Friday, July 29, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After. Like many of the extraordinary things to come, it involved my grandfather, Abraham Portman.
The prologue to Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children provides the reader with the background information on Jacob and his family. Jacob's grandfather was the only one of his family to escape Poland before the Second World War engulfed Europe. He was sent to a children's home on a remote island off the coast of Wales. This home was very different though according to Jacob's grandfather because there resided at the home many children with unusual abilities. Some had the ability to fly, others to lift heavy objects and still others the ability to use fire. Besides his stories of the children, grandpa also told stories about monsters. This was the reason why he had to leave his home in Poland. The home in Wales was a special place designed to keep these special children safe from the monsters. The sun always shone, no one got sick and they were watched over by a "wise old bird".

Although these stories captivated Jacob when he was younger, as he grew older, he came to view them as an allegory for his grandfather's war experiences. What he lived through was so horrifying that he made up these stories so as to be able to tell his grandchildren. But then one night everything changes in a way Jacob could never have imagined.

One night Jacob receives a frantic call from his grandpa. He sounds disoriented and panic stricken. When Jacob rushes to his grandpa's home he discovers him fatally wounded. Sensing something in the woods nearby, Jacob sees a horrible sight that both shocks and terrifies him. After months of trying to cope with what happened and with what his grandpa has told him about his past, Jacob decides he must visit the island where his father spent his childhood. With only his grandpa's last words as clues, Jacob begins his search to understand his grandfather and what he has told him.
"Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man's grave. September third, 1940."
Jacob and his father decide to visit Cairholm Island, Cymru, where his father grew up, the following summer. Upon his arrival on Cairholm, they rent a room at the tavern and Jacob soon locates the old children's home, now a decaying, crumbling ruin of a house. He soon learns however that all is not as it seems and that his father's stories had more truth in them than he could ever have imagined.

Ransom Rigg's debut novel, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children is a brilliant and original story about a group of unusual children and their struggle to survive. It is a mixture of science fiction fantasy and mystery that captivates the reader. The vintage photographs placed throughout add a visual component to the novel which greatly enhance the reader's experience. They help us to form a connection to the peculiar children.

The voice of Jacob is both humourous and engaging. Riggs has done a wonderful job portraying Jacob as a caring, courageous young man who faces up to the strangeness and reality of his unique situation.

In my library this book has been classified as a mystery but I believe it's better suited as science fiction. It is a crossover between young adult and adult fiction and teens who love to read these two genres will definitely be drawn to it.

Below is the book trailer which basically outlines the information set out in the book's prologue:

Having said all this, I'm hoping there will be a sequel. 20th Century Fox has the rights to make a movie of this book.

Book Details:

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs 2011
Philadelphia: Quirk Books

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lost by Jacqueline Davies

Lost is really the telling of two stories, which eventually become one. Because of this, readers need a little patience as Lost starts slowly.

The first story begins on February 6, 1905 with Essie Rosenfeld recounting the birth of her younger sister Zelda. Her father died 8 months earlier leaving Essie, her mother Hannah and younger brother Saulie left to struggle on in life. Her mother is not interested in the new baby, whom she views as just another mouth for the single mother to feed. As a result, Essie names the baby and as we see is primarily responsible for raising Zelda. We follow her story through the years including when she begins working at Triangle on January 9, 1911 at the age of 16.

This storyline is written on grey faded pages which are dated. It is a story of the past, but also of tragedy and loss. The last entry is February 27, 1911, which is the day after Essie's family experiences a terrible tragedy and where the two stories begin to merge.

The second story also told in Essie's voice is of the present. She is now 16 years old and works at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. This story opens with Essie training Harriet Abbott her first day at Triangle and noting that she seems lost. Essie recognizes that there is something strange about Harriet. Essie manages to befriend her and learns that Harriet is recently widowed and lives alone in the writer's district. She works at Triangle but aspires to be a writer. However, as Essie becomes better acquainted with Harriet, she begins to realize that Harriet's story has holes and this leads Essie to question the truthfulness of her new friend. Essie eventually discovers Harriet's secret. She decides that she and her mother will help Harriet in her difficult circumstances. She encourages Harriet to return to work one last time to pick up her paycheck on Saturday March 25, 1911. This will have consequences neither of them could have ever anticipated.

We also learn from this story that Essie has her own secrets too. Every night since February 26, 2011 and before she met Harriet, Essie would hurry from her job to search through stores for the right trimmings and material for a Merry Widow hat she is making for her younger sister Zelda. She never ever buys anything to put on the frame. However, it becomes apparent that something has happened to Zelda - something so horrible that Essie is unable or unwilling to acknowledge.

