Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter

If you are interested in reading about the life of Cleopatra there have been two novels for young adults recently published that will whet your appetite. The first, Cleopatra Confesses, I've previously reviewed. The second, Cleopatra's Moon, although written by a different author picks up at a latter time in Cleopatra's life. Cleopatra's Moon is a book about Cleopatra's daughter by Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra XVII Selene and this is partly what makes this book so unusual.

Told in Cleopatra Selene's voice, Part I of Cleopatra's Moon begins when she is a young girl of seven living in Alexandria-by-the-Sea. Cleopatra's father, General Marcus Antonius has just finished parading through the city to celebrate his victory over Armenia, his eastern enemy. It is one of the last happy moments in her life, shared along with her twin brother Alexandros Helios and her younger brother, Ptolemy XVI Philadelphos. Included in the Royal House of Egypt is Cleopatra's half-brother, Caesarion, the only son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.
We learn that Octavianus, Julius Caesar's successor has declared war on Egypt and Cleopatra XVI personally. Octavianus' sister, Octavia was married by Marcus Antonius to cement a peace treaty. However, Marcus Antonius married Cleopatra XVI and divorced Octavia. This meant the breaking of the peace treaty with Rome. Octavianus has in fact started a civil war with Marcus Antonius for control of the Roman empire.

In Part I the author does a remarkable job of describing the beauty, grace and high degree of culture in Egyptian society that comprises Alexandria during 34 BC. The author tells her readers about Pharos, the magnificent lighthouse that guards the entrance to the harbour,
"We stopped under the striped canopy of the royal entrance to the Library. Attendants came running, bowing first to Caesarion, then to us. One bore a golden vessel with warm lotus-perfumed water to rinse our hands and feet; another took our cloacks and anything else we did not wish to carry.
As we entered the light-filled atrium, white-robed, white-sandaled scholars bustled by, bowing absentmindedly in our direction....
the amazing and vast library at Alexandria open to scholars throughout the known world,
"...I followed her to a more secluded corner of the roof, a deck facing the sea, giving me an astonishing view of Pharos, our Great Lighthouse. Its white marble glinted in the bright sun as immense plumes of black smoke billowed from the fires that burned day and night at its summit. I had never seen our Lighthouse from this height, and the magnificence of its colossal, three-tiered architecture took my breath away. Next to it, the ships moving in and out of our Great Harbour looked like ants crawling past the leg of a giant."
as well as the culture of the Egyptian court. There are detailed descriptions of settings, clothing and fashion, and life within the Egyptian Royal Court.
"I  moved into one of the side gardens ideal for private conversations. Date palms ruffled in the breeze, gray and mysterious in the dark. Occasional gusts of wind, rich with the smells of the sea, teased the scents out of sleeping lotus, jasmine, rose, and honeysuckle blooms. I never again smelled a combination so achingly beautiful -- the cool salt of the sea intermingling with the heady perfume of Egyptian blossoms." 

Marcus Antonius is portrayed as a loving, kind man, who cares for his family. The royal family is also portrayed as kind, respectful towards each other, thoughtful and educated. Greek, Latin, Persian and Punic are some of the languages family members are able to speak. Cleopatra Selene is portrayed as intelligent, witty and caring. She loves Egypt and is already preparing to someday follow in her mother's footsteps as Queen of Egypt.

Cleopatra's Moon also presents detailed descriptions of Egyptian religious beliefs and practices in magic and there is an especially brilliant passage where the young Cleopatra Selene and her brother Alexandros are exposed to the teachings of the Hebrews in the Jewish temple in Alexandria. In this passage Cleopatra tries to understand the notion of free will that is at the heart of the Hebrew religion and which is in contrast to the Egyptian belief of fate at the hands of their multiple gods and goddesses. Thus begins a struggle within Cleopatra - is she governed by fate or can she choose a different path?

Having set the stage so impeccably, this detail serves to impress upon the reader what Cleopatra Selene loses when her beloved Alexandria is overrun by the Romans. She is eleven years old and her parents, Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra return to Alexandria after losing at Actium and being betrayed by various allies. Octavianus tells Cleopatra she can rule Egypt if she murders her husband, Marcus Antonius which she refuses to do. Instead Marcus Antonius kills himself when he is mistakenly told that Cleopatra is dead. Octavianus imprisons Cleopatra, intending to parade her in triumph when he returns to Rome. She outwits him and kills herself, leaving her children to the whims of Octavianus.

