Saturday, March 31, 2012

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

Pandemonium is, as most readers know, the second book in the Delirium trilogy. In this novel we follow Lena after she narrowly escapes being "cured" and crosses over into the Wilds.

Two story lines alternate throughout Pandemonium; Lena when she first escapes into the Wilds, and Lena, secret infiltrator for the Resistance.

The first storyline, entitled "then" follows Lena after her escape from Portland into the Wilds. Starving and sick, Lena is rescued by a band of survivors, "Invalids", people who live in the Wilds. The ragtag band that takes her in consists of Raven and Tack, who are the leaders of the group, as well as Hunter, Grandma, a young girl named Blue, Roach, Squirrel and a few others. Lena now finds herself located in the Wilds outside of Rochester, New Hampshire, struggling to survive. Dependent upon supplies from those "inside" the cities, the group doesn't have enough food and are often sick. Lena struggles to continue on and to cope with the loss of Alex. It is during this time that she is remade into a strong, independent young woman partly through circumstance and partly through the tutelage of Raven.

The second storyline entitled "now" follows Lena, living in Brooklyn, New York under an assumed identity (Lena Morgan Jones), attending school but really functioning as an resistance operative. Her mission is to observe the DFA, Deliria-Free America organization, headed by Thomas Fineman. Lena is most interested in Thomas's son, Julian, a handsome, blond, blue-eyed eighteen year old who has not yet had the cure for deliria. This is because Julian has had cancer and he's been told the cure will likely kill him. But Julian will get his cure because he has asked for it. Because, as Julian tells the crowd at the Javit Center, "We must excise the sickness. We must cut it out, no matter what the risks. ....It will spread like the very worst cancer and put all of us risk." It is obvious that Julian is to be a martyr for the cause.

The DFA are holding rallies to garner support for administering the cure early. This is because resistance to the procedure is mounting and because the government intends to tighten it's grip even further on American society. During one such rally, Lena is instructed to stay close to Julian no matter what. When Scavengers attack the rally and Julian is helped to escape into the underground tunnels, Lena follows. From this point on, the dangers Lena experience follow swiftly one after another. When Julian and Lena are captured by persons unknown, their terrifying experiences draw them together. Lena decides to take a risk by telling Julian the truth - about their society and about the sickness. Julian must reconsider his entire belief system - one that he was willing to die for.

Lena continues on as a strong female protagonist, but also as a young person who decides that her circumstances and her losses in life will not make her hard and cruel. Lena is furious when she learns the resistance's true motives for what happened to her and Julian and even more so for their callous disregard for Julian. Lena decides she will be different.
"I feel a sharp stab of sadness. I have had to give up so much, so many selves and lives already. I have grown up and out of the rubble of my old lives, of the things and people I have cared for: My mom. Grace. Hana. Alex.
And now Julian.
This is not who I wanted to be....
This is not why I came into the Wilds, why Alex wanted me to come: not to turn my back and bury the people I care about, and build myself hard and careless on top of their bodies, as Raven does. That is what the Zombies do."

I have to admit that I was somewhat disappointed by this novel, perhaps because Delirium had such a heart-pounding climax. Second novels in a trilogy are notoriously difficult to write and therefore, weaker and I think Pandemonium fits this description. It's difficult to present two story lines in a novel and balance reader interest in each. Lauren Oliver does a wonderful job of linking the two story lines together with matching events and themes. And they do eventually merge into the one story happening in the present. However, because the second thread describes what is happening in the "now" to Lena, this is what one really wants to read about. In some aspects the second storyline, "now" seems to be a reworking of the same kind of storyline that was presented in the first book, Delirium. The ending is redeeming and sets up an interesting conflict for Lena, leading into the third book, while revealing some (not so surprising) secrets.

Despite this reservation, Pandemonium, overall is a good read. Lauren Oliver is a skillful writer, able to masterfully convey to her readers the intensity of a situation and the depth of emotion her characters are experiencing. Her characters have substance and grow with the storyline, making them realistic to the reader.

I look forward to Requiem, the final installment of this series.

Lauren Oliver discussing her books:

Book Details:
Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
New York: HarperCollins Publishers 2012
375 pp.

Friday, March 30, 2012

K-Pop: Shinee

The Korean pop music scene is filled with many boy bands but among my favourites is Shinee, (pronounced "shiny") a group formed in 2008 by SM Entertainment. The group consists of five members; Jonghyun (Kim Jonghyum), Key (Kim Kibum), Minho (Choi Minho), Onew (Lee Jin Ki), and Taemin (Lee Taemin). All of the members were discovered through SM Audition Casting. At the time, SM Entertainment expressed the hope that this group would set a trend for young people in both fashion, dance and music.

