Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Forgotten by Cat Patrick

"I remember forward.
I remember forward, and forget backward.
My memories, bad, boring, or good, haven't happened yet."

That's the premise behind Forgotten, Cat Patrick's debut novel. 16 year old London Lane's mind is reset and her memory wiped clean at 4:33 AM every morning. To help her function in her life, London writes reminder notes to herself each night about what happened the day before and relies on her best friend Jamie to help her.
So when London meets handsome, new student Luke Henry, searches her future memory for him, and finds nothing, she assumes they will not have a relationship. Normally London would include an event like meeting a cute boy in her notes. But since she has no future memories of him, she decides to lie to herself and not include him in that day's notes.

This turns out be a mistake because London does meet Luke again the next day at school and she likes him. Luke likes her and is puzzled at why she seems so distant. London is attracted to Luke and at this point decides to include him in her notes. At the same time London meets Luke, she begins to have a new memory that involves a funeral. This memory is disturbing and vague at first, but becomes stronger and more vivid with time. However, London is unable to discern just whose funeral she is seeing.

Luke and London develop a deep friendship and he does come to learn London's secret. We learn that Luke is part of London's past which she doesn't remember of course. London also discovers that her mother is hiding something about her father from her. She desperately wants to find her father and it is the search for information about her father that leads her to uncover the truth about the funeral memory. This new knowledge results in a huge twist in the storyline. This twist also furthers the readers understanding of how London's memory is the way it is. The development of this part of the plot seemed somewhat contrived and awkward. It also (partly) explains the title of the book. Recovering this tragic memory from the past helps heal London's broken family and gives them hope for the future.

London's future memories are ones that she tries to ignore mostly because they show her the consequences of her classmates choices. When London has a future memory of a disastrous relationship in Jamie's life, she tries to do something that will change the future outcome. Based on this situation and another experience London comes to the conclusion that her future memories are a gift that she can use to help people.

While Forgotten is an interesting concept that mostly worked I was a little confused as to why London didn't have a future memory of dating Luke but did have a later memory of something else regarding him. Patrick also bases the story on the concept that different types of memories are stored in different parts of the brain, thus explaining why London can remember what she learns at school but not her experiences. Very strange indeed.

Readers looking for an unusual book that combines mystery and romance will enjoy Forgotten. Paramount has bought the film rights to Forgotten with Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit fame, set to play London.
Below are the covers for the UK and Australian editions of Forgotten.

Book Details:
Forgotten by Cat Patrick
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2011
288 pp.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Matched by Ally Condie

Matched by Ally Condie is yet another dystopian offering in a year crammed with Young Adult dystopia. Unlike other books I've read this year however, Condie has created a unique dystopian world that is well developed, coherent and presented in believable way to her readers.

The world Cassia lives in is starkly totalitarian with the Society deciding virtually every aspect of life in an attempt to create a perfect society. The Society chooses whom you will marry as well as your work position. Meals designed for optimal nutrition are delivered each day to your house. However, perfection comes at a cost both to society and the individual. Creativity is stifled with the banning of most knowledge from the past including the art of writing. Citizens must wear the drab clothing they are assigned.

The Society deemed that there was too much clutter and information. So t
here are lists of 100 Best of many things such as poems, books and movies. The Society also orders the death of its citizens by the age of 80 regardless of health. A final banquet is held with family and friends to say goodbye.

Strangely to help citizens of this perfect society cope, all members carry special tablets. The first tablet people carry is a blue one that supplies enough nutrients to keep a person alive for several days. At age 13, a green tablet for calming is added to the container. At age 16, a red tablet it added but it can only be taken at the direction of a high-level Official. Cassia doesn't know what the red tablet does.

Cassia Maria Reyes lives in Mapletree Borough in Oria Province, with her mother, father and younger brother, Bram. The novel opens with Cassia and her parents on their way to attend her Match Banquet which is required for everyone, once they turn seventeen. It is at this banquet that Cassia, along with others learns that she has been matched to Xander Thomas Carrow, for life. She doesn't have to wonder what her match will be like because Xander is her life long childhood friend.

The match is unusual because most people are not matched to someone they know or live near. Each person receives a microcard containing more personal information about their match. When Cassia views her microcard several days after her Match Banquet, she is stunned to see a picture of Ky Markham pop up. Ky moved into Cassia's borough 7 years ago. Cassia doesn't know Ky very well as he is not a big part of her social circle. He received his work position which is at the Nutrition disposal center. The work is hard and considered lowly.

The picture of Ky showing up as a match on her microcard leads Cassia to "wonder" whether Xander is her "perfect" match. During a visit from an Official, Cassia learns that Ky is an "Aberration" and is not allowed by The Society to marry. Although she is reassured by the Official that this was an error, Cassia decides to talk to her Grandfather the day before he is scheduled to die. When she sees him the next day, her grandfather encourages Cassia to "wonder" about the future and the possibility of her own choices. He also shows her a piece of the missing past - poems that never made it onto the Hundred Best Poems list and were forever deleted from existence. One of those poems, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas resonates with Cassia. She struggles to understand what this poem might mean and what her beloved Grandfather was trying to tell her before he died.

