Sunday, May 29, 2011

Life After by Sarah Darer Littman

Daniela Bensimon lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina with her mother, father and younger sister Sarita. Her father owned a clothing store and was able to support his family. Life use to be good but that was before the Argentinean Crisis of 2001. Government corruption and high debt contributed to a recession in Argentina. As a result, people lost faith in the banks and wanted to withdraw their money, changing their pesos into the safer dollar currency. The government attempted to halt this by restricting the amount of money people could withdraw from their accounts. The result was demonstrations and protests. The government of Fernando de La Rua collapsed and eventually Argentina ended up with a new president, Eduardo Duhalde. He decided to allow the peso to float against the dollar which resulted in drastic devaluation of the peso and a huge increase in inflation. Many people could no longer afford to pay for goods. Among them, was Dani's father who decided to close his clothing store. As a result, Dani's family was forced to subsist on the salary her mother earned as a nurse.

Besides the economic woes, her family has suffered terribly from a terrorist attack on the AMIA building on Monday July 18,1994. This attack, which happened on the same day as Dani's 7th birthday, killed her Tia Sara who was 8 months pregnant, as well as 84 other people. For Dani's father, the death of his sister has been a trauma he has never quite recovered from. This tragedy followed by the loss of his store has sent him into a deep depression that sees him often having violent outbursts.

For a while Dani tries to hold on to the life she once had and to cope with her family's poverty and her father's depression. She still meets her novio, Roberto (Beto) after school and they walk and kiss in the park. Beto and Dani discuss the possibility of their families leaving Argentina. Many of Dani's friends and relatives have already left including her best friend, Gabriela Tanenbaum (Gaby)who has emigrated to Israel along with many other Argentinean Jews. Eventually, Roberto also leaves, settling in Miami with his family.
Dani's mother continues to insist that they leave too but finally when another tragedy almost strikes, Dani's family decides to accept the offer of her Tio Jacobo to settle in New York.

Life in New York is very very different from life in Argentina. This new life is what Dani calls her Life After. Her family settles Twin Lakes, New York with the help of the local Jewish Family Services organization. While her sister Sarita goes to the local elementary school, Dani begins classes at the enormous Twin Lakes High School. High School is fraught with many challenges, including taking classes in English and trying to make friends in a culture so very different from what Dani is accostomed to.

On her first day she meets Brian Harrison who helps her navigate the school and tells her he is "personal GPS". Dani soon discovers that Brian is one of the good things. Their blossoming friendship holds the promise of something more if Dani can figure out where she stands with Roberto whom she hasn't seen in more than a year.

Another good thing about Twin Lakes is Jon a young student in Dani's class. Dani can relate well to Jon because like her, he is also an outsider, someone who is different from everyone else. But Dani also has to contend with Jessica, who at first is mean and who humiliates Dani on her first day at high school. It's not long though before Dani discovers that Jessica's unfriendliness is hiding a big hurt. It is this hurt that helps both Dani and Jessica connect.

I enjoyed reading this book very very much. First of all, I learned about the Argentinean crisis which most people probably have forgotten or maybe never even knew about because of the tragedy of 9/11. Littman does give us some background to the crisis at the very beginning of the book which is helpful. She also includes the AMIA (Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina)bombing of 1994, which I'm betting is unfamiliar to most North Americans. The terrorist theme is a strong one in Life After. The hurt of terrorism knows no boundaries and hurts us all whether in America or Argentina.I especially liked the way she portrayed young people as rising above the effects of terrorism to become stronger people.

Secondly, most of the characters who were central to the storyline, were well developed, realistic and interesting. Dani's struggles and worries about life in Argentina and in the United States were realistically portrayed. This was true not only about the situations Dani had to cope with at school but also her concerns over Roberto, whom she remained faithful to. Brian was an especially likeable character who was kind and respectable towards Dani.

I feel that Sarah Darer Littman did a good job of telling the story of a young immigrant, her struggles, her hopes and dreams and her successes in a positive and uplifting manner. My only complaint about this book is that it took very long to move from Life Before (Dani's life in Argentina) to Life, After. I'm sure part of this was due to the author setting up the circumstances for Dani's family leaving Argentina and also providing the reader a contrast to the two cultures and societies.

Overall a very good read!

Book Details:
Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman
New York: Scholastic Inc. 2011
281 pp.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

EGG A book by Alex T. Smith

Every now and then it's good to throw a picture book or two into the mix. I often come across some truly delightful ones while doing the holds list at my branch. EGG is one such book.

First the cover got me. Great artwork, in fact, FANTASTIC artwork with lots of colour and a crazed fox(y) character.

Next, the title page is set up like the opening credits to a movie...


Recommendations on the back cover are hilarious! "Full of cheep gags!" Farmer's Weekly Hennin Coop; "A cracking success!" Eat Magazine. Oh yeah!

Who could resist?

Although EGG starts off reading like a movie, "Of all the suspicious looking houses in all the deserted woods in all the world, he had to roll up to hers...", it is really a fractured fairy tale.

Foxy DuBois is always kind to strangers, so when a seemingly timid, tiny pink egg shows up at her doorstep she is very welcoming. Egg, politely notices the chicken decor throughout the house and settles in for some five-star treatment by Foxy. But Foxy has an ulterior motive and a disturbing plan. Will she succeed?

A great read aloud by author-illustrator Alex Smith. It always amazes me how so many picture books, though great for children, really work for adults too!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Where I Belong by Gillian Cross

Ever since I arrived in England, I'd been like a frozen girl. When my father handed me over to the hambaar man, he sent me into a world where no one knew me and no one cared who I was.

