I mean, how could I have a baby and not take care of it?"

In Trouble contains a few bits of abortion rights rhetoric. For example, when Jaime tells her mother what's going on with her friend and that she is being forced to give up her baby for adoption, her mother admits it's a terrible choice. But Uncle Maury has the following response:

"The only terrible thing," Uncle Maury said, "is when someone brings an unwanted child into the world."

Of course, Uncle Maury is referring to the oft-repeated feminist mantra that "every child a wanted child", implying of course that wantedness confers humanity and makes a pregnancy, a baby. Abortion of course, will rid the world of unwanted children.

I also noticed that the choice of adoption is portrayed as very traumatic one, while the choice of abortion appears to have little negative outcome. We are told how Elaine feels after the adoption - a choice she didn't want or really make. But in contrast, we are not presented with the effects of abortion on Jamie, because the novel ends at this point. However, a point is made that the abortion allows Jamie to regain her life and that it is a good choice because it was the choice she wanted.

In Trouble is a good starting point for a discussion about abortion, premarital sex, teen sex, rape, adoption and single parenting. It is also useful in providing a starting point for a discussion on how society has changed in its views of single mothers, premarital sex and rape. I found it interesting that not one adult in the story reported the rape of their cousin/daughter. Lois simply sends her young male friend packing and Jamie's parents never really address their daughter's rape at all. Single mothers were strongly discouraged from keeping their babies mainly because at that time there was still great shame in having a baby outside of marriage and because there were few support systems in place for single mothers.

In Trouble attempts to demonstrate to teens what it was like to have an unplanned pregnancy when abortion was illegal in the United States. It is based on the author's interviews with many women who experienced just such a situation in the 1950s. There is no doubt that society did not offer much in the way of emotional and physical support to these women, often treating them with contempt while the men who pressured women to have sex or who raped women suffered few if any consequences. And certainly the type of help that was offered to women in 1956, often being sent away to have their babies in secret while society gossiped and judged did great harm. But that has all changed today.

Levine states in her author's note that women now have choices and in particular the choice to abort and that they would do well to remember what it was like in the days of coat hanger and back alley abortions. It is my opinion that abortion is not a reasonable choice to offer a woman in a situation that is both complex and intensely emotionally charged. The situation today for women with an unplanned pregnancy is much better - more options such as single parenting, and adoption along with a huge change in societal expectations and morality.

Book Details:
In Trouble by Ellen Levine
Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Lab Lerner Publishing Group 2011
200 pp.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

Imagine you are 16 years old in 1996. Your dad gives you your first computer and your best friend brings over a CD-ROM that allows you to access AOL. You download AOL, log on and find yourself on a website called facebook. This website is unlike anything you've ever seen mainly because it seems to have pages of personal information - information about you - in the future!

This scenario is exactly what happens to Emma Nelson and Josh Templeton in The Future of Us. Emma downloads AOL from Josh's CD-ROM, onto her computer and inexplicably she is able to access her facebook account 15 years into the future when she is 31 years old. Of course, Emma and Josh have no concept of what facebook is and at first both of them believe the entire thing is a prank. But it soon becomes evident that this is no prank. Their pictures look like them, only older, and there is plenty of personal information such as pictures from high school, who they work for and more importantly, who they are married to that suggest this is for real.

The novel follows Emma and Josh over the period of six days as they struggle to come to terms with what they learn about their lives in the distant future. Told in alternating points of view, Emma and Josh discover that what they do in the present has ripple effects in their future lives. Based on what she sees on facebook, Emma discovers that her future is not a happy one. Josh, appears at first glance, to have secured for himself a happy, easy life, married to the most attractive girl in his high school and working for her father.

Emma soon discovers that every time she logs onto her computer, her facebook status changes, depending upon the choices she has made that day. Emma immediately sets about trying to manipulate her future into a happier one. But it seems, no matter what she does, she is always destined to be unhappy.

Although Josh assumes he's happy in the future, his facebook page is more vague about what his life is really like. While it seems that marrying the prettiest girl in the school might be wonderful, the more he learns about his future, the more he wonders. And when Josh starts to date Sydney, it just feels wrong. Is it because it's too soon in their lives or is there another reason?

Both Emma and Josh struggle to understand the choices they've made in their future lives. The reader learns almost immediately that Emma and Josh have known each other since they were little kids, spending all their time together. But during the previous year things changed when Josh developed a crush on Emma, and she didn't have the same feelings for him. This drove them apart and their relationship has become awkward and strained. Suddenly, with them spending time together checking their facebook, they begin to grow close again.

Josh tries to make Emma understand that she doesn't have enough information about the future to know fully what has happened and why things aren't working out. He tries to discourage Emma from attempting to manipulate her future. He is also afraid of how Emma's actions will impact his future life which appears to be a happy one.