From this point on, Cassia becomes more involved with meeting Ky through her hiking activity. She knows Xander because he is her childhood friend but she now wants to learn more about Ky. She learns that Ky is not what he seems to be - an average guy who appears to blend in. Instead he is someone from the Outer Provinces who knows how to write and loves poetry. She wants to know how he came to be an Aberration and what happened to him and his family in the Outer Provinces.

Cassia gradually begins to understand that things are not as they appear to be in her Borough, in her life nor in the world at large. While everything is seemingly controlled by the Society, there are hints that the perfect ordering of life in the provinces is falling apart. Although we don't know the exact nature of the disorder, we know there is some kind of conflict between the Provinces and the Outer Provinces and that the Society is losing this war. Like the girl on the cover, Cassia feels like she lives in a glass bubble.

Both Cassia and her mother have to make decisions in their work stations that result in disastrous consequences for themselves and others. Cassia's mother keeps the Society's rules to save those she loves but the result is disaster for her family who are relocated to the Farmlands in Keya Province. Cassia's decisions in a sorting test result in the disappearance of her beloved Ky. It is his disappearance and the cover up by the Society that further convince Cassia that she must continue to rebel in her own way. Cassia decides she must try to find Ky at any cost. She tells Xander that maybe making her own choice will help others to have choices too about how they live.


Matched is well written and very engaging. The story is told in Cassia's strong voice as she struggles to make her own choices and forge her own path. Cassia is sensitive, intelligent and caring. She is devastated over the (meaningless) death of her Grandfather who was still healthy and vibrant at 80 when he dies. Matched is one of the few young adult novels where the parents are normal, caring individuals who try to do the right thing and who actually help the teen character.

Undoubtedly one of the most poignant and well crafted characters is Cassia's Grandfather. When she shows him a letter she has copied for him as a gift on his last day he tells her that while they are lovely words, they are not her own.

"You have words of your own, Cassia," Grandfather says to me. "I have heard some of them, and they are beautiful. ....I want you to trust your own words. Do you understand?"

He encourages her to seek her own path as much as possible. To aid in this he shares a special secret with her that Cassia gradually comes to understand.
Grandfather also encourages Cassia to try not to use the green tablets, telling her she is strong enough to do without them.

I especially loved the clean romance in Matched, which made it a refreshing change from the typical YA fare. The characters experienced strong feelings for one another but always considered their how their actions might affect one another.

Matched is the first in a trilogy. The covers of the novels will reflect the tablets and their colours. The first book, Matched  which has the green tone image of a girl caught in a bubble in a green gown is representative of Cassia caught within the bubble of the Society and its rigid and controlled structure. The second book, Crossed is due to be released November 1, 2011. It's cover will be blue and will feature a girl breaking out of the bubble, symbolic of Cassia's rebellion against the closed life within the Society and all its rules and attempts at controlling every facet of life.

Matched is a great book for those teens who love dystopias. I'm eagerly awaiting the second book!

Book Details:
Matched by Ally Condy
New York: Dutton Books 2010
369 pp.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beneath My Mother's Feet by Amjed Qamar

Beneath My Mother's Feet is a beautifully written novel which examines the role of women and their expectations in Pakistani society.
Fourteen year old Nazia lives with her family in Gizri colony, a working-class neighborhood in southern Karachi. She attends Gizri School for Girls with her friends Maleeha and Saira and is preparing for her arranged marriage which is to happen soon. She hopes to be able to continue her studies once married.

The story opens with Nazia arriving home from school to find that her father Abbu has been injured at his construction job. In the weeks following Abbu's accident, it becomes apparent that Nazia's family will have a difficult time surviving. At first they are able to subsist on the money her Amma saved from her sewing jobs. But with no one to help support the family things change for the worse quickly.

Amma pulls Nazia out of school to watch her younger siblings, 10 year old Isha and 4 year old Mateen, while she cleans homes in the Defense Housing area - a section of residential homes owned by Karachi's elite. Amma is now a masi - a servant who cleans the homes of the wealthy. The work is hard for Amma so instead of watching her younger siblings, Nazia also begins to clean homes. The work is dirty, exhausting and endless, and pays little.

Nazia wants to finish school but with each month that she is forced to stay and help her mother, her dream of getting an education seems to be slipping away. Further disaster strikes when her jahez (dowry) is stolen, her father loses the rent money and then disappears and her family loses their home. Due to the family's precarious financial situation and the loss of her dowry, her Uncle Tariq breaks her engagement to his son Salam. While Nazia's mother takes the loss of the engagement hard, Nazia herself is not so sure that this is a bad thing.

Gradually Nazia comes to the realization that she has choices and that she doesn't always have to just accept what "fate" will bring her.

When did Nazia have the right to start thinking on her own? Was there some unwritten law that said even when things were going wrong, when the choices that her parents made led to one disaster after another, she had to ride the waves, holding her breath?

She has the choice to continue her studies with the help of her friend Maleeha. She has the choice to leave her life of servitude with the help of a former teacher. Her life isn't necessarily dictated by fate. And so when Nazia helps a servant boy, Sherzad flee from a life of servitude she herself makes a different choice. Although her Uncle returns and arranges for her to return to Punjab with him and his son for their wedding, Nazia decides upon a different path for herself.