I chose to read Where I Belong because it just seemed so different in theme from many current young adult titles. Where I Belong combines the eclectic mixture of Somalia, England, haute couture fashion, modelling, kidnapping and extortion! How strange is that?!

The story is told in alternating voices of three teenagers whose lives come together in a very unexpected manner. There is 14 year old Adbi (Abdirahman) Ahmed Mussa, an ethnic Somali, born in the Netherlands, now residing in London, England. Abdi lives in Battle Hill, a Somali suburb with his mother and three sisters. Abdi's father, Ahmed Mussa Ali has vanished amid the civil strife and drought that has beset Somalia, and is presumed dead. His family lives near his uncle, Suliman Osman and his family in Battle Hill. His family is asked to take in an illegal immigrant, a young Somali girl named Khadija so that she can receive an education and help her family back home.

Khadija is a 13 year old native Somalian who lives in a remote village with her younger brother Mahmoud and her siblings, Zainab and Sagal.. She is striking young girl because she is very tall. Her father, at the beginning of the story, is a wealthy man by Somali standards, owning many camels and goats. He has two wives, one of whom lives in Mogadishu.

Freya is the daughter of iconic fashion designer, Sandy Dexter and former war photographer David. Her father who has photographed the wars in Darfur, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Somalia, now teaches photography and does portraits. Her parents are separated but remain on friendly terms with each other. Freya spends most of her time with her dad who is more reliable and grounded than her flighty mom who is always trying to create a new avant garde collection.

Added to the three voices is that of Mahmoud, Khadija's younger brother who tells us what life is like back in Somalia after his sister leaves and what happens to him in particular. His point of view is brief but highlighted in bold text throughout the story and for me was the most sympathetic character in the entire novel.

Six months after arriving in England, Khadija and the Somali community learn that Somalia has been hit by severe drought. She wants to help her family and with the help of Abdi they go to Suliman's internet cafe and email her brother Mahmoud. Khadija gets a job cleaning Auntie Safia's corner store with the intent of sending money back to her family in Somalia.

Meanwhile Sandy Dexter has returned from Paris and is busy researching Somalia for her next collection. She designs a special burqua and in a bizarre twist, when she and Freya are walking about wearing them in Battle Hill as part of her research, Sandy "discovers" Khadija. It is at this point that the lives of Freya, Abdi and Khadija connect.

Khadija is offered an opportunity to be the "face" of Sandy Dexter's new collection but strangely, her face will never be seen because she will be wearing a burqua. No one must know who she is and Sandy asks Khadija and Abdi to keep everything a secret. Sandy is planning to show her collection live from Somalia in a special show that will be live streamed. Sandy's offer of work, now means that Khadija will have lots of money to help her family.

Shortly after this, Khadija's brother Mahmoud is kidnapped by Somali pirates who tell her she has three months to come up with $10,000. Both Abdi and Khadija are puzzled as to how the kidnappers know Khadija suddenly has access to money. Khadija suspects that somehow her email to Mahmoud was intercepted but she can't understand how. The reader however, is easily able to know who is at fault.

Because Khadija and Abdi feel that his parents will never allow Khadija to display herself on the runway they seek the help of Abdi's uncle, Suliman Osman. Suliman poses as Khadija's father and accompanies Khadija and Abdi over to Somalia for the fashion show. Mysteriously, the kidnappers learn of the location of the fashion show and come to the village with Mahmoud demanding that his ransom be paid. When Sandy refuses to pay the money, things move swiftly to a final strange resolution.

Although I liked the entire idea behind Where I belong, at times it just didn't work for me. The idea that a Western woman could go into Somalia, a country where respect for authority doesn't exist, and hold a fashion show in the middle of the desert seemed incredible. Cross gets around this by having Suliman making all of the arrangements, a situation I have trouble believing Sandy Dexter would accept. I don't know what the protocol would be for going to a country like Somali but I'm sure it would not be as presented in Where I Belong.

The resolution to the kidnapping set up by Cross also seemed very unrealistic. Somali pirates are renowned for their brutality and are heavily armed. They would have had no problems dealing with the situation set up by the author. Would three kidnappers with one gun confront a village with at least twenty armed guards? Again, Cross gets past this problem with another twist in the storyline, one that has been set up early in the book. There is also the possibility that everyone Suliman hires in Somalia but most importantly, all the guards, were in on the kidnapping - in which case $10,000 doesn't go very far.

I also didn't like the nonsense Freya's parents fed her at the end when she asks them to "give up all that rubbish about being separated..." Instead of giving her an answer she deserves, Freya's father dishes out some pop-psychology in the form of a story, typical of adults who believe their "choice" is best for everyone involved. However, given that I was disgusted with Freya's father's self-serving answer to her, I realize that this very much is the reality in many relationships today.

One thing that was very well done was the character of Sandy Dexter whose single-mindedness and concern for only fashion is well contrasted with that of her husband David. It was disheartening to read how Sandy just dumped Freya when she was off figuring out her next "inspiration". The best demonstration of Sandy's character though was her determination to keep the fashion show running all the while a young boy's life was at risk during the intense drama of a kidnapping. Khadija, who is horrified at the Westerner's focus on appearances and inane minutiae, remarks at this point,

What did I care? I felt as though I was in the kind of dream where real things are unimportant and tiny details shake the earth. My brother had been captured by violent, ruthless men, but no one seemed to care whether he lived or died. The only thing that mattered was how my eyes were painted....
So much money being spent on such trivial, frivolous things. What did these people think they were doing?

Where I Belong superficially explores the theme of belonging - whether it's where Freya belongs or where the Somali characters belong. It is most evident with Abdi's character, especially when he visits Somalia because although he was born in the Netherlands, he feels he belongs in Somalia. Khadija too feels she has no sense of belonging in England.