Eventually both Josh and Emma must confront that fact that they will only be happy in their future life if they remain true to themselves in the present and if they are honest about how they feel towards one another. Emma tends to date guys based on their physical appearance - a pattern that she apparently takes into adulthood. Emma begins to realize that things are wrong in her future not only because of things she is doing now but also because of what she isn't doing.

The Future of Us is a wonderful story based on a brilliant idea that really works. Asher and Mackler explore the concept of happiness and how our choices affect us and those around us throughout life.
This book will appeal to adults in the thirty-something age bracket because they will have been teens in the mid 1990's and will be able to identify with how different society was before the rise of "social media". They will be able to identify with the "what if" this happened to me!

One item that more tech savvy readers will want to overlook is the believability of a computer in 1996 being able to load a facebook page as it exists in 2011 via dial up. I doubt that capability would have existed in 1996.

Book Details:
The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Caroly Mackler
New York: Penguin Group 2011
356 pp.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Wolf by Steven Herrick

Ever since I can remember,
my dad has talked about the wolf.
From the age of five,
I'd sit beside him on the back step,
We'd look across the paddocks of sheep
into the forest shimmering in the afternoon heat,
the two of us sure the wolf would come
if we sat here long enough.

The Wolf tells the story of two teens, fifteen year old Jake Jackson and 16 year old Lucy Harding who are neighbours on opposite sides of the Wolli River in Australia. They spend a night together in the bush, attempting to locate a "wolf" they believe lives nearby.

The Wolf is a novel written in verse with a group of poems each forming a chapter. Herrick begins his novel by telling us first about Lucy and then about Jake, both of whom form the principal first person voices in the novel.The story is told in alternating points of view, with the occasional poem by Peter.

Both live on sheep farms in the valley, but their families couldn't be more different. Jake lives with his father and mother in a home filled with love and care. His father loves his mother and their family life is happy. Jake describes his mother cooking a roast to celebrate their wedding anniversary. He does things with his dad like help him build a hen house and the veranda on their house.

In contrast, Lucy's family, comprised of her parents and her younger brother, Peter, is dysfunctional. Her father is a mean, violent man, who drinks and who blames Lucy for any misfortune that befalls the family. He physically and emotionally abuses Lucy and she and her mother spend most of their time avoiding him.

The novel centers around the lore of a wolf sighting in Wolli Creek. Jake's father has told him about a wolf he saw at Wolli Creek when he was twenty years old. However, wolves aren't native to Australia, so Jake's dad isn't quite sure what he saw. Lucy saw her father beat one of their dogs several years ago. The dog broke free and escaped into the wild. When something begins killing their sheep, Lucy's father is convinced it is their dog who is now feral. Jake's father however, believes that it is a wolf who is killing the sheep on their farm.

When Jake tells Lucy that they believe there is a wolf nearby, she tells him that it is only a feral dog. However, Lucy tells Jake that she knows where the "wolf" hides and Jake agrees to accompany her on a bush walk to the top of Sheldon Mountain. Things don't quite go as planned however, and the two teens end up spending a night together on the mountain that forges a strong bond between them. It is also the catalyst for a good change in Lucy's life. In the end, Jake's kindness towards Lucy affirms her and leads her to discover that she is lovable. But also her night in the outback teaches Lucy that she is strong enough to face her father and that his power over her will pass on just as her Grandma said it would.

The Wolf is an intriguing and well written novel in verse, with a few twists and a satisfying ending. Herrick does a brilliant job contrasting Lucy's  relationship with her father with Jake's relationship with his father, often in back to back poems. Personally, I found the poems in Peter's voice unnecessary to the storyline. They should have been edited out.

Book Details:
The Wolf by Steven Herrick
Australia: Allen & Unwin 2006

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bunheads by Sophie Flack

Sophie Flack's debut novel, Bunheads tells the story of nineteen year old Hannah Ward, a member of the corps du ballet in the prestigious Manhattan Ballet company and her internal struggle to determine the direction of her life.

Hannah, who always wanted to be a ballet dancer, left home at age fourteen to train at the company's school and is now a senior corps member, performing three to four ballets in an evening. Other members of the corps include Beatrice (Bea)Hall, Daisy, and the highly competitive, Zoe Mortimer. Otto Klein, the director of the Manhattan Ballet, is the one who chooses the ballets the company will perform and who will dance the solos. Each dancer in the corps du ballet dreams of promotion, working hard to attain this goal, often at great personal sacrifice.