Shinee's first full-length album was released in 2008 and debuted at number three on the charts. Shinee won the "Best New Male Group Award" at the MNET Asian Music Awards in November, 2008. True to the group's mission, they won "Best Style Icon" as the 2008 Style Icon Awards.

In 2009, the group released their third mini-album, 2009, Year of US which contained their hit, Ring Ding Dong, one of my personal favourites. Characterized by a driving beat and strong vocals, Ring Ding Dong is about a guy who wants a girl to take a chance on him. The video is an unusual menage of hip hop dance moves, and dark ethereal scenes.

The group's second full length album, Lucifer was released in 2010. The single of the same name has garnered over 31 million views on YouTube. Shinee also had their first world tour during this year.

2012 has seen the group release a new album titled after the single, Sherlock, which has done well, reaching the number one spot on several international charts. Their sound is more mature, reflecting the group's continuing development as R & B artists.

Today, Shinee has an important influence in Korea culture not only because of their music but also due to their trendy fashion style. Noted for their skinny jeans and high top sneakers, their look has been dubbed the "Shinee trend".

Kim Jonghyun is my personal favourite in the group because of his unusual looks, dramatic presentation and his outstanding vocals.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Partials by Dan Wells

Partials tells the story of a post-apocalyptic society in what was the eastern seaboard of the United States in the year 2076. Mankind has been destroyed by the Partials who are genetically "engineered organic beings identical to humans". The Partials were built by a company called ParaGen to fight in the Isolation War, which they won handily. Five years later, they turned on humans. Faster and stronger than ordinary humans, linked to one another and highly efficient, they easily wiped them out. The Partials released the RM virus, a specially designed virus that quickly killed virtually every human being on the planet. Only a small percentage of humans were immune and survived the pandemic, but any children born afterwards, continued to die.

The survivors of the war and the virus, retreated to Long Island where they found food and shelter. There they organized a government consisting of twenty senators and built a Defense Grid to protect themselves. Meanwhile, the Partials disappeared, retreating inland. No one has seen a Partial in eleven years.

Since the Break, every human baby born has died from the RM virus. The youngest child, Saladin, is now fourteen years old. To try to counter deaths caused by the RM virus, government enacted the Hope Act which required women of a certain age to have babies in the hope that some might survive. Instead, all babies have continued to sicken at birth and to die hours later. It seems that there is no hope left for the remnants of humanity.

When sixteen year old medic, Kira, learns that her friends, Madison and Haru, are expecting their first child, she is determined that she will find a cure for RM. Up until now, researchers have been studying only the babies and she feels that there is something they are missing. Kira discovers that the virus has been studied from all possible angles, except the source - the Partials who are imimune. In order to do this, Kira realizes that they need to find a Partial and take samples or bring one back to study. She believes that somehow there is a connection between the two. When she approaches a senior researcher with her idea, she is told this is impossible. Undeterred Kira, organizes a group to go out to the mainland - to Manhattan,  with the intent of capturing a Partial.

The sortie is successful and Kira manages to capture a male Partial. Although furious with her for doing so, the government gives Kira permission to study the Partial, named Samm, with the stipulation that after five days he will be destroyed. She begins her studies on him, but when the government attempts to use the captured Partial to gain total control over the society, Kira realizes she must free Samm and take him back to the mainland. Samm reveals to Kira and the Senators, that the Partials are dying off. ParaGen designed Partials with an expiration date. At twenty years of age, the process that halts their aging begins reversing and the Partials literally rot alive. Because of this Samm claims that he and his company were on their way to the human settlement to offer a truce, when they were attacked.

However, when the Senator's learn of the Partials predicament, they want no part of helping them. Instead they decide to publicly execute Samm and let everyone know that the Partials which were created twenty-one years ago will all be dead within three years. In an attempt to bring a group of rebels known as The  Voice back under government control, the Senators want to use Samm as the scapegoat for a bomb attack on Kira's lab.

As we might expect, things don't go according to plan and Kira is captured by a group of Partials intent on experimenting on her to try to find a solution to their expiration problem.  During her capture, Kira not only manages to piece together the information she needs, but encounters a shocking revelation that directly affects her future.