Qamar's characters are finely crafted with substance and realism. The central character, Nazia is a teenager who we see is in the process of maturing and thinking for herself. Nazia loves her father. At first she refuses to accept Amma's opinion that he is lazy and deceitful and has shirked his responsibilities as a provider for his family. Nazia considers his situation and his actions carefully before she comes to a conclusion about him. She is intelligent and as she is exposed to the world around her, Nazia begins to realize that she has choices in her life. She matures from a young teen who simply follows her mother to someone who has the courage to made a decision that might be in her best interests but which will also conflict with what her mother wants for her.

Nazia's Amma is also a beautifully crafted character. Amma is portrayed as a long suffering wife who has struggled to cope with a difficult husband. She appears to favour her irresponsible son, Bilal, who abandons the family to look after his own needs but in the end we learn that she really does understand that her son is very much like his father.

"Because Bilal is like his father. Why do you think I work as a masi? Because it was all I could do to protect Bilal from his father. They are the same. No matter how much they mean well, they cannot fight the shaitan - the devil - that lives within. They know what is right, what is wrong, but they always do what they know best. Cheat. Lie. Steal."

Amma is also a woman of extraordinary strength and resolve. She accepts the fact that she must look after her family by herself and she sets out to do this. Even as she suffers one hardship after the next, Amma is representative of the resilience of Pakistani women in a culture that has places certain expectations and limitations on them.

In my opinion an author succeeds when her readers are able to experience an emotional connection to certain characters or an emotional response due to a charcter. I certainly felt that way towards Nazia and Amma as I read about their struggle and their physical suffering. But I also experienced feelings towards Abbu, who is a generally dislikeable character. He always seems to have an angle on everything and his knack for appearing at just the right time was aggravating. We are at first torn between Amma's view of him and that of Nazia. It soon becomes apparent that much of the suffering Nazia and her family experience are due to this man's irresponsibility.

Although most of the male characters in the book are not positive role models, Qamar seems to imply that this is a family trait and not a statement on the men of Pakistan. For example, her friend Maleeha's brother, Hisham, is respectful and treats both Nazia and Maleeha with kindness.

There are many interesting themes that run throughout Beneath My Mother's Feet. The dominant theme concerns the relationship between mothers and daughters in Pakistani culture. The title of this novel is part of a quote attributed to the prophet Muhammad, "The gates of heaven lie beneath a mother's feet.". This well-known saying seems to imply that if we wish to get to heaven we should honor our mother and be obedient to her wishes in all things. This is what Nazia struggles with however. Amma expects that Nazia will do what she asks of her to please her - as a dutiful daughter. Yet as the novel progresses, Amma comes to the realization that Nazia is different and Nazia realizes that she will not be happy with the choices that her mother has made for her. While Amma expects that Nazia will marry because this offers her the best path in life, Nazia feels differently. It is not an easy decision to go against her mother, but unlike Bilal, she does it gently and with respect towards her mother.

"...She asked Allah to forgive her for what she was about to do, and she hoped that Amma wouldn't think she was abandoning her in the same way Bilal had. When the time came, Nazia wanted the gates of heaven to be open for her."

This book would be a great choice for a mother/daughter book club. There are many themes and ideas to explore in such a reading. I've only explored one or two ideas here. Beneath My Mother's Feet is an absorbing coming of age novel for younger teens.

Book Details:
Beneath My Mother's Feet by Amjed Qamar
New York: Atheneum Books 2008
198 pp.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Buck: A Movie I'd love to see

There are a few good movies that are often shown in limited release. The new Jane Eyre was one such movie that I didn't have a chance to go see.
Another that I'd love to see is Buck, a documentary about Buck Brannaman, a man who helps horses deal with people problems. Slated for release June 17, 2011,  I would love to see this movie because it's about a very unusual man who has risen above a difficult past to make a better future.

Buck Brannaman is a horse trainer who practices Natural horsemanship. Buck developed his approach to training horses out of his childhood experiences with an abusive father. His father trained him as a trick roper yet whipped him and his brother if they did not perform their tricks perfectly. The relationship was so abusive that Buck and his brother spent time in a foster home. Buck recognized the same fear and mistrust in horses who had been abused as in children who experienced abuse.

Buck felt that it was better to understand the nature of the horse and learn to work with that nature than to abuse the animal and dominate it with fear.

I've started horses since I was 12 years old, and have been bit, kicked, bucked off and run over. I've tried every physical means to contain my horse in an effort to keep from getting myself killed.
I started to realize that things would come much easier for me once I learned why a horse does what he does. This method works well for me because of the kinship that develops between horse and rider.

Now I don't ride horses, nor do I know a thing about horsemanship. I've been to the Calgary Stampede years ago but really I know little about cowboy culture. But I definitely want to see this film!

Your horse is a mirror to your soul, and sometimes you may not like what you see. Sometimes, you will."

Friday, June 17, 2011

Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch

Since this year was the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, there have been a number of historical fiction accounts written in recent years leading up to the anniversary. I've already reviewed Threads and Flames by Esther Friesner and I will be reviewing at least one other teen novel on the Triangle fire in upcoming weeks.