Overall, Where I Belong is a valiant attempt at a very difficult subject and one that I would guess would be difficult to write from the perspective of an English author. This book will be of interest to those wanting to read something a little different in teen lit.

This is the lovely cover for Where I Belong in the UK:

Book Details:
Where I Belong by Gillian Cross
Maple Vail, York PA: Holiday House 2011
245 pp.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Orchards by Holly Thompson

Kanako Goldberg, an eighth grader, is sent to Japan to spend some time with her mother's family reflecting upon the recent suicide of a classmate. Kana, who is half Japanese, was part of a clique of girls who were mean to Ruth, a girl their grade. Kana likens her clique to the structure of an atom, in which
Lisa, head of the clique, is the atom and the other girls are like electrons arranged in shells around her. Ruth, the girl who committed suicide was "in the least stable most vulnerable outermost shell".

Kana's parents send her to her maternal grandparent's mikan orange farm in Kohama Village where she will stay with Baachan her grandmother, her Aunt and Uncle, and her first cousins Koichi and Yurie. She will attend the last month of school and then help out in the family orchards.The purpose of the visit will be to reflect upon what has happened:

all she'd say
row after row
in tight-lipped
you can reflect
in the presence of your ancestors

While Kana's first reaction of sorrow was similar to that of her friends, Kana also experiences anger at Ruth killing herself. Kana blames Ruth for her banishment to Japan.

because of you, Ruth,
I'm exiled
to my maternal grandmother, Baachan,
to the ancestors of the altar
and to Uncle, Aunt and cousins

Kana can't help thinking about Ruth. Partly this is because, despite the vast change of scene, Kana is working in her family's orchards and in a haunting co-incidence, Ruth hanged herself in Osgoods' orchard - a place where she often found solace and would meet a friend and classmate, Jake.

and moments when I have to pause
catch my breath
hold on to a branch
and not because I'm tired
or lost my balance
but because I'm seeing you, Ruth,


in Osgoods' orchard

setting down your pack
having chosen
your tree

In an attempt to banish thoughts of Ruth, Kana tries to find comfort in being very busy and adapting to life in Japan. A trip to Tokyo on Marine Day, with older second cousin Asuka, provides some relief to Kana, but when she returns, the long days of work in the mikan orchard provide opportunities for more soul searching.

In Orchards, the circumstances surrounding Ruth's suicide are gradually revealed by Kana in flashback as she struggles to understand. The story is told in sparse but poignant free verse. We learn about Ruth and Lisa and how their mutual classmate, Jake was on the cusp of trying to reach out to Ruth.

Staying with her extended family in Japan causes Kana to reflect on her mother's story, her life in Japan and how she came to emigrate to American and marry a man of Russian-Jewish heritage. Kana comes to the realization that there are two sides to every story,

fault and blame --
both seem so easy to place
but much harder
to erase

I think
there must be at least
two sides
to your story, too, Ruth,

and maybe knowing
more of Lisa's side

Under the prompting of her grandmother, Kana reaches out to Jake, encouraging him to contact Lisa. But when tragedy stikes a second time, Kana is completetly devastated. It is Baachan, normally reticent and sharp with Kana, who comes to her rescue. And this is one of the best parts of Orchards in my opinion. In a touching series of poesm we see how Baachan helps Kana (and the reader) understand this second tragedy with her wisdom. Because she has watched everything unfold from a distance, Baachan's offers a clear perspective of what has happened.

Kana's visit to Kohama has the effect of not only helping her deal with suicide and come to terms with the recent tragedy, but it brings about a healing within her own family too. Because of her mother's marriage and move to America, relations with the Japanese side of the family had badly deteriorated. Much anger existed between her mother and her parents who blamed Kana's father for taking her mother so far away from the family. Now the mutual concern for Kana's well being by both American and Japanese sides of the family draw them together again.

Orchards offers an effective means to explore the tragic issue of suicide among teens. As an older person, I could relate in many ways to how Kana felt and I think many teens would be able to identify with her shock, anger and guilt over a friend's suicide. My own daughter had to cope the the suicide of a classmate within her own circle of friends during her senior year of high school. A normally happy person she was completely undone by the death of a friend who seemed to show no signs of any problem. We still do not know what the trigger. We struggle to understand why this lovely young friend did not reach out to anyone.

Author Holly Thompson makes use of some unusual imagery to discuss themes of healing and recovery. Although Ruth dies in an orchard, it is another orchard, halfway around the world that helps Kana heal.

If Thompson's purpose for Orchards was to tell a good story while exploring the issue of teen suicide and bullying, she has accomplished that in a brilliant manner. I highly recommend this novel to those who enjoy verse.

The black ink illustrations by Grady McFerrin enhance Thompson's lucid poetry.

Book Details:
Orchards by Holly Thompson Illustrations by Grady McFerrin
New York: Delacorte Press 2011
325 pp.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stolen Child by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Twelve year old Nadia Kravchuk arrives in Canada in 1950, confused and afraid. She is travelling with the only person she knows, Marusia who calls herself her mother. They have spent the past 5 years in a D.P. (Displaced Persons) camp in Austria. Once they arrive in Canada, Marusia and Nadia travel by train from Halifax, NS to Brantford, ON where they are met by Marusia's husband, Ivan. Ivan has purchased land and is building a house for them so they can start a new life together.

For Nadia, it is all so overwhelming. Nadia remembers almost nothing about her past. As she settles into life in Brantford and becomes accustomed to living in a city without bombed-out buildings, Nadia begins experiencing troubling nightmares and flashbacks. These fragmented memories are often triggered by familiar sensations such as smells, tastes and even visual reminders.

