Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best of 2012

2012 was another year of mostly great reads in both young adult and adult fiction. There are so many great books it's hard to keep up! I was excited this year to discover several authors whose works I haven't read before including Julie Klassen, Amy Clipston and Penelope Delta, whom I will be reviewing in 2013. 2012 was the year that saw the publishing of many second and third installments in trilogies, some of which were decent, but most of which, disappointed. While the dystopian subgenre continues to be crowded with subpar books, there are young adult authors who are writing books that are exploring themes very relevant to the lives of teenagers.

This year saw the publication of several very good historical novels including The Wild Queen by Carolyn Meyer and Rachel's Secret by Shelly Sanders. In 2013, I'll be reading two reprints of Greek historical writer, Penelope Delta, whose books explore two very unique historical time periods.

So for better or worse here's my list for this past year:

Best Young Adult Books 2012:

1. Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab
2. Everything I Was by Corinne Dmas
3. The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots by Carolyn Meyer
4. The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
5. Starters by Lissa Price
6. Reckless Heart by Amy Clipston
7. Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus
8. Miracle by Elizabeth Scott
9. Secrets of the Henna Girl by Sufiya Ahmed
10.While He Was Away by Karen Schrek
11.The Watch That Ends The Night by Alan Wolf
12.Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez

Honourable Mentions:

Capetown by Brenda Hammond
Waiting by Carol Lynch
Origin by Jessica Khoury

Worst Young Adult Book:

Adaptation by Malinda Lo (This wins hands down; so bad and weird I couldn't review it)

Best Adult Fiction

1. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Best Picture Books

1. Zorro Gets and Outfit by Carter Goodrich
2. The Obstinate Pen by Frank Dormer

Best Movies 2012

1. Lincoln
2. Anna Karenina
3. Les Miserables (to be reviewed in 2013)
4. Brave

Best Documentaries

1. The War of 1812

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Eve and Adam by Michael Grant and Katherine Applegate

Evening (Eve) Spiker is crossing a street in San Francisco one day when she is struck by a street car and critically injured, severing her leg, breaking ribs and mangling her right arm.With this unique opening, written in the voice of Evening, the novel, Eve & Adam begins.

Eve's mother, Terra Spiker, is head of Spiker Biopharmaceuticals, a research company worth billions. Located on the back side of the Tiburon peninsula across the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, Spiker Biopharm is a massive, high-security research facility .

Terra has Eve quickly transferred to her facility, against the emergency room physician's advice. But Terra, with a reputation as an ice-cold bitch won't be refused. Helping Terra transport her daughter, is eighteen year old Solo,whose parents, Isabel and Jeffrey Plissken were her business partners years ago. Terra has given Solo a place to live, an education, and a job at Spiker and he's here this day to help move Eve.

Once Eve is at her mother's facility she begins to notice that she is healing quickly. Solo also notices that within a day, her bruising is completely healed. Seeing that she is bored, Eve's mother assigns her a project; design a human being using a new computer program that allows the programmer to alter genetics and see the effect on the human organism. Eve is somewhat interested but at this time she really just wants the companionship of her best and only friend, Aislin.

Eventually Aislin is allowed to visit Eve. Aislin is a girl who loves a bad boy, Maddox, who is a drug dealer. When Maddox gets into trouble, Eve bails him out by providing him with the money to pay back the people he owes. And Aislin comes to live at Spiker with Eve. She helps Eve with designing her perfect man, whom she names "Adam". As Eve works on her perfect human being, she begins to realize that designing a human being from scratch is an impossible task. What does perfect mean anyways?

Meanwhile Solo is busy gathering information that will expose Terra Spiker and her company for doing illegal research. We don't really know what is going on at Spiker except that it appears to be some kind of illegal genetic research involving transgenetics and possibly cloning.

Solo takes an enormous risk by tricking one of the more brilliant scientists, Tommy, a heavily tattooed scientist at Spiker, into gaining access to his workstation. Solo downloads encrypted files and then passes them along to Eve so that she can know the kind of research her mother's company is doing. Eve is horrified and agrees that her mother must be stopped at all costs.

However, things begin to go awry, when Tommy catches up with Solo and violently assaults him for hacking into his work station. When Eve discovers Solo badly beaten, they along with Aislin realize that they must escape Spiker and get the information on the USB drive to the FBI and other authorities. They barely manage to escape the Spiker complex but then become separated. With the scientists on their track, can Solo send the information to the FBI before being recaptured? And for Eve, is bringing down her mother really the right thing to do?

Overall, Eve & Adam was exciting and fast-paced, keeping the reader engaged and guessing at what might happen next. The first half of the book is the strongest and shows much promise, while the second half of the novel seemed rushed and incomplete (what happens to Maddox? and does Eve ever pay his ransom?). The story is told in the narratives of Eve and Solo and eventually Adam. Both Eve and Solo's voices are appealing with their witty lines and provide the reader with a hint of the conflicts they are struggling with. Eve misses her father, who died in a car crash and doesn't much like her cold, distant mother, who is busy running her research empire in her designer suits and Jimmy Chou shoes. Solo is just that - alone, having lost his parents in a car crash too. There's a hint of compassion, intelligence, and a desire for revenge in him - although we are not sure why. But overall, character development is light as the novel is mostly plot driven. The side story of Aislin and Maddox was distracting and mostly unnecessary. One main point of contention in the novel is the large amount of sexual innuendo that is not funny and mostly just juvenile.

Michael Grant and Katherine Applegate are husband and wife and well known authors who could have produced a much better collaborative effort from this interesting concept. The cover is exceptionally attractive and with the brilliant, well written opening chapter, Eve & Adam will likely draw in many readers. For some, this novel will be disappointing; for others looking for a light, quick read, it will be just what they wanted.

Book Details:
Eve & Adam by Michael Grant and Katherine Applegate
Harrisonburg, Virginia: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company     2012
291 pp.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Bar Code Prophecy by Suzanne Weyn

The final book in the bar code trilogy tells the story of Grace Morrow and her friend Eric Chaca, who is the son of barcode resistance fighter and native spiritualist, Eutonah. Eric is Native American; half Irish and Cherokee and Hopi. Grace knows Eric from the rock climbing center, where she is learning to climb. She works as a part time receptionist at GlobalHelix, the genetics division of the multinational Global-1 corporation. Grace's father, Albert works at GlobalHelix in maintenance.

Grace learns that Eric is part of Decode, a group working to destroy the practice of branding citizens with the bar code. She is warned by Eric not to get bar coded on her seventeenth birthday but Grace ignores his advice and does so anyways. After getting her tattoo she is warned by Dr. Harriman to leave at once and go home. Harriman invented the bar code in 2012 and in thirteen years it has spread all over the world, first in Asia and Africa and then to Europe and America.

When Grace arrives near her home, she sees that Global police have staked out the house waiting for her and possibly her parents. Her capture is prevented by Eric and by Mfumbe Taylor and Katie who have shown up with a tractor-trailer to scoop her away from the Global-1 police. Eventually, Grace meets the most important of the Decode resistors who have been keeping a watchful eye on her. They know that Global-1 wants Grace but they are not sure exactly why. They know that Grace is the daughter of Dr. Jonathan Harriman, designer of the bar code tattoo and that her file in Global-1 is deeply encrypted.

Grace and Eric learn from Eutonah (who is Eric's mother) that the Native Americans have been meeting to discuss the future of the planet. The ecological balance of Earth has been deeply disturbed by the mining efforts of Global-1, particularly on Hopi lands. The Hopi consider their sacred lands to be the center of the universe and as a result, such disturbances are believed to have profound affects on Earth. Grace is told that the Hopi have prophecies which have correctly predicted past events. However, an unknown tenth prophecy has been discovered. This prophecy is incomplete and refers to both Grace, her father and Eric. Grace, along with members of Decode are in a race against time to discover the prophecy and what it means for Earth.

As with the other two books in this trilogy, The Bar Code Prophecy is entirely action driven with little character development. Events are conveniently contrived to further the plot and the discovery of the prophecy seems to have little bearing on the outcome which happens independently of the prophecy anyways.

These short novels are recommended for younger, reluctant readers, aged 9 to 12, who enjoy science fiction, are less likely to question some of the more flimsy coincidences, and an innocent touch of romance. It's really a shame that these novels were written in such a superficial way. The idea of tattooing everyone with a bar code, encoding their genetics and using nanotechnology to track and even control people is an interesting concept that deserves a more in-depth and mature treatment. This is no so unbelievable and the implications are far-reaching.