Part II tells the story of Cleopatra Selene and her two brothers in captivity in Rome. They are part of Octavianus' household and believe they are under the protection of Octavia, Octavianus' sister. Rome is portrayed as less cultured than Alexandria, with it's dingy, dirty port of Ostia. Throughout Part II, Cleopatra Selene remarks on the contrasts between Egyptian/Greek culture and that of Rome. The Egyptians wear tunics of finely woven linen in contrast to the wool stola of the Roman women. Although Octavianus' home on the Palatine Hill is luxurious, they sleep in rooms which are small, dark and windowless compared to the open sunlit rooms of the royal palace in Alexandria. Cleopatra Selene begins to see that Rome has no real culture of its own - that it steals the culture of the nations it conquerors. It is primarily a military nation committed to plundering and conquering. Cleopatra Selene understands this especially so when she sees the plundered scrolls of her beloved library in Alexandria and is heartbroken when she sees hieroglyphs and obelisks as well as statues of the Pharaohs being carted into Rome.

Throughout much of her time in Rome, Cleopatra Selene tries to determine how she will someday return to Egypt to rule again. During this time she meets Juba, a Numidian Prince who was captured from his homeland as a baby and is now a scholar and who Cleopatra Selene develops a deep affection towards. However, Cleopatra Selene is pursued by Octavia's son, Marcellus, the son of Octavia who tells her that he will marry her and help her to regain Egypt. She is warned by Juba that such an alliance will never be allowed by Octavianus who hates Cleopatra Selene. He warns her that Marcellus is using her and does not love her. When Octavianus leaves on a campaign in Spain the situation in Rome comes to a dramatic conclusion. Cleopatra Selene must decide whether she will accept the fate the gods have destined her for or choose of her own free will to make a new life for herself.

Cleopatra's Moon is wonderfully written, engaging, historically accurate and well researched. Vicky Shecter has done such a great job of making history come alive for young readers. The beauty of Alexandria and the treachery of this era are exceptionally captured by the author. There is a detailed cast of characters at the beginning of the book and there is an excellent Facts Within The Fiction section which details which parts of the book are historically accurate and where the author inserted fiction into her account.

Brilliant! and fans of historical fiction will love one of this years best historical fiction novels.

Book Details:
Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter
Scholastic Books: Arthur A. Levine Books 2011

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lark Rise to Candleford BBC TV Series

I'm off on holidays this week and what better way than to try out a few episodes of the BBC TV period costume-drama series, Lark Rise to Candleford. The series is based upon a trilogy of "novels" written by Flora Thompson about life in the English countryside and focuses on the lives of people of all classes in the poor hamlet of Lark Rise and it's wealthier neighbour, Candleford. The series began in 2008 and was completed this year after receiving much acclaim.

The stories are told through the narrative of young Laura Timmins who leaves her family in Lark Rise to work at the post office in Candleford under the tutelage of Dorcas Lane. Laura is excited to be moving to Candleford for her first job, to learn new ideas and ways and especially so to have her own bedroom. While Dorcas is welcoming and helpful to her protege, many of the residents of Candleford look down upon her as an ignorant country brat.

There are many story lines to follow through the first and second episodes. For example in the first episode the folks of Lark Rise are infuriated that they must pay 3p 6 penny for the delivery of telegrams from Candleford. They are told that it is because their hamlet is outside the "8 mile limit" for delivery. Things come to a head when Victoria Queenie" Turrill receives an urgent telegram but she is unable to receive it because she cannot pay for it. When a second telegram arrives with bad news, the Dorcas, Post Mistress of Candleford feels compelled to visit Queenie to tell her personally. As a result, the hamlet of Lark Rise decide to contest the charges for telegrams. Sir Timothy Midwinter, the fair-minded squire and local justice of the peace, decides that it might be best to measure the distance between the two communities to determine who is in the right.

In the second episode of Series One, Laura narrates two storylines, that of Mrs. Macy's absent husband and the debt troubles of Caroline Arliss whose husband is a sailor and who has left her to manage affairs at home. She is the feisty, strong character in the series and great fun to watch. It also is becoming evident that Sir Timothy and Dorcas are very fond of one another. I learned that Dorcas was Timothy's first love but because of strong social pressure in 19th century Britain, Dorcas and Timothy were not able to marry because they are from different classes.

Fans of British television will recognize many familiar faces, including Ben Miles as Sir Midwinter, Claudie Blakley as Emma Timmins, Brendan Coyle as Robert Timmins, Julia Sawalha as Dorcas, Victoria Hamilton as Ruby Pratt and Dawn French as the raucous and irresponsible wayward Caroline.

The series has a beautiful pastoral setting to it and is for the most part an enjoyable look into English life in the late 1800's. Part soap opera and part drama, it's pure clean fun. Lark Rise to Candleford is void of sex, violence and crassness which dominates most media today.

