Friday, April 29, 2011

Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers

Just saw this today and thought I'd give it a plug. I don't watch television so I'll have to catch this on DVD. But it looks to be an outstanding documentary. Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers tells the story of this young Polish Catholic social worker who organized other women so that they could save thousands of Jewish children from extermination by the Nazis.Jewish babies were spirited out of the ghettos and placed with safe families, while older children were led out via sewers and secret passageways.
Have a look at the video and check out the PBS website for more information:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Upcoming Movies: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Anyone alive in the late 1960's and early 1970's most certainly had to have watched The Planet of the Apes if not in theatres, then most certainly on TV. The movie directed by Franklin J. Schaffner was released in 1968 and starred Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell and Linda Harrison. The movie tells the story of three surviving astronauts who land on an unknown planet in the year 3978 AD. They discover that the human population is wild and mute and that simians rule the planet. Humans are hunted and either killed or used for experimental purposes.

Of the three astronauts who survived to land on the planet, only Taylor is left. At first he is wounded in the throat, resulting in him being made temporarily mute. Two chimpanzee researchers, Zira, an animal pyschologist and her fiance, Cornielius who is an archeologist believe that Taylor is intelligent. Eventually he regains his ability to speak and addresses the apes who are shocked that a human creature can speak. However, the rulers of Ape City put Taylor on trial and try to decide what to do with him. Dr. Zaius, an orangutan administrator tells Taylor that his presence threatens the existence of the ape society. He tells Taylor that he must lie about his origins, otherwise he will perform a lobotomy on him.

At this point Zira and Cornelius intervene and kidnap Taylor and the mute female human, Nova and take them to the Forbidden Zone. They do not know why this area is forbidden, except that Cornelius has found evidence of an earlier advanced civilization that was not simian.

They are pursued by Dr. Zaius who is captured by Taylor. Zaius tells them he knows about the earlier advanced human civilization but that this information has been kept secret to protect the ape civilization. Hence, the Forbidden Zone. He exiles Taylor and Nova who eventually discover that the planet is in fact Earth, destroyed in a global nuclear war.

I was too young to catch the movie when it first came out but I remember watching it and the many sequels late at night with my younger brother.

Well now, it seems we are going to be treated to a prequel of sorts entitled, Rise of the Planet of the Apes which will do exactly that- tell us how the apes came about ruling the world.

You can watch the trailer below:

A more detailed discussion of WETA's involvement in creating the special effects for this movie can be found below:

Personally, I can't wait to see those damned dirty apes once again!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

What if love were a disease? A deadly disease?

Magdalena Ella Haloway (Lena) will turn 18 on September 3. On that day she will have "the procedure" to cure her from the disease of "falling in love" or as it is known, "amor deliria nervosa". It's been sixty-four years since love was officially declared a disease and since that time everyone gets the procedure done in Portland to cure them.
Portland is like most other cities in the United States, walled in by miles of electrified fencing, strictly regulated and controlled to prevent outbreaks of deliria nervosa. Regulators patrol the streets searching for "sympathizers" and those who might be sick. To prevent developing the terrible affliction or deliria nervosa, each person undergoes an "evaluation" prior to their 18th birthday where they are rated and paired - that is, matched to people with similar characteristics. They are then assigned a marriage partner and after being "cured" are allowed to marry. Scoring high on the evaluation is all that matters. It means getting assigned a great job and a good marriage partner.Those who resist being cured or have evaded the cure are known as invalids. They live outside the cities in what is known as the Wilds, where the cured believe they live like diseased animals.

Lena Haloway lives with her Aunt Carol and her younger cousins Jenny and Grace. Lena's mother had the procedure done three times, all unsuccessful in curing her disease. Just before her scheduled 4th procedure, her mother committed suicide by stepping of a cliff. Her father is dead and her older sister Rachel, now cured is married and lives away from home.
Delirium begins 95 days before Lena is scheduled to have her cure. She can't wait because the cure will make her life uncomplicated and protect her from the disease of love. It will also mean an end to the shame and humiliation of her mother's incurable disease. For Lena, it is "the chance to be reborn: newer, fresher, better. Healed and whole and perfect again...."

