Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Movie Reveiw: Hachi

Hachi is a wonderful, poignant family movie about a lost dog and the man who finds him. Parker Wilson, known as Professor, finds a lost Akita puppy one day on his way home from work. The puppy has a tag with Japanese characters on it and when Parker is unable to locate his owner, he asks a close Japanese friend what the characters mean. He is told that the dog's name is Hachiko. Parker and his family decide to keep Hachi and gradually a strong bond is formed between man and dog.

Every day Parker catches the train into the city where he works as a professor at a college. Every day, despite Parker's attempts to prevent Hachi from doing so, the dog faithfully follows him to the train station and every night he returns to wait for Parker's arrival home. Gradually the two of them develop a strong bond that touches many of the people Parker knows.

One day, Hachi doesn't seem to be himself. Repeatedly he seems demonstrate that he doesn't want Parker to take the train to work. It is to be the last time the two are together and when Parker doesn't return home, Hachi continues his daily ritual of waiting at the train station for Parker to return.

Hachi is loosely based on the true story of Professor Ueno who died at work one day and whose Akita dog waited faithfully for nine years at the train station for his master to return. Eventually, the dog died.

The real Hachiko.

Be prepared because Hachi will make you cry. A beautiful, touching story of loyalty and friendship, this movie is a must for those who love animals, especially dogs. I'm not a fan of Richard Gere but he does a fine job in this movie. I would have loved to see Mark Harmon or Bruce Greenwood as Parker.

Check out the trailer:

And a clip just to make you cry:

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Catholicism. A Journey To The Heart Of The Faith by Robert Barron

Chapter 2. Happy Are We: The Teaching Of Jesus explores some of the teachings of Jesus Christ by considering the eight beatitudes presented in the Sermon on the Mount. Father Barron goes through the "more 'positive' formulations" first; essentially he considers these beatitudes as helping us achieve a right ordering of our lives with God central and foremost.

These beatitudes are "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.","Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.", "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will by satisfied.", and "Blessed are the peacemakers,for they will be called the children of God.".

From these "positive" beatitudes, Barron moves onto those beatitudes which help to reorient us towards God. In our fallen nature, "we sense within ourselves the hunger for God, but we attempt to satisfy it with some created good that is less than God." Those substitutes are usually one of the following four; wealth, pleasure, power and honour. We usually discover that, as we seek to fill the void created by a lack of God, with one of the above four or any combination of them, our lives become more disordered and more directed towards achieving that substitute. Barron terms them addictions that block our path to developing a closer, more meaningful relationship with God.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." is a directive towards detachment from material goods.

"Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted." is a summons to avoid the "addiction to good feelings". These feelings can be anything pleasurable in the realm of physical,emotional or psychological.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land." is a warning against seeking power in life as a substitute for God. The desire for power is probably the strongest and most irresistible, probably because power often brings about more of the other three.

"Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." exhorts us to shun the love of honour.

Barron goes on to further explore Jesus' exhortation to love one's enemies. Jesus' directive, "But I say to you, offer no resistence to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.', is not an instruction to acquiesce to evil, or to do nothing. Instead, he challenges his followers to try a different approach - that of standing our ground and showing the aggressor the injustice of his actions. The intent is possibly to reform that aggressor.

Father Barron concludes this chapter with an excellent discussion of the parable of the prodigal son and the parable of the sheep and the goats contained in chapter 25 of Matthew's Gospel.  I will leave the reader to discover these gems on their own.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Traitor's Smile by Patricia Elliott

The Traitor's Smile set in revolutionary France is the sequel to Elliott's Pale Assassin. We have a copy of the latter on order, but I just couldn't wait to read this book.

Eugenie De Boncoeur, a young aristocrat from France, has newly arrived in Deal, England, along with Julien de Fortin, a friend of Eugenie's brother, Armand. They are finally safe from the French Revolution which has claimed most of France's aristocrats. But Eugenie's brother, Arman De Boncoeur is languishing in La Grande Force, once a beautiful palace of the Marais, lately a prison for men.
Eugenie has escaped to Deal to stay with her English uncle, Thomas Coveney, who is a surgeon at the Naval Hospital in Deal, and his daughter Hetta. Hetta is an intelligent and spirited young woman who believes that the monarchy should be replaced. She often dresses as a boy so that she can go down to the harbour and help out the local smugglers. And she seems to have taken a romantic interest in Julien, much to Eugenie's dismay.