One evening after being selected to understudy a solo part, Hannah decides to have dinner at her cousin, Eugene's West Village restaurant. There she meets Jacob, an NYU student who is still struggling to find his groove in life and who is also a singer at the restaurant. As her on-again, off-again relationship with Jacob develops, Hannah begins to reconsider her life and her goals. Jacob has opened her eyes to the world outside of ballet.

At the same time Hannah is also being pursued by a handsome wealthy balletomone, Matt Fitzgerald, whose jet-set lifestyle intrigues her. While Matt opens Hannah's eyes to the lifestyle of the rich and famous that ballet dancers sometimes step into, Jacob is more down to earth and relevant to Hannah's background and life.

But Hannah faces a difficult choice; to put everything into dance "Don't think, just dance." or to step outside the only world she has known to do some of the things she as an adult would now like to do.

Bunheads is definitely one of my top ten favourite teen reads for 2011.This novel succeeds because the author knows her subject. The majority of readers will not have any concept of what it is like to be a ballet dancer in a major company; the long exhausting hours of practice, the pain endured in pushing the body to its limits, the exhilaration of performing on stage and obtaining the recognition so dearly desired, the complex relationships that exist within a major dance company and the difficulty of having any semblance of a normal life outside of training and performing. But Sophie Flack is able to take the reader into that world, fill it out and make it real and comprehensible to her readers.

Hannah is a believable character who struggles to discover just what it is she wants for her life; the insular world of ballet or to discover more about the world around her. Despite her driven, high-achieving nature, when Hannah begins to see the cost of success in the world of ballet, she begins to rethink her priorities and her goals.

Bunheads is a nice change from the usual young adult fare and will appeal to those teens who are involved in the arts world, especially the world of dance. It gives them the opportunity to both the positive and negative aspects of a dance career. The novel touches on issues prevalent in the ballet world; dieting and anorexia, injuries and the social world of ballet.

Author Sophie Flack, former "bunhead" talks about her debut novel:

Book Details:
Bunheads by Sophie Flack
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Great Plague by John M. Barry Part V Explosion

Part V. Explosion. In this portion of the book, author John Barry explores the factors that led to the influenza outbreak of early 1918 developing into a worldwide epidemic. Barry describes the situation in the city of Philadelphia as a model for what was repeated in cities across the United States.

As a result of the war effort, every city is flooded with people - workers, soldiers, families. The industrial areas of cities were crowded with workers. The movement of large numbers of people to urban areas not prepared to receive them meant that there were housing shortages and few city services in place. Conditions for families were squalid, with several families often sharing accommodations. Many cities had no schools, few health services and social services were nonexistent.

Cities also saw incredible industrialization; the presence of large factories pumping out products for the US war effort were common. Shipyards were huge.

Corruption was a common feature of civil politics and especially so in Philadelphia where kickbacks were common. In Philadelphia, the corruption was especially severe because the city's mayor, Republican state senator, Edwin Vare, controlled the city's councils, legislature as well as having a strong influence in the state legislature. This meant that money that should have gone to things like street sanitation did not, resulting in filthy streets. People often paid Vare's workers to influence police and other civil authorities.

When the epidemic struck Philadelphia with the same virulence as it did in Boston, nothing was done. No quarantine was imposed and public officials merely tried to reassure the public that nothing serious was happening. The flow of information to the public was strictly controlled mainly because of the war effort.

Barry goes on to explain that to understand the pandemic in the United States, the political situation in America must be taken into account. When America entered the war, it did so with an attitude of all or nothing. Everything went into the war effort. However, most importantly, control of information was paramount.

Advertising as an industry was in its infancy but already it was recognized as offering the possibility of controlling how people responded to situations, especially crises such as a war or an epidemic.

Woodrow Wilson wanted the American people to view their sacrifices for the war effort in a positive way, so there were controls on what was presented for public consumption. The last thing Wilson and other government officials wanted was a panicked public, so they downplayed the initial beginnings of the epidemic.

Barry uses the city of Philadelphia to explain how public policy related to the war effort helped spread the influenza virus and directly resulted in the deaths of thousands. An example of this was the way the Liberty Loan parade scheduled for September 28, 1918 was handled. Depsite the fact that Philadelphia was on the cusp of the influenza outbreak, despite the fact that the next scheduled draft call was cancelled due to the outbreak in the military, and despite the fact that doctors and public health officials recommended it be cancelled it was not.

None of this was known to the public.Dr. Wilmer Krusen, Director of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health denied the threat the virus posed to the city and did nothing. Even after meeting with researcher Paul Lewis and Lieutenant Commander R. W. Plummer, Krusen still did not act. On September 28, the parade went ahead as planned, with thousands upon thousands of people in attendance. Two days later, Krusen admitted that the influenza epidemic had touched the general population.