Ashes of Roses opens with the Nolan family comprised of Da and Ma Nolan, Rose, Maureen, Bridget

and Joseph, arriving at Ellis Island. As with each immigrant who arrives, each of them must pass a physical examination in order to enter America. Unfortunately for the Nolans, their youngest child, Joseph does not pass because he has a contagious eye infection. It is decided that Da will return to Cork, Ireland with Joseph, while Ma and the girls will go on to stay with Da's brother Patrick in New York.

They soon find Patrick's apartment and learn that he has married a German woman Elsa who has two daughters. Although Patrick, now an established politician and prosperous, is welcoming, his family is not. After a series of run-ins with Elsa, Ma decides to return to Ireland. Maureen and Rose manage to convince their mother to allow them stay in New York.

Instead of returning to Patrick's home Rose and Maureen manage to find a room to rent with a Russian Jewish man, Mr. Garoff and his daughter Gussie. Gussie, it turns out is a great help to Rose. She helps Rose confront a dishonest employer and helps her find work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory so that she can support herself and her sister. Gussie is also a prominent union organizer and is involved with the Waistmakers Local 25.

Just as Rose and Maureen are getting settled into their new life, making friends and earning some money, they find themselves part of a great tragedy that would forever change the face of labor in America. Rose finds herself trapped on the ninth floor along with Gussie and her friends Rose Klein and Rose Bellini. With the doors locked and the lone elevator capable of only holding 15 people, there are few choices to escape the inferno.

Auch does an excellent job setting the scene for the actual tragedy and her detailed realistic description of the fire conveys both the terror of the victims and the pain and loss of the families of the 146 people who died in the fire.

The title, Ashes of Roses has several meanings. First it is the colour of the dress Rose wears to work on the day of the tragedy. During her escape from the Triangle building, she tears her dress and that piece of fabric shows up in the items used to identify the dead. Rose who goes to look for her sister and friends among the dead, is horrified to see a scrap of her dress. Secondly, one of the most common names of the young women who died in the tragedy was Rose. So the fire indeed contained the ashes of Roses, among others.

Told in the voice of 16 year old Rose Nolan, Ashes of Roses is a quick read for younger teens who love historical fiction.

Book Details:
Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch.
Laurel Leaf 2004
256 pp.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

leaving paradise by Simone Elkeles

For the past year, 17 year old Caleb Becker has been an inmate at the Illinois Department of Corrections Juvenile complex (DOC). Caleb is in juvie because he was convicted of hitting a girl, Maggie Armstrong, while driving drunk. Maggie was severely injured and required numerous surgeries to repair her damaged legs. She has spent the past year recovering from  her injuries and now walks with a limp.

Maggie Armstrong lives with her mother Linda in the town of Paradise, Ohio. She  is looking forward now more than ever, to the following January when she will be going to Spain on a tennis scholarship. Maggie wants to leave Paradise to get away from the place where her accident happened. Things haven't been going so well for her family. Her father left her mother two years ago and she misses her dad very much. Her mom works at Auntie Mae's Diner to support them.

The book opens with Caleb being released from DOC to return home and Maggie returning to school as a senior. The story is told in the alternating voices of Caleb and Maggie. Caleb struggles to fit in at school, while trying to stay out of trouble so he can be fully released from the DOC. He use to be part of the wrestling team but can no longer participate because of his community service work requirement. He is seen by his peers as the brooding ex-con.
Meanwhile, Maggie also struggles to settle back into school.The accident has resulted in a shift in Maggie's friendships. She is now the outsider in a clique that once included her tennis friends Danielle and Brianne and her cousin, Sabrina. But more significantly, Maggie was very close to Caleb's twin sister, Leah Becker. Since the Armstrong and Becker families live across the street from one another, they once had a close friendship. That friendship is now also destroyed as a result of the accident.

Despite their attempts to avoid each other, circumstances are such that they end up working at a neighbour's home. That neighbour is Mrs. Reynolds, the mother of Maggie's mother's employer. Caleb is assigned to work at Mrs Reynold's for his community service hours. Maggie is offered a chance to be Mrs. Reynold's companion after she learns that Maggie cannot go to Spain because she has lost her sports scholarship and must pay her way. When Maggie and Caleb are thrown together, a romantic friendship begins to blossom. Both realize that the other is not what they expected, especially Caleb who likes Maggie for her honesty. Each begins to find strength from the other as they are now both outsiders in their community.

Eventually, though things begin to unravel for both Maggie and Caleb. Maggie has trouble trusting Caleb, which is understandable, given the situation. Eventually, we learn about a secret Caleb is carrying that is destructive to both himself and his family. When Maggie figures out this secret, she comes to understand Caleb's behaviour and realizes that Caleb is the one who doesn't trust her or himself.

The numerous unexpected twists and turns in this novel create suspense and develop the readers interest to learn what will happen next. I can't really discuss any of these unexpected plot developments without spoiling the book for anyone who hasn't read it. The developing romantic element also helps support the reader's interest, although I personally found that there was too much sexual description.

Caleb and Maggie were well defined, likeable characters. The reader develops more empathy for Caleb once the true nature of his situation is revealed. Maggie matured during the novel,  more so than Caleb whose decision near the end was the wrong one in my opinion. Maggie began to accept her physical limitations and to work with them and around them. Kendra, Caleb's girlfriend before the accident, is a foil to Maggie. They are opposites but especially when it comes to character. Kendra's mantra is to use people, while Maggie has grown since her accident to think about how other people feel.