When Nadia starts attending classes at Central School in Brantford, she is taunted by classmates who call her "Hitler Girl" and believe she is a Nazi. Because of this, Nadia experiences shame and guilt because her memories are incomplete and seem to suggest a past that includes Nazi rallies, Hitler, black limosines with swatika flags and a family she doesn't really know. This causes Nadia to begin to question who she really is and to try to remember her past. Who is she? Will she ever remember?

The reader gradually learns the answers to these questions along with Nadia through flashbacks which appear as italicized text in Stolen Child. The flashbacks are done realistically because they often lead to more questions.

Skrypuch has written a touching novel about a very unusual and not well-known aspect of Nazi Germany - the Lebensborn program. Meaning Fount of Life, the Lebensborn program initially focused on having German people produce Aryan children but was eventually expanded to include the poaching of blond blue-eyed children from other ethnic groups, especially Poland and the Ukraine. It is estimated that at least 250,000 children from these two countries alone were stolen. These children underwent a rigorous physical assessment and if they passed they were placed with German families to be raised as Germans.

What makes Stolen Child so effective is that it tells two stories; that of "Nadia" in 1950 trying to adapt to life as a new immigrant and that of "Nadia" the child struggling to survive the destruction of her family in war-torn Europe. Skrypuch accurately portrays the trauma Nadia has experienced; it's obvious to the modern reader that this child is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Marsha Skrypuch succeeds in educating young reader's about one aspect of the Nazi eugenics program, all the while telling a great story.

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is an exceptional children's author. Based out of Brantford Ontario, she has written numerous historical fiction books focusing on situations involving people marginalized by society as well those relating to the Ukraine.

To learn more about the Lebensborn program check out the Jewish Virtual Library

Book Details:
Stolen Child by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Toronto: Scholastic Canada Ltd 2011
150 pp.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Animated Booktalk!

I wanted to try something a little different. Here's an animated booktalk I made using GoAnimate! I decided to use a book that I had recently read and that could be summarized quickly in a few words. I chose Flip by Martyn Bedford. Flip by booktalker500

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Queen of Water by Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango

Anger is fire that can burn you up, the way it made my father hurt his family. Or it can shine like the sun and provide energy for photosynthesis. I will use my fire as fuel to live the life I want to lead. Whether I'm a longa or mestiza or whatever, Antonio was right, I have a blazing sun inside me and I will use it.

Queen of Water is without a doubt, one of the best young adult novels I've read so far this year. This novel, a collaborative effort by author Laura Resau tells the amazing story of her co-author, Maria Virginia Farinango. Farinango is a young woman from Ecuador, who grew up in the 1980's under very trying circumstances. An indigenas - a descendant of the Incas who began life in a small impoverished Quichua village in the Ecuadorian Andes, it was Virginia's "vivisima" (cleverness) that led her to break free of the discrimination and abuse she experienced to realize her full potential.
"It's true, I do use my wits to fill my belly with fresh cheese or warm rolls. Or to get something I really want, like a pet goat or a pair of shoes. But there's more. I have dreams. Dreams bigger than the mountaintops that poke at the clouds. In the pasture, I always climb my favorite tree and shout to the sheep, "I'm traveling far from here!" and my tree turns into a truck and I ride off to a place where I can eat rice and meat and watermelon every day."

We meet Virginia when she is only 7 years old living in the village of Yana Urku. Despite her youth and her poverty, Virginia has a great desire to escape her poverty, to get educated and have her own life. However, her family's grinding poverty and indigenas status will be major obstacles to overcome. In Ecuadoran society there are two classes of people; the indigenas who are the native people descended from the Inca's and the mestizos who are the Spanish Europeans who conquerored much of South America including Ecuador. The mestizos are the doctors, lawyers, teachers and landowners in Ecuador while the indigenas are usually slaves, farmers and those who serve the mestizos. It is therefore not uncommon for the mestizos to look down upon the indigenas who are poor and uneducated and to openly ridicule and discriminate against them.

Virginia is given away by her parents to a mestizo couple, Carlitos and his wife Romelia. Virginia is told she must call Romelia, "Doctorita" because she is a dentist and a teacher and that she must address Carlitos as Nino Carlitos, Nino being a term indigenas call their mestizo bosses. They take her back to their village of Kunu Yaku. The understanding Virginia has is that she will be paid a thousand sucres monthly and be allowed to return home to visit her family once per month. Of course, this does not happen and it takes Virginia only a short while to realize that she is in fact nothing more than a slave and that her mother will not be coming to get her.

Virginia, a mere child herself is forced to cook, clean and also to care for the Doctorita's young son, Jaimito who is a baby. Whenever Virginia does not satisfy Doctorita, she is beaten, sometimes so severely that her nose bleeds and she is covered in cuts and bruises. It is truly heartbreaking to read about the abuse that Virginia suffers at the hands of the manipulative, vengeful Doctorita.

At first she is never allowed outside except to wash dishes and diapers but eventually Virginia earns the trust of the Doctorita and is allowed to go on errands. Virginia gradually comes to realize that she will never be paid nor will she ever be allowed to return home. She tells herself that someday she will leave but that she is too small to undertake such a long journey home. At first she silently defies her masters but gradually her resistence becomes more open. When she does try to resist and whenever she tells the Doctorita that she wants to go to school and college and to have a career she is told that she is a longa and that she doesn't "need to read to clean and cook".

So Virginia begins to plan her escape but as time goes on it becomes more and more difficult for her to leave. Besides physically abusing her, the Doctorita emotionally manipulates Virginia by telling her that if she does try to escape, her parents will only sell her again to another family.