This was an interesting account of this time period in American history that focuses on both the disappearance of Dorothy Arnold, a wealthy young socialite who mysteriously vanished and the Triangle fire. The latter actually occupies very little of the story. Instead, Lost focuses more on Harriet/Dorothy and her mysterious situation as well as Essie's life up until the fire. The accounting of the Triangle fire is brief, although detailed and accurate. But really this is a story about New York city in 1911.

I found the storyline a little confusing and difficult to follow at first. However, it soon becomes apparent that Essie has suffered a deep loss and is unable to cope with this loss. At the same time, older readers will soon discover Harriet's circumstances and realize that all is not as she is telling her new friend Essie. The fact that the two girls work at Triangle allows the author to include the tragedy of the fire in her novel.

The best developed character is Zelda whom I developed an intense dislike for, which I suppose means the author succeeds in this area! She was spoiled, irritating and obnoxious. Her frequent disappearances were a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come.

We also learn a great deal about Essie who boasts that she can fix anything, including other people's mistakes. Unlike other protagonists in the many novels of the Triangle fire published this year, Essie does not escape unscathed from the tragedy.

Overall, Lost is well written and readers who persist will find a rewarding story with a satisfying ending.

Book Details:

Lost by Jacqueline Davies
Tarrytown New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation 2009
242 pp.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Guardian by Julius Lester

Guardian by Julius Lester is an intricate, detailed account of the lynching of a black man through the eyes of a white boy. Set in the southern US in the summer of 1946, Guardian is a novel about racism, identity and coming of age. It is about a great evil disguised as honour and justice and a way of life.

In the summer of 1946, in Davis, a small town in the deep South of the United States, 14 year old Ansel Anderson lives with his mother, Maureen and his father, Bert. Bert runs Anderson's General Store which he took over from his father at age 18 and which he expects Ansel to take on after him.

Unfortunately, Davis is a town set in it's pre-Civil War ways. Niggers don't speak until spoken to, move off the sidewalk when a white person approaches and don't even think about being equal to a white man. The town was founded by the Davis family who claim a large influence over it. Zeph Davis (known as Cap'n Davis) owns the largest cotton plantation in this part of the state and every building in Davis, including Bert Anderson's store. He has Negroes "working" for him but they are always in debt to him.

Ansel is friends with Willie, a black boy his own age, whom Bert has hired to help at the store, on the recommendation of Esther Davis. Willie's father, Big Willie was unable to work after his World War II service and now does odd jobs at the church. Bert doesn't like the fact that his son likes the "nigger boy", as he refers to Willie.

It was all right to have a nigger as a friend when you were little, but at fourteen it was time for Ansel to understand what it meant to be white, and past time for Willie to understand what it meant to be a nigger.

Ansel is attracted to Mary Susan, the daughter of Reverend Luther Dennis, the town's preacher. When he sees her with Zeph Davis III, the 16 year old son of Cap'n Davis, he is both afraid for her and angry at her. He knows what Zeph is and the terrible things he does to the black girls. What Ansel doesn't know is that Mary Susan likes Ansel and that she only agreed to go with Zeph out of boredom. When Mary Susan refuses Zeph's advances we later see his disturbing and sadistic side.

Several days later, as Bert and Ansel are closing up the store, Big Willie comes running to them telling them that something terrible has happened in the church. When they discover a murder has taken place in the church, and that a white man is responsible, Big Willie tells Bert, "You'll tell the white folks it wasn't me. Won't you, Mistah Bert?" He trusts Bert to do the right thing because after all Bert isn't like the other white men. But he is wrong. Instead the town of Davis mets out it's own form of justice.

The lynching has a dramatic and long-lasting effect on the Anderson family. Ansel's mother is appalled by her husband's lack of courage and yet not surprised by it. His actions reflect who he is - a man who tries to appease those he knows are evil and who cares about the profit of his business over the life of a man. Although Bert has never treated Maureen well and she has lived her life feeling dead, she is determined now that Ansel will not be like his father. And if he is not to be like his father he must leave Davis before it's too late.

Julius Lester explores the "culture" around lynchings - how it was a spectator sport with older people passing on this custom to their children and how people had their pictures taken next to the lynch victim. But we also see the lynching through the eyes of a white boy, the effect of keeping silent, of not telling the truth when a man's life depended upon it. The shame of that silence is something that lives with Ansel for the rest of his life.