I wasn't sure how realistic it is for a 16 year old to end up doing a year of jail time in a juvenile detention center. According to my research for a first DUI conviction in Illinois for a person under the age of 21, the penalty is loss of driving license for a minimum of 2 years, up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2500. So Caleb's incarceration seems reasonable, considering he was driving drunk, seriously injured someone and he left the scene of the accident.

Simone Elkeles has written a sequel to Leaving Paradise called Return to Paradise which I hope to read. I'd love to know what happens to Maggie and Caleb as well as what decisions, if any his twin sister Leah makes.I originally thought the title of the book might refer to Maggie but the reader learns later on this is not the case.

I highly recommend this book but there are many suggestive sexual scenes in the latter portion of the book as well as numerous f-bombs dropped by the character, Caleb. The overall storyline is interesting and the romance helps draw teen readers in.

Book Details:
Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles
Woodbury, MN: Flux Llewellyn Publications   2007
303 pp.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent

Heaven Is For Real tells the story of Colton Burpo's experience of being in heaven. In March 2003, a family trip turned in to a nightmare. Todd Burpo, a Nebraska pastor took his family with him to a district board meeting of the Wesleyan Church in Greeley, Colorado. In Greeley, the Burpo's 4 year old son Colton became very ill. At first his parents, Todd and Sonja suspected it was a return of the stomach flu which Colton had apparently suffered from in February. However, with the passing hours, it became apparent that something more sinister was wrong. Todd and Sonja raced to Imperial where Colton was admitted to the hospital there. By this time they suspected that Colton had appendicitis, an infection family relatives seemed to be prone to, but doctors seemed to feel that this was not Colton's problem. Three days later, on March 5, the Burpo's made the critical decision to move Colton to Great Plains Regional Medical Center in North Platte. To Todd, the way Colton looked reminded him of the "death watch" he had experienced so many times as a pastor. They could only hope and pray that they had not acted too late to save their son.

Colton's face appeared pinched and pale, his face a tiny moon in the stark hallway. The shadows around his eyes had deepened into dark, purple hollows. He wasn't screaming anymore, or even crying. He was just...still.
Once there, the diagnosis of a ruptured appendix was confirmed and Colton was rushed into life-saving surgery. It was while he was undergoing surgery, that Colton had his mystical experience of entering heaven and meeting Jesus and several family members. It was not until months later, during the summer of 2003, that the Burpo's began to learn of Colton's experiences in heaven.

What follows through most of the book is an account of Colton's parents attempts to learn more about what he experienced in heaven. I have no doubt that 4 year old Colton had a mystical experience and was in the presence of Jesus. It's quite apparent that he was suffering a great deal by the time he was sent in for surgery. It would not surprise me that he experienced these things as a comfort and also for some possible future spiritual benefit. I have mixed feelings about the Burpo's questioning Colton about his experience. On the one hand I understand as a parent how he would want to learn more about his son's experience. On the other hand I wonder if it is beneficial to focus so much on the details, which in my view aren't so important.

There are many things that are theologically sound in Colton's account; the presence of Christ, Mary the Mother of God, the love of God for each of us, the inexpressible beauty of heaven and the vastness of God, the terror of Satan, and the existence of angels who do battle.

At any rate Heaven Is For Real is an interesting account of a little boy's experience of heaven. It is a fascinating read and a short one sure to strengthen the faith of most Christians in a post-modern world.

Book Details:
Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent
Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson 2010
163 pp.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Super 8 Movie Review

I went to see Super 8 last night and it is superb!

The movie opens with the death of Joe Lamb's mother as a result of an industrial accident. Now there is just Joe and his father Jackson, who is the local sheriff, left to deal with life in small town Lillian, Ohio. When school breaks for the summer, in 1979, Joe and his friends Charles, Cary, Preston and Martin plan to shoot a Super 8 movie for a movie contest. They manage to get pretty Alice Dainard to star in their homemade movie, partly because she can drive and they need a ride out of town to the train station to shoot a scene.
While working on their film at the train station, they witness a spectacular train crash. Barely escaping with their lives, they flee the scene when the military shows up. But already, these kids know something isn't right, because their science teacher, Mr. Woodward is there too, with a warning.

Soon suspicious things begin happening all over town. The deputy sheriff disappears at the local gas station which is demolished, there are missing dogs and people, unexplained thefts, power outages and other strange goings-on. Joe's father, Jackson Lamb, now in charge of the sheriff's office, suspects that the military is covering up something sinister and he is determined to learn what it is they are hiding. Meanwhile, Joe and his friends know that they have to get back to the site of the train wreck. But it isn't until they watch their developed Super 8 film which continued to record the accident while they fled from the initial train crash, that they realize what they are dealing with.

This sci-fi thriller works so well because it creates incredible suspense by not revealing just what the military is hiding until well past halfway through the film. In each encounter with the unknown, we see only the effects and actions of the unknown, but not the source of the terror.

The other unique aspect of this movie is that the group of young teens are making a zombie movie, The Case, while all of this is going down in Lillian. It's like a movie within a movie, only Joe, Alice, Charles and the rest of the gang just don't realize it yet.