Book Details:
The Bar Code Prophecy by Suzanne Weyn
New York: Scholastic Press 2012
202 pp.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

50 Contemporary Fashion Designers. by Doria Santlofer

If haute coutre fashion is your thing, this is just the book for you. Santlofer covers the major players in the world of fashion from the well known Victoria Beckham, Rodarte, and Sarah Burton (who designed the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress) to lesser known and newer designers such as Mandy Coon and Creatures of the Wind.

Contemporary Fashion Designers presents a brief synopsis on each designer with a picture of at least one of their creations alongside the bio. There is also a small portrait of the designer on the sidebar with a short timeline of their education and development as a designer. The book gives a basic overview of each designer and his approach to fashion.

Among those included in the book are the following:

Olsen twins, Ashley and Kate who created the Row whose signature look is elegance, luxury, and simplicity.

Danish designer Camilla Staerk who incorporates leather and lace with a tendency towards a gothic look.

Olivier Theyskens, once considered an avant garde designer, is a major force in the New York fashion world. He once designed gowns for Rochas that were very expensive and one of a kind.

Seattle born Chris Benz studied at Parsons and presented his first ready to wear collection in 2007. Michelle Obama wears Benz.

One complaint about the book is some of the rail-thin models who are nothing more than living clothes hangers for the fashions. Also it would have been helpful to have references so that readers could undertake further research on specific designers of interest.

Book Details:
50 Contemporary Fashion Designers you should know. by Doria Santlofer
New York: Prestel
153 pp,

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Reached by Ally Condie

This final novel in the Matched series by Ally Condie alternates between the narratives of Xander, Cassia, and Ky. Reached opens with Xander who is now an Official working in the physic division of the medical center for the Society. His job is to oversee aspects of the medical centers, including the Welcoming Day ceremonies in which new babies are named and inoculated. Still in love with Cassia, Xander hopes some day to make her fall in love with him. Xander along with two other Officials attend the Welcoming Ceremony in Camas City and administer a red pill which is a kind of inoculation against disease. Xander reveals that the Rising has been gradually substituting the red pills for their own, which not only make the children immune to disease but also to the red pills which the Society forces people to take when they don't want them to remember certain events. The pills also include some unknown ingredient as well.

When the older sibling of the child being named takes ill with the plague, Xander reveals that this is a sign that the Rising (or rebellion against the Society) is beginning. Xander is taken along with the family and his fellow Officials to a quarantine center where he begins working as a medic taking care of the sick. The plague manifests itself as a rash with the patient eventually going unconscious or "still". Xander isn't worried because he knows the Rising has a cure and that they boy will survive.

Meanwhile, Cassia has been sent by the Rising to work as a sorter in the capital of Central. She has been told to look for some unusual type of data and to sort it incorrectly. Cassia, who believes she is immune to the red pill, continues to rebel against the Society in her own personal way by trading poems and wearing a bright red dress under her official clothing. On the day she is supposed to meet Ky, Cassia is called into work unexpectedly to sort and that is when the data she has been waiting for appears. She sorts the data incorrectly as the Rising wanted her to, while expecting to be caught, but nothing happens. At the end of her work shift, all sorters in the facility are forced to take the red pill to lose their memories. Cassia discovers that she is not immune to the red pills and she cannot remember why she was at work that day. She wonders what she has lost both now and in the past.

Having missed her meeting with Ky, Cassia becomes involved with the Archivists who are trading in artifacts and relics from before The Society. Since the Society banned all forms of creativity, this is Cassia's main form of rebellion. Like her grandfather who saved poems, Cassia trades in poems and memorizes them. Eventually she starts a Gallery where people can post poems and artwork that they have created. Cassia continues to trade poems and other artifacts with the Archivists who have been preserving artifacts from the society that existed before the current one, while wondering how to find Ky and Xander.

Ky is situated in the Borders, in Camas, where he has been training as a pilot. Unexpectedly, he and Indie, along with all the other pilots, are ordered to fly missions. During the flight, the Pilot who is leader of the revolution, broadcasts to the rebels telling them that the Rising has begun with the onslaught of the plague in the Cities and the Boroughs throughout the Provinces. 

It just so happens that the Society created the plague in an attempt to poison the Enemy, which they ultimately destroyed. They never let the citizens of the Society know this and instead begin wiping out the Anomalies and Aberrations. Although the Society had a cure for the plague, they didn't have enough for a pandemic. Now the plague has sickened so many that the Match Banquets have collapsed, with sorters (such as Cassia) disrupting the creation of matches. The Rising must now step in, taking cures to people, and hoping to win them to their side.

However, as in any rebellion, just when the Rising seems to have won and has the upper hand, a mutation occurs in the virus, and a deadly form re-emerges to overwhelm both the Society and the Rising. Everyone who was immunized with the first version of the plague but was exposed to that version is immune to the mutation. This amounts to very few people. The race is now on to find a vaccine for the mutated form.

Indie comes to get Cassia from Central and take her to Camas City. There, Indie also brings Xander and eventually Ky on board. Once on the ship, they discover that the Pilot will be flying the three of them out of Camas City to the mountains. Xander is wanted by the Pilot to help with a cure and Indie is attempting to reunite Cassia and Ky so they can eventually flee to the Otherlands. The Pilot however, doesn't trust the three of them whom he claims have been behaving suspiciously and have been present when many suspicious events have occurred. During the flight to a village in the mountains, they discover that Cassia and Xander have the mark on their backs that means they are immune to the plague mutation but Ky does not.

The Pilot takes them to Endstone, the last in a line of stone villages to help him find a cure. Without a cure, the Rising will fail. The people in Endstone are Anomalies who are are immune to the plague but it is not known why. It is believed that some environmental or dietary factor is involved in their immunity. Those living in the villages have agreed to help the Pilot find a cure in exchange for being flown out to the Otherlands, where they believe they can live in peace and in freedom.

When Ky becomes "still", Xander and Cassia know their search for a cure has become much more personal. Xander works with Oker, an elderly man who escaped his Final Banquet at aged eighty and is now ninety years old. Oker is a researcher who discovered a cure for Alzheimer's Disease and who was partly responsible for creating the first plague virus. Because of this, he has a keen interest in stopping the mutant plague. The villagers distrust Xander and Cassia and have them locked in the prison when they are not working. Can they find a cure in time to save Ky and what remains of the Society? And with what is left, who will be in charge? Will they have the freedom to choose their own path in life? Will people be able to create, to heal and to lead?

Overall, Reached was a somewhat meandering and very lengthy conclusion to the series. It's always challenging telling a story with three narrators. With three voices the trick is to try to make each voice unique and Condie doesn't fully accomplish this. She does with Xander and Cassia, but Ky's voice just never quite evolves into something distinct. And Ky being removed from the narration part way through doesn't help either. The three narrators also makes it difficult for the reader to keep track of the complicated storyline, the vast number of locations,  and especially in the case of this third novel, the numerous details about almost every aspect of the story. Some of these details might have been better presented and developed in the weaker second novel. A good example of this is the back story to the Rising.

Much of the back story to the Rising and it's relation to the Society is revealed as well as the function of the coloured pills and how the Rising attempted to subvert their use by the Society. We learn more about the Pilot - the leader of the rebellion. For example, the Pilot was one of many in a long line of "pilots". Cassia's great-grandmother was a Pilot, leading her grandfather to naturally resist the status quo of the Society. The current Pilot was from Camas and was one of the pilots who flew people to the Otherlands - a place from which no one has ever returned. The Pilot would run people who wanted to escape the Society out to the last stone village. Unfortunately, we never learn who the Pilot is or what happens to him - a major disappointment since this enigmatic character piques our interest throughout the other novels!

We also never find out who ends up controlling the new order; the Anomalies represented by Anna, the Society, or the Rising. All we end up knowing is that the people are allowed a vote on who will govern them.

The best book was Matched, which promised an interesting look into a world where everything was decided for the individual from birth to death and where creativity was completely prohibited - to the point where citizens weren't even taught to write.   Reached attempted to explore some of these themes through Cassia's narrative but never fully succeeded. Many of the themes like the right to self expression, the right to life, the right to be the master of one's destiny, and the right to choose a life partner got lost in the details of the world and the large list of characters.