Unknown to all, Eugenie has been followed to Deal by Guy Deschamps, once a friend of Armand but who is now a spy who goes by the name of La Scapel and who is working for the sinister and cruel Raoul Goullet, known as La Fantome. Eugenie is unaware of Deschamps connections to Goullet and refuses to believe that Deschamps is the one who attacked Julien in France. However, she soon learns that Deschamps is quite willing to take her back to Paris, by force if necessary, to marry Goullet whom her guardian promised her to, years before. Guy Deschamps tells Eugenie that if she upholds her end of the contract, her brother will be set free by Goullet.

Eugenie and Hetta end up back in France, via a wayward balloon trip in a last minute escape from the clutches of Guy Deschamps. Once in France they are helped by those fighting the revolution. They eventually meet up with Julien who has returned to his country to continue fighting for peace. In pursuit, is Deschamps, who is determined to capture Eugenie and kill de Fortin, thus raising his profile with Goullet and ultimately Robespierre. Goullet's motives are more personal - he is out for revenge, the details of which the reader learns near the end of the book.

For the most part, The Traitor's Smile was an exceptionally exciting read, even if it was a bit predictable and even a little familiar. The Traitor's Smile is reminiscent of The Scarlet Pimpernel books written by Baroness Orczy. There are some similarities between the storyline of the two books, but the Pimpernel books are by far, better written and very very romantic. If you haven't read them, and you love historical fiction AND romance, I highly recommend the entire series by Baroness Orczy.

The characters are well developed even if our heroine, Eugenie, is at times frustratingly naive. Elliott's portrayal of the decay of France and the decline into anarchy is well done. Young readers will get a true sense of how a the French citizen's attempted to forge a new path for their country but inevitably lost the jewels of justice and liberty.

One aspect of the book I did not like was the attempt at romance. Romantic sections read like cheap paperback romances and were out of character with the quality of the writing in the rest of the book.

Book Details:
The Traitor's Smile by Patricia Elliott
New York: Holiday House 2010
308 pp.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

It's A Girl - Documentary Film

From the official website for the documentary film, "It's A Girl!" :

In India, China and many other parts of the world today, girls are killed, aborted and abandoned simply because they are girls. The United Nations estimates as many as 200 million girls(1) are missing in the world today because of this so-called “gendercide”.

Girls who survive infancy are often subject to neglect, and many grow up to face extreme violence and even death at the hands of their own husbands or other family members.

The war against girls is rooted in centuries-old tradition and sustained by deeply ingrained cultural dynamics which, in combination with government policies, accelerate the elimination of girls.

Shot on location in India and China, It’s a Girl! explores the issue. It asks why this is happening, and why so little is being done to save girls and women.

The film tells the stories of abandoned and trafficked girls, of women who suffer extreme dowry-related violence, of brave mothers fighting to save their daughters’ lives, and of other mothers who would kill for a son. Global experts and grassroots activists put the stories in context and advocate different paths towards change, while collectively lamenting the lack of any truly effective action against this injustice.

Currently in post-production, It’s a Girl! is scheduled for a 2012 release.

Many feminist and women's groups in the Western world do not want to fight against the cultural and religious beliefs nor the policies that result in gendercide, fearing that abortion rights will be eroded. In their silence, they are complicit in this holocaust of girls. All baby girls have the right to be born. All women have the right to bear their children, including their baby girls.

Please share this documentary trailer.

Visit It's a Girl! The Three Deadliest Words In The World.

Other organizations working to save women and their girl babies include: Women's Rights Without Frontiers.

Also check out Elzabeth Vargas' video below:

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart

Seventeen year old Katherine whose twin sister Anna died this past February 6th is not coping well. It is now summer, and Katherine is distraught and has feelings of guilt and anger, especially towards her father and mother who appear outwardly at least, to "have gone on living". Katherine cannot forgive them for this.

Katherine's parents seem remarkably disengaged. Upper class 19th century Philadelphians, her father works at the Philadelphia National Bank while her mother is preoccupied with teas and women's rights. Katherine wants to tell her mother what happened so that she can receive her mother's forgiveness and in turn forgive herself. But her mother simply insists that the past remain in the past and that they look to the future. But the future is what Katherine is determined not to face.

So, Katherine plans to take her own life. She has been visiting the highest places in Philadelphia and when the book opens, she has decided that place to fly away will be the Colosseum. But when she climbs out onto the roof, she is discovered by Bennett, her sister's lover. Bennett has been shadowing Katherine for months because he knows her pain and knows what she wants to do.

Although Katherine doesn't act on her intentions throughout the rest of the summer, she hasn't forgotten what she wants. As she plans her next attempt the reader is filled in on the events of the previous year in the life of Anna and Katherine. Anna is the older twin, more inquisitive, and the one who seems to indulge in risky behaviour. And Katherine is the one who always rescues her.