There are many moments of humour to provide the necessary comic relief in this movie, especially during the scenes of the young teens filming their movie and their interactions with one another. That movie, The Case, can be viewed at the end of Super 8, so be sure to stay after the credits!

Newcomer Joel Courtney who plays Joe Lamb is a refreshing face alongside beautiful Elle Fanning who plays Alice. Ryan Lee is well cast as Cary, the kid with a pyrotechnics fetish and Kyle Chandler is a strong, solid choice for Jackson Lamb.

J.J. Abrams directed Super 8. Abrams has stated that the idea came from two separate ideas for movies; one for an Area 51/aliens flick and a second idea for a movie involving teens shooting their adventures using Super 8. Neither was going anywhere when the idea struck him to merge the two ideas.

Some younger teens might take a few minutes to understand that the movie is set in the late 1970's but it's relatively obvious that this is the time period because of the songs, style of clothing and models of cars, the brief mention of the Three Mile Island accident and the shot of Walter Cronkite, iconic TV newscaster on the TV set.

There's no need to say it, but the special effects are incredible. The train wreck is shown in all its glory and seems a bit overdone. It must occupy about 5 minutes of the movie, in terms of actually documenting the crash. It's amazing that none of the children are injured, and that in spite of all the devastation, the Super 8 movie camera survives.

Overall, a great movie for those who love science fiction, action and a touch of teen romance. Virtually no gore and only mild swearing. Definitely for older children due to the frightening scenes.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Where She Went by Gayle Forman

Adam and Mia were high school sweethearts, each with a big dream; he to be a rock star, and she to be a concert cellist. In her senior year of high school, Mia's family experiences a devastating tragedy that alters her life forever. Adam is there for her each and every day and helps her through the physical and emotional pain. However, when Mia achieves her dream of admission to Julliard and is able to leave to study in New York things change drastically. Inexplicably, she dumps Adam who, unable to understand what is happening, crashes emotionally.

Now three years later, Adam, a famous rocker who is part of the band Shooting Star, is on the verge of a breakdown. He takes pills to control his anxiety attacks, has the shakes and feels like he caught up in a vortex. The songs that made him famous came out of the emotional devastation of his break-up with Mia.

While on a brief lay-over in New York City before flying to London to begin a 67 night tour, Adam walks into Mia's concert at Carnegie Hall. It is an impulsive act for Adam who is struggling to cope with the stress of fame and who still can't forget Mia. As it turns out, his presence has not gone unnoticed and eventually he and Mia reconnect immediately after the concert when Mia has him brought to her dressing room.
My first impulse is not to grab her or kiss her or yell at her. I simply want to touch her cheek, still flushed from the night's performance. I want to cut through the space that separates us, measured in feet...I want to touch her to make sure it's really her, not one of those dreams I had so often after she left....
But I can't touch her. This is a privilege that's been revoked. Against my will, but still.

Mia, on the verge of stardom in the classical world, offers to show Adam around her favourite locations in New York City. Interspersed with a description of events of this one evening are Adam's introspective flashbacks on his life during the past three years.

Told in the voice of character Adam Wilde, the past reveals information about his relationship with Mia and his path to fame, while Mia finally reveals to Adam the real reasons for their break-up. It is this discussion that finally helps Adam come to some understanding of what happened but also helps Mia realize what she did to Adam. Having come to terms with their past, Adam and Mia see each other in a new way, a way which offers healing, and perhaps new possibilities.
Forman is able to eloquently capture both the pain and angst Adam has experienced and still is experiencing from his break-up with Mia. In Adam, Gayle Forman creates a sensitive,lovable character to whom the reader is most empathetic. We feel his pain and his sense of betrayal from his relationship with Mia. The author does an excellent job portraying how difficult it must be to retain one's identity in the face of sudden fame. Adam is basically a good guy who laments not only losing the love of his life, Mia, but also losing parts of himself as a result of living the life of a world famous rocker. He has a sense of shame that somehow he hasn't measured up, because he's given up and he's been hurting so much.

When I started reading this book (which was recommended to me by my daughters) I didn't realize it was the sequel to If I Stay. Where She Went can be read as a separate novel, which is what I did and it loses nothing in the process. I now plan to go back and read If I Stay. However, since If I Stay is told in Mia's voice, those who have read the first book will have a better understanding of this couple because the character of Mia is the focus of the first book.

I loved Where She Went. I wanted to see Adam through his pain and I wanted him to achieve some kind of resolution that would allow him to move on. I believe many readers will be able to identify with him, whether they be teens or adults, men or women. Gayle Forman has done a remarkable job of capturing how a relationship can be hijacked by life's events in an honest and heartrending way.