"I don't like to think that I'm still walking around with the disease running through my blood. Sometimes I swear I can feel it writhing in my veins like something spoiled, like sour milk. It makes me feel dirty. It reminds me of children throwing tantrums. It reminds me of resistance, of diseased girls dragging their nails on the pavement, tearing out their hair, their mouths dripping it."

Before her cure she must attend her evaluation to get ranked and assigned a marriage partner. However, Lena's evaluation is disrupted by a protest organized by the Invalids who unleash a herd of cows into the labs where the evaluations are held. It is during this disruption that Lena first sees Alex watching and laughing from an observation deck. Lena is immediately attracted to Alex.

Hana Tate is Lena's best friend. Unlike Lena, Hana is not so eager to be cured. She tells Lena that she is sick of all the rules and walls. She wants to make her own choices in life and not have to do what others tell her to do. As Hana begins to rebel, Lena finds herself drawn to follow her. In the first instance of rebellion, both Hana and Lena who like to run take a forbidden route that leads them down to the labs where the evaluations are held. It is here that Lena again meets Alex who works at the labs as a security guard.

Hana discovers that there are many people, not just Invalids, who don't believe in the cure and who post rebel music, thoughts and comments online. She invites Lena to a music concert out at a deserted farm where Lena again meets Alex. Eventually she begins to secretly see Alex, meeting him on the beach near her home. At first Lena is intensely conflicted about going to music concerts and also about meeting Alex. She is unnerved by Alex's free and open way of living and expressing emotion, his being totally unafraid. But as Lena learns more about Alex she comes to understand that Alex really cares for her.

Alex opens Lena's eyes to the truth of the society she is living in. The people of Portland are being lied to and controlled in ways they cannot imagine. Alex tells her that "Everyone is asleep. They've been asleep for years. You seemed....awake." When he asks her what she is afraid of Lena tells him, "You have to understand. I just want to be happy....I just want to be normal, like everybody else."

In their own world, Lena experiences the stirrings and liberation of a first love - a forbidden love, which if discovered, could lead to her early cure as well as punishment and humiliation for her and her family. Complicating this is that her match is someone she doesn't love and whom she knows she could never love. He isn't Alex. Lena must decide; does she get the procedure and marry someone she will never love or does she make a decision that will change her life forever?

This book was a fantastic read - breathtaking, poignant and sad, rushing to a thrilling but unresolved ending. A perfect setup for the second book in this trilogy. Lauren Oliver has definitely created a uniquely disturbing world in which adults are treated to prevent them from ever experiencing deep feelings of love for anyone or anything.

Although Delirium is very much plot-driven, Lauren Oliver takes the time and care to detail the characters of Alex and Lena. Lena is a girl who wants more than anything to be secure, to be safe, since all she's known her entire life is that she comes from a mother who was incurable."After the procedure I will be happy and safe forever."

The second book in this trilogy is slated to be titled Pandemonium. Hopefully more will be revealed about the Wilds, the Invalids and their attempts to subvert the controlled society of the cities. There are other things I hope to learn about too, but discussing them here would spoil the book! Enjoy this fantastic novel!

Book Details:
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
New York: HarperCollins Publishers

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Puppet by Eva Wiseman

Eva Wiseman’s young adult novel, Puppet tackles the subject of blood libel which is the false belief that certain religions use the blood of children in their religious practices. In particular, the Jewish people have been singled out as partaking in this practice, using the blood of Christian children to make matzos, a type of bread, for their Passover and have suffered persecution as a result.

There have been many blood libels throughout history. Puppet tells the story of the blood libel of Tisza-Eszlar in Hungary in 1882-83. The story is told in the voice of Julie Vamosi, a simple girl who lived in the village of Tisza-Eszlar. Julie lives with her dying mother, her abusive father and her younger sister, Clara. Although Julie is a purely fictional character, the events she relates and the people she interacts with are true. Wiseman based her story and the accounts presented in Puppet on those that appeared in Egyetertes, a daily Hungarian newspaper which was published at that time.

In the spring of 1882, 14 year old Esther Solymosi, a Christian, disappears on her way home from an errand to Kohlmayers. Her mother who is very distraught over her daughter’s disappearance feels certain that the Jews murdered Esther for her blood. Julie is a friend to both Esther and her sister Sophie as well as to the young Jewish lad, Morris Scharf who will play a prominent role in the blood libel of Tisza-Ezslar.