"Still, as they got older, Katherine put herself on guard, made herself responsible for interrupting Anna's drift toward the perilous, for fixing the fences and defining the borders, the edges, the ends. Anna listened to Katherine when it was important, because Katherine's talent had never been beauty; it was saving, rescue."

But things changed last April when Anna became involved with Bennett, the baker's boy - a very unsuitable match for a girl from a family with a high social standing such as Anna and Katherine's. Bennett is, as their father describes people from the lower classes, a "dangerous neighbor". Anna's father had hoped to marry her to Alan Carver but Anna quickly cooled that idea. Instead, she bullies and manipulates Katherine into helping her arrange clandestine meetings with Bennett - something Katherine deeply resents.She feels betrayed by the loss of her close relationship with her twin.

When Katherine rebels at her sister's dishonesty with their parents, Anna simply ignores her and acts as though she doesn't need her. Anna tries to tell Katherine that she is judging Bennett because of his social status. "Look into his eyes sometime. Try and see him." she tells Katherine. Anna seems oblivious to the effect her behaviour is having on her sister.

Even when they travel to Cape May for holidays and Katherine makes Anna promise not to lie anymore and to tell their father, Anna breaks this promise too. She has no intention of doing this and continues to manipulate Katherine, causing them to drift further apart. Finally, Katherine decides that she can no longer save Anna. She decides to accept Anna as she is and in doing this, she feels she is responsible for her death.

"That night Katherine gave up trying to talk sense into Anna. That night she did not try to argue her twin sister out of her gargantuan joy; she did not try to save her. It was then that Katherine decided to begin to look the other way on purpose, but this time without anger, without the intent to prove a point. She decided to stop protecting Anna, so that she might love her more truly."

Until one day, Anna arranges for the two of them to go skating and meet up with Bennett - again without their father's knowledge. Events on that fateful day in February unfold in such a way that Katherine is not able to rescue Anna. She blames herself.

All of this is revealed to the reader on the day Katherine decides to climb to the top of the tallest building on the grounds of the Philadelphia Centennial Fair. Once again she meets Bennett and this time they have the conversation they both need to. Although Bennett reminds Katherine of the terrible tragedy, when Katherine really does look at him and listen to him, he helps her deal with her loss by realistically focusing on what happened and that no one could have saved Anna. This creates a crisis of identity for Katherine at this moment because Katherine's identity is completely tied up with being Anna's caretaker.

"For if Katherine isn't needed for anything, if she is no longer responsible for Anna, who is she now? What can she give?"
But meeting Bennett and coming to the Centennial Exhibition turns out to be the salvation of Katherine when she saves a baby and forms several new friendships; with a young man, William,  who saves animals and a woman whose baby she cares for. In the end, there is hope and new possibilities for Katherine.

I actually thought there would be more about the Centennial Exhibition in this novel but it really plays a part only at the end. Kephart ably describes the fair and gives modern readers a sense of the setting with the modern up-to-date novelties on display at the fair across the street from Shantytown with its prostitutes and hucksters and the squalor of its wooden shacks.

"The wonders of the world slide past. Parisian corsets cavorting on their pedestals. Vases on lacquered shelves. Folding beds. Walls of cutlery. The sweetest assortment of sugar-coated pills, all set to sail on a yacht.....

At the intersection of the main aisle and the central transept is a palace of jewels: Tiffany, Starr & Marcus, Caldwell. ...See these cinnamon colored cameos; this diamond necklace; these perfect solitaires; these black, white, and pink pearls...."
Dangerous Neighbors doesn't get bogged down in Katherine's guilt, mainly because it's too short to do that and because the narrative flips from present to past, gradually revealing the relationship between the two sisters. It is emotional and we feel Katherine's brokenness and despair over the loss of her twin and the fact that her parents seem unaware of her emotional state. Dangerous Neighbors has at it's core themes of loss, guilt, and redemption as well as a the typical themes of teen suicide and identity. Brilliantly done and a great short read for teens looking for something different.

Book Details:
Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart
New York: Laura Geringer Books, Egmont USA 2010
176 pp.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Crossed by Ally Condie

As in Matched, Crossed continues the saga of Ky and Cassia, this time told through both of their voices. As we learned in the first book, Ky as an Aberration has been sent out to the Outer Provinces supposedly for six months. But we learn in Crossed that he is a decoy villager. He along with other Aberrations are placed in specific areas in an attempt to make the Enemy believe that the Society still occupies these areas. They are given a warm coat, but only enough water and provisions to keep them alive until the Enemy kills them. The Society promises the Aberrations that after a six month tour of duty, they will be given "Citizen" status. However, no one has ever survived long enough to achieve this.
But for Ky, the Outer Provinces are his home. And he doesn't plan on sticking around to die. One night Ky along with Vick Roberts and a young boy name Eli escape into the Carving - a large series of canyons, during an Enemy attack. Ky's intent is to make it back into the Society to meet up with Cassia. But what he doesn't know is that Cassia is on her way to try to meet up with him.