So far I have immensely enjoyed the incredible millinery creations worn by dressmaker-sisters Ruby and Pearl, the outrageous Caroline Arliss and the steady performances of Coyle and Sawalha. Olivia Hallinan's performance as Laura is outstanding with her expressiveness and innocence perfect for this piece. Her only difficulty seems to be with her accent which sometimes slips into an Irish brogue. C'est quoi?

I'm looking forward to watching more in the series this week.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Jane Eyre

The most recent reworking of Jane Eyre is a delightful succinct offering to fans of 18th century English literature adaptations to the screen. Directed by Cary Fukunaga, the movie opens with Jane fleeing Thornfield Hall and lover Edward Rochester and being stranded on the moors. She makes her way to the home of the Rivers, and is taken in by St. John Rivers, her cousin and Mary and Diana Rivers who are St. John's sisters and also Jane's cousins. During her stay with them she reflects back upon her life and it is this reflection that forms the greater part of the film. In this way, director Fukunaga focuses the movie on the story of Jane and Edward.
Mia Wasikowska's portrayal of the intelligent and moral Jane is simply amazing. Wasikowska as Jane, tries to hide her emotions as the proper and prim Jane, but in doing so portrays what she is really feeling. It is this aspect of her portrayal that makes Wasikowska the definitive Jane. Her horror at discovering that Rochester is already married is palatable because it is played with quiet intensity by Jane.

Michael Fassbender is the tempestuous Edward Rochester and he too does a good job of capturing the essential character of Rochester.

This adaptation of Jane Eyre also features Judi Dench, a staple in many BBC productions, as his housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. One thing we do see in this movie is the caring relationship between Mrs. Fairfax and Jane, especially when Jane returns to the burned out Thornfield Hall and meets the housekeeper who then tells Jane that she needn't have run away because she would have helped her.

With it's themes of religion, love, forgiveness and madness, Jane Eyre is a movie to be enjoyed. This cinematic offering is a little rushed because unlike the 2006 version which was a miniseries, it must offer a detailed and involved storyline over the course of a mere two hours. We don't get to see the transformation of Mr. Rochester from a gruff, reticent man to the warm master of Thornfield in love as Bronte did in the novel.

My preference is still for the 2006 version which starred Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson. We get more of a sense of what Rochester was suffering though with his mad wife who was tricked upon him and the sense of desolation and hopelessness he experienced. There is also a more charged atmosphere between Edward and Jane as their forbidden love blossoms.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this movie to those who love Pride and Prejudice, North and South and so forth and who want a quick dose of an English lit movie.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Want To Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman

Want To Go Private? explores the danger of online sexual predators through the experience of fourteen year old, Abby. Abby is preparing to enter high school along with her best friend Faith whom she's known since second grade. While Faith is excited at the prospect of attending a new high school and meeting new friends, Abby is scared.
The first part of the story is told in Abby's voice. As Abby struggles to cope at school, she feels lonely and isolated. She feels she is growing apart from Faith and that her family increasingly doesn't understand her. Her father is always working and never seems to have the time to be with his family. As a result, Abby turns increasingly to her new online friend, "Luke Redmond" whom she meets on a teen chat site. Luke makes her feel special, treats her like an equal and tells her that she is beautiful. We watch as he gradually "grooms" Abby, creating trust and building a rapport with her all the while trying to alienate her from family and friends. He tells her that her best friend Faith is not really a friend when she tells Abby's parents that she fainted during auditions. As Abby becomes more and more involved with "Luke", she passes off social events and her grades begin to slip. But as is typical of online predators, their conversations become more and more sexual in nature, desensitizing the young girl. Eventually "Luke" manages to get Abby's address, sends her a cell phone and gets her to send him a picture of her - topless. After a fight with her mother, Abby decides to meet "Luke" and leave home.

The second part of the novel deals with Abby's family's attempts to recover her. The story is told from the points of view of several characters including Abby, her sister Lily, her best friend Faith and a boy who likes Abby named Billy. At this point in the story, we see how Abby's family and friends struggle to understand how she could leave home and get into a total stranger's car. Littman eloquently captures the anger and fear everyone feels. We learn how difficult it can be to track online predators and the particular problems law enforcement face in the race against time to save these young people.

The final part of the book deals is told from Abby's perspective. We relive bits of her experiences with "Luke", her rescue and her attempt to process what she has been through in counseling. It is interesting to see how Abby now views herself and sad to see her loss of innocence and her struggle to regain some of her identity. Prior to Abby's encounter with "Luke" she is a naive, innocent and immature girl. Afterwards the trauma she has experienced has created mistrust of people, especially men and she experiences lowered self worth.