"In ten days -- ten days! -- the epidemic had exploded from a few hundred civilian cases and one or two deaths a day to hundreds of thousands ill and hundreds of deaths each day."

Bodies piled up, undertakers ran out of coffins. Gravediggers became sick and no one was able to dig the graves. Funeral homes, morgues and hospitals were overwhelmed. Bodies were stuffed on porches, fire escapes, in rooms in homes, left on beds or stuffed into corners. So many people were ill that life in the city came to a virtual standstill. Each one of Philadelphia's five medical schools dismissed it's students. There were no doctors or nurses to treat the sick.

"The city was frozen with fear, frozen quite literally into stillness."
In the remaining part of Explosion, Barry tells the story of the epidemic in the army cantonments.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan

The Tiffin is an beautifully crafted story about a young boy full of courage, integrity and hope written by Bombay-born Mahtab Narsimhan. The story opens with the hint of a tragedy about to befall a young unmarried woman, Anahita. She writes a note to her lover, Anurag Parekh, placing it in his tiffin, a tin lunchbox which is delivered by dabbawalla's throughout the city of Bombay. The note bears shocking news which Anahita must get to Anurag and the safest way to do this is to place it in his lunch. When her regular dabbawalla is sick, Anahita is concerned that her tiffin might get lost or stolen - an almost unheard of occurrence. But in a one in six million chance, Anahita's tiffin doesn't make the train to Bombay and is lost, with tragic consequences.

The novel skips ahead thirteen years to tell the story of a boy named Kunal who works as a slave in a Bombay dhaba (restaurant) named Bombay Bahar. The Bombay Bahar supplies food for customer's tiffins, which are then sent to the train station and into the center of Bombay. Over two hundred thousand tiffins are delivered precisely at noon daily usually without ever losing a lunch box.

Kunal's life is not a happy one. He has been told that he is an orphan, dumped on the doorstep of Mrs Seth and her husband who own the dhaba. Kunal is given little to eat, often beaten, verbally abused and there are suggestions that he is enduring sexual harassment by both customers and some staff because he is very good looking. Kunal does have one friend though, and that is the older Vinayak, a dabbawalla who frequents the dhaba for breakfast every day. After another altercation at the dhaba, in which Vinayak defends Kunal, Vinayak offers Kunal a place of refuge if he should ever need one.

Soon after, Kunal decides to leave but returns to steal the wages owed to him. He is captured by Seth, who viciously beats him and decides to sell Kunal to The Beggar King, a vicious man who cuts off the legs of young boys to make them into pitiful beggars. With the help of Mrs Seth, Kunal not only escapes but learns that he is in fact, not an orphan but has a mother. The Seth's took Kunal in temporarily to help his mother who left a letter with them. When she never returned, he was left to his fate. This shocking revelation changes the direction of Kunal's life but fills him with hope. His deepest desire in life has been to be a part of a family and be loved.

From this point on, the novel tells the story of Kunal's attempt to find his long lost mother. With the help of Vinayak, Kunal learns the work of a tiffin carrier and devises an audacious plan to locate his mother.Will he succeed in what seems to be an impossible task?

The Tiffin's greatest strength lies in Narsimhan's incredible ability to realistically portray life in Bombay to young Canadians who will have no concept of living in a teeming city filled with dangers and such poverty. Mahtab Narsimhan's descriptions of India and the people are superb filling the senses through her wonderful descriptions and interesting characters. The author is able to develop each of her characters in a way that is realistic and engaging to her readers.

Not many North Americans know about tiffin lunches, although some restaurants now offer this service. The tiffin is use in India and some other areas of southeast Asia. It is a tin lunch box which at least two separate compartments for storing food. The food can be made hot and will keep warm for up to three hours. Wives of workers often make their husband's lunches or they made be made by a restaurant too. The tiffins are then delivered by tiffin wallas usually by train to all parts of the city with incredibly efficiency. Lost tiffins are rare.  Mahtab Narsimhan's novel is a great way to introduce an important bit of Indian culture to the young people of Canada.

Mahtab has a website and a blog entitled Moonlight Musings. Narsimhan grew up in Bombay and lived there for twenty five year. Now living in Toronto, Canada, she is an accomplished author who began her writing career in 2004. This novel is highly recommended for young teens.

Book Details:
The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan
Toronto: Cormorant Books     2011
192 pp.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami

"...Tight as a fist, we are, and as hard if you get in our way. Suman is the only weakness, the little finger, but Papa and I knew right away we'd have to hold her hard in our grasp. That way she wouldn't have a chance to do anything silly."

I really had no idea that Anita Rau Badami's newest offering, Tell It To The Trees, would be so chilling, so utterly disturbing.