Virginia tries to make the best out of her situation. The Doctorita teaches children science at the local colegio. When the Doctorita refuses to send Virginia to school, she decides that she will learn to read. She begs Nino Carlitos to teach her to read and eventually he does. It is this step that empowers Virginia on the path to acquiring the learning she so desperately craves. But it is Virginia's love of the television character MacGyver that inspires her to become a secret-agent student. She begins by reading one of the Doctorita's textbooks, Understanding Our Universe. Taking notes in a book which she hides under the refrigerator, Virginia gradually learns all the material in the textbook. She also secretly completes all the assignments the Doctorita gives to her eighth grade students, even taking the exam and checking the answers.

As Virginia enters into her teens, the situation at Nino and the Doctorita's home becomes increasingly abusive and strained. It is at this point that Virginia finally makes the decision to reconnect with her older sister Matilde who through extraordinary circumstances she was able to reconnect with. It is Matilde who becomes the catalyst for Virginia to make other life-changing decisions, including the most important one to break free of Nino Carlitos and Doctorita.

The Queen of Water is a book really about the personal triumph of one amazing young woman who refused to accept that because of her race she somehow deserved less. Virginia overcomes so many seemingly impossible obstacles, through ingenuity, perseverance, hard work and even a little bit of luck. Even her decision to finally break free of the Doctorita is a huge struggle. To those on the outside looking in, the choice seems obvious but it's apparent that for Virginia it took great courage to take the steps she finally did. Her choice was between living in a wealthy home with many physical comforts but where she was abused and her real home where she was uncertain of her place, her parents love for her and would once again experience poverty.

When Virginia returns to her family she finds it difficult to fit in. She is neither completely indigenas anymore but nor is she metiszo either. She finds herself conflicted, often straddling two worlds and sometimes ashamed of her indigenos heritage. Virginia must come to terms with the hurt of her parents giving her away and reconcile with her parents. She eventually learns about what her parents lives were like when she was very young and how this led to the abuse she experienced in her own family.

Queen of Water is a sad, riveting account but worth the read to share in Virginia's eventual triumph. She is a true modern heroine and her story has a great message for young people and those who find themselves in circumstances that a difficult and overwhelming. There is the obvious theme of identity which threads its way thoughout the novel.

If you'd like to read more about Virginia and learn how she is doing now you can read this interview with her on Laura Resau's website. This link on Laura Resau's website will also explain which parts of the book are fictionalized. Queen of Water does follow Virginia's life very closely but certain names were changed to protect the privacy of villagers.

Book Details:
Queen of Water by Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango
New York: Delacorte Press 2011
354 pp.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


So I went to see THOR last night with my two oldest adult children. I loved it! THOR was breathtaking with its incredible action scenes and creative twists on Norwegian mythology. It's a mixture of Marvel superhero comics characters and events as well as elements of Norse mythology, woven together in an interesting and engaging manner.

The story begins by showing the King of Asgard, Odin, waging war on the Frost Giants of Jotunheim and their leader Laufey, who are intent upon conquering each of the Nine Realms beginning with Earth. The Asgardians are victorious and banish the Frost Giants to their realm of Jotunheim. The Casket of Ancient Winters which is the source of the Frost Giants power is kept guarded in Asgard.

Years later, Odin's son, Thor is preparing to ascend to the throne of Asgard. However, his coronoation day is interrupted when the Frost Giants make an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve their Casket of Ancient Winters.

Against Odin's wishes, Thor along with his brother Loki, his childhood friend Sif and the Warriors Three; Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg, decide to sneak into Jotunheim to punish the Frost Giants. It should be noted that Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg are not part of the original mythology surrounding Thor but are creations of Marvel Comics to serve as supporting characters to the superhero Thor. When Thor arrives in Jotunheim we see a devastated world, cold and dark, filled with hidden horrible beasts. After Laufey provokes Thor, a fierce battle ensues and Odin must rescue his son and his companions before they are destroyed by Laufey. With the peace that was brokered between Asgard and Jotenheim now broken Laufey declares war on Asgard.

When the Asgardians return home via a wormhole, Odin banishes his son Thor to the realm of Earth. Furious with Thor, because he is arrogant, brash and impulsive, Odin strips Thor of his power and places a charm on his hammer Mjolnir which also is thrown to Earth. Only one who is worthy of the power of Thor's hammer will be able to use it. When Thor arrives on Earth via a wormhole, he literally crashes into Jane Foster, an astrophysicist studying wormholes. Jane, her assistant Darcy Lewis and her scientist-mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig were out in the middle of the New Mexico desert studying electro-magnetic anomalies when Thor drops in. Slightly injured, Thor is taken to the hospital where he escapes.

Minutes after Thor's arrival on Earth, his hammer rockets out of the sky and lands not far from the town. Unable to remove the hammer, local residents flock to the site which eventually draws the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland, Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) a government agency which exists in the Marvel Comic universe. Thor overhears people talking about the hammer in a diner and sets out to retrieve it. This of course sets up the usual confrontation between the superhero and the government with Jane and her friends trying to help Thor.

Meanwhile back in Asgard things aren't going so well either. Loki become King of Asgard when Odin falls into a deep sleep. However, Sif and the Warriors Three are distrustful of Loki and his motives. They decide that they must take a chance and try to recover Thor from Earth. The movie thus juxtaposes between events occurring on Earth and those occurring on both Asgard and Jotunheim.

There are a few surprises along the way but the ending is predictable yet satisfying. The battles are thrilling, with plenty of well done special effects to satisfy the need for exploding cars, terrifying monsters and gravity-defying superhero battles. Short on gore, thankfully, I was impressed. I'm not much for superhero movies but THOR was well done.