Want To Go Private? is very explicit in recounting exactly what online sexual predators do to groom a young girl and what can happen to that girl when she's been taken. Because the content is so explicit, in some ways, this defeats the purpose of the book since it seems like such a book would be geared towards younger teens aged 12 to 14 and therefore should have content that is age appropriate these teens. On the other hand, teens do need to know exactly what they might encounter online and where crossing the line happens. Really, the rule of thumb should be, if you don't know the person in real life, you shouldn't be involved with that person in any significant manner.

There were a few things in Littman's novel that I took issue with but the main thing I didn't like was the reference that the Abby's predator had been molested by a Catholic priest. To be honest, this annoyed me greatly. There has been a great deal of press about the Catholic sexual abuse cases but generally men who have been molested by the Catholic priests tend predominately to molest other males. There are many Catholic writers who also take issue with the main stream media's portrayal of these Catholic priests as pedophiles when in fact they are homosexuals.

Want To Go Private? is a shocking, visceral read that is best suited to older teens who need a reminder that in an online world where people commonly have hundreds of "friends", caution and common sense is the perogative.

You can read more about Want To Go Private? here.

Book Details:
Want To Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman
New York: Scholastic Press 2011
332 pp.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Tiger's Heart. The Story of a modern Chinese Woman. A Memoir by Aisling Juanjuan Shen

As the title of this memoir states, this is the story of one woman's struggles to rise out of grinding poverty and circumstance in China during the latter part of the 20th century. Shen began writing her memoir in her second semester at Wellesley College in Boston as a way of dealing with her past. The title is a reference to the author being born in the year of the Tiger and being "nothing but trouble" - "a tiger coming out of it's den".

Aisling Juanjuan Shen was born in 1974 in Shen Hamlet, a small rice farming village in the heart of the Yangtze River District. She grew up there with her parents and her younger sister, Spring. Aisling was determined not to have the poverty and back-breaking work in the rice paddies that made up her parent's life. She studied hard and received her associate degree and became a teacher - the only option open to the daughter of poor peasants in China. She was assigned to Hope Middle School in the town of Ba Jin in Wujiang County but it didn't take Aisling long to determine that she did not want to spend the rest of her life living there. So she signed a contract giving her her freedom for 3 years while the school would collect her pay and have her pay a five thousand yuan annual penalty.

"Since 1949, when New China was founded, every governmental worker had been guaranteed an unbreakable iron bowl into which the government put just enough food to keep your stomach full. Most people chose to stay on the dry land, with their bowls. You might find gold and silver in the ocean; but if you couldn't swim, you would be lost."

Shen headed south first to the city of Guangzhou where she lived with Wang Hui, a teacher she met in Ba Jin. When this relationship fails and she cannot find a job making a substantial amount of money, Aisling Shen decides to leave for LongJiang and finds a job at LongJiang Enterprises Group working as a secretary. Throughout the remainder of the book, we follow Shen as she moves from job to job, city to city throughout southern China, gradually becoming a part of wealthy Chinese society in Xiamen. Her life consists of daytime shopping and barhopping at night. But through all this Aisling Shen is deeply unhappy and disturbed.

Both Aisling's family background and the vast changes to society in Communist China contributed greatly to how she lived her life and the decisions she made. By her own account, her father was cold and withdrawn towards her. They rarely talked to each other and he considered her useless. Likely because of her own poor relationship with her father, Aisling slept with many men as she struggled to leave behind her life of poverty and become self-supporting. She slept with married men and was the mistress to several men, all the while not really understanding what motivated her to pursue bad men. All she knew is that she wanted to be loved and wanted companionship. Eventually, she learns more about her past from her mother and is able to put together the pieces that help her understand herself better.

Her description of her abortion after a one night stand with a married man is particularly heartrending. Shen didn't want the abortion but did so because despite China's doing away with the Old China, a pregnant unmarried woman was considered a "broken shoe". She tries to convince the man to let her keep the baby and that she "didn't really want to end this small life inside of me." Interestingly, Shen never connects the abortion and it's trauma with her promiscuous behaviour afterwards, despite the fact that she mentions the abortion changed her forever.

"In the poisonous silence of those lonely nights, I saw that I was splitting into two people. By day, I was an elevated and upright teacher; but when the sun went down, I became an anguished, angry girl who just wanted to destroy everything, including herself."

Shen's descriptions of shady business transaction are a window into the graft and corruption in a China emerging on the world economic market. The communist system replaced Old China with a system just as class driven as the past. Shen documents how difficult it is for young people to work their way out of poverty to a better life.

Readers interested in modern China will find A Tiger's Heart both fascinating and tragic.