There are plenty of themes to explore in Guardian and one of the most intense is that of identity. Perhaps Julius Lester explains it best in the Author's Note at the back of the book:

While the subject matter is a lynching, on a deeper level, this is a novel about identity. Whom and what we identify ourselves with determines our characters, determines who we are, and what we do. Whose opinion matters to you the most? When you know that, when you know whom it is you most care about pleasing, you know who you are. We make choices every day that shape the content of our characters.

While we might believe that Guardian is a book about the past, it is not. There is still much racial hatred in America and throughout the world. I was surprised to learn that other races have endured lynchings and that pictures of lynchings were once sold as postcards.

One thing I really like about the book is the use of the tree imagery at the beginning. Here is just a taste,

Trees remember.
They talk among themselves about "the winter of sixty-two when the snow was so heavy it broke limbs on the Father oak tree in the church cemetery. We were worried he might not survive."...
But some trees do not speak, not even to the birds that find delicious insects hidden beneath their bark....
They do not speak because they are ashamed.
At least ones in the South are.
They were used for evil. Even though they could not defend themselves, they are still ashamed.....

I would recommend this book to older teens and young adults due to the strong mature content. There is rape, sadism and a great deal of sexual content.

Book Details:
Guardian by Julius Lester
New York: Harper Collins 2008
129 pp

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Entwined by Heather Dixon

Azalea, Bramble, Clover, Delphinium, Evening Primrose, Flora, Goldenrod, Hollyhock, Ivy, Jessamine, Kale and Ivy.

Twelve daughters of the King Harold, the eleventh, who love to dance more than anything else. They live in the Kingdom of Eathesbury which we learn, has a very dark past. Many centuries ago, the High King, D'Eathe, was an evil man who tortured and killed anyone who strayed into his magic palace. He was eventually killed and his palace unmagicked by Harold the First, Azalea's ninth great-grandfather. Bits of magic still exist like the silver handkerchief Azalea's mother gives her.
Shortly after the birth of the twelfth princess, Lily, drastic change comes to the palace. Their mother dies and the palace is plunged into mourning. The windows are draped in black and the twelve princesses wear black gowns. All fun is postponed, especially dancing. The young princesses feel trapped.

Soon the King leaves to fight a war. The twelve princesses are left alone in the palace, still shrouded in black for their mourning period. They are angry at their father, whom they see as distant and cold. In what is a time of great need, they see their father as abandoning them.

Azalea, the Princess Royale, learns from the handsome Lord Bradford before he leaves with the King, that there are still pockets of magic in the palace. His father and the King use to play in magic passages that can be located by the D'Eathe mark.

One night Azalea discovers a portal to one of the magic passages in the princess's bedroom. This passage opened by the silver handkerchief her mother gave her, leads her and her sisters to an enchanting silver forest with a dancing pavilion in the middle of a silver pond. There they meet the Keeper, who tells them he was once a Lord in the King D'Eathe's court. When Harold the First led the rebellion against King D'Eathe, the Keeper joined in and was banished to the forest by the King. Trapped there forever, he keeps things.

Azalea is enchanted at first by the Keeper. He is a wonderful dancer and has a voice as smooth as chocolate. Her and her sisters are so enchanted by the magical silver forest that on their second night of dancing they swear an oath to come each night to dance and not to tell anyone, especially the King. But Azalea soon discovers that the Keeper, although handsome and magicked, has a frightening dark side to him. It is an oath the come to regret.

Night after night Azalea and her sisters return to dance at the Pavilion. When Azalea confronts the Keeper he asks Azalea to find the object in the palace that holds a special power over him rendering him captive below. When Azalea is unable to locate the object and tries to leave off coming to see the Keeper, she begins to suspect just how evil he is.

The King upon his return has learned that his daughters are dancing each night and he posts a notice that any man who can attempt to solve the riddle of where his daughters dance will have a chance to meet the Princess Royale for three days. Azalea and her sister's are furious. Unable to tell anyone about the dancing because of the oath, and Azalea and her sisters are trapped between leaving forever or harming those they love and all they hold dear.

Entwined is a superb and imaginative retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses that mostly works. It's a difficult task to come up with an original retelling of a fairytale that can hold the reader's interest, but Dixon succeeds. Entwined is a mix of romance, fairytale, mystery and horror.

What I found intriguing was the contrast in the book between the happy innocence of the princesses and the dark and cruel history of the D'Eathe kingdom. This gory theme formed an undercurrent throughout the book. Entwined explores themes of love, loss and loyalty.