Tell It To The Trees is a story about a dysfunctional family of East Indian immigrants whose burden of secrets spells disaster for them and others. The story centers around the Dharma family, headed by Vikram Dharma who lives in the house that his father, Mr. J.K. Dharma, built years ago in the isolated wilds of Merrit's Point, British Columbia. Living with him are his mother, Akka, his second wife Suman, Varsha Dharma, 13 year old daughter of Vikram and his first wife Harini (Helen) and Memant son of Suman and Vikram.

The novel opens with the finding of the frozen body of Anu Krishnan, a young, successful woman of East Indian descent, outside the Dharma home. Anu was a tenant who had been renting the back house on the Dharma property for the past 8 months.

The events leading up to this point are recounted in the voices of Varsha, Suman, Hemant, and Anu Krishnan, the tenant. In the voice of Varsha we learn the history of the Dharma family and the tragic family event that occurred when she was four years old. When she was four, her mother Harini left her father and shortly afterwards dies in an accident. Vikram and Harini fought a great deal and Varsha's mom went out a lot, what Varsha calls "roamings". Harini was very beautiful and she had many beautiful and expensive things which Varsha found intriguing. When Varsha asked her mother where she got them, she was told that she "found" them. She asked Varsha to keep this a secret from her father, something the little girl found almost impossible to do. When Varsha sought out her grandmother, Akka, she was told "Go tell the trees,...They won't tell a soul." Shortly after this, Harini leaves and is found dead. The reader never really learns the circumstances of Harini's death but later events lead us to consider several possibilities. Varsha was told by her father that she must forget her mother and never ever forgive her. Her father removes all evidence of Harini's existence in their lives, including pictures and all her personal belongings - thus setting the stage for the Varsha's determination not to ever lose someone again.

Eventually, Varsha's father travels to India and returns with a new wife, thirty year old Suman who arrives in Canada six months after their marriage in India. She is quiet and not very pretty but she has a good heart and is willing to love Varsha. Suman learns almost immediately that Vikram is jealous, controlling and has a terrible temper. No matter what she does it is never good enough for Vikram, who demeans and abuses her and the children.

Akka, wise to her son's ways, advises Suman again and again to leave, but the reader discovers that there are several reasons why she cannot. One of the main reasons centers around Varsha, who as her narrative develops, is revealed to be a deeply disturbed young girl. Intensely affected by the loss of her mother, Varsha will do anything to keep from losing another mother. She becomes manipulative, cruel and cunning in her plan to thwart Suman from gaining any chance to leave or even to assert herself. Varsha is also emotionally entangled with her step-brother Hemant whom she controls absolutely. Varsha, although a tragic character, is intensely dislikable, as her narrative progresses.

The entire fabric of the Dharma household is upset with the arrival of Anu Krishnan, a self-confident East Indian woman who was once a classmate of Vikram Dharma. Anu has come to Merrit's Point to take a break in her hectic life and possibly to write a book of stories. As time passes, Anu comes to understand that the Dharma family has many secrets and that things are not as they appear to be. On the outside they present an image of the perfect family, but the reality of life in the Dharma family begins to emerge as Anu gets to know Suman and Akka. Unable to bear Suman's abuse, Anu begins to support her emotionally and offers to help her. It is a decision that has heart-rending repercussions for everyone but also offers possibility to Suman. Some readers may not like the inconclusive ending....

Tell It To The Trees is the first of Badami's novels that I have read. It was amazing, unsettling and completely riveting. Despite the story being told from four different perspectives, each narrative flows seamlessly from one to the other. Although the reader knows where the story is leading (to the death of Anu), Badami is able to create a suspenseful recounting of what actually happened, with the result that both shocks and disturbs. What begins as a simple recounting of events through the eyes of several narrators increasingly becomes a psychological thriller.

This novel explores many issues including those of arranged marriage, wife and child abuse, immigrants in Canada, and especially identity. Tell It To The Trees vividly portrays the increasing isolation of the Dharma family in the Merrit's Point community - an isolation that is matched by Suman's isolation from the rest of this frightening family. The writing is beautifully descriptive and provides the reader with a definite sense of the wildness, isolation and cold surrounding the Dharma family. This is in contrast to the beauty of Suman - her colourful saris and a her delicious, unique food.

I thought the idea of the children telling their "secrets" to a tree very interesting. Varsha, overcome with guilt both her own and that of others, uses the tree like a confessional.