Julie is present when some women from the village try to bribe 14 year old Morris and his younger brother, Samuel into believing that the new Jewish butcher, Solomon Schwarcz kidnapped Esther and slit her throat. Eventually what starts out as a lie is accepted as fact and the Jewish men of the village are rounded up and incarcerated, including the synagogue butcher, Abraham Buxbaum and Leopold Braun, Morris and Samuel Scharf and their father. Finding that Sam is too young to testify, Morris is beaten and intimidated into accusing his father and several other Jewish men of killing Esther. The hatred and prejudice of the village people leads to the Jewish men being tried in the district court in Nyiregyhaza.

Wiseman inserts her fictional character into the story in order to recount the events from the perspective of a young person who thinks for herself and who witnesses events behind the scene. Julie bears no prejudice against the Jews. She was friends with Morris prior to Esther’s death and her and her family have been well treated and helped by the Jewish people of Tisza-Eszlar. She never judges Morris Scharf, recognizing that he has been manipulated and maltreated by people who should have been concerned with learning the truth rather than acting on their prejudices.

While many readers may find that Julie’s presence at all of the key events - the bribery of the young children, the jails where the Jewish men were held and at the trial – are overly coincidental, the retelling by Eva Wiseman is effective. The key characters in the event, notary Joseph Bary, the brutal court clerk Peczely, Chief Recsky, and the kindly Christian lawyer Karl Eotvos are well developed.

The book,Puppet, is aptly titled because Morris Scharf is no more than a puppet in the hands of authorities who are supposedly unbiased and responsible for overseeing community safety and judicial matters in a fair manner. Scharf, young and easily intimidated, was manipulated into testifying against his own father and his own people by those who hated the Jewish people living in their village and their country. Morris the Puppet is very much the opposite to the puppet, Leslie the Brave who boldly defeats evil in the play that Julie and Sophie watch at the beginning of the story.

Wiseman has written an excellent book on a difficult subject and one which many young people likely haven't heard about. Puppet is a book that informs readers about how prejudice and ignorance can result in the most terrible actions that one group of people might inflict upon another group who are different.

For more information on this event, you can read an entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia (

Book Details:
Puppet by Eva Wiseman
Toronto: Tundra Books 2009
243 pp.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

for Freedom. The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

For Freedom tells the true story of Suzanne David, a former opera singer AND a spy for France.
Suzanne David is just 13 years old in 1940 when the Nazis invade France. She and her best friend Yvette attend a convent school in Cherbourg. Suzanne's family include 14 year old Pierre, and 16 year old Etienne who is lame. She is studying to be a famous opera singer under the tutelage of Madame Marcelle.

Both Suzanne and Yvette experience a horrific bombing of Place Napoleon in Cherbourg, on Wednesday May 29, 1940. While Yvette is emotionally scarred for life, Suzanne is "not one who cries". This was the beginning of the war for Suzanne. Although France had been at war with Germany for six months, Suzanne relates that " was not that I was not paying attention to the war but that I never thought the war could hurt me."

A short time later, Paris is bombed and the French give Paris up to the Nazis to preserve their beautiful city. Eventually Cherbourg with it's ammunition depot and submarine base succumbs. Suzanne's father decides to help the Nazi's run the French railroad. He takes the position that in order to survive one must "obey the rules and no one gets hurt." It is apparent that Suzanne does fully believe this will work and nor is it the right approach.

The German army takes over the houses on two streets in Cherbourg - one of them being the street Suzanne's family live on - Rue Lohen. The David's lose their home and are taken in by the Herberts who allow them to stay in their basement. The David family soon finds an apartment near a cemetery. During this time, France signs a treaty with Nazi Germany and France is divided into two parts; occupied France and Vichy France with a puppet government under German control.

Within weeks Suzanne's family is able to return to their home, now abandoned by the German soldiers. To their horror they discover that the German's not only stole all their possessions but destroyed the inside of their home as well. Suzanne struggles to understand the wanton destruction and the theft of personal items:
"Why had they taken things that meant nothing to them?...Everything was gone. I walked around and around my empty room, trying to make sense of it. Gone were clothes, toys, books and photographs."