Another aspect I really enjoyed was the magicked items in the palace. These were items that behaved in a human way because they had "charms" placed on them. This was a delicious touch that I wish Dixon had employed with greater frequency because they added a touch of humour to the novel.

The central characters, Azalea and the Keeper were well developed, although the Keeper was the more interesting of the two. There are twelve princesses although we only really interact with about five of them on a regular basis. For example, Hollyhock and Jessamine have only a few lines throughout the entire book.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed this book there are several things I didn't like about it. Readers should be aware that it takes some time to get going, mostly because the author spends more than a few chapters setting the scene and introducing us to the many characters.

A second more serious complaint I have is the length of the climax of the book - taking up 4 chapters and a total of 60 pages of a rapid succession of events that becomes tiring for the reader to slog through. In making Azalea the heroine, it seemed like the author required an "epic" battle for her to overcome. Shortening the ending would have made for a shorter read instead of the 472 pages that comprise Entwined.

Overall though, readers will love the twists in the plot, which will keep them guessing, as well as the satisfying ending.

Book Details:

Entwined by Heather Dixon
Greeenwillow Books (HarperCollins) 2011

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Disappeared by Gloria Whelan

Buenos Aires, Argentina. 1977. General Lopez, (a fictional character) renowned for his cruelty, has shut down the university and arrested the professors. Many people have been arrested and are never seen again. They are called Los Desaparecidos. The Disappeared.

Silvia Diaz's brother, Eduardo, is arrested one night. The police always come in the night so no one knows whose home they have come to. Eduardo had become increasingly involved in anti-government meetings and demonstrations. He did not want people to forget those who had disappeared. He was protesting the military rule of Argentina.

Life in Argentina's circa 1977 is told by so called "letters" that Eduardo and Silvia write to one another. Neither will ever read these letters. They are a literary construct of the author to tell the story in two voices.
Silvia decides she will use her good looks to make Norberto Lopez, son of the cruel General fall in love with her. He has shown an interest in her much to the horror of herself, initially and her friends. It is her hope that he will care enough for her to grant her request to have his father free Eduardo.

Meanwhile Eduardo barely endures torture and the brutality of prison. He is appalled to see a doctor allow his torturers to continue in contrast to his own father who has spent his life trying to alleviate the sufferings of others.

Eduardo and Silvia's mother joins the many mothers of Los Desaparecidos who march daily in the Plaza de Mayo - outside the Casa Rosada where General Videla, president of Argentina resides.

Despite warnings from her friends and her parents, Silvia continues to see Norberto. She knows he has the same cruel side that his father has, and that he uses people but her desire to free her brother makes her incapable of seeing how dangerous her plan is. Will she succeed? And at what cost?

Although the historical subject matter was very interesting, I felt that this story wasn't particularly well told. The characters were flat and naive to the point that it was difficult to relate to their experiences. The book was too short to explore the historical events in a realistic and informative manner, both beginning and ending abruptly. The ending was unrealistic and seemed highly improbable given the circumstances. A big disappointment since the cover and the historical matter caught my interest.

Book Details:

The Disappeared by Gloria Whelan
New York: Speak

Friday, July 15, 2011

Wolf Pack of the Winisk River by Paul Brown

When I was growing up I loved reading books about wolves - fictional accounts of wolves and their lives, told from the wolf's point of view. I still love these stories. The wolf, to me, is a fascinating animal; incredibly beautiful and at the same time, intimidating, primal and fearful.

So that was the motivation for reading Wolf Pack of the Winisk River by Paul Brown.This thin book tells the story of a huge Alpha male, Wolf, over the period of late winter into the summer in the Winisk River area. Wolf's story is told in beautiful free verse that conveys the natural beauty of the northern Canadian wilderness and the brutal reality of predator and prey and the struggle to survive in such an unforgiving environment.

Having lost his mate to a rogue black bear, Wolf is in search of food in the vast northern boreal forest. Food is sparse, and on the verge of starvation, Wolf manages to barely escape wolf hunters on snowmobiles. At this point he is attacked by small pack of wolves - an Alpha female known as Mother, two adult males called Black and White and  Mother's two pups. He easily asserts his dominance over the Alpha female and becomes part of the pack. From this point on we follow the wolve pack as they head north along the Winisk River following a herd of Northern Caribou. Interspersed with this are descriptions of humans traveling through the northern areas.