I actually prefer this trailer to the original first trailer below it:

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wither by Lauren DeStefano

It was with a great deal of anticipation that I picked up a copy of newcomer Lauren DeStefano's book Wither. The plot sounded interesting, although somewhat familiar. Wither is the first book in what is planned to be a trilogy. My overall impression after reading this book is rather mixed but leaning more towards disappointing.

The main character is Rhine Ellery. The society Rhine lives in is decidedly apocalyptic. The entire world is destroyed and underwater except for America. Marine life is contaminated and inedible. There's no importing so all of New York's office buildings are now factories which make everything society needs. However, there are more serious problems facing mankind. Seventy years ago, a generation of perfect children was created. Cancer was cured and these genetically perfect children were treated so that they were never ill. However, their children and their children's children began to die off prematurely. For males, the life span is twenty-five while females live until the age of twenty before succumbing to a mysterious viral ailment for which there is no cure.

Wealthy people known as the House Governors live in mansions. Their families are polygamous. Gatherers who drive around in gray vans, kidnap young women to sell off to the wealthy families to breed new children before they die. Those women not chosen to be brides are either killed or sent to brothels.

Rhine is 16 years old and lives in Manhattan with her twin brother, Rowan. Their parents, first generations who were research scientists, are dead, having been killed by a bombing of their research lab by pro-naturalists who favour allowing humankind to go extinct. This happened four years ago and as a result, Rowan and Rhine had to leave school to get jobs to support themselves. While Rowan worked in a factory, Rhine did odd jobs. Rhine was captured by the Gatherers when she responded to an ad offering money for bone marrow to be used in research for a cure for the fatal virus. After being chosen to be one of three brides for twenty-one year old Linden Ashby, Rhine finds herself shipped to Florida and living in a mansion.

Although Rhine is "married" to Linden along with thirteen year old Cecily and eighteen year old Jenna, two other brides who are to replace Linden's dying wife Rose, she refuses to consummate her marriage and plans to escape. She has four years left to live and has no intention of staying around as a sister wife. Rhine is convinced that Linden's first generation father Housemaster Vaughn, who is a doctor is performing terrible experiments in the basement of the mansion. Rhine, like each of the wives, has an attendant, whose name is Gabriel. Gabriel and Rhine immediately form a connection and eventually begin to develop feelings for each other.

Despite the fact that Linden genuinely loves Rhine and his other wives, and that he is completely ignorant of the fact that they are there against their will, Rhine cannot love him and is determined to escape her prison.

Although overall, the main concept of the book was very interesting, I was disappointed that the main element, the dystopian world was woefully undeveloped and therefore not very real to the reader. The result was that I was left with a great many questions. In a world where men and women capable of reproducing are at a premium, why would the Gatherers kill off young women not selected as brides? Why would they send some of these women to brothels when they could have been simply dumped back on the street or returned home? In a world where life outside the mansion is so brutally difficult for Rhine and her brother, why would she want to escape? Life in the mansion is incredibly perfect - she has dresses made for her, and she lives a pampered life. She has only 4 years left to live so why not live them in luxury? Do all people struggle to survive as Rhine and her brother did? Developing the dystopian world is a key feature of this genre. It's one thing to reveal it piece by piece to the reader but in Wither there just wasn't enough to get any real sense of this world, although life inside the mansion was remarkably well described.

In terms of characters, it was difficult to feel any empathy for Linden who behaves like a pedophile in this novel - impregnating the youngest wife who should have been recognized as the child she is and who cannot even understand what is happening to her, all the while allowing the older wives to refuse him for months. It was this aspect of his behaviour that made me feel that Linden was much more creepy than his father. I would think a normal 21 year old male would have a natural aversion to being with a very immature 13 year old - as Cecily was portrayed.

The one character Rhine does form an attachment to, her attendant Gabriel, was poorly developed. The only things we learn about Gabriel are that he was raised in an orphanage and was born in Florida - yet he has a major role in the novel. That is until he disappears halfway through only to reappear in good time near the end to have a part in what happens to Rhine.

In an attempt to introduce a sinister element into the storyline, Rhine discovers some puzzling things about the basement of the mansion which seems to be both morgue and laboratory. Since Linden's father is a doctor searching for a cure to the virus, Rhine automatically assumes he is experimenting, although she has absolutely no basis for this belief other than a brief glimpse of something she doesn't understand. I wish that DeStefano had explored this more, perhaps through Rhine and Gabriel or Rhine and Jenna.

Generally speaking, the second book of a trilogy is usually the weakest in terms of plot and interest. I will be interested to see how DeStefano works to develop the characters further and flesh out the dystopian society she has introduced in her first book.

Book Details:
Wither by Lauren DeStefano
Toronto: Simon & Schuster 2011
358 pp.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Karma by Cathy Ostlere

Karma is telling of an Indian tragedy, both personal and national.
Jiva, a fifteen year old half-Hindu, half-Sikh lives in Elsinore Manitoba. She is the only child of Amar(Bapu), a Sikh and Leela, a Hindu, born July 20, 1969, the exact date and time man walked on the moon.

Years ago, Jiva's parents, Bapu and Leela, met and fell in love back in India. They both married against the wishes of their families. Bapu's family requested that their son force Leela to become a Sikh, while Leela's family disowned her. To escape the pressure from their families and to have a life together they emigrated to Canada. Jiva is their only daughter.

However, things do not go well in Elsinore. They are the only non-Christians and are very isolated. This is especially difficult for Jiva's mother whom she calls Mata. To escape her loneliness and increasing depression Leela plays piano for hours on end. Leela begs Bapu to take her back to India. But Jiva's father who runs Jack's Mechanic Shop refuses telling her that his mother will treat her badly and that in Canada they are free to be who they want to be.