When early in the war, her family is discussing spies, Suzanne considers this possibility:
"I stared at Papa, hearing his words over in my mind: if I were a spy. I didn't think for one moment that Papa was actually a spy, but the phrase awakened a sense of possibility in me."

Life continues on for Suzanne amid the war. She is cast as Josepha in the opera, L'Auberge du Cheval Blanc. In July 1942, Suzanne continues to travel to different cities singing and taking lessons from various instructors. The Nazis begin rounding up Jews in France.

In the spring of 1943, Suzanne is preparing to sing Carmen. When she inadvertently cuts herself with a knife, her shoulder becomes badly infected and she goes to see Dr. LeClerc who is impressed with her courage and toughness. It is this quality plus the fact that she travels throughout France that prompts LeClerc to ask Suzanne if she would like to help him in his "work" - the work of carrying messages. Suzannne agrees and becomes number 22. The messages Suzanne carried were instrumental in helping the Allies plan the D-Day invasion.

The author has written a short, high interest novel about an important French heroine in World War II. For Freedom is fast paced and mostly plot driven with little real character development beyond that of Suzanne. I highly recommend this short novel for students who might not be avid readers and need something that is high interest or who require a short historical novel for English class.

You can read an excerpt from For Freedom here and also check out Bradley's other novels at her website.

Book Details:
For Freedom. The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf 2003
181 pp.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

exposed by Kimberly Marcus

Once again my appetite for novels in verse was well satisfied by exposed, a debut novel from Kimberly Marcus.
Sixteen year old Elizabeth Grayson is Photogirl- photographer extraordinaire. Her forever-best friend is Kate, Mistress of Modern Dance.

Kate comes over to Liz's home for their once a month sleepover. Instead of having a great time together however, the two girls fight. Liz insists that Kate should dump her boyfriend Trevor and that she is afraid to take risks. Kate accuses Liz of hiding behind her camera. The evening ends with Kate sleeping alone downstairs. When morning comes, Liz finds her best friend gone.

As the days pass by, and Liz tries to repair her friendship with Kate, she finds herself being pushed away. When she finally gets up the nerve to confront Kate, her shocking revelation is the beginning of the unraveling of both girl's lives. As rumours and accusations fly, Liz is consumed with guilt as she tries to sort out fact from gossip.

Kimberly Marcus has written a a beautiful short novel that deals with a sensitive topic. How does one sort out who is telling the truth, especially when one of the versions of truth comes from a family member? Here is a sampling of some of the poems found in exposed:

Letting Me Have It

She's silent
for a long minute.
Then she looks straight at me,
straight through me,
and tells me
it was such a big deal.


I run,
not knowing where I'm going, but I run.
Around the building, down the street,
my sneakers smacking the pavement so hard,
shooting fire up my shins.

I run past twelve years of friendship,
matching clothes and birthday parties,
jumping on beds and catching crickets,
too-long phone calls and belly laughs,
passing notes and building dreams.

This was a well written novel in verse that I managed to read in a few hours.
I look forward with great anticipation to more from Kimberly Marcus.

Book Details:

exposed by Kimberly Marcus
New York: Random House 2011
255 pp.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Books on my Shelf

I wish reading books could be my full time job. As the saying goes, "So many books, so little time!"

Here are the ones on my "to read" shelf for the next 3 weeks. It's impossible that I will read them all. Some will have to be deferred but I'm going to try my best:

I never said it would be easy! And there are lots more great books coming out this spring and summer!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Gayle Lemmon came to Afghanistan in the winter of 2005. She was on winter break during her second year of an MBA at Harvard Business School when she decided that she wanted to act on her desire to write about stories no one else was covering. The stories Lemmon thought she might want to tell were those of women working in war zones. Previously she had written a piece about women entrepreneurs in Rwanda - a country whose male population was completely decimated as a result of the genocide.

In 2005, Lemmon arrived in Kabul looking for the stories of women who had survived the numerous wars, invasions and cultural changes of Afghanistan. She was looking for women who had not just survived the Soviets, the Taliban and the post-Taliban eras but those who had successfully initiated entrepreneurial projects.
"Most stories about war and its aftermath inevitably focus on men: the soldiers, the returning veterans, the statesmen. I wanted to know what war was like for those who had been left behind: the women who managed to keep going even as their world fell apart. War reshapes women's lives and often unexpectedly forces them - unprepared - into the role of breadwinner. Charged with their family's survival, they invent ways to provide for their children and communities."