Brown's sparse poetry conveys the terror of the chase when Wolf hunts down prey.

viciously Wolf changes his grip
smothering the animal's muzzle and nose in killer jaws
jaws clamped with fifteen hundred pounds of bone-crushing pressure
preventing the caribou from breathing
the young bull thrashes his legs
shakes his head in terror unable to breathe
but nothing will stop these wolves now
they have gone far too long without food
they are near to starving and death themselves
they will not be beaten here
and within short minutes
the unfortunate bull has passed out from lack of oxygen
his lungs full of his own blood

The beauty of the northern wilderness is captured effectively with delicious detail:

in The Great Northern Forest the world is coming alive

the bald eagle
circling high in the blue sky
feels the strong warmth of the late spring sun
sees many things far below him

pussy willows budding in the shallow creeks

splashing otters slipping smoothly through the water like snakes
happily fishing and playing tag

And even the parallel travels of humans on the Asheweig River is captured in a way that injects some humour and contrast into the narrative. The author presents the vast range of human behaviour - those who try to kill the wolf for sport and who view nature as something to be dominated and those who wish to enjoy the beauty and try to experience some of that beauty as they travel along the Asheweig River.

Brown's poetry is enhanced by the beautiful black and white illustrations done in pen and ink by Ojibway artist  Robert Kakegamic.

An example of one of these gorgeous illustrations is shown on the left. Kakegamic paints in the woodland tradition with his subjects being those of the natural world around him.

I enjoyed this book immensely. I'm not sure however, whether teens would pick up this book and read it, which is unfortunate, because it's really quite well written and fascinating. Brown manages to insert a great deal of factual information about wildlife such as wolverines, polar bears, and great grey owls into the story. And of course, there's a wealth of information about wolves. There's a simple map at the front of the book as well as a brief summary of the pack's journey.

I would highly recommend this book to boys interested in wildlife and camping and reluctant readers.

Book Details:
Wolf Pack of the Winisk River by Paul Brown
Montreal: Lobster Press    2009
188 pp.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

Before I Go To Sleep is an extraordinary mystery and psychological thriller that is simply mesmerizing and difficult to put down.

Christine Lucas awakens to find she doesn't remember the man in her bed, where she is, or really anything about the past. We learn (along with her) that she is in her late forties, lives with her husband Ben and that each night when she goes to sleep, her memories of that day and any memories she regains during the day, are lost. This, as she learns from Ben, is the result of a horrible car accident.

Christine has amnesia and can't retain new memories. She has forgotten much of what has happened to her during her adult life. Sometimes she awakes believing she is a child, other times she believes she is an adult in her twenties. Every morning she must relearn her life; whom she is married to, whether or not they have children and so forth. Now in her mid forties, Christine has lived like this for twenty years. Her only connection to her past is her husband Ben. She relies completely upon him for the truth of her life. Ben has decided that he know longer wants her to see any more specialists because he says they upset her.

Every morning she receives a phone call from Dr. Nash, her doctor. Ben doesn't know she has been meeting with Dr. Nash, a neuropsychologist who is working with Christine to improve her memory recall. Nash gives Christine a daily journal which he urges her to hide from Ben and to write down her daily memories. Each morning he calls Christine on a special phone he has given her to remind her where she has hidden it. Each morning Christine reads her journal and relearns her past. She feels guilt over keeping this journal a secret from Ben because he has suffered so much and he has taken care of her for many years.

Part I of Before I Go To Sleep sets down all of the above information by describing the current day, November 30, that Christine has awoken to. She meets Dr. Nash and he returns her journal which he has been reading for the past few days. He encourages her to reread her diary and to continue writing.

In Part II we read Christine's entries beginning Friday November 9 to Friday November 23. From her diary we see Christine chronicle her struggles to remember the past and piece together her life. As bits and pieces of her memory return, it soon becomes apparent that her husband Ben has been keeping things from her and not quite telling the truth. Christine is uncertain as to Ben's motives. Is he trying to protect her as he says or is there something else. She waffles between trust and paranoia. Christine begins to seek out the truth and actively investigate the past both on her own and with the assistance of Dr. Nash.

Part III picks up where Part I left off - on November 30. It is on this day that Christine learns the truth of what really happened to her when she and Ben take a trip together. It is an old girlfriend who holds the key to the past and the present.

Before I Go To Sleep succeeds admirably and is a suspenseful and compulsive read. Watson does a wonderful job of crafting the character of Christine Lucas by revealing her life through the process of gradually recovering memories.