Condie did do a great job though of exploring the idea of creativity and how its loss had affected the people of the Society. Cassia at first believes that trading is the way to that expression of creativity but she eventually realizes that the creative process involves sharing and giving. It's another way of communicating ourselves to others.
"I realize all over again, that we don't need to trade our art -- we could give, or share. Someone could bring a poem, someone else a painting. Even if we took nothing away, we would all have more, having looked on something beautiful or heard something true."
Reached was predictable, especially with regards to the love triangle. Condie set up an interesting love triangle in which forbidden love played a major part. The tension that existed between Xander and Ky was largely diffused as a result of the plague - unfortunate because it played such a large part of the first novel. Instead the third novel focused on the race for a cure and perhaps would have been more aptly titled, Plague.

Because Condie's world in the Matched trilogy was so complex, a map showing the cities, the Boroughs, the Provinces, the Outer Provinces, the location of the stone villages, the Otherlands, the Carving and the Enemy territory would have been very helpful to the reader. These maps could have been developed and added to with novel. It would have been nice to see a copy of the map that Cassia saw in Oria, in Matched. A list of characters would  have been useful too.

Book Details:
Reached by Ally Condie
New York: Dutton Books 2012
512 pp.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This is the first John Green novel I've read and I have to say that I have mixed feelings about it.
Sixteen year old Hazel Grace Lancaster was diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer that has metastasized into her lungs at age thirteen. After surgery, radiation and chemo, Hazel's lungs began filling with fluid. By the time she was fourteen, Hazel was preparing to die. But a new (fictional) anti-cancer drug, Phalanxifor, resulted in a miraculous reprieve. Still considered  a terminal case, Hazel's damaged lungs require extra oxygen to help her breathe, so she lives life attached to a small oxygen tank. She doesn't attend school but Hazel does go to a cancer support group and it is at this group that she meets a handsome boy named Augustus Waters.

It turns out that seventeen year old Augustus Waters has osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer which has resulted in the amputation of his right leg above the knee. Augustus has been told he has an eighty-five percent chance of remaining cancer free but as he says, he's "on a roller coaster that only goes up".

Attracted to Hazel, who looks astonishingly like his former girlfriend who died of a brain tumour, Gus asks her to come back to his house to watch the movie, "V for Vendetta". Hazel meets Gus' parents and learns about his family and discovers that  before cancer he was a good basketball athlete.

Hazel challenges Gus to read her favourite book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten. Hazel is obsessed with this book which she feels contains some truisms about her life.
"It wasn't even that the book was so good or anything; it was just that the author, Peter Van Houten, seemed to understand me in weird and impossible ways. An Imperial Affliction was my book, in the way my  body was my body, and my thoughts were my thoughts."
In return, Gus challenges Hazel to read something different too; his favourite book, The Price of Dawn which is a novelization of his favourite video game starring Staff Sergeant Max Mayhem.

They read the books but it is Hazel's book that focuses their interest. An Imperial Affliction is a book about a girl named Anna dying of cancer that has a hanging ending and Hazel has always wanted to know what happened to the characters in the novel. When Gus reads the novel, he feels the same way. Gus is able to contact Van Houten via email despite Hazel's prior insistence that he is unreachable. After reading the email sent by Van Houten's assistant,  Lidewij Vliegenthart, Hazel also writes him begging him to tell her what happens to the characters in the novel. The response she receives is that Van Houten cannot respond to her request because his answers might constitute a sequel and therefore violate copyright. The unsuspecting Van Houten invites Hazel to visit him should she ever find herself in Amsterdam, of course knowing full well that she likely won't ever be able to.

But life has its twists and turns and in a strange turn, Hazel and Gus are able to travel to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten.  However, nothing turns out as they quite anticipated. There are no brilliant answers from Van Houten, because as they later learn, he too is searching for answers for a similar tragedy in his own life. Hazel and Gus exprience blossoming love for each other as well as a stunning revelation that tips their already upside down world.

Told in the past tense voice of Hazel, The Fault in Our Stars is about living life in the best way we can in the time we are given and especially for those who die young. Hazel and Gus live their lives as most of us do, with a mixture of good and bad. The only difference is they have less time to do it in. The basic idea of this novel, about the short lives of people who are suffering from a serious illness has been in Green's mind for a long time. Green worked as a chaplain at a children's hospital ministering to the families of children who were dying or who had died from serious illnesses. Expecting to become a minister, Green's experience as a student chaplain changed him and ultimately his choice of vocation.

The novel takes its title from a quote in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which Cassius says, "The fault dear Brutus, is in not our stars/But in ourselves"

There are plenty of cultural references (Swedish hip hop, America's Next Top Model, Anne Frank) in the book. The Fault in Our Stars can be read as just a simple, enjoyable read or the reader can go deeper and consider the many metaphors and symbols in the novel and enjoy those too. Just a few examples will do. Water is a big metaphor in the book. Green states that he wanted to show how often times things that are of benefit can also bring harm. For example, we need water to live but too much water, as in Hazel's case where her lungs continue to fill with water, is deadly. Gus' last name is Waters. And, key events in the book take place in Amsterdam, a city of dykes and canals that are used to keep back the sea, in the same way that her doctor, Maria is trying to keep the water in Hazel's lungs at bay too.

There is plenty of foreshadowing in the novel too. For example, Gus' death is foreshadowed when he and Hazel are watching movies on the flight over to Amsterdam and Gus' movie begins before Hazel's (he is older!) and ends sooner than hers. Another example of foreshadowing is that of Gus always hanging up the phone first when he is talking to Hazel.

Green makes interesting use of the novel An Imperial Affliction. Hazel is focused on this novel because the circumstances of Anna's life mirror her own life. Hazel wants to find out what happens to the characters, particularly Anna's mother, in An Imperial Affliction. This is important to her because as a person with a terminal illness she feels like she is "a grenade". Grenades explode and kill people and Hazel expects her eventual death will similarly cause great hurt and devastation to her parents. It is important to her that her mother continues to live her life since Hazel will one day not be there. Hazel wants to minimize the impact her death will have on her parents. Similarly she doesn't want to fall in love with Augustus for the same reason. For Gus however, this is a risk he is willing to take.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel and one of the reasons for writing it (according to the author) is the realistic portrayal teenagers with a terminal illness. First we see how Hazel's life has been affected by cancer in the part where Hazel's best friend, Kaitlyn takes her shopping. The shopping episode demonstrates what Hazel's life was once like and how different Hazel's life is now. But it also shows that Hazel is a teen with cancer who still likes to shop. Young people with cancer, are still young people. Despite living in a world often filled with hospitals, medical procedures, pain and missed opportunities, they have dreams and desires just like everyone else. And not every ending is a happy one.

Green's use of sarcasm in Hazel's narration makes the two main characters, for whom day to day living is a struggle, very realistic. This realistic portrayal continues throughout the book. Hazel is concerned how her illness will affect others including her parents and Augustus. Gus and Hazel fall in love, just like many teenagers all over the world. When Augustus is dying he is no longer the nice guy he was at the beginning of the novel demonstrating that people who die of a terminal illness are human beings, not saints. Death is the final struggle and most of the time it is not a pretty or even necessarily heroic one.

The Fault In Our Stars is a great read and if you haven't had the time this year, do so.

Book Details:
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
New York: Dutton Group    2012
318 pp.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

Set in Imperial Russia in 1875, Anna Karenina tells the story of a love affair that destroys the lives of all involved. The movie adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel of the same name is directed by Joe Wright who uses the vehicle of a stage play within a movie to tell the story. The film is chock full of actresses from the many British period dramas. Anna is played by Kiera Knightley, while Oblonsky, Anna's brother is played by Matthew Macfayden. Other well known faces include Emily Watson (Oranges and Sunshine's Margaret Humphreys), Mechelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey and Erminia Whtye in Cranford), Thomas Howes (William Mason in Downton Abbey) and Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre 2006 version).

Anna is married to Count Alexi Alexandrovich Karenin, a government official, who is twenty years older than her. They have a son, Sergei, whom Anna loves but her marriage to Alexi is an unhappy one. Anna takes the train from her home in St. Petersburg to Moscow to try to help save her brother, Prince Stepan Oblonsky's marriage. Stepan known as Stiva is a womanizer and has been caught in an affair with the family's governess. His wife Darya known as Dolly, is expecting another child and wishes to divorce him. When Anna arrives the household is in chaos but she urges Dolly to forgive her brother. It is a foreshadowing of her own situation soon to come.

While taking the train to Moscow, Anna has a chance encounter with Countess Vronskya, who is an widow who had many affairs both during and after her marriage - another foreshadowing of the future. Upon leaving the train, Anna meets the Countess'son, Count Alexi Vronsky. Vronsky, a cavalry officer is immediately infatuation to the beautiful, aristocratic Anna. It is at this time that a coal worker on the train meets with a terrible accident and is killed - a foreshadowing of death to come. Anna is horrified but impressed when Vronsky gives money to the stationmaster for his widow.