Book Details:
A Tiger's Heart. The story of a modern Chinese woman. A memoir. by Aisling JuanJuan Shen
New York: Soho Press 2009
309 pp.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Forget Me Not by Anne Cassidy

Stella Parfitt has just graduated from Kimble High School and is ready to begin a new phase of her life. She lives with her mom, Teresa (Terri) Parfitt, in the small town of Epping in the Epping Forest District of Essex, England. Stella plans to get a job in an office and her own place eventually. In the meantime, she tries to keep her mother, who seems emotionally unstable and who is perpetually in bad relationships, on an even keel.

When Forget Me Not opens, Stella's mum arrives home drunk at 2 am in the morning after being out with an exboyfriend. Later that day, they learn that the youngest child, Jade of the Henderson family who live down the street has been taken from her cot during the night. Stella's world begins to unravel when the police show up at their door wanting to question her mother. Stella discovers that her mother harbours a huge secret - that twenty years ago, Terri was implicated in the disappearance of a 15 month old baby, Lizzie Gilbert. Lizzie was never found and Terri, who was 18 years old at the time, was never charged.
When Stella and Terri's neighbours learn of her involvement in the Gilbert case, they become hostile and threatening towards them, necessitating their move to a safe house by the police. Stella stumbles upon a clue that leads her to suspect that she knows very little about her mother's past life and to question her mother's sincerity and truthfulness about the recent disappearance.

Forget Me Not tells two stories; the current story focuses on the events surrounding the disappearance of Jade Henderson and how this affects Stella and Terri and is told in the voice of Stella. The past is voiced by Terri who relates the events leading up to the disappearance of Lizzie Gilbert and ten years afterwards. In this way, the reader learns what happened to Lizzie before Stella does.

Forget Me Not is a remarkable book in many ways. First of all, it provided me with a window into a segment of British society - the lower middle working class that I believe is very accurate but disconcerting. Most, if not all the characters in the book are disagreeable and unlikeable. They make bad choices, are amoral, and appear do whatever feels best for them, often ignoring the possible consequences to themselves and others around them. Yet they are typical of the way many people live today in our post-modern Western culture.

The portrayal of Lizzie Gilbert's mother, Jackie, a single mom with three children, all with different fathers, is particularly disturbing. At the time of Lizzie's disappearance she has taken up with yet another man, Kirk, and is pregnant by him. Kirk is a slimy, creepy character, who shows no interest in the welfare of Jackie's children who may be abusive towards little Lizzie. It's a typical situation of a certain type of single mother - the woman who is emotionally needy and who makes bad choices when it comes to relationships. As a single mother myself, I KNOW how hard it can be to raise a family by oneself. Many single mothers are amazing and do a great job. But many single moms are also typical of Jackie.

Stella's mother, Terri doesn't contribute much in the way of improving the image of single mothers either. We learn from her past that she had a thing for older men when she was younger and makes a terrible choice that has disastrous consequences for her, for many years to come. Because she has not dealt in a honest manner with the Gilbert kidnapping, she has not allowed anyone to get close to her. She is always protecting her secret. But part of her lack of any real meaningful relationship with any man is also due to the poor behaviour of the men she has been involved with both as an 18 year old and onwards. Stella also notes that her mother seems to be two people; a well dressed business woman by day, and more like an immature adult in jeans and clunky jewelry by night.

Stella Parfitt is a more complicated character. In some ways she is very much like most of the other characters in the book. Although she goes to Mass, she's a typical example of a young poorly catechized Catholic. Like her relationship with God, her relationship with Robbie is very superficial. She considers him immature but it's obvious she pursued him because she was infatuated with him and at one time thought he was cool. When he shows a lack of interest in sex, Stella decides to dump him. Stella also doesn't seem to have many girlfriends and seems to be a loner.

However, Stella does have some redeeming character qualities. It's quite evident her life has been hard. She knows nothing about her father and very little about her mother. It is sad to see how she often takes on the role of the adult in her relationship with her mother caring for her both emotionally and physically at times. And in the end, she is also her mother's conscience, prompting her to finally do the right thing and tell the truth about the Lizzie Gilbert disappearance.

The married couple, Maggie and Steve Ryan, whose children Terri babysat when she was a teenager, appear to be the typical urban couple with a few kids. Steve however, is yet another male who is selfish and concerned only about himself. He uses Terri and then doesn't man up and help her when she needs him most.

The very liberal attitudes towards many aspects of life are seen throughout the novel. For example, maybe it's a European attitude, but it was interesting to see this couple suggest that Terri finish a half bottle of wine one night while she's babysitting. I can't think of any couple I know ever suggesting this to a babysitter. It would be considered highly inappropriate and irresponsible.

Cassidy does a great job of keeping the exact circumstances of both Lizzie and Jade's disappearances a mystery to the reader. I went through a number of scenarios regarding Terri's involvement in Lizzie's disappearance before finally learning the truth about what happened.