The novel's unique structure contributes to the mystery of Christine's circumstances, with Part I setting the stage, Part II feeding the reader tidbits of Christine's life and Part III providing the resolution. The ending was quite simply, chilling, and not quite what I expected. Although the ending appears to suggest a happy conclusion to Christine's circumstances, we don't know for certain. I felt there were a few inconsistencies and holes in the story that made the ending less substantive and lacking in the brilliance that characterized the rest of the novel. I wondered if Christine had no other family who knew of her predicament.

S.J. Watson was inspired by the lives of several well known amnesiac patients including Clive Wearing whose memory was damaged by a viral illness.Before I Go To Sleep is his debut novel which he wrote while working as an audiologist with at St. Thomas's Hospital in London, England. All the book covers I've seen are well crafted. The copy I read has the US cover. The Canadian cover is shown on the left.

My one complaint about the novel was the fact that Christine's memory seemed to be jogged mainly when she remembers intimate (read having sex) moments or while being intimate with her husband. Perhaps this was due to the circumstances surrounding the actual trauma and certain events of her adult life.

At any rate I highly recommend this book to fans of mystery fiction and especially psychological thrillers. It is excellent.

Below is one of the unusual book trailers for Before I Go To Sleep.

Readers interested in following S.J. Watson can find him on blogger.

Book Details:

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson
New York: Harper Collins Publishers 2011

Sunday, July 10, 2011

between shades of gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray is a brilliant fictional account of the Lithuanian deportation of June 1941. This historical event is almost unknown within North America. It isn't studied in history classes and a quick scan of modern university and high school texts make no mention of the deportations. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the first of several deportations during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

In 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This was an non-agression pact in which the two countries agreed to remain neutral if the other was attacked by a third party. But more importantly the pact contained a secret protocol by which Germany and Russia would divide up Poland and the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania should country boundaries be rearranged. Finland, Estonia, Latvia and (later)most of Lithuania were assigned to the Soviet Union. In September, 1939, after the German invasion of Poland, the two countries (USSR and Germany) proceeded to carve up Poland as per their agreement. The secret protocols were redefined later that year, assigning Lithuania to the Soviets.
In June 1940, the Soviets invaded the Baltic states, removed the governments and installed puppet governments who took their orders from Moscow. Once the government was replaced, the Sovietization of these countries immediately began. Stalin ordered the creation of lists of enemies of the people. These lists included military personnel, doctors, lawyers, teachers, librarians and artists. Thousands of Lithuanians were deported to the Soviet Gulag in Siberia where they perished. These mass deportations occurred from 1941 to 1952 and involved up to an estimated 300,000 people. The men were sent to prisons where most of them perished while the women were sent to work camps. The first deportation occurred on June 14, 1941. It is this deportation that Between Shades of Gray explores.

The story of the deportation is told in the voice of fifteen year old Lina who is preparing to attend art school. Between Shades of Gray opens with Lina settling down to write her cousin Joana a letter. The evening breeze is gently coming in her bedroom window, carrying with it the scent of lily of the valley. In a moment her life changes forever as the NKVD (Soviet police) force Lina, her mother and her brother Jonas to hurriedly pack their belongings and leave. Lina's Papa has already disappeared. They are forced into a truck, taken to the train station and loaded onto stinking railway cars along with many others. What follows is a lengthy journey out of Lithuania into the Soviet interior to a work camp at Altai, near Mongolia. Lina and her family along with others suffer terrible deprivation and abuse. They see people die, people murdered and endure unspeakable conditions. After staying at this labour camp for months, Lina and her family are moved to an isolated camp at Trofimovsk located above the Arctic Circle on the Laptev Sea.

Lina's story is interwoven with flashbacks of life as she once knew it in Lithuania. Remembrances of a first crush, preparing to attend art school, her parents discussions of current political happenings are alternated with her narrative of the horrifying conditions she and her family endure in the labour camp. Lina becomes the voice of the Lithuanian people and their struggle to endure and survive. Her hope is to return to Lithuania as well as to one day be reunited with Andrius, a young man she met at the Altai labour camp.

Ruta Sepetys effectively captures the horrors of camp without being overly graphic. She also conveys the despair the Lithuanian deportees experience and the struggle of both Lina and her family to hope in the future. Their mother Elena is portrayed as a woman of dignity who refuses to treat Soviets with disrespect but who also refuses to do anything immoral. She is a stark contrast to the NKVD soldiers brutality and barbarism.

Below is a video of Ruta Sepetys explaining how she came to write her book.

Ruta Sepetys discusses her upcoming novel, Between Shades of Gray from Penguin Young Readers Group on Vimeo.