Initially the author was looking for a story about Afghan women post 9/11 and what sort of businesses these women were developing. Eventually she learned of Kamila Sidiqui, a young entrepreneur who got her start as a dressmaker during the Taliban regime. Sidiqui, whose family is Tajik, Afghanistan's second largest ethnic group, lives in Khair Khana, a northern suburb of Kabul. Her father, Woja Abdul Sidiqi whose family hailed from Parwan in the north, was a senior military officer for the Afghan army.Together, he and his wife Ruhasva were the parents of 11 children, nine of them girls!

Essentially the Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story of Kamila Sidiqi as she struggles to survive during the Taliban occupation of Afghanistan beginning in 1996. Sidiqi's story wouldn't be so exceptional if it weren't for the fact that she overcame enormous obstacles - ones North American women couldn't even comprehend, in the most imaginative and determined way.

Sidiqi's story begins at the point where she has just received her teaching certificate from Sayed Jamaluddin Teacher Training Institute and is about to commence her studies at Kabul Pedagogical Institute, a coed university in the capital. It is 1996. Afghanistan is rocked by civil war now that the Soviets have left. The triumphant Mujahideen are now fighting amongst themselves for control of the capital, Kabul. And it is the Taliban who are winning control over more and more areas of the country.

Kamila's hope was to earn a bachelor's degree and eventually become a professor of Dari or literature. If the Taliban win and take over Kabul, Kamila realizes that this will not happen. She has heard rumours that when a city is overtaken by the Taliban the women must leave school and cannot even leave their homes unless they are accompanied by a mahram. Taliban controlled cities require women to wear the full length burqua, known in Dari as a chadri. When the Taliban finally do overrun Kabul, all this comes to pass.
Kabulis watched helplessly as the Taliban began reshaping the cosmopolitan capital according to their utopian vision of seventh-century Islam. Almost immediately they instituted a brutal - and effective - system of law and order. Accused thieves had one hand and one foot cut off, and their severed limbs were hung from posts on street corners as a warning to others...Then they banned everything they regarded as a distraction from the duty of worship: music, long a part of Afghan culture, and movies, television, card playing, the game of chess, and even kite flying, the popular Friday afternoon pastime....
But of all the changes the Taliban brought, the most painful and demoralizing were the ones that would fundamentally transform the lives of Kamila, her sisters, and all the women in their city. The newly issued edicts commanded: Women will stay at home. Women are not permitted to work. Women must wear the chadri in public."
The effect on the women of Kabul and even on Afghan society itself was disastrous. Girl's schools closed and women vanished from the streets. Forty percent of civil servants and more than half of the teachers in Kabul were women. They were now unemployed. For families headed by widows the consequences were particularly devastating. Many of these women were the sole support for their families, often having lost their husbands in the many years of war. These families had lost their principal breadwinner. The loss of so many workers also affected the general day to day running of the government.

Many families decide to leave Kabul for Pakistan or Iran, but the Sidiqi family decides to stay. Eventually Mr. Sidiqi decides to move to his hometown of Gulbahar in Parwan and his wife eventually follows. They decide that it is too dangerous for the remaining daughters to travel north so they will remain in Kabul. But it is clear that Kamila and her sisters need to find a way to support themselves. What they initially thought would be a short-lived edict restricting women in society, was now becoming ridiculously entrenched with further rules such as prohibitions against walking in the middle of the street, mixing with strangers, wearing chadri which showed the outline of arms or legs, or going out without a mahram (male relative). What Kamila needed was "a plan that would allow her to earn money while staying within the Taliban's rules...."

Kamila decided tostart her own dressmaking venture. She had her older sister Malika teach her how to sew and how to use a sewing machine and then she and her sisters prepared samples of dresses to take to shop-keepers with the intent of securing orders. Her younger brother Hajeeb was her mahram and together the two of them were able to navigate through the Taliban rules to start a flourishing dressmaking business. Eventually, the business expanded to teaching other women how to sew and how to set up their own businesses.