Book Details:
Where She Went by Gayle Forman
New York: Dutton Books 2011
260 pp.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

Japanese colonial rule of Japan began in 1910 and lasted until the end of the Second World War in 1945 with the defeat of Japan by the Americans. During the early part of colonial rule, Japan ruled directly through the military. After a national protest in 1919, military rule was relaxed and Koreans were allowed extra freedoms. The effect of Japanese colonialism however, was to modernize and industrialize Korea. With the advent of the Second World War, a return to stricter military rule began. In 1939, Koreans were forced to change their names to Japanese, Korean men were conscripted into fighting in the Pacific War and thousands of Korean women where forced into sexual slavery as Comfort Women. (

When My Name Was Keoko tells the story of a Korean family during the period of Japanese occupation in the Second World War. Author, Linda Sue Park uses two voices to tell her story, that of Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul. The story opens in 1940 when 10 year old Sun-hee's family learns that they must take on Japanese names. Although they must comply, they decide to make their Japanese names as similar as possible to their Korean names. Sun-hee takes the name Keoko which means "the sun's rays". Sun-hee and Tae-yul live with their father Abuji, their mother Omoni and an uncle who runs a printing business.

In school, the children sing the Japanese national anthem, recited the Japanese emperor's education policy and learn Japanese alphabet and writing. Sun-hee works hard in school and especially loves learning kanji, a special and complex type of character writing.In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese enact many new laws and life gradually becomes more and more difficult.

Linda Sue Park's writing is astonishingly vivid and realistic. Through the experiences of Tae-yul and Sun-hee we understand what it must have been like for the Korean people to live under the rule of Japanese and their struggle to maintain their national identity. Sadly, they are not alone as Japanese expansion spreads to Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, The Philippines, and New Guinea.

Sun-hee and Tae-yul have different responses to the events that occur within the short years recounted. Sun-hee struggles to maintain her Korean identity and wonders what makes her Korean. She wonders whether it is possible to write Korean thoughts in Japanese. She wants to learn how to write Korean. Her rebellion is quiet and personal.

Tae-yul, on the other hand, is more open about his opposition to the Japanese. He tries to resist when Japanese soldiers take away his homemade bike. When students are given rubber balls in honor of the conquest of Malaya, Burma and Singapore Tae-yul responds,
What they take: our rice, our language, our names. What they give: little rubber balls.
I can't feel grateful about such a bad deal.

Park is direct about some of the brutality suffered under Japanese occupation such as beatings of civilians and hints at others such as the comfort women - the recruiting and wholesale kidnapping of Korean women for the sole purpose of working in brothels for the Japanese army.

I have to say that I really enjoy Park's writing. Her fiction is fascinating it tends to focus on events and situations not widely written about. While I knew about the comfort women, I didn't know about the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Although When My Name Was Keoko is fictional, it takes some of its basis in the events that were experienced by the author's parents, Eung Won and Joung Sook, while growing up in Korea.

Book Details:
When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
New York: Clarion Books 2002
199 pp.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Long Walk To Water by Linda Sue Park

Sometimes I like to feature books from a specific author, mainly because they are someone I've just discovered and am really keen on. That someone this time around is author, Linda Sue Park, an American children's author. Linda Sue Park is the duaghter of Korean immigrants and was born in Urbana, Illinois. A Stanford graduate in English, she began writing as a young child and published her first children's book in 1999. A Long Walk To Water is the first of two books I will be featuring on my blog. You can check out more about Linda Sue at

A Long Walk To Water tells the grief-ridden story of life in Sudan during the last 30 years. Sudan, the largest country in Africa was beset by civil war beginning in 1983. Although there were trivial conflicts, the civil war essentially involved a conflict between predominantly Muslim northern Sudan and the Christian/African southern part of the country.
Impressed onto the conflict was the struggle in the daily lives of the Sudanese to obtain what we in North America, take for granted, the necessities of life - food and water.

Linda Sue Park tells the story of Sudan in two voices almost 25 years apart. Salva Mawien Dut Ariik is the voice of Sudan's past, enduring a breathless, fearful flight from school near his village of Loan-Ariik, in the wake of fighting in 1985. As a young boy, he along with other boys and men must flee because they are in danger of being forced to fight in the war. With thousands of other Sudanese refugees, Salva treks miles through the southern Sudanese wilderness to refugee camps in Ethiopia. His journey means crossing the Nile River and the Akobo Desert. By the time he reaches Ethiopia, as far as Salva knows, he is utterly alone in the world. He spends the rest of his youth and early adulthood in various refugee camps before he is selected to emigrate to Rochester, New York where he is taken in by Chris and Louise Moore and their family. He is one of the Lost Boys - boys who had lost their homes and families because of the war and had wandered about for many months or years. With the loving support of the Moore family, Salva gets an education and eventually is able to return to Sudan to help his country.

Set against Salva's narrative is that of a young Nya who has to walk every day for miles to get dirty water for her family. It is during the rainy season in the Sudan, 2008.
Home for just long enough to eat, Nya would not make her second trip to the pong. To the pond and back --to the pond and back --nearly a full day of walking altogether. This was Nya's daily routine seven months of the year.
Daily. Every single day.

During the dry season, Nya's family must move to the big lake, because the pond dries up. Nya, whose family is from the Nuer tribe, does not live near the lake year round because the land is settled by the rival Dinka tribe. The dirty water is full of organisms that make her younger sister, Akeer sick as well as many others.

These two stories are told in chapter form with Nya's story first in colored text, followed by Salva's. Salva and Nya's stories converge in a most unexpected and fulfilling manner when Salva returns to his native Sudan to drill wells for water.