I highly recommend this book to teens interested in reading historical fiction and to teachers for study in class.

Book Details:
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
New York: Philomel Books Penguin Group
344 pp.

Further reading:

Soviet Deportations from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Lithuanian Children in the Gulag by Tomas Balkelis

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Cleopatra Confesses

Cleopatra Confesses tells the story of Cleopatra VII, daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes, in diary format with the Queen reminiscing as Octavian prepares to enter Alexandria - the seat of Egypt's Pharaohs.

Cleopatra's father was a descendant of Philip of Macedonia, Philip's son, Alexander the Great, liberated Egypt from Persian occupation. Alexander's half brother, Ptolemy became the first of a new line of pharaohs ruling Egypt. Cleopatra was the third eldest child of Ptolemy.

Cleopatra's story begins when she is 10 years old. Her father is returning to Egypt after a voyage to Rome in an attempt to stave off Rome from annexing Egypt as a province. He temporarily accomplishes this by paying an exorbitant bribe to Rome in exchange for Julius Caesar living Egypt alone. It is this action that leaves Egypt with a crushing debt and Pharaoh Ptolemy no choice but to raise taxes. Soon civil unrest follows and Ptolemy XII is forced into exile in Rome. Although Cleopatra's sisters Tryphaena and Berenike are only a few years older, they have always assumed that they will one day rule Egypt. Unknown to her older sisters though, is that their father, Ptolemy, tells Cleopatra that it is she who will rule with him some day.

Once Ptolemy is in exile however, the vain and power-hungry Tryphaena and Berenike install themselves as Queen of Egypt. From this point on, murder, intrigue, and war plague the Egyptian court with disastrous results. We follow Cleopatra through many events which eventually result in her meeting Julius Caesar and becoming the last Pharaoh of Egypt.

Carolyn Meyer has done a wonderful job presenting Cleopatra to young readers. In fact, she succeeds to the point that I felt I wanted to learn even more about her. Meyer presents Cleopatra in a realistic manner that makes her accessible and believable to the reader. This is accomplished through the use of first person narrative where the reader learns not only about historical events but also about how Cleopatra may have felt. Cleopatra is portrayed as intelligent and kind. She loves to learn from her tutor Demetrius and is adept at languages, speaking both Greek and Egyptian as well as knowing a little Latin. Cleopatra has a great love of her father and appears to be his favourite. She also is portrayed as having a great love of her country and her people and is eager to be the Queen of Egypt some day so that she can rule justly and restore Egypt's prosperity.

As might be expected, the author's focus in Cleopatra Confesses is on Cleopatra's childhood and teen years. It's quite apparent, Meyer has done considerable research. There is an extensive note on Cleopatra at the end of the book since Cleopatra Confesses only deals with Cleopatra's life up until she meets Julius Caesar and is installed as Pharaoh in her 22nd year.

I highly recommend this novel to teens who enjoy historical fiction. Cleopatra is a historical figure of great interest to everyone as she's been portrayed numerous times in films, most notably by Elizabeth Taylor. Meyer's book cover definitely capitalizes on the mystique surrounding Cleopatra.

Book Details:
Cleopatra Confesses by Caroline Meyer
New York: Simon & Schuster: A Paula Wiseman Book 2011
278 pp.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Who says the Catholic Church ain't cool?

Fresh off the press at Ignatius Press is YOUCAT - a new catechism for youth. Ignatius Press has published the English edition of this catechism for young people.

It has a foreword written by Pope Benedict XVI which says in part:

So I invite you: Study this Catechism! This is my heartfelt desire. This Catechism was not written to please you. It will not make life easy for you. It places before you the Gospel message as the "pearl of great value" (Mt 13:46)for which you must give everything. So I beg you: Study this Catechism with passion and perseverance. Make a sacrifice of your time for it! Study it in the quiet of your room; read it with a friend; form study groups and networks; share with each other on the Internet. By all means continue to talk with each other about your faith.

I love the book trailer:

I'm not too keen on the cover:

Since this is something that the Catholic church wants young people to read why didn't someone design an attractive cover using visuals that appeal to young people. Oh dear. I can't really tell what is on the cover so I'll have to wait until I get my own copy.

You can see sample pages on the Ignatius Press website. Apart from the failed cover, the presentation of the content is superb and the English version is faithful to the teachings of the Catholic church.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Unlocked by Ryan G. Van Cleave

Andy is 14 years old, the son of his school's janitor. When he starts classes at his new high school, he soon finds himself alone without friends - just like Sue, Nicholas and Blake. He quickly sets up the scenario for storyline, how everyone has formed their own cliques but left these three students out.