But we're not meant to live so alone.
Perhaps even hatred is better than
this isolation, Amar.

Hatred is a form of isolation,
Leela. Look around at this
country. These rivers. These
fields. These deep blue skies.
There's peace all over this land.
No blood in the soil to stain our
lives. No families to tell us how to
It's not home.
It's better.

It's empty.

It's free.

As time passes Leela becomes more and more depressed and eventually commits suicide. It is Jiva who finds the body of her mother hanging in the family home. Her father decides to return to India with Leela's ashes. Jiva and her father are newly arrived in Delhi, India on October 31, 1984 when they learn that Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, has just been assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in the garden of her house. Soon chaos descends upon Delhi, with Hindus rampaging throughout the city murdering Sikhs who are easily recognizable by their colourful turbans and beards. When Bapu disappears after leaving Jiva to try to find a way out of the city for them, Jiva is placed in great danger. She decides to flee the hotel they are staying at and ends up taking a journey that leads her to witness a horrible event. This event is so traumatic that Jiva stops speaking and is taken in by the family of a woman doctor who treats her in Jodhpur. While staying with this family she gradually falls in love with the adopted son, Sandeep who helps her to get well emotionally and to reunite with her father.

Karma is told first in the voice of Jiva and then when Jiva can no longer speak, in the voice of Sandeep. When Jiva begins to heal, Jiva's narrative returns. Karma is written in diary form and in free verse.

Overall I enjoyed the story told in Karma but there were a few things I didn't like. I felt that the middle part of the book where Jiva and Sandeep are taken into the desert to be a very odd plot twist that just didn't work for me. I felt it didn't fit into the overall story line. Although I enjoyed the character Sandeep very much, I thought his writing a diary was also odd. Teenage boys writing diaries? I'm not so sure about that, although the author handles this well by having Sandeep address this actual question in the opening entries of the diary. Nevertheless Sandeep was humorous and I loved how he was attracted to Jiva and behaved honourably towards her. Sandeep was sweet and showed that he was deeply concerned about Jiva, which I felt endeared him to the reader.

The other drawback to this book is its length - a huge chunky book of 517 pages which may or may not deter even the most enthusiastic teen readers.

What I did enjoy was how Cathy Ostlere really captured the terror and chaos of this period in India immediately after Gandhi's assassination. I remember Gandhi's murder because I was in graduate school at the time. Strangely, I don't remember reading about the murder of Sikhs and Ostlere seems to indicate that many Indians remained in collective denial about the massacre of Sikhs afterwards. The fear Jiva and her father would have felt was brilliantly portrayed in Ostlere's free verse. Her poem Mirage, providing an account of events leading into the trauma Jiva experiences on the train out of Delhi en route to Jodhpur is one such example.


They come across the yellow fields
running with dark faces and teeth bared
through ribbons of heated air
a mirage of false water.

The train slows as if waiting for them to catch up.

What's happening here?
Why are we stopping here?
Is it wolves?

But they are not wolves

(we should have prayed for wolves)
but men instead
four-limbed and angry
carrying iron rods and knives
hands gripping gasoline cans
voices shouting into the hot dry air
their fury stirring the dust like a wind.

(we should have prayed for wolves)...

I enjoyed this book but it's certainly for those who love reading historical fiction, free verse and are avid readers.

Book Details:

Karma by Cathy Ostlere
Puffin Canada 2011
517 pp.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Picture book Carousel

The lovely colourful illustrations
which appear to be done in pencil
crayon are the main feature of this
picture book about teamwork,
making new friends and enjoying ballet.

Miss Lina has eight ballerinas
who dance everywhere they go
- in four rows of two.
But when a new girl, Regina joins
the school, everyone needs to adjust
to help her fit in.

Spinster Goose. Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children retells Mother Goose nursery rhymes
with a naughty twist. Mother Goose has
a sister Spinster Goose who runs a school for
troublemakers to rid them of
their naughty habits.

You'd better watch your manners.
Watch out for Spinster, too.
She'll box and wrap each little brat
and send them home to you!

Queen of the Falls tells the story of Annie Edson Taylor, a 62 year old retired dance instructor who went over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel on October 24, 1901. Annie designed her barrel to withstand the turbulent waters of the Falls and a plunge equivalent to the height of a seventeen story building. She hoped such a daredevil accomplishment would win her fame and more importantly help her stave off poverty in her old age. Annie's story is told in a simple way. The most outstanding feature of this book besides its unique subject matter, is the beautiful sepia-coloured pencil drawings of this well known author/illustrator.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Flip by Martyn Bedford

When 14 year old Alex Gray goes to sleep the night of December 21 and wakes up one June morning in the body of another boy, Philip Garamond (known as Flip to his family and friends), he is completely freaked out. What has happened to him? How did he get inside another boy's body? Where has he been the past SIX months of which he has no memory? And where is HIS body?

Eventually Flip learns the truth about his situation. Alex, the victim of a hit and run, is in a coma in London and has been for the past six months. Somehow, Alex has switched bodies with Philip.

Alex as Flip (Philip) explores the next few months of life,inside the body of Flip, whose life is so completely different from that of Alex. He lives in a different town, goes to a good school and lives with Philip's family who is well to do. But try as he might, Flip cannot adjust to living Philip's life. Philip is everything Alex is not. He is popular, athletic, very healthy and he has two girlfriends. But Philip is also a player and Alex is not like this.