This is a well written book that offers some great discussion points on mother-daughter relationships, single mothers, and modern society.

Book Details:
Forget Me Not by Anne Cassidy
Toronto: Scholastic Canada Ltd

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

Jessica Carlisle is a runner. Correction. Jessica Carlisle was a runner. After a tragic accident in which the bus she was on was struck by an uninsured driver and one member of her school's running team is killed, Jessica awakes to learn that she has lost the lower part of her right leg. Running was her dream. She lived and breathed running. Now as a BK (below knee) amputee Jessica believes her life as she knew it is over. Jessica is scared, angry and filled with revulsion at her "ugly, useless" stump.
At first she really does believe her life has changed for the worse. But her doctor explains how she will be fitted with a special prosthesis that will enable her to walk again. We learn along with Jessica how this will be accomplished.
What ends up motivating Jessica however, is the discovery that it might be possible for her to run again with a specially designed prosthesis. Her coach, Kyro shows her videos on YouTube of Oscar Pistorius, a 400-meter sprinter and a double below-knee amputee. The only problem is that such an artificial limb is expensive. Jessica's school running team however, is determined to help her overcome this obstacle and to that end, they form a Help Jessica Run campaign to raise the funds.

Eventually with the support of her best friend Fiona, her parents, her track coach Kyro and the community, Jessica comes to terms with her limitations, pushes beyond them and realizes her dream of running again. But it is really her friendship with Rosa, a special needs student in her math class who helps Jessica most. Rosa who is confined to a wheel chair not only helps Jessica with her math homework but also helps her to focus on the immediate and to meet each challenge as it arises.

The Running Dream is an outstanding young adult novel that is much more than just a story about a girl trying to run again. The Running Dream focuses on how we view others. After her accident Jessica view of herself has changed. She sees herself as a freak and a stranger. She defines herself by her condition - that of an amputee. But gradually as Jessica reintegrates into school and then when she gets her prosthetic limb, she feels less defined by her condition and more able to see herself as normal again. When Jessica befriends Rosa, who has cerebral palsy, she begins to see Rosa herself instead of her condition - a person in a wheelchair. Prior to her accident Jessica never even noticed Rosa. She comes to the realization that Rosa is not her condition. Rosa is smart at math and she offers Jessica a different perspective on finishing a race - that the finish line can also be another starting line.

Another aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was how the author divided up the book into 5 sections based on running. They are aptly titled Finish Line, Headwind, Straightaway, Adjusting the Blocks and Starting Line.

Book Details:
The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen 2011
Alfred A. Knopf
332 pp.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Flygirl by Sherri Smith

Flygirl is a historical fiction novel whose main theme focuses strongly on the question of identity. Eighteen year old Ida Mae Jones lives in Slidell, Louisiana with her mother and her brothers Abel and Thomas. Her father died several years ago in a farming accident. He was a pilot who flew to crop dust.

Ida Mae is fair-skinned like her father, while her brothers are dark like her mom. In her family's past, a half-colored girl was "steered down a path that made each generation light than than light, having children by white men and marrying those children to other mixed coloreds, lighter and whiter until" her father was born. But her father did not marry a white woman. Instead he married a black woman whom he fell in love with.This resulted in his light skinned relatives essentially disowning him.

At eighteen years of age, all Ida Mae longs to do is fly, like her daddy taught her. But Ida Mae is black and a woman and even though she is light skinned, these two things mean it is most likely she will never get her pilot's license. She's already been failed once because she was a woman.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor however things are about to change as America is drawn into the world conflict and new opportunities arise. Ida Mae's brother, Thomas who is a student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, takes a leave of absence to enlist. He is sent to the South Pacific where he is a field medic in the colored infantry.

In August 1943, with the war in Europe and the Pacific struggling on, the US government decides to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots program (WASP) to free up men pilots for service overseas. These women pilots will ferry planes across the continental United States for shipment overseas. They were also involved in testing new planes and in particular were responsible for getting men to pilot the B-29 plane, known as the "Widowmaker".

When Ida Mae sees the newspaper article about the WASP program she decides to apply but since she doesn't have her license she decides to use her father's old license and replace the picture. So Ida Mae applies to the program, falsifying the license and lying to pass as a white woman. But when she gets accepted and begins her training she begins to realize the cost to herself and her family. Can she pay such a high price for independence and for the love of flying? Can she continue to deny who she is?

In the end, Ida decides that living a lie isn't worth the price and that she has to be true to who she is - a black woman AND a pilot.