Meanwhile, Cassia is on her work assignment at a camp in Tana Province. Her parents requested the work assignments as a way to let her attempt to locate Ky, but she's not been able to get near to the Outer Provinces, which is where Ky has been sent. She also learns about a movement called the Rising, and their leader named the Pilot who will lead a rebellion to confront the Society. After this next assignment, Cassia's final work position will be in one of the sorting centers in Central, the largest city in the Society. Cassia comes to the realization that she may have to escape and travel on her own to the Outer Provinces to find Ky.

Xander came to see Cassia before she left on her assignment and gave her several dozen of the blue tablets which Cassia believes will help her survive out in the wilds of the Outer Provinces. Cassia is careful to keep them safe and hidden. When she is getting ready for her last assignment before leaving for Central, Xander mysteriously shows up at the camp. He is passing through Tana on his way to Camas Province adjacent to the Outer Provinces. She meets with him and still feels an attraction for her old childhood friend. But she is determined to find Ky, despite having strong feelings for Xander. Although Xander appears to help Cassia get what she needs one has the feeling that there is something about him we don't know.

Eventually Cassia escapes her work detail by sneaking onto a transport to the Outer Provinces. She is accompanied by a girl she doesn't know named Indie. When Cassia and Indie are dropped off at their location, they meet a boy who knew Ky and saw him escape into the Carving. This boy shows them the way into the Carving and they go their separate ways, but not after Cassia offers him a few blue tablets.

Eventually Cassia and Indie meet up with Ky and Eli on the other side of the Carving. Cassia is not well and Ky, Indie and Eli discover that she has taken one of the blue tablets believing that they will help her survive. They tell her to her disbelief, that she is poisoning herself.

The canyons in the Carving are full of surprises. Ky has discovered the township - a village of farmers that has been recently abandoned. In caves far above the canyon walls he and Vick also find caves filled with artifacts - books, pamphlets and maps from the time before when people were allowed to create.

Ky and Cassia, as well as Indie and Eli decide to return to the township for food and supplies and the artifacts. At this time they meet a lone farmer, named Hunter who shows them a hidden cave containing something completely unanticipated. The significance of this discovery is not readily apparent, even by the end of this second novel. They also locate a map showing them were The Rising is based.

As a result of all of this new information, everyone's plans change. Cassia and Ky make discoveries about each other that both fill in gaps but also lead to new questions. Cassia whose sole intent was to find Ky now wants to join the Rising. Ky doesn't want this for himself or for Cassia. Indie also wants to find the Rising. Hunter wants to find the farmers who fled the township to safety. The novel ends with Cassia, Indie and Ky traveling downriver to the Rising.

Condie does an excellent job of maintaining suspense throughout Crossed. As the novel progresses there are plenty of mysteries. Did Xander know the truth about the blue pills? Is Xander working for the Society's and is the Society still manipulating what is happening to Cassia and Ky in some way? But we also learn more about each of the characters and the Society.

Matched and Crossed have a number of themes; government control, identity, life ethics, control of information. How much government control should there be? In the Society, the government controls every aspect of life, including what and how much food is consumed, the job you do and the person you marry, in order to achieve a long life span. This is no choice in love and relationships and social responsibility is coerced.

The issue of life ethics is a dominant theme in both novels which is not surprising given that they are dystopias. The elderly are euthanized at age eighty, political prisoners are murdered covertly, drugs are used to manipulate the general population and there is the deliberate poisoning of rivers to prevent rebellion. Not to mention that Cassia and Ky are part of an elaborate experiment that was undertaken without their consent or knowledge.

The Society also completely controls the flow of information to its people. All historical artifacts are destroyed leading to a black market trade in artifacts. In an attempt to obliterate the practice, there are random raids in neighbourhoods to locate and destroy artifacts. The general population doesn't know how to write and therefore cannot create or express. Any paper produced degrades quickly. Thus, no history is created for future generations.

Crossed wasn't as thrilling as Matched, but it was still a very good book. We see Cassia beginning to make decisions about what she wants in life - breaking out of the bubble that the Society creates for all its citizens. At times the book is slow mainly when we are reading about Ky and Cassia in their journey through the canyons. Overall though, the mystery of the Rising and the actions of the Society in the Outer Provinces as well as the conflict between Ky, Cassia and Xander make for an excellent read.