There is a second storyline that is followed throughout the movie and it is that of Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a shy, but devout man. Levin arrives in Moscow the same time as Anna, with the purpose to propose to Dolly's younger sister, Princess Ekaterina "Kitty" Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya. Levin, unlike many aristocrats prefers living on his country estate and working with his tenants.

Kitty is a debutante and having a successful first "season". She has attracted the attention of the handsome Vronsky. She turns down Levin's shy proposal believing that Vronsky will propose to her. But at a ball, Vronsky shocks everyone by dancing with Anna, humiliating and devastating Kitty.

As Vronsky continues to pursue Anna, she begs him to leave her along but when she returns to her home in St. Petersburg, she finds that she is no longer attracted to her religious and legalistic husband. In St. Petersburg, Anna begins to socialize with Vronsky's cousin, Princess Elizaveta, known as Betsy. This association causes a stir in the St. Petersburg social circles with rumours swirling about Anna. Karenin continues to insist upon his wife's honour but he is concerned about their reputation. Evenutally Karenin is told about the affair by Anna and she also tells him she is pregnant with Vronsky's child.

Karenin decides to divorce Anna but changes his mind when he learns that Anna is dying after giving birth to her daughter. He forgives Anna and Vronsky and tells him that he will look after Anna for the rest of her life. However, Anna cannot live with her husband and decides to elope with Vronsky to Europe.

Meanwhile, Levin and Kitty reconcile and marry. Their marriage is a happy one for the most part, with the couple living a simple life on Levin's country estate. Kitty eventually gives birth to a son.

As time passes, Anna and Vronsky's relationship begins to deteriorate. They argue and Vronsky seems bored and unhappy. They return to Russia but Anna is now shunned in the aristocratic social circles she once frequented while Vronsky is not. Anna become increasingly paranoid and believes that Vronsky is flirting with other women. She commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. Karenin is left to raise Anna's daughter and their son Sergei, as Vronsky is sent away by his mother to fight a war.

For those who have read the book, the movie will be easy to follow. Nevertheless, Joe Wright's adaptation is uniquely brilliant and also easily conveys the three major story lines within the novel, Anna Karenina. The movie opens as though the viewer is watching a play, set in an abandoned theatre. However because this is cinema, beautiful stage sets morph into scenes one after another with doors opening and closing onto new scenes and situations. Some of the initial sets are quite amazing. The lower classes of society are seen below the stage and at other times the actors are looking down upon a scene from the catwalks which provides a unique perspective. However, the use of the stage becomes less apparent as the movie moves along. Of course, Tom Stoppard who wrote the screenplay, is another reason why this worked so well.

Anna and Vronsky dancing.
Wright also uses the actors in ways that suggest themes. For example, when Anna attends the ball in Moscow where she dances with Vronsky many times, all of the dancers perform a balletic choreography. But when Vronsky and Anna do this, it suggests their increasing entanglement with one another. When we first see Princess Kitty, she is part of a set that has beautiful white clouds, suggesting her innocence and virginity, so attractive to the altruistic Levin.

Performances by Jude Law as Alexi Karenin (ironic since Law himself committed adultery with his children's nanny) and Kiera Knightley as Anna Karenina were exceptional. Law was perfect as the stoic, devout, thin-lipped older Karenin, who tries repeatedly to warn his wife about her behaviour and who tries to save her from herself, all the while concealing his intense pain. Kiera Knightley with her regal beauty, effectively portrays Anna's descent into passion and paranoia as she breaks all the rules 19th-century society imposes upon women and reaps all the consequences reserved exclusively for women.

Alicia Vikander's Princess Kitty was another brilliant performance; innocence and naive when she meets the careless Vronsky but more mature and grounded when she returns to Levin. Vikander's expressive performance conveyed Kitty's devastation when she realizes Vronsky is only interested in Anna. Vikander's Kitty manages to convey a sense of innocence and purity, after suffering rejection and betrayal, that is attractive to Levin.

I personally found Aaron Taylor-Johnson's performance as Count Vronsky to be lacking the passion and charisma necessary to entice an aristocratic woman like Anna to abandon all for love. Anna was stepping off a precipice for the chance to find a meaningful love, and Vronsky's passion and pursuit was what motivated her to do so. Somehow I felt this aspect of Vronsky was never really conveyed to the audience by the actor.

Overall this adaptation was quite well done and very visually appealing with the aforementioned beautiful sets, and the deliciously gorgeous costuming. The haunting, lyrical score which was composed by Dario Marianelli whose work is easily recognizable as similar to that Jane Eyre (2011) and Pride and Prejudice (2005).

If you haven't read the book, do so. It was considered by Tolstoy to be his greatest work and his only true novel. This epic novel deals with the themes of love, betrayal, forgiveness, the purpose of life, and of course the place of women in society.

Watch the trailer and see the movie.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Barcode Rebellion by Suzanne Weyn

The Bar Code Rebellion is the second book of the trilogy by Weyn which explores a futuristic society where an attempt has been made to control people by their DNA.
The novel opens with Kayla and Mfumbe Taylor have left the Adirondacks and are on their way to the barcode resistance march on the Capital, Washington, D.C. They are protesting the now mandatory barcode tattooing of everyone seventeen and older. Senator David Young plans to challenge President Loudon Waters over the constitutionality of the barcode which infringes on the personal freedom of US citizens. He also wants the President to admit that the barcode is being used to store "other unknown information about a person.

While waiting outside the White House for President Loudon to appear, Kayla and Mfumbe meet up with August Sanchez who is also a barcode resister and who was part of a fringe group attempting to contact aliens via their thoughts. The protest turns deadly however, when the jets and Global-1 forces attack the protestors and begin arresting them. Mfumbe is captured but Kayla is rescued by the long haul trucker, Katie, whom Kayla met in the first book. Katie is now going by the name of Dusa. Kayla learns that may of the barcode resisters were arrested and tattooed against their will. Dusa and her friends, Francis and Nate, believe that Gene Drake, Kayla's neighbour who was killed trying to destroy a barcode facility discovered that the tattoos contain more than just a person's genetic information.

Kayla, with the help of Dusa, manages to rescue Mfumbe who is badly injured. After leaving him at his parent's home, Kayla and Dusa head west. When they arrive in St. Louis, a chance encounter brings Kayla face to face with a girl named Kara, who looks identical to her. Kayla learns that in fact there are at least four others who look like her

Kayla and Dusa travel to the Great Basin Desert where they meet up with other resisters, called the Drakians, hiding out in the limestone caves.There the mystery about Kayla's origins begins to deepen. From the stolen personal files the resistance uses to make fake barcodes, Dusa has come across Kayla's grandmother's file. She learns that her grandmother had not only a son - Kayla's father, but another child named Kayla M1-6. And from a third girl named Kendra, who is also a Kayla look-alike, she learns that all of the Kayla's have the same barcode.Eventually Kayla discovers that her grandmother gave birth to sextuplet clones of which Kayla is one.

While in the desert Kayla meets a genius computer hacker, Jake who has designed a special kind of hovercraft which he calls a "swing-lo".Kayla and Jake decide that they need to contact Allyson, Kayla's friend and former Decode member who is now doing nanobot research at CalTech. They travel there to enlist Allyson's help in solving the mystery of Kayla and also the barcodes. What they learn is far more sinister than they could ever have imagined.

The Bar Code Rebellion is a short novel that might appeal to younger readers. As the second novel in the trilogy, The Bar Code Rebellion is entirely plot driven with little character development and a bit of romance. The idea behind the novels, that a multinational corporation uses nanotechnology to control the citizens of a country is an interesting idea but is poorly developed with large plot holes. For example, we learn that Kayla is actually one of six clones who were created from Kathryn Reed and implanted in Ashely Reed who was married to Kathryn's son, Joey. This means that Kayla is actually a clone of Joey's mother and her father is not her father, but her son. The clones were part of a transgenic experiment, with each clone getting a bit more bird DNA than the next. Joey and Ashley got the first clone, Kayla, who had the least amount of avian DNA. Yet when Kayla's "mother" Ashley is ranting against the barcode in the first book, she never mentions to Kayla or even hints that she is a clone - surely an important fact she would want her to know, given the dire situation that is developing. Another glaring inconsistency: GlobalHelix which created the six transgenic clones loses them - highly unlikely in a corporation which excels in controlling each and every citizen.