Alex eventually discovers via the internet that he's not the only one who has experienced "psychic evacuation" - that is a soul switching bodies. But unlike the others who have experienced this situation, Alex's original body is still alive. Although he tries to live in Flip's body, he doesn't behave like Flip, he doesn't have the same interests as Flip and he doesn't want Flip's life. He also comes to realize that the nightmares he's having are a sign that Philip is fighting for his body too.

For Alex, it becomes a question of integrity, and how he lives his life.

"If he allowed himself,he could imagine things continuing like this. Merge his life with Flip's. Accept the switch, adapt and move on -- like the others of his kind had done. Carry on being Philip Garamond, or at least the new, modified Alex-as-Flip he was starting to turn into. With Alex's spirit in Flip's body, he could stay in Litchbury....complete his education at a good school...After that, a long, healthy life to look forward to, another sixty, seventy years, maybe. He could be whatever, and whoever, he liked.
But that wasn't being himself. Being properly himself. That life would mean living a lie. Lying to himself every hour of every day, for as long as it took Flip's body to die. Lying to the Garamonds. To everyone he met or worked with or became friends with in the many years to come."
Eventually Alex must make a decision about whether to stay or to try to find a way back to his own body.

The inside flap of this book states that it deals with questions of identity, the will to survive and what a person is willing to sacrifice to remain alive. Indeed Flip does push the reader to explore all of these questions. Flip also forces the reader to explore metaphysical questions. When Alex, in Flip's body climbs a rocky cliff he thinks about jumping and wonders "If he died in Flip's body, where would his soul go?"

I enjoyed this book immensely. Unlike Amy By Any Other Name, Flip has a happier ending, although with a bit of a twist. Sometimes I felt that I knew more about Philip Garamond than who Alex really was. But Alex's personality is revealed gradually. It was obvious that the tremendous contrast between rich kid Philip who had a tendency to be superficial towards others was in deep contrast to Alex who cares about the people in his life. It is this characteristic of Alex's personality that leads him to make the decision that he does.

The only thing I found a bit of a drawback in my reading experience was the author's use of English colloquialisms that Canadian teens might not be familiar with. Otherwise, an enjoyable read and a book I highly recommend.

Book Details:
Flip by Martyn Bedford
Doubleday Canada 2011
258 pp.

Movie Review: The Stoning of Soraya M

Critics compared "The Stoning of Soraya M." to Kafka, but actually nothing in the western canon of literature is comparable to the inadvertent self-parody -- the simple lunacy -- of a system of law that maintains that if a man is accused of infidelity by his wife, she must prove his guilt, but if a woman is accused, she must prove her innocence. Thus, in a single sentence, is a belief system codified. It is a system that rejects modernity, justice, equality and rationality -- and treats female sexuality as a vice.
Carl M Cannon from Soraya M, Stoned to Death for Being an "Inconvenient Wife".

I wanted to watch this movie when it came out in 2008 but life got busy, what with trying to find a full time job,running my daughters to music lessons and getting the older children off to university, it just never happened.
The Stoning of Soraya M is not an easy movie to watch. It tells the story of the stoning of 35 year old Soraya Manutchehri, mother to seven children and married to a brute of a man, Ghorban-Ali. Ali who worked as a prison guard in a neighbouring town, met a 14 year old girl whom he wanted to marry. Although he could have divorced Soraya, he did not want to pay child support and so with the complicity of the pretend-mullah in his village of Kupayeh, Ali had Soraya convicted of adultery. The punishment for such a crime was death by stoning in order to restore the honour of Ali and the men of Kupayeh. On August 15, 1986, the innocent Soraya was buried up to her waist and stoned to death. Her aunt, Zahra Khanum managed to tell the story to an Iranian-born French journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam who wrote a book about Soraya.
In the religious traditions of the West, free will is offered as an explanation for such depredations, but that rationale seems grossly insufficient. When packs of armed men shout "God is Great" while disfiguring, abasing, or killing women, surely God is weeping.

The Stoning of Soraya M is riveting and at times overwhelming. Director Cyrus Nowrasteh felt Soraya's story was important and wanted the world to know that this barbaric practice was still occurring in Iran and many other Islamic countries. Filming with a cast of Iranian actors who spoke Farsi, Nowrasteh captured the horror of Soraya's fate and the brutality of Islamic legal code that has no room for mercy.

The film's greatest strength besides an outstanding script, was its gifted cast. James Caviezel (Passion of Christ) was exceptional as journalist Freidoune Sahebjam. Nowrasteh has said that two well known actors were recruited to play the part but each dropped out because their wives were concerned they would be in danger if they made the movie. Caviezel was an obvious choice not only because the film's producer, Stephen McEveety had worked with Caviezel on Passion of Christ, but also because this wonderful actor has a gift for languages. And Nowrasteh and McEveety needed someone who could learn Farsi.

But it was actresses, newcomer Mozhan Marno (an LA native of Iranian descent) who played Soraya and Iranian born Shohreh Aghdashloo who played Zahra who truly shone. Their onscreen chemistry was superb, capturing the all the drama and hopelessness of Soraya's situation.

The Stoning of Soraya M made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008 and of course is now available on DVD.
Expect a high level of discomfort viewing this movie. The stoning scene is horrific. Watching a group of human beings torture a woman to death in the name of honour is not easy. As Carl Cannon states:

I do not know, as I told one of this movie's financial backers, whether Americans will sit through a film this sad and grisly. I only know that they should. It has been said many times since 9/11 that we are in a war of ideas -- and a shooting war as well -- with men who are confident that one day all the world will be governed by this kind of law. It would not be a world worth inhabiting. I am haunted by Soraya and her sisters.

For an excellent review of the movie checkout Carl Cannon's piece.