Flygirl, is a slow moving account of the WASP program and fighting the war on the home front. Readers looking for action won't find much here. There's actually no historical record of black women in the WASP program, so unfortunately, there is no real woman to form the basis of the story behind Flygirl. That was a disappointment to discover. But it was interesting to learn about the women aviators who came from all parts of American society and how they were never made officers in the airforce that they served so bravely.

However, where Flygirl succeeds is in exploring themes of identity and the meaning of family. Flygirl offers readers a perspective on being a black woman in the racially charged southern US. But the perspective is that of a black woman who could pass for white and whether or not she should make the choice to cross over and pass as a white woman as well as the repercussions she faces in doing so. If Ida Mae decides to pass as white, it means leaving her family behind forever. It is denying a part of her heritage and denying a part of herself.

Her mother, dark skinned, tries to warn Ida Mae about what she will face and how once she crosses over she can't cross back. Crossing the line from black to white means disowning your family and never been able to see them again. Ida Mae's father realized that this was what his mother was asking him to do. Ida Mae soon finds it difficult to be in "white" society. She avoids suntanning so her skin won't darken and she is constantly worrying about her hair frizzing when it gets wet. It is difficult to watch her own colored people treated poorly in shops, although she does stick up for a black man in the hardware store. And when a white instructor shows interest in Ida, she must be careful not to encourage him. How could she ever bring a white man home to her black mother?

Although Ida loves her job and her new found independence, at the same time she has lost something too. She has lost her family, a very important part of her life. This conflict is demonstrated when Ida's mother shows up at the base to tell her that Thomas is missing overseas and to ask for Ida's help in locating him. Ida Mae cannot betray her situation as a white woman and so she must play at her mother being the family maid visiting. This brings feelings of shame and regret to Ida who is forced to treat her mother without dignity in front of the white guard to avoid being discovered for who she really is.

Flygirl was chosen as one of the "2010 Best Books for Young Adults".

Book Details:
Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons
275 pp.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Soul Surfer - the movie

Last night I had an opportunity to finally watch Soul Surfer on DVD. Unfortunately, where I live, this movie was only in theatres for a very short time and I missed that window. Most unfortunate, because this is a movie worth watching.

Soul Surfer is an exceptional movie about an exceptional young woman - Bethany Hamilton. It traces the sequences of events that led to that fateful day of Halloween, 2003 when Bethany was attacked by a On that day Bethany and her best friend Alana Blanchard and Blanchard's father and brother went surfing at Tunnels Beach on Kauai. Bethany had her left arm over the surf board in the water when she was attacked by a 14 foot tiger shark. It is unlikely she would have survived if it were not for Blanchard's quick action of improvising a tourniquet out of a surfboard leash to stem the loss of blood.
There are two things I especially liked about this movie. The first is that there was less focus on the dramatic attack and more on Bethany and her experience after the attack. The drama of the attack lasted only seconds and the race to get her medical help was well done, intense and frightening. But Bethany Hamilton is not to be defined by the attack but instead by her response. She showed herself to be remarkably poised and courageous.

That she survived at all after having lost 60 per cent of her blood, amazed doctors and her friends and family alike. God, in His providence, reminded her during the ambulance ride that he would not abandon her. One of the paramedics whispered this reminder in her ear during the run.

One of my favourite parts of the movie occurs when Bethany goes to see Sarah Hill (Carrie Underwood), her youth minister not long after she is out of hospital. When Sarah asks Bethany how she is, Bethany replies, "I'm good. Yeah. Everyone is doing real good." At that point Sarah tells Bethany that she can level with her and tell her how it REALLY is. Bethany tells Sarah that she has been trying to get some perspective, to step back and see things how they really are. She asks Sarah, "How can this be God's plan for me. I don't understand." Sarah replies, "I don't know why terrible things happen to us sometimes. But I have to believe something good is going to come out of this. I don't know what that is."

Of course, this is the struggle all believers eventually experience because all of us will experience something bad in our lives at some point. It wasn't God's plan for her to be attacked, but he had a new plan when that happened and she allowed God to work in her life. Her mother, in one of the special features on the DVD, relates that during the month prior to the attack Bethany and her family had been praying to understand what God wanted of Bethany in her life. This film does portray their strong faith and commitment to Christ, but not in an overhanded manner. It's subtle and believable.

Much of the actual surfing in the re-creation of the competitions was done by Bethany. This was apparently another of the Hamilton's goals in the movie, to demonstrate good surfing to those of us who know nothing about the sport. The surfing shots were brilliant and exciting. I can understand why Bethany felt such a desire to return to the ocean. The beauty and power of ocean was both awesome and inspiring.

This movie was well done and nice change from the usual Hollywood fare. Bethany's book of the same name continues to be a popular choice for teens, although it is written for very young teens and tweens.