Tell It To The Trees is brilliant, well-crafted novel that makes me definitely want to read more from this author. You can check out this booktrailer:

Book Details:
Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami
Alfred A. Knopf Canada 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Great Plague by John Barry Part IV It Begins

Camp Funston military emergency hospital 1918.
It Begins Part IV.It is difficult to know for certain just where the 1918 influenza originated. Circumstantial evidence suggests that several people probably carried the influenza virus from Haskell County, Kansas to Camp Funston around late February or early March, 1918. Within days the first cases of influenza began appearing and within three weeks, 1100 men were hospitalized from Funston. The virus was found in military camps in Georgia and then in other camps as well as cities located adjacent to military camps. From there it is likely the virus spread to Brest, France where American troops disembarked on their way to the bloody fields of Europe. The disease spread to Chaumont and then to Paris, to Spain where it picked up the infamous name, "the Spanish flu" and onward throughout Europe, the United Kingdom as well as Asia and the Orient. Most cases were mild and there were doubts that it was in fact influenza. But there were some cases that were serious with victims dying within hours of getting sick. Then, it seemed to disappear. But as Barry writes,
"For the virus had not disappeared. It had only gone underground, like a forest fire burning in the roots, swarming and mutating, adapting, honing itself, watching and waiting, waiting to burst into flame."

In hindsight, it is easy to see now that the 1918 pandemic came in waves. The first spring wave, as mentioned above was mild, but the second wave was much more lethal.  Barry writes that a phenomena known as "passage" can cause a virus to increase in potency. It does so by passing from one animal to the next, each time adapting better to its host environment and becoming more efficient at infection.  So the first wave may have been mild due to the virus beginning to adapt to its new host (man). Then as it gained proficiency at infecting each new person, it became more lethal. Researchers believe this is the explanation for why an outbreak of mild influenza in February, 1918 in the US gradually developed into a virulent form of influenza later in the year.

By late spring, early summer of 1918, people began to die of influenzal pneumonia. The second wave began gradually with separate outbreaks of increasing severity occuring throughout America and Europe. Increasingly there were reports of ships pulling into port with sick sailors who spread the virus to dock workers, troops and others. In this manner, the virus was spread around the world.  But the worst was to come and it began at Camp Devens, a military cantonment thirty-five miles northwest of Boston. Built to hold a maximum of 36,000 men, by September 6, 1918 it was severely overcrowded with over 45,000 men. Gradually, from late August into early September, medical personnel began to see more and more men with pneumonia and influenza like illness. Staff did nothing to quarantine the sick soldiers and they were unprepared for what happened next - an explosion of illness unlike anything they had ever seen.

Suddenly hundreds of soldiers became ill with a severe form of pneumonia. There were so many sick men, that the hospital was completely overwhelmed by September 26. Not only were soldiers dying, but also the doctors and nurses treating them. The pattern was the same for most: influenza illness that rapidly progressed to pneumonia which led to cyanosis and death in a matter of hours. The men getting sick and dying were young and in the prime of their life.

When Welch, Cole, Russell and Vaughan, all top researchers and medical men, saw the dead and dying, viewed the autopsies they were "puzzled and felt an edge of fear."
The outbreak was not confined to Devens though because soldiers had transferred out of Devens immediately before the outbreak and taken the virus with them along the eastern coast of the US, into the midwest, down to Mexico and throughout the world.
Barry states that two parallel struggles emerged: that of society which now struggled to cope with the sick and the dying and that of the medical community which raced to find the cause and the cure.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Turn of Mind tells the spellbinding story of Dr. Jennifer White, a sixty-four year old retired orthopedic surgeon specializing in hands, who is implicated in the murder of her neighbour and best friend, Amanda O'Toole. What makes this story so unusual is that it is told in the voice of an obviously intelligent woman as she slips between lucid moments and periods of dementia. Jennifer recounts what is happening to her in the present but also reveals pieces of her life as she remembers them. From this the reader must try to piece together what happened the day Amanda was murdered but also must attempt to understand Jennifer's past and her relationship with the murdered woman.

The novel opens with the police questioning Jennifer in her home at 2153 Sheffield Avenue in Chicago where she lives with her personal caretaker, Magdalena. Her neighbour, 75 year old Amanda has been found dead in her home just down the street from Jennifer. Jennifer is a prime suspect because Amanda's corpse has been found mutilated - four fingers on her right hand have been surgically removed. When Jennifer is interviewed by Detective Luton, she apparently has no idea that her friend has been murdered, nor can she really provide any information to police. The persistent Luton, however, is convinced that locked in Jennifer's mind somewhere is the truth about what happened to Amanda.

Throughout the novel, the reader, through Jennifer's narration, gradually explores the complex relationship Jennifer and her husband James had with Amanda and her husband Peter as well as the relationship she had with her children, Mark and Fiona. Jennifer was married to James, an attorney, who recently passed away due to a heart attack which occurred while he was driving. Amanda and Peter, who had no children, eventually divorced after 40 years of marriage, with Peter moving to California to live with a younger woman. Amanda and Jennifer had a combative but close relationship; both women had strong personalities and were very controlling.