The book trailer by Penguin Young Readers is below:

Book Details:
Crossed by Ally Condie
New York: Dutton Books 2011
367 pp.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Catholicism by Father Robert Barron

The book Catholicism and its accompanying television series of the same name, have been the talk of the Catholic world for some time now. Pre-publication reviews for Father Robert Barron's books were unlike that for any other Catholic publication in recent years. His documentary series offers viewers both Catholic and non-Catholic alike, an inside look at the Catholic faith in a way never quite presented to the world.

Barron is a visionary in the use of social media and electronic media to push forward the new evangelization that John Paul II challenged all Catholics to undertake in the new millennium. His website, WordOnFire, is the virtual home for his nonprofit Catholic ministry dedicated to "draw people into or back to the Catholic faith." Word On Fire is a beautiful, tantalizing cornucopia of Catholicism at its best and I highly recommend it. There are articles, commentary, radio and video, and Father Barron definitely continues the tradition that Mother Angelica pioneered with her television station EWTN.

In 2008 Father Barron began to film a 10 part series about the Catholic faith, utilizing his travels throughout the world. The trailer for the series which ran on PBS in 2011 is below.

I'm reading the accompanying book, Catholicism. A Journey To The Heart Of The Faith. The timing of this book couldn't be better, with Catholics and the Catholic faith itself under intense pressure by many different segments of society today.

I'll be reviewing this book over the next two weeks.

There are ten chapters in the book; the first titled "Amazed and Afraid: The Revelation of God Become Man.
This chapter's focus is on God become man: Jesus, and his mission on Earth. Father Barron explores the Jesus' mission in the context of the expectations of the nation of Israel. Jesus' purpose or mission what four-fold:
"He would gather the scattered tribes of Israel; he would cleanse the Temple of Jerusalem; he would definitively deal with the enemies of the nation; and, finally, he would reign as Lord of heaven and earth....that through these actions Yahweh would purify Israel and through the purified Israel bring salvation to all."

Gather the scattered tribes of Israel.
Father Barron then commences to demonstrate just how Jesus fulfilled each of these purposes. He begins by discussing the uniqueness and even peculiarity of Jesus who unlike other "prophets" asked the daring question, "Who do people say that I am?". His intent was to draw people to himself, unlike others before him who focused on words and actions. Only God, or the God-Man would do this; in effect showing us what it means to be a Christian disciple. When we understand who Jesus is, we can begin to comprehend why he behaved as recorded in the Gospels. Jesus went against the social conventions of his time to establish the importance of forming the Kingdom of God here on Earth. This was to transcend duty, family, religious ritual - in short, everything.

Cleanse the temple.
Father Barron demonstrates how God chose a people - the descendants of Abraham to form a "priestly nation" to model the Kingdom of God.
"The people Israel were shaped primarily according to the laws of right worship and derivately by the laws of right behavior so that they could model to the nations how to praise and how to act."
However,time and again as Israel failed in its mission to bring God to other nations, and as its faith was corrupted, so was its worship.
The temple was a symbol of the Garden of Eden (when man was in union with God) and represented Israel's mission to evangelize or as Barron states, to "Eden-ize" the pagan world. With Jesus on earth, he redefined the temple - as himself.
"If Jesus is, in his own person, the true Temple, then he should be the definitive source of teaching, healing, and forgiveness, and this is just what the Gospels tell us."
Jesus' actions of cleansing the Temple and his response that "in three days I will raise it up" when confronted by the Pharisees suggest that he was "telling the people that the entire purpose of the earlier temple would be transfigured in him, transposed, as it were, into a new key." There is also a wonderful exposition of how there is no way to explain the development of Christianity as a messianic movement without the resurrection. All the apostles, save one, died in their efforts to evangelize the world. They did not die for a "good man" who "symbolized the presence of God" but for a man who was both man and God.

Definitively deal with the nation's enemies.
The ancient nation of Israel had many enemies and had been overpowered and sugjugated by numerous nations throughout its history. The Jewish people therefore,had a strong expectation that the Messiah would be a military conqueror. As did C.S. Lewis, Father Barron suggests that the baby Jesus was born in a quiet, backward town to very humble parents so as to "slip in behind enemy lines". And as the Gospels indicate, the military leaders took seriously the prediction of a great kind out of the Jewish nation, to the point that they slaughtered all the children 2 years of age and under.

Reign as King of heaven and earth
Barron demonstrates that the circumstances of Jesus birth redefined the nature of "kingship" from one of power and self-interest, to that of love, sacrifice and "the willingness to be bound for another." He contrasts "two very different personifications of power" by describing Augustus Caesar and Jesus Christ.