Partials is an exciting novel, packed with action, suspense and multiple twists in the plotline. The main attraction of this novel is the human-like organic beings, the Partials, who are essentially engineered weapons. Despite having human DNA, they are considered non-human and treated with fear and disgust by society. But when Kira finally meets a Partial, Samm, she begins to understand that in many ways he is very much like humans. As she beings to understand him and know him better, her views on Partials change.

The novel has a strong female protagonist in Kira Walker, a courageous, take-charge young woman who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity. Kira is supported by a large cache of unique characters; Marcus her boyfriend, Jayden who is the brother of Madison her best friend, and Partials, Samm and Heron. While Kira and Samm are well rounded characters, many of the secondary characters are not, a weakness of the novel.

Partials has a well described post-apocalyptic world. Wells portrays a world ravaged by war fought only too effectively by genetically engineered soldiers. The reader is presented with a harrowing view of a society where every single baby dies. It is a society without much hope and no future.

There were a few things I didn't like about the novel. The idea of the RM virus is incredibly complex and because it is gradually revealed throughout the story, it was difficult to follow Kira's eventual deciphering of how it works. I also found the way the novel was divided into disparate time chunks confusing. The first part is the present, followed by Part 2 which takes place three months later, followed by Part 3 which is titled Four Hours Later.

Despite these minor flaws, Partials is one of the better dystopian young adult novels. It touches on the issue genetic engineering and the difficult problems that might arise from engineering new human-like life. The dramatic conclusion of this novel suggests an exciting second novel in the series.

Book Details:
Partials by Dan Wells
New York: Balzer & Bray 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pledge by Kimberly Derting

"Words had become the ultimate barrier. The law made it criminal to communicate in anything other than our birth tongue or Englaise. Anyone who showed any aptitude toward language was executed. Persecution kept anyone else from trying.
Yet even if everyone was equal, I would still be on the outside, because I understood all languages. And my ability didn't end with the spoken word. I could decipher all manners of communication, including those that were visual or tactile."

Ludania was once briefly ruled by rulers chosen by its people. That was after the Reign of Sovereigns had ended in bloodshed and violence, and a President had been elected. But the other countries had not accepted this situation as they were all ruled by queens and they refused to trade with Ludania. Because of this, famine overcame the land.

Finally a new queen was found, one who conquered the country and installed herself as queen of Ludania. It was at this point that the class system was imposed. The people were divided into Servants, Vendors and Counsel, each speaking a different language. A common language, Englaise is permitted to be spoken by all. It became illegal to speak the language of another class and in this way the class divisions were strengthened. The penalty for speaking another language was immediate death.All citizens of Ludania are required to recite the pledge, in which they pledge to worship their queen and remain loyal to her and to the country.

Ludania is now ruled over by Queen Sabara who has a death grip on the country. Queen Sabara rules by virtue of her magic power and has lived for centuries by taking over the body of a younger woman. Since no one can rule except a queen, and no royal female has been born in the last two generations, Queen Sabara is in danger of dying and losing her throne. So the search is on for a female of royal blood whom Queen Sabara can use.

In addition to this problem, Ludania is coming under attack by rebels who want to dethrone the queen and create a more democratic state. 

The protagonist, Charlie Hart (Charlaina) is a seventeen year old from the Vendor class. Her class language is Parshon but she understands all other languages, an ability she tries to keep secret because it will mean death for her and her family. She lives in the Capitol with her mother and father and her mute, younger sister, Angelina. Because life is so strictly controlled, the people of the Capitol turn to the clubs to unwind. There they experience, drugs and music. It is at a new club that Charlie meets Max, a young man, unlike any other she has ever seen. Max is a handsome military officer who seems to have a strong attraction for Charlie. He and his two friends stand out because of the large physical presence. Max begins to show up outside Charlie's home and also at her parent's restaurant. Charlie wants nothing to do with him though. She feels intimidated and disturbed by his sudden interest in her and she also suspects that he might know her secret - that she can understand languages other than that of her own class. She is further puzzled when Max pledges to keep her safe.

"How could he vow such a thing? How could I take such a promise seriously? He barely knew me, and I certainly didn't know him.  Not well enough to trust him. Not with the kind of information he already knew, or at least suspected he knew, about me."

When there is a massive attack on the city, Charlie and Angelina flee to the ancient tunnels with the help of Max. There they meet up with Xander, the leader of the resistance as well many others who are living in the extensive tunnels. When Charlie learns who Max is she struggles to determine where his loyalty lies. Will he help her or betray her?