Jennifer's voice is authentic and very realistic when she is suffering through her episodes of dementia. This is especially so as she describes her actions and feelings whenever she wanders, whether it be from her home or from the care facility she is placed in later on. Jennifer's narration reveals that the two couples became emotionally entangled, and that secrets where discovered on both sides. It is difficult, in my opinion, for the reader to determine whether or not Jennifer did murder her friend - an indication that Alice LaPlante succeeds brilliantly in masking the truth until the very end of the novel. There are plenty of hints and plenty of potential suspects too! The ending with its ultimate (and possibly even predictable) twist is quite satisfying.

Two of the more unusual themes in this novel are that of religion and hands, both of which are separate themes and yet also interconnected. The main character, Jennifer White is a lapsed Catholic who hasn't been to confession in 46 years. Because she studied medieval history as a graduate student prior to medical school, Jennifer has managed to collect various Catholic artifacts over the years, such as a large statue of St. Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of impossible causes, and a St. Christopher medal (patron saint of travelers). But among her most prized is a copy of The Icon of The Three Hands. The latter item is worked into the novel in a fascinating way because it involves the loss of a hand, a healing and it also identifies the nature of the relationship between Jennifer and Amanda.

The icon was painted by St. John of Damascus who lived under Muslim rule and therefore was forbidden to have images or statues. The Byzantine Emperor, Leo III issued a verdict forbidding veneration of holy images, which John wrote against numerous times. When the Emperor denounced John to the Caliph, his right hand which he used to write the treatises defending veneration was cut off. After begging to be given his amputated hand, he prayed for hours in front of an icon of the Mother of God and his hand was healed. In thanksgiving to the Theotokos, John of Damascus added a third hand - a copy of his own right hand made of silver. The Mother of God icon is thus known as the Icon of the Three Hands.

An expensive 15th century copy of this unusual icon was purchased by James for Jennifer who was drawn to it, perhaps because she is a surgeon who specializes in healing hands, something the icon represents. When Amanda sees the icon she immediately covets it but not for the same reasons as Jennifer. It is something Jennifer loves dearly and Amanda recognizing this uses this situation to warn Jennifer that she knows something about her and James - a secret that could unravel their life. The reader is presented with this view of Amanda as a manipulative and controlling woman who is determined to find a weakness in James and Jennifer.

If you'd like a novel with a bit of mystery, told in a unique way and which touches on themes of love, betrayal, power, aging and identity, Turn of Mind, winner of the prestigious Wellcome Trust Book Prize, will more than satisfy.

Book Details:
Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
Bond Street Books Doubleday Canada 2011

Saturday, November 26, 2011

how to save a life by Sarah Zarr

When someone lives a certain kind of life all the time, it's hard to describe to them what it looks and feels like to someone who lives a certain other kind of life.

How to save a life is another great book by Sarah Zarr that deals in an unusual way with two teenagers trying to cope with difficult circumstances in life. The novel is written in the alternating voices of two teenage girls whose lives are very different. Jill MacSweeney is struggling to come to terms with the death of her father with whom she was very close. Jill who lives with her mother, Robin, is in her last year of high school.  Her mother has decided to adopt a baby. This was something she and Jill's father had often discussed and Robin feels that this is the time. She posts her intention online and receives a response from a girl in Omaha. Robin then takes the unusual step of inviting this teen to spend the final weeks of her pregnancy at her home in Denver, where they will arrange an open adoption.

Mandy Kalinowski is the pregnant teen who lives in Omaha with her mother and her mother's boyfriend, Kent. Mandy is determined to give her baby a chance at the life she never had living with her mother and her numerous boyfriends. When Mandy sees Robin's request online of offering to adopt a baby she responds and they strike a deal. She will give Robin her baby and move on with her life. Mandy tells Robin only what she needs to know and not all the specifics of her situation.

How To Save a Life opens with Mandy traveling by train to meet up with Robin and Jill in Denver. It is apparent from the beginning that Mandy is a very needy person who is in search of a father figure, especially when she tries to connect with a much older man sitting next to her on the train. In fact, when he leaves to go to the bathroom she manages to copy his mailing address down, despite the fact that this fellow has made it clear to her that he's not interested. After Mandy arrives in Denver and settles in with Robin and Jill, they learn that she is not as far along in the pregnancy as she indicated. The reader gradually begins to suspect that Mandy has been living under less than ideal circumstances at home and soon learns the reality of her situation, although that is not known to Jill and Robin until much later in the novel.