This first chapter was rich with wonderful insights into the life of Jesus Christ and sets the stage for the next chapter which discusses the teachings of Jesus. For although the "Christian faith centers on who Jesus is", his teachings have transformed the world and continue to do so.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

 War Horse is typical Morpuro - simple, unadorned writing for children interested in a good animal story.

War Horse tells the story of Joey, a red bay, in the voice of the now famous horse. Joey is bought as a "gangling, leggy colt", a mere six months old, by Albert's father. He won a bidding war with Farmer Easton, with whom he has had fights over fencing between their adjoining land. Joey settles into life on the farm with thirteen year old Albert Narracott, the young lad who loves him and trains him up. The old mare, Zoey, who is also a working horse, helps Joey adapt to his new life on the Narracott farm. Gradually Joey comes to trust and love Albert and his gentle manner.

But Albert is stunned when his father, in order to pay the mortgage on the farm, sells Joey to the British Calvary at the start of World War I. What follows are the adventures of this beautiful horse during the Great War, first for the British, and then for the Germans. After a disastrous British Calvary charge in which there are only two survivors, Joey and Topthorn, a large, black stallion. Joey and Topthorn are friends who trained together in the Calvary and now they find themselves doing ambulance duty for the Germans and eventually working at pulling the guns for the German artillery. The war takes its toll, not just on the humans but the many horses who are worked to their deaths. After the sudden death of Topthorn, Joey cannot take anymore and flees from the battlefield in terror. Joey ends up trapped in the mud and wire of no man's land where he is saved by the joint efforts of the German and British soldiers. Unlike the movie version, in the book, Joey's reuniting with Albert is much less dramatic, though no less emotional. For Albert has joined the Veterinary Corps as a verterinary orderlie in the hopes of finding his beloved horse. And find him, he did. In this aspect the book is very different from the movie where Albert is a member of the British infantry who leads a charge across no-man's land, only to be gassed.

Readers will find the book very different from the movie of the same name. In fact, they will come to appreciate the creative genius of Steven Spielberg who brought the story to life on the cinematic screen. The essence of the story is the same, but much enhanced by the brilliant cinematography, excellent dramatization of some of the events in the book and a good script. This is one of those rare times when the movie really is better than the book. This is due in part to ability of cinema to portray the horrors of war, and the relationship between a man and his horse in a more visual and appealing way.

Farm Boy, the sequel to War Horse is due to be published in March 2012. In this follow up, Albert's son is now an old man who reminisces about his war-hero father, life on the farm and their horses, Joey and Zoey.

Book Details:
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
New York: Scholastic Press   2007 (1982)
165 pp.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Faraway Island by Annika Thor

A Faraway Island is the first book in a four book series by Swedish author, Annika Thor, about two Austrian-Jewish sisters who are sent to live in Sweden during the Second World War. The books were written in 1996 and have recently been translated from Swedish into English. The first two books have recently been published by Random House Yearling Books, with the final two slated to follow soon, although no date has been issued as to when.

Annika Thor was born into a Jewish family living in Goteborg, Sweden sixty years ago. Thor considers that had her grandparents not immigrated from Belarus in the early 1900's, she would likely not have been born. After the Kristallnacht in November, 1938, the Jewish community in Sweden arranged for the transport of over five hundred Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to safety. Sadly, the parents of these children were never allowed to immigrate with them, and many never saw their children again in this life. The Jewish children generally ended up living in rural areas, very different from their middle class upbringing. The cultural shock, in addition to the stress of relocating alone, must have been enormously traumatic. As with many Jewish children who were placed with families of other faiths, often their cultural and religious heritage was not respected.

Thor based her books on "interviews with about a dozen of the real refugees who shared their childhoods, their letters, and their diaries, as well as on the research of Ingrid Lomfors, a Jewish historian in Sweden who explored the destinies of the five hundred refugee children."

I've only read the first book but I simply can't wait to read the entire series. Despite the setting (rural Sweden) and the time (pre-World War I), A Faraway Island evokes reminders of Anne of Green Gables. Twelve year old Stephanie (Stephie) Steiner and her seven year old sister, Nellie, are placed with two families on a small island off the coast of Sweden. The girls are split up with Nellie living with the kindly Auntie Alma and her family, while Stephie is sent to live with the crusty and stiff Auntie Marta and Uncle Evert. Auntie Marta is a dead ringer for Marilla Cuthbert while Uncle Evert is a sort of Matthew Cuthbert who relates to the young, lonely Stephie in an endearing way. He even tells Auntie Marta, "She's a fine girl. I'm glad we took her in." There's an encouraging school teacher who motivates Stephie to excel in her studies, cruel classmates who taunt Stephie, a helpful benefactor who arranges for Stephie to continue her studies onto the next level in Goteborg, and a potential romantic interest in Sven, the young man who spends the summer at Auntie Marta's house - all very similar to Anne Shirley's story in the Green Gables books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

This short novel is well written and holds the reader's interest with the ongoing troubles and tribulations of the young protagonist who must adapt to her new life in Sweden. Stephie's plight is real and it's easy to feel a great deal of empathy for her, especially since we know what will happen in the years to come.