Kamila was eventually asked by two Afghan women who worked for UN Habitat to join Community Forums in which women took part in jobs and social programs they designed and supervised. Profits earned were redirected back into the forums to fund more projects. The Taliban allowed these forums as long as only women participated but this was still a risk for Kamila. But Kamila's desire to help other women especially when the need was so great meant she could not refuse.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Kamila has focused on women and business, training women in microfinance, and in entrepreneurship. Eventually she launched her own company, Kaweyan which is responsible for training people how to turn their ideas into a business plan.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a story of one woman's desire to help not only herself but other women too and of her brilliant accomplishments. It was amazing to read how these young women helped each other - their wonderful warmth and deep concern for neighbours and those around them. Whenever women in need came to the Sidiqui house, the family always responded by taking them in to work.

Lemmon has told Kamila Sidiqi's story because in her own words,
"Brave young women complete heroic acts every day, with no one bearing witness. This was a chance to even the ledger, to share one small story that made the difference between starvation and survival for the families whose lives it changed."

Book Details:
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
New York: Harper Collins Publishers 2011
256 pp.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

girlworks the magazine for smart girls

There aren't too many magazines for teens, especially girls,  that I can honestly say I'm thrilled about. At the library where I work, we have J-14, Teen Vogue, Seventeen and twist. Many of the students read Cosmopolitan whose primary focus is on sex.
Recently we began receiving girlworks, a magazine for tween and young teen girls published out of Georgetown, Ontario. I can't say enough great things about this magazine. It is a high quality publication, colourful, with a great layout, and incredible, well written articles. girlworks bills itself as a magazine that covers "the serious, the fun, the hip, the bent - the real" - and it certainly does all that and more!

girlworks is published bi-monthly with each edition divided into ten sections. While there are the usual features on health & beauty, and fashion & style, there are also unique sections such as "girls in the world" which profile girls with special talents or who are famous and careergirl which focuses on a specific career.
For example, the Mar-Apr 2011 edition provides information on the career of optometry which is the specialty concerned with providing primary vision care. This is a career option that many young women might not necessarily consider. Each careergirl section contains an interview with a woman working in the specific career featured.

One of my favourite sections is FANART  where readers can submit pictures they have created for publication. It is this aspect of girlworks that really appeals to me because readers get to generate some of the magazine's content, including poetry and book reviews.

The technogirl section deals with technology issues that might be impacting young women today. Recent editions of the magazine featured  articles on the recent craze of hauling, back to school computing and technology and fashion.
There's really something for everyone is this magazine. The health and beauty tips are informative and the fashion finds which are generally reasonably priced and trendy are presented in a simple attractive way in the fashion and style section.
One final bonus: almost no ads.
I still feel I just haven't done this magazine justice!
If you'd like a subscription check out

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Upcoming YA novels I'd like to read!

Here's just a few of the upcoming books I am interested in reading in the next few months. All of these books are slated for release in May 2011.

Canadian author Janet Gurtler's book I'm not her is a young adult coming of age novel which explores the relationship between two sisters, beautiful popular Kristina and her smart but mostly invisible younger sibling, Tess.

Compulsion by Heidi Ayarbe explores the world of a teen boy who has OCD.

Jennifer Brown's newest offering, Bitter End explores the issue of abuse in a romantic relationship. Alex feels she's met her "soulmate" in Cole, a handsome new student at her school. But as the relationship becomes increasingly violent Alex must make some hard choices.

Tempest Rising by Tracy Deebs is about a young mermaid, Tempest Maguire who must make the choice to either stay on land or return to the sea. Tempest has been living on land for 16 years but does her destiny await her in the depths?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hunger Journeys by Maggie De Vries

Hunger Journeys is set in 1945 in Amsterdam during the end of World War II. The story begins with the residents of Amsterdam, including 17 year old Lena and 15 year old Piet anxiously awaiting the arrival of the liberating British army on September 4, 1944. But they are quickly disappointed. Liberation is not yet at hand and life returns to the struggle it has been for the past few years under Nazi occupation.

The Nazi's have absolute control over the Netherlands, and rigidly control everything in Dutch society in an ongoing attempt to subjugate the Dutch people and starve them into submission. In Amsterdam, the Nazi's control who may enter and leave the city. Most of the population is now starving. Conditions are somewhat better in the countryside because the farmers can grow their own food and at least hide some of it. Every day people manage to leave Amsterdam in search of food for their families. Every day the city people must travel further out to find food. It is a dangerous undertaking and people call these trips the "hunger journeys".