The writing is poor, with many coincidences that are just too convenient. As an example,  Amber who has run away from her crazy Aunt Emily wakes up one morning to find a maniacal clone of Kayla in her tent, in the middle of the desert. And she just accepts this? Mostly the plotline is predictable with everything easily and quickly resolved. It's a shame because the concept with its inherent themes of identity, privacy, control, and ethics of research and consent are important in our highly internet-based society.

I'll read the third book, since it will be a short read and I'm curious to see how Weyn can possibly write a third novel after all the ends were wrapped up in the second,  but I don't hold out much hope for this trilogy.

Book Details:
The Bar Code Rebellion by Suzanne Weyn
Scholastic       2006
265 pp.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Movie: Lincoln

"One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war...Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"
                                                                Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
                                                                          Washington, D.C. April 4 1865

I can't recommend enough that people go see the movie, Lincoln. This brilliant biopic has everything necessary to keep the viewer engaged; a fascinating cast of characters, a man fitted to the unique period in a young country's history, and a battle to the death, not just for a nation but for its individual citizens. It is partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography, Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States and the first to be assassinated. Born in Kentucky in 1809, Abraham Lincoln grew into a very determined, ambitious man who was self-taught (he had only one year of formal schooling). Lincoln married Mary Todd and they had four sons. In 1860 he was elected President. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation which stated that all persons held as slaves in the seceded states were free. This proclamation although not freeing all slaves in the United States changed the country and the face of the war. Lincoln was re-elected in 1864, a year which saw the Union win many significant battles in the Civil War. Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, April 14, 1865 by John Wilkes Booth.

The movie, Lincoln, focuses in on a very narrow time period in US history, the month of January 1865 when Lincoln, struggles to get his 13th Amendment to the Constitution which would forever ban slavery in the United States passed by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. But President Lincoln has before him two choices: an early peace thus dooming his amendment (the southern states will vote against the amendment) or pushing through passage of the amendment ahead of peace so that slavery in the United States is no longer when the southern states return to the Union post-Civil War. Lincoln, the consummate politician fought for what he had come to believe in - that all men are created equal before God and ultimately succeeded.

So the film focuses on portraying Lincoln as a political strategist while giving us glimpses into his relationship with his political adversaries and party members as well as his personal life. As is typical of a Spielberg film, there is much attention to historical detail. Although there was a censors warning and there is a bit of spicy language, there isn't much gore and Lincoln's assassination is done offscreen. The most poignant scene in the film is the one where Lincoln leaves for the Ford Theatre and we watch along with his black servant as he walks down a long hall.

This is a movie with many fine performances including those by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as William Seward. I felt that Tommy Lee Jones almost stole the spotlight as Thaddeus Stevens, a crusty Republican who had worked against slavery for thirty years. Almost. Stevens had a reputation for being witty and sarcastic, a characteristic Tommy Lee Jones brilliantly portrays in the film. Stevens was known to have supported the rights of many different races in the United States but gradually came to focus more and more on slavery. Today we can appreciate his strength of character in promoting and supporting the equality of all men and women before God, at time when most felt white men were deemed by God to be superior to all others.

The movie effectively captures, if only in brief scenes, the bloody conflict and the tremendous loss of life that characterized the Civil War. And John Williams, famous for his Star Wars music, composed the beautiful, soaring musical score for Lincoln.

My only caution regarding Lincoln, is that there will be some viewers who will have wanted a more encompassing view of Lincoln rather than a focus on the last four months of his life. But I feel, that Spielberg was able to capture the essence of Lincoln, as a man and a politician in his approach.

Watch the trailer and go see the movie. It is one of the best this year.

Those interested in the life of Abraham Lincoln can access an online biography, Abraham Lincoln: A life by Michael Burlingame on the Knox College website This online version is the author's original unedited version of his two volume biography which was published in 2008. Each chapter is presented as a separate pdf file. It is "believed by many Lincoln scholars to be the most exhaustively researched and fully documented biography of Abraham Lincoln ever written." Please remember that this work is copyrighted and therefore any use must be accredited to the author.

Information about Thaddeus Stevens can be found at The Stevens and Smith Historic Site.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Maid of Fairbourne Hall by Julie Klassen

I'm not even sure how I stumbled upon Julie Klassen but having just finished reading this novel, I can definitely say I will be reading more of her books. I don't read very much romance and it's hard to find good, well-written romances, even harder to find well-written Christian romances that don't come off preachy. But Klassen has this sub-genre down to a fine art.

I chose to read The Maid of Fairbourne Hall because this novel has garnered many positive reviews, although all of her books to date have been well received. Margaret Elinor Macy lives with her mother and her stepfather, Sterling Benton, in London in 1815. Her mother remarried after the death of Margaret's beloved father and after selling the family's beloved Lime Tree estate, they now live in Sterling's home at Berkely Square. Sterling Benton, is a controlling, manipulative man who has Margaret followed and her mail opened. He refuses to give her any money further increasing his total control over her. Margaret is due to receive a substantial inheritance from her Great Aunt Josephine, when she turns twenty-five. Because of this inheritance, Margaret decided to wait and marry for love or not at all. Not that long ago, Margaret had rejected Nathaniel Upchurch's marriage proposal in the hopes of winning his handsome brother Lewis' heart. But Lewis, although initially interested in Margaret, didn't seem to follow through and Margaret now finds herself in a predicament with her stepfather determined to see her marry his nephew, Marcus Benton.

The novel opens with Margaret attending a masquerade ball where she hopes to once again attract Lewis Upchurch's attention. But Lewis isn't interested in Margaret and her attempt is rebuffed. The ball is marred by a brawl between Lewis and his brother Nathaniel who has unexpectedly returned from the family's sugar plantation in Barbados. To Margaret's surprise, Nathaniel is a much changed man, well muscled, handsome and tanned, and no longer the quiet bespectacled man she brutally rejected a year ago.

The next day Margaret's situation becomes dire when she learns that her stepfather has advised Marcus to "compromise" her if necessary, in order to force her to marry. Margaret decides to flee at once and does so with the help of her maid, Joan Hurdle who has been fired for stealing. Margaret and Joan end up at Joan's sister, Peg Kittleson's home. Peg puts them up for a few days and during their stay, Margaret does a man a good turn by preventing a robbery. This good turn will end up being the salvation of Margaret.

Joan and Margaret manage to flee London, and make their way to Maidstone where they must try to get hired on. Both Joan and Margaret do get hired but to different houses. In a strange twist Margaret finds herself hired by the man she helped in London and even stranger yet, she ends up as a maid in the Upchurch household. Having fled her home in a disguise of a black wig and servant's clothing, Margaret must continue to hide her identity. If she can just hold out until she turns twenty-five in eight months, she will receive her inheritance and be free of Sterling and Marcus Benton. But can she work and live in the Upchurch household without her true identity being discovered? Should she approach Nathaniel or Lewis and divulge who she really is and ask for their help? And can she remain hidden while Sterling Benton frantically searches for the stepdaughter whose wealth he covets?

Klassen skillfully portrays the evolution of Margaret's character throughout the novel. Margaret changes from a spoiled, self-absorbed, young woman to one who cares about others. At the beginning of the book she is insensitive to the feelings of Joan, her maid, even when Margaret's theft of Sterling Benton's money causes Joan to lose her position at Margaret's home. But she soon discovers that the life of a servant is a hard one, with little respect and poor pay. And she comes to understand that Joan's situation in a difficult household is directly the result of her actions. She tries as much as her situation will allow to alleviate some of Joan's difficulties and at the end does make reparations to Joan.

Working in the Upchurch's household provides Margaret with a unique chance to learn the truth about both the characters of Lewis and Nathaniel and how appearances can be deceiving. The handsome Lewis is, in reality, messy, dissolute and insincere. On more than one occasion, Margaret catches Lewis returning late at night after some escapade. He has allowed the estate to fall into ruin in his father's absence. Lewis has no qualms about the family's wealth being obtained through the practice of slavery. In contrast, Nathaniel proves to have the character of a true gentlemen. He treats the staff respectfully, and has a strong sense of justice as evidenced by his feelings about the family making a living off of slavery. His experience in Barbados has changed him forever.

Because of both her change in character and her new information about the Upchurch brothers, Margaret begins to deeply regret turning down Nathaniel's marriage proposal and wishes she could apologize for the hurt she caused him.