You can catch all the latest on Bethany Hamilton at her website, including information on her injury to her right arm this summer.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent is an exciting dystopian novel filled with action, mystery and romance. In 16 year old Beatrice Prior's world, almost everyone is divided into factions. It was decided to organize society in this manner decades ago because people were convinced that flaws in human personality were the cause of strife and evil. So people divided into five "factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world's disarray." Those five factions are Amity, Erudite, Candor, Abnegation and Dauntless. Abnegation are selfless and are the faction that form the government. Candor speak the truth, while Erudites are learners. Dauntless are the people who protect - they are thrill-seekers and would be akin to extreme sports participants.

At the age of 16, each person takes an aptitude test to help them determine which faction they belong to. They then must pass through an initiation process which, if successful, sees them joining their chosen faction. If they do not, they live on the periphery of society as factionless - poor and doing menial jobs.

Beatrice's family are part of the Abnegation faction who form the government. Most people stay with the faction they are born into but Beatrice is not sure that she can remain in Abnegation. She feels she is not selfless enough to be part of her family's faction. Both Beatrice and her brother Caleb turn 16 in the same year and must take their aptitude tests.

When Beatrice takes her aptitude test, according to Tori the Dauntless woman who administers her test, her results are perplexing and inconclusive. Instead of showing an aptitude for one faction Beatrice shows an equal aptitude for several and is labelled divergent. Beatrice is warned not share this result with anyone because it is dangerous and she later learns that "Divergents" are in great danger of being murdered.

At her Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice chooses to be a part of the Dauntless faction while her brother chooses Erudites. Immediately she leaves her family and begins her initiation into the Dauntless faction. Beatrice becomes Tris and must now endure a brutal and exhausting initiation consisting of 3 stages. Almost immediately she catches the interest of an 18 year old Dauntless leader named Four who is impressed with her bravery and selflessness. But she is also discovers that while Four can be concerned and caring, Eric, the Dauntless leader in charge, is sadistic and evil.

All Dauntless initiates are ranked and those who don't rank high enough will become factionless. This sets up deadly competition between initiates. As her initiation and training progress, Tris gradually realizes that the Dauntless faction has become sadistic and depraved. They no longer practice what is written in their faction's manifesto- "We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another." Instead a Dauntless who stands up for a weaker person is cruelly punished. All except Four participate in this cruelty. It is Four's kindness to her, that results in Tris and Four developing a secret friendship and a blossoming love.

After Tris makes the first cut, the second part of the initiation involved being injected with serum that forces the initiate to confront their fears. Tris manages to work her way through her fears which she comes to learn will mark her as Divergent.  As Four and Tris' relationship develops, Four decides to let Tris experience his fear landscape where she learns that he has only four fears (hence his name) and that his real name is Tobias. She also learns that Tobias' father, Marcus, who is leader of the Abnegation faction did physically abuse his son as the Erudites claimed.

Meanwhile, the signs that their society is gradually becoming fractured continue to grow. The Erudite faction accuses the Abnegation faction of withholding food and other material goods. Tris also discovers that people are searching for Divergents who are considered rebels, but she doesn't yet understand the significance of this. Then Four tells Tris that the Erudites are planning to attack the Abnegation faction by using the Dauntless soldiers.

This is confirmed when all of the Dauntless are injected with a tracking device which is really a mind controlling serum. Both Tris and Tobias, who are divergent, are able to resist the controlling influence of the serum, but are forced to participate so as to avoid discovery. In horror, Tris realizes that the Dauntless are being sent to attack the Abnegation faction. Can Tris save her family while trying to stop the madness that is now tearing apart life in post-apocalyptic Chicago? Tris realizes that her "divergence" offers her the chance to save her family but may also be her undoing.

There's no doubt that Divergence is a thrilling read - lots of brutal action combined with a developing romance between the novel's two main characters, set in an strangely constructed post-apocalyptic word. Readers would have benefited from a map of both the city Tris lived in and also the Dauntless compound. I feel the former would really help set the scene for the reader much better since there were areas of the city which seemed to be abandoned. This first novel in the trilogy provides little of the backstory - how Chicago came to be like this and how the faction system was chosen. Roth may end up providing this information in latter installments.

 Divergent takes time to set the stage for the story then begins to race headlong into a heart-pounding crisis and anti-climax. Tris's sudden enlightenment as to what was happening between the Erudites and Dauntless was unexpected and leaving her with little time to prepare for what was going to happen - a strategy which created tension in the novel. However, Roth's resolution of what happened to Four didn't work for me, but perhaps there are consequences as yet undiscovered or untold.

I eagerly await the second installment in this trilogy.

Book Details:
Divergent by Veronica Roth
HarperCollins Publishers: Katherine Tegen Books 2011
487 pages