Like other families in Amsterdam, Lena's family is starving. There is her mother and father, her 19 year old sister Margriet, 15 year old Piet, and younger sister Bep. Her mother, pregnant, is suffering the most. At first Lena and her sister Margriet travel through the countryside in search of food. It is dangerous and the German soldiers often steal whatever the two girls manage to obtain. When the new baby, Nynke arrives prematurely,  the situation grows desperate. The baby is early and malnourished and Lena's mother is starving. At this point Lena agrees to  accompany her friend Sofie Vogel across the Netherlands to Almelo where there are reports of more food. Despite the danger and the many flaws in Sofie's plan, Lena takes the risk in the hopes that she might be able to send food back to her starving family. For Sofie however, the motivation is adventure and the possibility of meeting boys.

With fake ID and passes, they board a train but are soon discovered by German soldiers. When a dangerous situation is averted, the two girls by chance are helped by two other German soldiers, Albert and Ulrich, to reboard the train on it's way east to Almelo. Sofie begins a serious relationship with Uli almost immediately and it is this choice that will have disastrous consequences for her. But Lena is different from Sofie as she resists Alberts attempts to befriend her. She still sees Albert as a German, an enemy soldier who is the cause of much of her family's  and her country's suffering. In an attempt to win her friendship Albert tells Lena he is different from Uli. He tells Lena,
"I am a sign of war, I suppose... but not in real life. Not a home, where I belong. Do you know what I do when I am at home? I stick flowery patterns and stripes and curlices on people's bedroom and living-room walls. I am a wallpaperer. Not a soldier. Just a man. I am twenty-nine years old, and I am alone. I have been away from home since I was twenty-four."

However, soon Lena discovers that the train they are on is also used for something evil.
"The trains had been used for a terrible purpose. She knew that, or at least she had heard. But on this terrible journey, she had not given it a moment's thought. Not for one second had it occurred to her that what was for her an adventure was for thousands of others a death march, that this very car might have held such passengers. Now she knew...."
This knowledge makes Lena feel that she cannot develop a friendship with Albert because he too has been a part of a great evil. She experiences tremendous conflict because she is developing an attraction towards Albert. But the discovery of what the Germans are doing is too horrific to be ignored. Sofie has no such qualms regarding Uli. Lena appeals to Sofie's conscience telling her that she is not being true to how she was raised. Soon however, Lena comes to realize that Sofie has not been completely honest with her about many things and she learns that there are things she doesn't know about Sofie's family.
The two young women eventually reach Almelo and are taken in by two separate families. Sofie stays with the Klaassens while Lena lives with the Wijmann family. It is in Almelo that Sofie realizes the consequences of being a "mof lover" and Lena finds the courage to fight for what she really believes in.

Although Hunger Journey's begins in 1944, we learn of the early years of the war in flashbacks where Lena tells about how she lost a Jewish friend and the arrival of Sofie Vogel into her life. We see the effect war has on the Dutch people, their attitudes towards the Jewish population and how even her own family acquiesce to Nazi values.

Maggie De Vries has written a brilliant novel with an exciting plot and wonderfully developed characters that are poignantly realistic. Lena is the good girl struggling with her blossoming emotions around German soldier, Albert and trying to make sense of a world where most are just trying to survive. She tries to maintain her moral integrity and do what is right. In contrast to Lena, is Sofie, the emotional young woman who is determined to leave Amsterdam, have adventures and doesn't mind doing whatever she wants with men. Sofie never stops to consider what the consequences of her actions might be. Even minor characters such as Piet Berg and Annie Wijmann are well developed.
De Vries captures the struggles young men and women must have experienced during this trying time as well as the horrors of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
An excellent historical fiction read, that is highly recommended.

Book Details:
Hunger Journeys by Maggie De Vries
HarperTrophy Canada 2010
278 pp.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Upcoming Movies: Soul Surfer

Update 11/04/11:
Read an interview with Bethany Hamilton and the actress who plays her in Soul Surfer, AnnaSophia Robb in Relevant.

You can read a review of Soul Surfer here.