The rumour mill at school has it that Blake has a gun in his locker. But the rumour mill says a lot of things, so who knows if this is true. As the son of the janitor, Andy could find out if Blake really does have a gun by using his father's master keys to open Blake's locker. Finding out would make him cool and might just get him what Becky Ann promised.

I don't know
if I really wanted
to see if Blake
had a gun
or whether
I just wanted
to impress Becky Ann
by having the guts
to go look.
     Who knows what
     the "something"
     she promised
     would be?

All Andy wants to be is liked and accepted by his classmates. At first he really doesn't want to know if Blake has a gun or not. This is a frightening thing for Andy. And besides, wouldn't an adult know for sure?

Surely the teachers
would know
if a kid had a gun

Surely someone
would do something.

Then I realized:
what if
were that

Eventually, Andy forms a sort of friendship with Blake. It is a friendship based around their obsession about one thing - Blake's gun. It is apparent that both boys are dealing with teenage angst as well as difficult home situations. Both boys are alienated from their peers, bullied and lacking an engaged male role model in their lives.

As Blake's behaviour grows increasingly strange, Andy must choose, based on what he knows about Blake's life and what he is struggling with, either to remain faithful to his conscience or his friend. Either way, the decision will be a painful one.


Unlocked is a brief exploration into the unraveling of one teen boy's life from loss to obsession through the eyes of another boy who is also suffering . The verse is brilliant and effectively captures the narrator, Andy's alienation and self-loathing while detailing Blake's breakdown and inability to cope. Van Cleave's poems enable the reader to feel genuine empathy for these two boys. Andy is alienated because of his social status - his father is the school janitor. In contrast, Blake who lives in a wealthy gated community was a popular student a year ago but is not coping with a significant loss in his life.

What I also thought was interesting about this book was how Van Cleave had Andy try to explore why the gun had such a hold on him. What did the gun offer Andy that he lacked and what did it mean to carry something like this around?

I highly recommend this book for young teen boys. It's a quick read with an interesting storyline.

Book Details:
Unlocked by Ryan G. Van Cleave
New York: Walker & Company
169 pp.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Return to Paradise by Simone Elkeles

Return to Paradise tells the story of Maggie Armstrong and Caleb Becker 8 months after Caleb leaves his hometown of Paradise. The novel opens with Caleb being arrested in a drug raid. He's been living in a drug house in Chicago with Rico, the brother of Julio, a fellow juvie he met in the first book. Caleb has been spending the past months working at Chicago Recycling and is innocent (again!) of the charges.
When Damon Manning, his transition counselor learns of Caleb's arrest, he arranges for him to participate in Re-START a program which has teens who've been affected by reckless teen driving talk to their peers. As it turns out, Maggie has also decided to join this group. The result is that Maggie and Caleb are once again thrown together for a month with other teens as they travel throughout the Midwest US.

Caleb and Maggie soon realize that they still have a "thing" for one another, but their relationship while passionate, lacks trust and honesty. Maggie tries to convince Caleb that he needs to return to Paradise and come clean about what really happened the night she was injured. Neither really trusts the motives of the other. Maggie wants Caleb to understand that neither of them can heal and move on until he faces the truth.

Eventually Caleb decides he wants his life back. He doesn't want to be alone. He doesn't want his family to think he gave upon them and he doesn't want to lose Maggie. He gradually understands that by not telling the truth and trying to protect someone he is actually harming that person as well as himself. So he makes the decision to return to Paradise. It's in Paradise that both Maggie and Caleb's families finally learn what really happened the night Maggie was injured.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book was the fact that Maggie didn't give up on Caleb and encouraged him to tell the truth about what happened. She saw his well-intentioned lie as being the cowardly choice and a very harmful one. I also loved the fact that they finally came to terms with how they felt about one another and were able to move on from there.

What I didn't like about Return to Paradise was the numerous make-out episodes, the crass situations involving the teen group and the plentiful f-bombs. Maybe this was done for the sake of realism, to demonstrate that Caleb had become hardened by being in juvie. But, for me, it took away from the overall quality of the writing and the reading experience.

Return to Paradise is definitely a book for older teens given the mature content and language. It's themes of forgiveness, redemption and love will resonate with these teens the most.

Book Details:
Return to Paradise by Simone Elkeles
Woodbury, Minnesota: Flux 2010
291 pp.