The Maid of Fairbourne Hall is historical Christian romance at its finest. Although the plot is predictable and the ending too, getting there is half the fun. Klassen builds the romantic tension gradually and repeatedly by throwing Margaret and Nathaniel together in countless ways. Added to this is the increasing suspense as Sterling Benton searches for his missing stepdaughter. He shows up at Fairbourne Hall in search of Margaret and later on he tries to flush Margaret out by a carefully planned ruse. The ending is as satisfying as it is romantic.

There is great attention to detail in the lives of the serving class in the 1800's. It is evident that Klassen did much research in order to portray her characters as realistically as possible. The storyline is told from the point of view of both Margaret and Nathaniel, often providing the reader with insight into how each character views a particular event. Each chapter begins with a from servants manuals and guides from the 1800's. Klassen toured the belowstairs and attic servant's quarters of several homes in England as part of her research for this novel. You can learn more about Julie Klassen and her writing from her website,

I highly recommend this novel, especially to those who enjoyed Downton Abbey.

Book Details:
The Maid of Fairbourne Hall by Julie Klassen
Minneapolis, Minnesota. BethanyHouse Publishers 2011
412 pp.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab

I have to admit that I wasn't sure what this novel was going to be like, given its unusual premise of a young woman returning home after leaving the convent. But for the most part, I was pleasantly surprised at how well this topic was handled and how well written The Opposite of Hallelujah is.

Sixteen year old Caroline Mitchell, known as Caro is angry that her older sister, Hannah is coming home to live after an eight year absence. Hannah left home at the age of nineteen to enter the Sisters of Grace, a fictitious contemplative order located in Middleton, Indiana. Narrated by Caro, The Opposite of Hallelujah begins her story when she was nine and told classmates at her Catholic school that her older sister was dead, earning her the nickname "Caroliar". When Caro's parents confronted her over her lie, she tried to defend her actions. She has now rationalized her behaviour those many years ago by indicating that she was never given the words to know exactly what happened to Hannah.

Now in high school, Caro doesn't want her sister home and she doesn't want to go with her parents to meet Hannah at the train station. Caro hasn't seen her in four years, having refused to visit Hannah at the convent. Caro's parents haven't said much about why Hannah has left Sisters of Grace so Caro doesn't really know what has happened to cause her to leave.

But when Hannah arrives home it is obvious that something is terribly wrong with her. In Caro's words, Hannah "looked gaunt and drawn, tired and pale and fragile, like a porcelain doll that had been badly propped in its stand." Neither her parents nor Hannah will really open up about about what is going on. When Father Bob comes to the house for a visit, Caro is at first cynical towards him but after talking to him, she wishes her sister would talk to their priest.

Caro's personal life isn't going so well either. Her boyfriend Derek is also returning home at the end of the summer after being away for almost two months at camp. Caro wanted to meet him instead of going to pick up Hannah but that wasn't an option. So when he doesn't call or text her, she calls her friends Reb and Erin to ask them if she's going to get dumped by Derek. In an attempt to beat Derek to the punch, Caro shows up at his house to break up with him only to have him break up with her first.

But this frees Caro to forge a friendship with a much more interesting and caring boy named Pawel Sobczak, who speaks Polish and French. At first Caro isn't too open with Pawel about her family, carefully avoiding any mention of having an older sister and not inviting him over. But eventually she can't hide this fact forever, and Pawel guesses that she is not an only child. In order not to look mean and uncaring and so as not to have to explain her sister's difficult situation, Caro once again takes to lying. She tells Pawel that her older sister has just returned from working in the Peace Corps in Africa. This is a lie that will come back later on to bite her.

Meanwhile at home, Hannah's fragile emotional condition continues to spiral downwards. She spends most of her time in her room and doesn't eat much. When Caro is asked by her mother to clean her bedroom closet (what mother doesn't ask her daughter to do this?) she discovers some of Hannah's old boxes in the garage. It is there that Caro unearths a hint of what may be troubling her sister.

Eventually, everything comes to a head in Caro's relationships with Pawel and Hannah. Caro's parents insist she invite Pawel over for dinner and it is at the family table that Caro's lie comes back to haunt her. When her family learns what she has done they are horrified. This time Caro cannot claim she doesn't have the words to understand. She must face up to why she keeps lying about her sister. Caro's explanations to Pawel ring hollow and destroy his trust in her. Caro is forced to finally talk to Hannah and apologize.

When Caro seeks out Father Bob for "confession" he helps her understand that her choice to lie has repercussions, some of which might be permanent. Caro is worried she is not a good person, but Father Bob tells her that this her choice and that her past choices do not dictate her future. He also suggests that God's universe is a work in progress and suggests that Caro try creating something instead of always destroying things. Can Caro redeem herself and heal her relationship with Pawel? More importantly, can she discover what happened to Hannah and help her and her family heal?

After Caro confronts Hannah about what happened years ago, Hannah becomes seriously anorexic, requiring hospitalization and a feeding tube. Caro's conversations with Father Bob help her to understand how Hannah may have ended up so ill and how to help her.

The positive portrayal of a Catholic priest has to be one of the outstanding features of The Opposite of Hallelujah. Father Bob of St. Robert's Parish (an unfortunate co-incidence of names) is a genuinely caring priest who through his conversations with Caro, intelligently discusses, some pretty heavy concepts including free will, discerning the will of God, the nature of the universe, the different types of religious life, and the complementarity between science and faith, the nature of forgiveness and suffering and guilt.

Their relationship is probably the most interesting in the novel. Caro is initially quite cynical and even a bit disrespectful towards Father Bob. He doesn't have any words of wisdom for her. But she finds herself seeking answers to tough questions from him and it is through intelligent discussion with Father Bob that Caro begins to understand her sister and plenty of other things too.

Caro doesn't really understand what her sister's contemplative order was like and why her sister might have joined one. Through Father Bob, readers learn what a contemplative order is (the focus of the vocation is prayer) and how it differs from active orders which work in teaching and nursing for example. Father Bob doesn't have the answer as to why Hannah might have joined a contemplative order. He does offer some interesting ideas though,
'It appears that the contemplative life didn't' bring out Hannah's best self," Father Bob said. 'It didn't fulfill her in the way it should have if it was her true, lifelong vocation. That's nothing to be ashamed of.'
Father Bob eventually helps Caro to understand how Hannah, consumed with guilt, couldn't forgive herself and ultimately shut God out of her life. Father Bob tells Caro not to run away from what scares her and to face her mistakes because in the end they must be dealt with.

Waterfall by Escher
By creating an intelligent priest character and making him have a degree in astrophysics, Jarzab has created a character whose intelligence is never in doubt. He is both scientist and priest. Father Bob helps Caro grow from the self-absorbed girl who cares only about what she can get from others to someone who is trying to be better and to think about how others perceive her actions.

The overall character development in this novel is excellent. Even secondary characters such as Reb, Erin, Derek and Pawel are well drawn. Although he has a small part in the novel, Derek evokes strong emotions (for being a jerk) and the exchanges between Reb and Caro are realistic and filled with humour.

There are lots of other interesting topics readers may be introduced to in the novel including Rube Goldstein machines, the paintings of Escher, and single-bubble sonoluminescence.

The Opposite of Hallelujah is one of the best books I've read this year. It's long, at 449 pages but well worth the effort. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy novels that focus on relationships.

Book Details:
The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab
New York: Delacorte Press        2012
449 pp.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Kpop: BTOB

BTOB or Born to Beat is a new seven member boy band that debuted in March 2012. The group was developed by Cube Entertainment and is comprised of Seo Eunkwang, Lee Min Hyuk, Lee Changsub, Lim Hyansik, Shin Dong-guen, Jung Ilhoon, and Yook Sungjae. Eunkwang is the lead vocalist.

Their debut song was a dance number titled Insane. This was followed by the beautiful soulful ballad, Imagine.

But BTOB has changed direction somewhat with their latest album.

BTOB released their second mini album, Press Play on September 12, 2012. The title refers to the action of pressing the play button on a cassette tape deck. Tracks on this album include Press Play, WOW, I Don't Know Anything But Love, U & I, Stand Up, and My Girl. The music video their track titled, Lover Boy (previously titled I Don't Know Anything But Love) was released in October. This song has some elements of new jack swing, which is a fusion of hip hop, rap, and rhythm and blues and which was popular in Korea (and elsewhere) in the 90's. Considering that several members of BTOB are rappers this really isn't a surprising development in their style.  Press Play is somewhat retro, harking back to the boy band sound of the 1990's but incorporating their own unique style. The album cover is great, visually appealing and retro.

The first video is the ballad Imagine.