This book will be of interest to girls, aged 8 to 12 who enjoy historical fiction. I'll review the next in the series as soon as it comes on our library bookshelves!

Book Details:
A Faraway Island by Annika Thor
Random House Children's Books 2009 translated by Linda Schenck
247 pp.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Legend by Marie Lu

Legend is a gripping dystopian thriller from beginning to end. Lu's debut novel is a brilliant start to what promises to be a well written, exciting trilogy.

What was once the City of Los Angeles is now the Republic, while the eastern portion of the continent is known as the Colonies. Much of the Republic is flooded and lies in ruin, with decaying high rises, impoverished people and frequent plagues. Run by an aging presidential leader, Elector Primo, the Republic is at war with the Colonies.

Daniel Altan Wing, who goes by the name of Day, is 15 years old and leads the life of a fugitive - that of the Republic's most wanted criminal. Day is wanted for numerous crimes including assault, arson, theft, and destruction of military property. He's highly intelligent and physically gifted. But Day apparently failed the Trial - a test taken when you are 10 years old and designed to determine your fate in life. If you pass the test depending upon your score you continue on to high school and university or college. If your score is low, you join the poor, working in the power plants or water turbines. If you fail, you are sent to the labs to be examined for genetic imperfections. You never see your family again.

Day failed his trial but he managed to escape the labs and has been on the run ever since. His mother believes he is dead. But Day is very much alive and when he sees his family identified as suffering from the plague, he breaks into a hospital hoping to steal plague cures. Things don't go as planned and Day ends up injured and confronting Captain Metias Iparis as he escapes. He wounds Iparis and disappears into the slum sector of Los Angeles.

In contrast to Day, June Iparis, is 15 year old prodigy of the Republic. She and her family are wealthy citizens, her parents having been medical researchers. After the death of her parents, June lives with her brother Metias, in an apartment in Los Angeles. June achieved a perfect Trial score and is about to graduate from Drake University, the most prestigious in the Republic. But when her brother, Metias is killed by outlaw Day, June asks and receives permission to hunt him down and capture him. June succeeds but not before she gets to know Day who not only saves her life but also is not as malicious as portrayed by the Republic.

In an attempt to understand why Day doesn't match what the Republic has portrayed him as and to discover if his claim that he did not kill Metias is true, June hacks into the Republic's databases and reviews her brother's diaries. She makes a shocking discovery that forces her to make choices she never ever would have considered.

The characters of Day, June and Metias are well drawn and supported by a small cast of secondary characters equally well portrayed. Day is a likeable hero and underdog and it's easy to root for him. He challenges June to think more deeply about what she is being told by the Republic. Even when she betrays him, Day is still good to the core, refusing to hate her for what she's done. June, in contrast, although as intellectually and physically gifted as Day is, must grow emotionally and morally.

Although 2011 will definitely be remembered for its focus on dystopian fiction, Lu's effort is by far one of the best published that year. The story, told in the alternating points of view of June and Day and easily distinguished by the change in font and colour of text, is fast paced, with a strong plot line. It will be interesting to see where Lu takes the story from here, since this book could easily stand alone.

It's too bad such a great book has such a shoddy, and to put it bluntly, lame book trailer. PenguinUSA ought to have done a much better job on this one. Shame on them.

Book Details:
Legend by Marie Lu
New York: G.P Putnam's Sons (Penguin Group)
305 pp.

Friday, January 6, 2012

K-Pop Artists: BoA

One of my favourite Korean artists is Kwon Boa, known as BoA. BoA is considered the Queen of Korean Pop and was discovered by SM Entertainment in 1998, one of the major labels promoting and managing Korean musicians. She was a mere 11 years old. Although very young when discovered, BoA trained for two years in SM Entertainment's Academy before releasing her debut album. Her second album, Listen To My Heart was a huge success in Japan and represented a breakout for her.

Unlike North American artists, it seems Asian artists release an incredible number of albums in a very short period of time and BoA is no exception to this. She has released nine Korean albums including Hurricane Venus in 2010, seven Japanese albums and one English language album, BoA which was released in 2009. 