One of the movies I'd love to see this month.
Soul Surfer  is a dramatization of the Bethany Hamilton story. On October 31, 2003, 13 year old Bethany went surfing off of Kauai, Hawaii. That morning her life changed forever when a 14 foot tiger shark bit off her left arm. She was helped to shore by fellow surfers but nearly died after losing almost 60 percent of her blood. After several operations Bethany returned a month later to the water and surfing! Her skill in the water and her faith in God helped her to survive. She eventually achieved her goal of becoming a professional surfer.

Bethany wrote a book about her experience which is titled, Soul Surfer.

You can check out more about Bethany at her website.

Check out the movie trailer below. The cast includes Helen Hunt (Cheri Hamilton), Dennis Quaid (Tom Hamilton) and AnnaSophia Robb as Bethany.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Traitor by Gudrun Pausewang

Fifteen year old Anna Brunner lives in Stiegnitz, a small village located in the Sudetenland - a predominantly German speaking border area of Czechoslovakia that was annexed by Hitler in 1938. Steingnitz is a mere 10 miles from the border of the Czech Protectorate. During the week, Anna studies at a school in Schonberg where she boards with Frau Gisela Beranek. On the weekends she travels home via train to Mellersdorf and then walks to Steignitz where she lives with her mother Marie Hanisch, her grandmother and her 14 year old brother Felix. Her father, Felix Brunner, a circus conjurer, committed suicide when Anna was young and her older brother Seff is away fighting on the Eastern Front.

One day on her way home to Stiegnitz, Anna Brunner discovers tracks in the snow weaving in and out of the forest. She follows them home to her family's barn where she discovers a cold, emaciated and ill man hiding their hayloft. Puzzled and believing him to be a lost mental patient from a nearby institute, Anna gives him shelter and clothing. Her family doesn't know and Anna still doesn't clue into who she is helping even when she learns that seven escaped men have been shot and the eighth man is still being sought.

However, Anna is horrified to discover that the man in the barn is the sole survivor of eight Russians who escaped from a prisoner of war camp days before. Anna now faces a serious dilemma. If she turns him in, he will be shot. If she helps him, she is helping an enemy of Germany and she will be a traitor and executed.
"To deliver up a terrified, half-starved man to shot like an animal -- how could she reconcile that with her conscience? She couldn't live with guilt like that, and she didn't want to!"

Anna experiences intense inner conflict based on what she sees in the escaped Russian soldier - a helpless man who is grateful, respectful and suffering and what she has seen in posters that portray Russians as bloodless murderers. She recognizes that people can have both bad and good in them and that this is not just restricted to people of a certain race.

"Frau Bernaek had objected that all the good was never on one side, not all the evil on the other. Not even now. She was of the opinion that 'Next to the good in every individual, there is also evil."

Unlike Felix who acts as a foil to Anna, she does not have others tell her what is right. She is not so accepting of the indoctrination of the Hitler Youth and the German Girls League and the German government and tries to think for herself. While thinking about what her father would have done with the Russian soldier she ruminates on the problem of good and evil:

"You knew it too, she thought, this problem of good and bad. If you were still alive, you could see it in your son. In Felix, whom you never knew. He's convinced that anything that benefits the German people is good. But he lets others dictate what that is....But he leaves it to others to decide for him what's good and what's bad. That's why I'm afraid of him, Father. I'm afraid of my little brother!"

Anna sees that Felix is becoming more and more radical and that her grandmother and mother are afraid of him. For Felix, Russians and Czechs are not people. They are expendable. Hitler is Felix's hero and he would die for him.

Eventually as her emotional burden increases and Anna struggles to find food for the soldier, she tells a friend about what she has done and this woman agrees to help her supply the hidden soldier with the necessities of life. But as the Germans lose the battle after battle and their country is invaded by the advancing Russians, Felix becomes more radical and Anna, although happy that the Russian soldier will finally be able to meet up with his advancing army, is worried about how she and her family will survive into the peace.

This novel has a shocking ending which I won't reveal and which the reader would never anticipate. Gundrun Pausewang has written a stunning psychological thriller right to it's unexpected and horrific end. I highly recommend this novel, although don't be surprised if teen readers are not satisfied with the ending.

Book Details:
Traitor by Gudrun Pausewang
New York: Carolrhoda Books 2004