Linda Sue Park has written a beautiful short story about a heartbreaking situation in the third world. It's a terrible thing to know that people in 2008 have to dig in the mud to get water in order to survive. It's a terrible thing to know that war and constant strife prevent entire countries from working together to achieve even a basic standard of living. Salva Dut decided to do something about the lack of clean water in Sudan.

Here is Salva Dut talking about his life and his project:

You can also check out his organization's website, Water for Sudan.

And there is also a PBS special on the Salva Dut and Sudan:

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

A Long Walk to Water also has a map at the front to familiarize readers with the geography of Salva Dut's journey and the there is an Author's Note at the back as well as a Message from Salva Dut. I highly recommend this book.

Book Details:
A Long Walk To Water by Linda Sue Park
New York: Clarion Books 2010

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Sword in Her Hand by Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem and Pat Van Beirs

Yet another novel about a little known historical figure, A Sword in Her Hand, relates a fictionalized account of Marguerite Van Male who lived from 1348 to 1405. Marguerite was the daughter of Margaret of Brabant and Louis de Male, Count of Flanders. She lived during the 14th century - a world where women were often treated as merchandise to be used to forge political alliances. The period of time in which Marguerite lived saw the Hundred Years war and a plague epidemic.

Marguerite is portrayed as a strong-willed, sometimes crass, fiery young girl. When Marguerite's mother is unable to give birth to a son who lives, she goes mad and is sent to a nearby convent to recover. Meanwhile, Marguerite, deprived of her beautiful mother whom she loves dearly, learns early on that her father would most definitely have preferred that she were the son he so desperately needs. She knows she is not a beauty and has no misconceptions about what life will hold for her.

I know what they whisper in the kitchens of Male and in the streets of Bruges, that I haven't inherited my mother's beauty, that I'll marry a man who only wants me for my inheritance. That I'll be living proof that money doesn't buy happiness. For who will ever love a failed boy with her father's fox head?

War once again breaks out and Louis de Male, along with his armorer Jan van Vere, and the pages leave Flanders for Chartres where they join the army of the French king, John the Good. France and England are at war over who will rule France, the French king John II or Edward, King of England. In 1356, Edward, the Black Prince invades France and wins a significant battle in the war at Poitiers.

"...The great French army has been defeated by the English. The defeat is so total, so scandalous, and so shattering, there are almost no knights left in France to govern the country."

The authors do a wonderful job of describing the English longbow strategy during the battle of Poitiers and the significance of the weapon in medieval warfare. The detailed account is told through the voice of armorer van Vere. As well we learn how this defeat breaks the back of France with the crushing ransom required to free their captured knights.

King John and his son are captured and eventually ransomed. Marguerite's father is badly injured on the battlefield and manages to escape capture. Marguerite listens enthralled to the entire narrative given by van Vere. We learn that the French people have been devastated by the defeat and that Louis de Male is but a shadow of the warrior he once was. When Marguerite visits her injured father he tells her that he mother will never bear him a son and that he sees Marguerite as proof that God is laughing at him.

Marguerite, filled with hatred for her father spends part of her childhood running wild with the pages and causing great havoc. She contrives to take fencing lessons with a local master and becomes an accomplished fencer. Eventually when Marguerite is a bit older, her father decides she must marry someone influential because she is heir to so much wealth and land. The burghers of Flanders have been allied with the English for many year, on whom they depend for their supply of wool. Without the wool from the Benedictine monks in England, the burghers will not be able to do business, so they have a vested interest in Flanders coming under English control. Because of what happened when the Count was betrothed to an English princess in his youth, Louis de Male makes a fateful and unpopular decision.

He decides to betroth Marguerite to Edmund of Langley, the youngest son of King Edward III of England. The match is nothing more than a political alliance and means that Flanders will become English after the Count of Flanders death. Marguerite tries to resist her fathers decision but eventually relents and agrees to the marriage. However, Marguerite is not your average medieval girl. She is a girl of horses, swords, brawls and battles. As a result, there are many twists and turns before the outcome of this fascinating narrative concludes.

I enjoyed this novel very much. As the authors note in the back of the book, because so little is known about Marguerite's personal life they have given their "fantasy free rein to clear up the fog around her childhood and to make her a girl of flesh and blood, who has to compete against the fierce and violent male world of the Middle Ages."

A Sword in Her Hand is definitely filled with well crafted characters who evoke strong emotions. Edmund was portrayed as a cruel man accustomed to getting what he wanted in life. Set against Marguerite in a battle of wits, it was easy to dislike him. I had great sympathy for Margaret of Brabant who was always pregnant and who lost several male children. Once again we see the inability to provide a male heir as the undoing of a woman.

Excellent descriptions of medieval life are to be found throughout A Sword in Her Hand, whether they be of war, the plague or life in the castle. Van Rijckeghem and Beirs definitely made life in 14th century France come alive for the reader. The descriptions of plague-decimated France were especially

One thing I didn't like about this book was the cover of the edition printed in Canada. It is quite honestly, just awful.

A much better cover is that of the edition published in Australia which is shown on the right.

Nevertheless, A Sword in Her Hand isn excellent historical read that is both engaging and exciting. The authors have done a superb job recreating medieval life and telling the story of a little known person from that time period.

Book Details:
A Sword in Her Hand by Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem and Pat Van Beirs
Translated by John Nieuwehhuizen
Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books Ltd. 2011
274 pp.