There are several factors responsible for BoA's success; she's able to speak Korean, Japanese, Mandarin and English, and in addition to remarkable vocals, she can dance. The brilliant marketing by SM Entertainment has contributed to her success. Her attempt to break into the American music scene has had mixed results and has been largely untracked by the mainstream media.

Recently BoA has re-released a self-titled album BoA Deluxe in an attempt to recapture American interest. My favourite videos are "I Did It For Love" which has her trademark hip-hop dancing. There's lots of Michael Jackson/Janet Jackson influences in both costuming and dance moves and of course the requisite catchy tune. What I don't like is the black outfits BoA and her backups are wearing against a mostly black background. The girl can dance. Let us see her!

To get a good look at BoA's dancing skills check out her "Eat You Up" video. This is more representative of BoA as an artist instead of her above attempt to sexualize her dancing to make her more marketable in the USA. I like the idea behind Eat You Up - BoA goes into an audition and blows the place apart. Just what every young artist hopes to do during an such an important and stressful life event.....

Throughout the years, this young performer has matured, drawing on and developing her hip hop influences and her Korean heritage. What attracts my interest to this performer is her hip hop dancing and her R&B vocals. Her videos are highly stylized and typical of the Korean genre with fast clips.

For more on this talented young artist, check out her website.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Name of The Star by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star is a fantastic novel that combines a ghost story with history, mystery and suspense. I don't generally read paranormal, vampire or werewolf fiction but this simply looked too interesting to pass up.

Aurora (Rory) Deveaux, from Benouville, Louisiana, is a senior who has accompanied her parents to England. While her parents do a year's sabbatical teaching American law at the University of Bristol, Rory is attending Wexford, a sixth form college, in the East End of London. Upon her arrival in London, Rory finds the city abuzz with rumours of a Jack the Ripper copycat. She learns that someone has been imitating the infamous Ripper by murdering a young woman on the anniversary of the first Ripper murder and in the same location. Despite all the hype about the murder and its similarity to the first Ripper murder, Rory commences to settle in at Wexford, meeting her roommate Julianne Benton (Jazza) and a cute guy named Jerome. She finds herself coerced into joining the field hockey team by the "Call me Claudia" whom Rory is convinced spends her time "wrestling large woodland animals".

Life seems pretty good at Wexford but soon all of London including Wexford, is caught up in "Rippermania". After two murders are committed, all of London waits tensely for the third and fourth murders - the double event of September 30th, mimicking Jack the Ripper's murders. When the third murder occurs, Jerome, whom Rory likes, suggests she and Jazza sneak out of their dormitory and come over to watch things from the rooftop of Aldshot, the boy's residence. Rory and Jazza do this but when they return to their residence and are sneaking back inside, Rory sees an odd-looking bald man walking by. He stops to talk to her, saying good night but when Rory asks Jazza about the man, she discovers that strangely, Jazza did not see him, even though he was directly in front of her. The next morning the body of the fourth victim lies on the green in front of Wexford and it seems that the man Rory saw was possibly the Ripper copycat.

Soon a CCTV video surfaces on the internet of the actual murder of one of the victims. It shows the actual murder but the murderer isn't visible in the footage. After the murder on the Wexford campus, Jazza and Rory get a new roommate, Bhuvana Chodhari (Boo) who seems out of place. Rory soon discovers that Boo is not a student and when she follows her she sees Boo meeting Stephen, a policeman, and a woman from the 1940's who is actually a ghost. Boo and Stephen take her to meet Callum, a London transit worker - the third member of their group which is part of a top secret British police service that investigates ghosts and their activity.

Rory comes to the chilling realization that she is seeing people that others cannot see - ghosts of people. She learns that after her recent near death experience, she has developed this unique ability. She now realizes that the man she saw that night while sneaking back into her residence is the Ripper and that he is a ghost. Her knowledge of the killer and her ability to sight "Shades" as these ghosts are called has placed Rory in serious danger. But danger or not, Rory knows this new Ripper must be stopped.
From this point on, author Maureen Johnson weaves an intricate and fascinating story of this modern day Ripper revealing his history and the motive behind his killing spree. The story builds to a fast paced and exciting finale, but along the way we are treated to the historical details of the original Ripper murders.

Johnson takes some time to set the stage and develop the character of Rory, life in London and school life at Wexford but this is well worth the effort because she creates a realistic setting and a believable character the reader can identify with.

Although all the ends are nicely tidied up, The Name of The Star could easily have a sequel. I hope Maureen Johnson will consider doing this!

Book Details:
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
New York: Putnam & Sons 2011
374 pp.