Enjoy WOW from their mini-album Press Play:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bookmark Days by Scot Gardner

"There was only one way to communicate with a Carrington and that was with fire in your eyes and broken glass in your words."
So thinks Avril Stanton until the day she meets Nathaniel Carrington!

Avril lives with her family on a sheep farm in an extremely rural area of Australia. She does her schooling by correspondence since the nearest school is 165 km away and rides her horse whenever she wants. She loves to read, so she has many books.

Avril also has learned to hate the Carringtons who live a mere fifteen kilometers away. No one knows just when the feud between the two families began, except that it started sometime after the war in which Hoppy Stanton and Les Carrington Sr. served together.

Avril meets Nathaniel Carrington when she and her grandfather go out to check on some sheep that have supposedly strayed into the Carrington's canola fields. Instead they find that their fence has been damaged by the Carrington's and they set out to mend it. Nathaniel arrives on a quad bike, apologizing because he was the one who damaged the fence. When he offers to mend the fence, he gets the royal brush off from Avril's grandfather, who is intent upon throwing more fuel onto the fire of the feud. Avril however, sees that Nathaniel is polite and sorry for what has happened. And she also finds herself instantly attracted to this handsome neighbour, with the tousled blond hair and the cap. Avril feels like Juliet when she first saw Romeo and this confuses her because she's been taught the Carrington's are bad people. Nathaniel doesn't look evil. He's handsome. It is a bookmark day.
"It's called a paradigm shift....and I had one that day. It was the biggest one in my life and it left me reeling. It was a whole mix of things that messed me up, like seeing my grandfather adding fuel to a fire that he'd always said blew in from the other side of the fence. Seeing a boy I'd been taught to hate and feeling the way Juliet probably did when she first saw Romeo."
Avril's cousin Katie and her Aunt Jacq arrive for a visit. Katie overwhelms Avril with her constant talking and bragging about her many boyfriends. Avril feels that she doesn't have the social confidence her cousin has but she soon comes to realize that Katie's approach to life is very different from her.

Avril and her family take their visiting relatives to the Forsyth Agricultural Show in Mildura. This day also turns out to be a bookmark day, changing Avril's life in ways she never dreamt. Avril meets Nathaniel at the Show, but she is too shy to talk to him. However, later on they find each other again and have a blast dancing to a band. Avril realizes that she is falling for a boy she shouldn't like - a boy from the family her own family has had a feud with for two generations. A feud she doesn't know the cause of and doesn't understand. At the Show, Avril makes an astonishing discovery regarding her grandmother.

Shortly after Nathaniel leaves the Show with his father, there is a violent thunderstorm and a lightning strike at the bandstand. In the chaos of the storm, Avril searches for Katie so they can go home. After getting her hungover cousin into their truck, Avril and her father come across the Carrington's ute which has overturned. Les Junior is badly injured but to Avril's relief,  Nathaniel is only bruised. The Stanton's help the Carringtons, despite the elder Carrington, Les Senior's violent response towards their presence at the accident scene.

Avril begins to understand that the feud between the older men of both families, doesn't really seem to exist between her parents and Nathaniels parents nor between herself and Nathaniel. She doesn't understand the deep hatred the two men have for each other because it doesn't seem to exist in the younger generations of either family. Avril reaches out to the Carringtons, not only because they are in a tight spot with Nathaniel's father injured but also because she wants to be able to see Nathaniel again. Although her and Nathaniel attempt to keep their blossoming love a secret, it is soon common knowledge in both families. When the two devise a plan to meet one another, a crisis develops. Will Avril be able to take a stand for what she believes in and also for a future with Nathaniel?

It's obvious Bookmark Days is a twist on the Romeo and Juliet theme set in the Australian outback. Two feuding families, and a young couple in love, secret meetings and co-conspirators like those in Romeo and Juliet can be found in this short novel. Avril Stanton is a likeable character who stays true to herself. She has little of her cousin Katie's "talent" for make-up, dress, and flirting with boys but she does come to recognize that she has abilities that her cousin doesn't have. In this way, she doesn't try to copy her cousin and at one point is thoroughly disgusted with Katie's behaviour. Instead she forges her own path. Her strength of character not only helps her and Nathaniel but also both of their families.

Bookmark Days is a sweet story about a girl's first love. Avril's uncertainty and awakening to love is tender and endearing in contrast to Katie's more cynical approach. This short novel is well written and is a great choice for reluctant readers. The unique Australian setting adds another layer of interest. The themes of identity and love make this a book young readers can relate to. Scot Gardner has definitely succeeded in writing a wonderful romantic novel.

Book Details:
Bookmark Days by Scot Gardner.
Crows Nest: Australia       Allen & Unwin   2009
170 pp.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Beta by Rachel Cohn

Elysia is a human clone but very different from the animal clones we are familiar with, which are grown from a few cells into a fully developed organism that is identical genetically to its parent. Her body is not grown from a few cells which pass through the stages of human development but instead is an exact physical replicate of a person who died - her First. Because her body is a duplicate made in a machine, Elysia is told she cannot feel emotions and has no soul. Elysia is unique as a clone because she begins life as a 16 year old teen. Clones are made of adults and the process hasn't yet been perfected for teens, so Elysia is known as a Beta clone.

To make up for the lack of a soul, all clones have two individualized chip implants. The first implant is placed in the brain to supply working knowledge and information on how to respond emotionally to humans. The second chip is placed in the wrist and functions as a locator so clones cannot get lost.  All clones have violet eyes and a violet fleur des lis tatooed on the right side of their face. Clones can be purchased and once they are purchased they get a second tattoo on the left side of their face which tells what their function is.

Elysia was manufactured by Dr. Larissa Lusardi, the world expert in cloning. Lusardi's laboratory is located on one side of an island in the lush archipelago named Demesne. This island was developed into a paradise for elite citizens. The air is specially treated with high concentrations of oxygen and everything on the island is created to perfection. Demesne's inhabitants require clones to serve them as butlers, maids, cooks and companions. The newly emergent Elysia is bought by the wife of Demesne's governor, Mrs. Bratton as a companion. Bratton's eldest daughter, Astrid, has left home to study at university on the Mainland and she wants someone to replace her daughter.

Elysia is taken to the Governor's villa where she meets two of his children; 18 year old Ivan and 10 year Liesel. In addition to being a companion for Mrs. Bratton, Elysia is also to train Ivan for his placement in military academy. She is an expert diver, excellent swimmer and in good physical shape. The implication here is that her First was probably an outstanding athlete.

Although Elysia knows she is not supposed to be able to feel or taste, she immediately begins to realize that in fact she can feel emotions and she can taste food. She loves macaroni and cheese, as well as chocolate. And she has strange memories of a man whom she feels attracted to - which she believes are the memories of her First. She gradually comes to understand that her first "Z" loved this unknown man.

When Elysia meets Tahir Fortesquieu, Ivan's best friend who had a serious surfing accent a year ago, there is a certain inexplicable chemistry between them. Elysia learns that Ivan's older sister, Astrid, loved Tahir, but the pre-accident Tahir, was a "player". Post-accident Tahir, seems strangely different to his friends. He is no longer interested in partying, drinking or doing drugs and he seems very quiet and polite.

While all this is going on, we learn that a man from the military who is an Aquine, has been sent to investigate why some of the clones on the island are "waking up". The clones who wake up or experience emotions are called Defects and they are immediately returned and expired. The Aquine is to prepare are report to the Replicant Rights Commission on what is happening on Demesne.

As time passes Elysia comes to realize that there are other clones like her - who feel. When she catches Xanthe, another clone making love to a male clone, they later meet and Elysia learns more about the Defects. Elysia learns that she is not the only teen clone and that some teen clones go through an "awakening" and turn Awful - they become uncontrollable and rage against humans. She is warned by Xanthe not to let anyone suspect that she feels or has memories. And Xanthe tells her not to get involved with Tahir - that a human cannot love a clone and that she will be nothing more than a consort.

Tahir's parents are so impressed with Elysia that they ask the Brattons if they can borrow her for a week. For Elysia, this couldn't come a moment too soon as the governor has indicated that he expects her to become his consort in exchange for her not being tested to ensure she is not a Defect. Elysia is suddenly becoming aware of how she can be used against her will.

**spoilers from this point on**

During the week with the Fortesquieu's, Elysia comes to the astonishing conclusion that Tahir is also a clone. The first Tahir died in the surfing accident. His parents had him cloned to continue Tahir's life. When Tahir's parents learn that Elysia can feel they decide that they will purchase her from the Brattons to help their son. Not surprisingly, the two clones fall in love and decide that they wish to determine the direction of their own lives. This means that they must somehow find a way to escape from Demesne.