The relationship between Jill and Mandy in the novel is complicated. Neither of them are likable characters but as Zarr develops her characters, they grow and mature and more positive attributes are revealed. Jill is a bit goth, rebellious and judgmental. She lives the life of an upper class kid, somewhat spoiled and she is angry at her mother for bringing this strange girl into their lives, at a time when she is struggling to cope with her dad's death. In the overwhelming and unacknowledged pain of her loss, Jill strikes out against those who love her, alienating her friends and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Dylan, alike.

When Ravi Desai, loss prevention associate, shows up at Margins, the store where Jill works, she is unexpectedly attracted to him. Jill's bad behaviour is unsuccessful in alienating Ravi, whose sensitive nature allows him to connect with her. He helps Jill understand that she has changed since her father's death. Because he didn't know the old Jill who existed when her father was alive, he is more readily accepting of the person she is now. He believes that she is a good person, even when Jill hates herself and how she is so mean to everyone around her, especially Mandy. Ravi recognizes that Jill's behaviour has its source in her grief and pain over the loss of her father.

Mandy, on the other hand, is afraid of Jill, but is much stronger emotionally than she appears. Mandy has come to Denver with a plan, and that is to save her baby's life and make sure it is a life that is happy and secure. As she lives with Robin and Jill, she comes to realize that her baby will not want for anything but will not have her mother. Unknown to Jill and Robin, Mandy's feelings about the baby begin to change as she nears her delivery date, thus adding another dimension of suspense to the novel. But Mandy has no plan for herself after the birth of her baby. She has no idea what will become of her or where she will go.

As the novel progresses, the relationship between all the characters in the book work towards a resolution that is both unique, warm and hopeful. For example, Dylan helps Jill understand something about Mandy that allows her to change Mandy's life in a fantastic waym while Ravi offers Jill the possibility of a future.

I want to start again. Not necessarily in a relationship but for myself. I want to start again with me, as the me I've become without Dad here. Good and bad and all of it.

In the end, Jill offers Mandy what they both want - something different from what they both have now. For Mandy, it means saving not only her baby's life but hers as well. For Jill, saving Mandy means moving forward after her dad's death.

How To Save a Life deals with themes of friendship, loss, and identity.

Book Details:
How to Save A Life by Sarah Zarr
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2011
341 pp.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again y'all
War, huh, good God
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me
Edwin Starr, War 1969

While browsing through our extensive picture book collection at the branch where I work, I found two Dr. Seuss books I hadn't read.  I never read Seuss' books growing up but they were a staple in the extensive literary diet of my four children. In fact I collected many Suess books and we especially enjoyed Hunches in Bunches, a lesser known title. But there are two I don't have and one of them is The Butter Battle Book which was published in 1984. In this story, a young Yook (as they call themselves) is taken to the Wall which separates his people from the Zooks on the other side. His grandfather tells him,
It's high time that you knew
of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do.
In every Zook house and in every Zook town
every Zook eats his bread
with the butter side down!

The Yooks we learn, eat their bread the correct way, with the butter side up! Because of this terrible difference, all Zooks cannot be trusted and the grandfather is part of the "Zook-Watching Border Patrol". The grandfather Yook was able to patrol the border successfully for a time using a "Snick-Berry Switch" as a deterrant - and most Zooks stayed away until one day, an inquisitive and "rude" Zook named VanItch appears. VanItch breaks the Yook's switch and starts what becomes an escalating series of threats and counter threats made by both sides, until the ultimate weapon in this "cold war" is created by both Yooks and Zooks. Who will use it first?

This book is clearly a satire on the ridiculousness of war. Here we have two societies who are not all that different except for they way they butter their bread! They even look alike in the book. Their weapons look the same, so in many respects their societies are very similar. And yet, they are willing to annihilate each other solely because they butter their bread differently.

The situation outlined in The Butter Battle Book is reminiscent of the situation that existed post World War II and continued into the early 1980's between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. Their homes are filled with posters promoting their way of buttering bread. Zooks are separated from the Yooks by a Berlinesque wall.

The "Cold War" saw both sides in an escalating nuclear arms race, each possessing numerous nuclear bombs capable of annihilating one another several times over. The Cold War reached its climax with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. The bomb, in The Butter Battle Book is called "The Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo", the name of which is an obvious allusion to the first atomic bomb, named Fat Man which was dropped on Hiroshima and the second bomb, Little Boy which was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

I must clarify that I believe there are some things worth fighting against and fighting for. It was worthwhile fighting the evil of the Nazi regime, and the rapacious Japanese expansion in Asia. But many wars arise from greed, misunderstanding or intolerance.  The Butter Battle Book demonstrates that sometimes, war made for these reasons, is good for nothing....