Eventually Charlie learns that the Queen has captured her parents after suspecting that Charlie is the royal female she is seeking. In an attempt to free her parents, Charlie decides to meet the Queen despite warnings that the Queen has a powerful and old magic that no one has been able to overcome. Now Charlie is faced with choices she never thought she would have to confront. At stake is her future and the future of her country. Which path will she choose and can she win the inevitable supernatural battle she must undertake with Queen Sabara?

The Pledge is an unusual, if somewhat predictable, dystopian novel that includes a supernatural element. This element, which is Queen Sabara's power to steal the body of another, is quite creepy. It is this magic that has allowed her to stay in power for centuries and we know she plans to use it again. But she needs the body of a royal female.

The story has a strong romantic element throughout, detailing the struggle of Charlie to resist her attraction to the physically impressive Max. Derting is masterful in portraying the tender and romantic way that Max relates to Charlie. He tries to gently win Charlie over and to overcome her suspicions about him. He tells Charlie that she intrigues him, although we never learn why that is so.

Charlie is a strong female protagonist who is very attentive to her younger sister and loyal to her family and friends. She has a strong sense of family and feels a deep obligation to them, especially when she learns they are captured by the Queen.

Because The Pledge ends with a hint that all is not well, I am anticipating the next novel, although I have a feeling I know where the storyline will go. The Pledge is a dystopian novel with elements of a fairytale; a wicked queen with magic powers, a handsome prince, a beautiful princess and a kingdom to be won. My only complaint: an unimaginative book cover  that is similar to other YA books.

Book Details:
The Pledge by Kimberly Derting
New York: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishers    2011
323 pp.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Movie Review: The Adventures of Tintin

My expectation was, that a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson, would be awesome. After all Spielberg who directed Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Saving Private Ryan among others, and Jackson who produced the Lord of the Rings films are mega-stars in the movie industry. But Jackson infamously diverged from the storyline in the Lord of the Rings novels incurring much wrath from LOTR's devotees.

Tintin suffers from this same downfall. This is a film with beautiful animation that is true to the look of the comic book characters conceived and drawn by Herge. The credit for this goes to Jackson's WETA firm. Tintin is a fast paced movie, racing from one exciting scene to the next. The chase through Bagghar is exceptionally well done, being both exciting and humourous. But at times, the action is almost overwhelming.

However, those knowledgeable about Tintin, those who have read the books, will be both annoyed and disappointed at the mash-up of Tintin stories that Jackson and Spielberg have morphed into the movie. Tintin the movie, is based primarily on two of Herge's books, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure. There are also scenes in the movie based on parts of The Crab with the Golden Claws. Random characters from other books make appearances while others were removed. Bianca Castafiore, referred to in the film as, The Milanese Nightingale is a character that appears in several other Tintin books. Perhaps the blame can be placed upon screen writer Edgar Wright.

Although this movie is based loosely on Herge's books it will definitely appeal to boys who aren't familiar with the Tintin stories. Its male characters and the strong action element as well as the themes of a treasure hunt and pirates are sure to engage this audience. A warning: there is a prodigious amount of alcohol bandied about in the film as Captain Haddock one of the main characters, can't seem to function without a drink.

For a true flavour of Tintin though, read the books. They are wonderful!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

First Position

First Position is a documentary that follows six ballet dancers as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, an annual international student ballet and contemporary dance competition. The competition which was begun in 1999 by dancers, Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev of the Bolshoi Ballet, is open to students aged 9 to 19. Winners go on to dance with many prestigious companies throughout the world. Likewise, dancers come from all over the world to compete.

Miko Fogarty
This amazing documentary is a must see for those who love the arts, especially dance. Viewers are taken on a year long journey around the world, meeting six dancers; Jules Jarvis Fogarty, age 10; Aran Bell, age 11; Gaya Bommer Yemini, age 11; Miko Fogarty, age 12; Michaela DePrince, age 14; Joan Sebastian Zamora, age 16; and Rebecca Houseknecht, age 17.

Their passion for dance transcends almost all obstacles including war. First Position describes the beauty, pain and triumph of the art of dance in a way few of us have ever experienced. The film makers, Bess Kargman and Nick Higgins, were given unprecedented access to the Youth America Grand Prix venues and dancers.

This outstanding documentary which premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival will be released to theatres in May 2012.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Snow White and The Huntsman

Lips red as blood. Hair black as night. Bring me your heart my dear, dear Snow White.