However, before they can do this, fate intervenes. Elysia who has no returned home to the Bratton's house is put on display at the Governor's Ball, which the Brattons have been preparing for. It is at this time that she meets the Aquine, Alexander Blackburn who turns out to be her First's lover. She learns from Alexander that her First's name was Zhara and how she died. As an Aquine, Alexander belongs to a master race of humans who mate for life. Since Zhara was his mate, he finds he is very attracted to Elysia.

The situation at the Governor's Ball turns ugly when Tahir turns "awful", getting into a fight. Tahir is outed as a clone and as a result the Fortesquieu's vanish and with him Elysia's chance to escape the island. Elysia then makes of tragic mistake of telling Ivan that she and Tahir are mates. Furious and in a fit of jealousy, Ivan rapes Elysia. When he tries to do this again the next night, she stabs him in self defense and flees the island by jumping into the sea. Elysia is rescued by Alexander and nursed back to health by Defect on an isolated island. When Elysia and Alexander are out one afternoon swimming they make an astonishing, but heart rending discovery that concludes the first book.

Beta is one of the more interesting dystopian young adult novels. The writing is excellent, (Cohn is an established young adult writer) with the author focusing on portraying the evolution of the teen clone Elysia as she searches to understand who and what she is, especially since her experience of who and what she is differs from what she has been told. She shouldn't feel or taste - but she does. She shouldn't have memories from the person she was cloned from - but she does. She should want to serve - but she wants to be free to make her own choices. This dissonance creates a source of conflict in her that she struggles to hide because it could mean her torture and destruction. At the same time these feelings and experiences create pleasure and pain.

Written from Elysia's point of view, her voice is authentic from beginning to end. Her innocent, demure voice is appealing, drawing the reader into learning more about this unique character and trying to understand what she is. It wasn't apparent to me that Elysia as a clone was different from the clones we know. Elysia's voice changes as she struggles to understand her place in the utopian society of Demesne and deal with what appear to be memories of the person she was cloned from. Elysia gradually "awakens" to an understanding that although she may be a physical copy of another person, she might actually have the ability and the right to forge a separate path. She is led to this position by her interaction with other clones such as Xanthe and Tahir, although she probably would have reached this conclusion on her own eventually.

Beta also deals with the use of human clones as essentially slaves. Demesne society has attempted to bypass the ethical questions by first murdering the real Dr. Lusardi and creating a clone who would continue her work without any qualms about how the clones are used. But it appears that Demesne is the only society on Earth that allows the use of clones and there are brief references to the fact that this is not acceptable. There is a growing movement from outside of Demesne to stop the cloning.

Cohn doesn't spend much time developing the dystopian world as a whole, focusing more on the luxury island paradise of Demesne. This works for the most part because the story is set on the island and most of the main characters have never been off the island which rather conveniently is impossible to travel to. There are references to other parts of the world such as Biome City in a desert but these are never really developed.

One drawback to the book is the focus on physical beauty; everyone in the book is physically perfect. The teen boys are well muscled and buff, Elysia is stunningly beautiful as is Tawny (the Governor's masseuse) and Xanthe. Alexander is also a perfect physical specimen because he is part of a master race of humans, the Aquines who breed only within their race and mate for life.

There is some sexual content in the book; the rape scene is not graphically described. The violence is graphic and scattered throughout the book.

There is also a strong prolife message in the novel. When Elysia is told she is pregnant she doesn't want to keep the life growing within her. But she barely understands what is happening to her, nor how she can care for this new being. When she asks the Defect who has helped heal her to get rid of her baby she is told that she is in no condition to make any decision right now. She tells Elysia that she is a sign of hope for the clones because it was believed they could not conceive children. While this message might offend some, it is not only a good message, but will add an interesting dimension to further development of the storyline in the next book.

Overall, I found Beta to be a good start to what is likely to be an interesting science fiction series. The short trailer can be found below:

Book Details:
Beta by Rachel Cohn
New York: Hyperion 2012
331 pp.

Monday, November 26, 2012

DVD Movie: Oranges and Sunshine 2010

In 1986, Margaret Humphreys was a child protection officer working in Nottingham, England. Incredibly, she stumbled upon one of the most astonishing and horrendous secrets safeguarded by the British government for over eighty years. In the movie which is based her book, Empty Cradle, one day after work Margaret is approached by a woman by the name of Charlotte, asking her to help her locate her family. Charlotte had been visiting from Australia where she lives and she tells Margaret that all she knows is that she, along with a large group of children, were sent over by ship in the 1940s and 50s to Australia. Charlotte was four years old at the time. She was told her mother had died and she was unsure of her true name and her birth date.

At first Margaret is reluctant to get involved until one day in her post-adoption group therapy session, one of the attendees, Nikki, tells the group that out of the blue she got a letter from someone claiming to be her brother Jack and that he lived in Australia. Nikki cannot understand how this can be. As she tells the group more, Margaret realizes that this must be more than a coincidence and she decides that she must look into what is going on.

Margaret researches Charlottes birth certificate and manages to track down her mother, reuniting the two women. When she meets Charlottes mother, Margaret learns that she had been told her daughter was adopted out to a family.  She never knew her daughter had been sent to Australia. And she had always hoped to get her daughter back, not see her adopted out.

Margaret eventually meets Nikki's brother Jack, who seems devastated over what happened to him. In an attempt to learn more about the children, Margaret flies to Australia on her own time and using her own funds to determine how many other children have had a similar experience and to try to understand the scope of what happened.

Eventually Margaret and her husband, Mervyn uncover a migration scheme so widespread that there is no way the British government could not have known about it.They discover that these "forced migrations" began as early as 1900 and lasted until 1970. During that period of time there were "waves" of forced migrations and there were so many children involved that upper levels of government would have had to have given permission, including the Home Secretary. All of the children were in care and it was evident that these children were systematically deport. These schemes were run by charities and churches, among them, the Christian brothers.

Margaret, through her visits with children who were forcibly sent to Australia, learns that many suffered abuse, both emotional, physical and sometimes sexual, and worked as virtual slaves. Some received little educating and were basically indentured slaves. All this despite being told they were going to a warm country where there was plenty of sunshine and they could pick oranges off the trees.

Margaret attempts to get the organizations involved in the migrations to accept responsibility and acknowledge that they did a great wrong to these adult children and their families. It took 23 years before the British and Australian government finally issued an apology for the child migration schemes. More than 130,000 children had been deported. Margaret, with the help of her husband, continue their work today of helping reunite children with their families.

Oranges and Sunshine deals with this difficult subject in a forthright way but one that also demonstrates how the forced child migration affected the children, their mothers and how it continues to affect them to this day. Emily Watson does a stellar job portraying Margaret Humphreys in a performance filled with intelligence, gentleness and subdued passion. She is never deterred from her mission of finding these "lost children" even when her personal safety is at stake. Eventually the stress of dealing with so many people who have been hurt takes its toll on Margaret and she is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She tries to keep her distance and set personal boundaries but the breadth and depth of the tragedy is so overwhelming that she is unable to accomplish this. Watson conveys this with such utter realism that we forget we are watching a movie.

The effect of her work is especially well portrayed in the scenes with Len (David Wenham) near the end of the movie. Len is a man who has been deeply affected by his experiences; by his own admission he stopped crying at the age of eight. Wealthy enough to afford a private detective to find his mother, he is at first doubtful of Margaret's intentions and her ability. Yet after finding his mother for him, Margaret is challenged by Len to go to Boys Town at Bindoon to see what he and other child migrants experienced. She doesn't want to but in the end she agrees. Bindoon is in the middle of nowhere, and as Margaret and Len look down from afar at Boys Town, we see a colossal structure built by child migrants who were at the mercy of the Christian Brothers and who suffered some of the worst abuse.The cinematography effectively captures the isolation and the fear these children must have felt as they saw themselves being driven far from any town or village.

When Margaret sees this place she is terribly shattered because she feels that what she is doing is not enough. But Len tells her, "You feel it for all of us because we can't...You're in there for us. You're fighting for us. So let the rest go. Just let it go."

Oranges and Sunshine is based on the book, Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys. The film was produced by Emile Sherman and Camilla Bray who also produced The King's Speech. The Oranges and Sunshine website has more information on the making of the film and the actors involved.

Those interested in reading more about this topic, the Child Migrants Trust website will be most useful.

The Australian National Maritime Museum has an exhibit entitled, "On their own - Britain's child migrants". This website has an interesting video on the exhibition.