I'm not a big fan of Kristen Stewart but her new movie, Snow White and The Huntsmen, looks more than compelling. Directed by Rupert Sanders, Snow White is no ordinary retelling of the fairytale, although in reality many of Grimm's fairy tales have a dark side to them that we often gloss over. I could never read them before bed when I was a child, they always made my over-active imagination run wild.

Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is the fairest in the land and Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) is furious. She decides that she needs the heart of Snow White so she sends her trusted Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to bring back her beating heart. But the Huntsman is unable to kill the young woman and instead decides to train her as a warrior who will attack the Queen.

The trailer provides a peak at a movie that presents the tale in a dark manner, with frightening monsters, a queen steeped in evil, and plenty of battle scenes reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. The movie opens in theatres, June 1, 2012.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tempest by Julie Cross

Tempest is a difficult book to read partly because of the time travel theme, and partly because it takes the author some time to set up the entire situation surrounding the lead character, Jackson Meyer. Readers will have to be patient and continue to push forward, for all the pieces to fall into place. The result is an intriguing book with many possibilities for the next installment.
The novel starts off easily enough, narrated by Jackson, a nineteen year old sophomore attending NYU along with his sweet girlfriend, Holly Flynn. Jackson's sister, Courtney, died four years ago of brain cancer and his mother died in childbirth. His father, Kevin Meyer, is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company and as such, the family is well off. Jackson and his geek friend, Adam Silverman, have been running experiments to learn more about his time travelling abilities. It is an ability Jackson has told no one else about, not even his dad.

Everything in Jackson's life is going fine until he and Holly are attacked one morning and Holly is shot. This situation causes Jackson to inadvertently jump back to the year 2007, something he has never done before. When he tries to return, he finds he cannot, and that for some reason unknown to him, he is stuck in the year 2007.

As a result of this plot development, the next part of the novel sees Jackson try again and again to jump back to 2009, in what seems to be a confusing jumble of jumps. This makes the novel somewhat complex because the author has chosen to reveal the plot through the time jumps which means the reader learns along with Jackson. Each jump sends him either to another date in 2007 or to dates further back, such as 2004 when his twin sister Courtney was still alive or to 2003 when he and his sister were followed by CIA agents. But each of these jumps fill Jackson in more on what is really happening in his life, and none of it is what he expects.
"Honestly, most of my actions over the last couple of days had been driven by anything but logic, just a lot of fumbling through time (literally), searching for something concrete to grasp on to. Something real. Facts. Answers. I closed my eyes and focused on the date four years in the past."

Stuck in 2007, Jackson decides to connect with the much younger Holly (whom he hasn't yet met in his original time line) and Adam, hoping that the 2007 version of Adam can help him find a way to return to 2009. Also in the 2007 timeline, Jacksono confronts his father about his role in all of this. Gradually Jackson pieces together what is happening, discovering the truth about his family and his identity, and learning about time travel.

Jackson learns that he is a genetically engineered human who has the "tempest" gene - a gene that gives the ability to time travel. There are plenty of others like him, some of whom are grouped together for evil purposes and who are referred to as the "Enemies of Time". Jackson is capable of making "half-jumps" to other times but these jumps are like branches on a tree - they don't change the current timeline. Only full jumps along a time line do that. To get back to his home base time of 2009, he must make a full jump back, something he hasn't learned how to do at this point.

Eventually though, Jackson does make it back to 2009, where he and his father must face down their adversaries, the Enemies of Time, who see Jackson as a threat to their plans to make the world a very different place. This sets the stage for the climax of the novel. Jackson has to decide whom to believe, and since he has been shown two versions of the future, what he will fight for. He decides that he must work with the CIA to help his father and other agents stop the Enemies of Time before they destroy Earth.

Although Tempest is mainly action driven, there is plenty of romance between Jackson and Holly - perhaps a little too much because it added another layer to the storyline. However it does help to set the stage for the conflict Jackson eventually faces at the end of the novel. Julie Cross develops Jackson from a uncommitted, fun-loving teenager at the beginning of the novel, to a serious, engaged, and intelligent young adult who makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the love of his life, Holly.

Here's the short booktrailer by St. Martin's Press:

Book Details:
Tempest by Julie Cross
St. Martin's Griffin 2011
339 pp.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

Well-known Canadian author, Kenneth Oppels' newest novel presents readers with a inventive imagining of the life of young Victor Frankenstein before he created his famous monster. This Dark Endeavour is a modern return to the Gothic thriller that tells the story of Victor, his twin brother Konrad, and their cousin Elizabeth Lavenza and friend Henry Clerval as they undertake a very dark endeavour - the search for the Elixir of Life.

Victor and Konrad, are the twin sons of William Frankenstein who is one of four magistrates in the city-republic of Geneva. The Frankensteins, whose family consists of Victor and Konrad, and their younger brothers, Ernest and William, live in a chateau outside the city.

One day Victor, Konrad, Elizabeth and Henry discover an abandoned library in the basement of the chateau. The creepy library which is filled with old volumes containing information about the occult, was built by their ancestor, Wilhelm Frankenstein when the chateau was constructed. Wilhelm was an alchemist who became involved in the occult and eventually abandoned the chateau and his family, never to be heard from again. The library was known as the Dark Library because it contained many books banned by the Catholic church. Victor and Konrad are told by their father that the books do not contain knowledge but a corruption of knowledge and that they must never return. Of course, this serves only to pique their interest, as we see later on. For Victor, it remains a fascination he cannot deny.

When Konrad becomes deathly ill, Victor decides that he must try to find a cure for his brother's illness. When he overhears a maid telling his mother that there are other ways to heal, Victor becomes convinced that he must return to the Dark Library to learn more. He also learns the name of an alchemist, Julius Polidori, still living in Geneva and he and Henry and Elizabeth set out to find him.

Reluctantly, Polidori agrees to help them in their dark endeavour. He translates the recipe for the Elixir of Life and sends them on a quest for the three ingredients necessary to make this potion. It is this quest and the relationship they have with Polidori that form the storyline for the book. It is a quest that pits the two brothers against one another and involves them in the forbidden practice of alchemy.

This is the first book of Kenneth Oppel's that I have read and I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style. His characters are realistic and interesting. Although Victor and Konrad are twins, we see that Victor has the darker personality of the two. It's almost like a Jekyll and Hyde split. Konrad is a better student, and has a more pleasant nature, whereas Victor is more passionate, impulsive and has a cruel streak. This difference in their natures is effectively contrasted in the way that they relate to their cousin, Elizabeth, whom they both love. Their rivalry for the love of Elizabeth is one of the many dark themes of the novel. The characterization is effective enough that the reader is easily drawn to like Konrad and Elizabeth while feeling a bit of revulsion towards Victor, whose intensity is a stark reminder of the future he has!

There are plenty of religious themes to explore, especially relating to magic, and the proper use of knowledge.

The novel's unique storyline is enhanced by Oppel's smart, witty dialogue. This Dark Endeavour is the first in the Victor Frankenstein series, with the next installment, Such Wicked Intent due out in the summer of 2012. It's been years since I read Frankenstein and maybe it's time I reread Mary Shelley's book.

Book Details:
This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel
Toronto: Harper Collins 2011
297 pp.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In The Garden Of Beasts by Erik Larson

What a apt title for a book about a simple, middle class American family thrown into the chaos and terror of Hitler's Germany in 1933. In that year, United States president, Franklin D. Roosevelt faced what initially seemed to be a fairly straightforward task - that of appointing a new ambassador to Germany. Yet he was unable to find anyone to take the job. Roosevelt eventually was encouraged to offer the appointment to William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered university professor from Chicago. Despite reservations and a deepening sense of foreboding, Dodd accepted the post and traveled to Berlin along with his wife, his 24 year old daughter, Martha and his 28 year old son Bill Jr.

The Germany of 1933 was still adjusting/reacting to the changes  newly elected Chancellor Adolf Hitler had implemented. Despite repeated attacks on Americans in Berlin and other areas of Germany, and the continuation of other unsettling "incidents", Dodd and his family at first remained uniquely blind to the true situation in Germany. They still believed the Nazi regime overall was going through a phase that would lead eventually to calm and reasonableness. As history tells us, they, along with most of the world,  were very wrong.

Dodd was by no means to only one to have such delusional views of Nazi Germany. American correspondent H.V. Kaltenborn maintained his rosy view of the Nazi's up until the night he and his family were scheduled to return to America. On that night, his family experienced several terrifying minutes at the hands of the SA troops that forever changed his outlook.

Of particular interest was Martha, Dodd's adult daughter. Described as an "enchantress -- luscious and blonde, with luminous blue eyes and  pale translucent skin", Martha was a promiscuous woman who had numerous liaisons and many affairs with German and French men as well as a long term relationship with a Soviet operative, Boris Winogradov. Martha was initially taken with the Nazi regime but subsequently grew to understand just who and what Hitler was.

Divided into seven parts with and epilogue and a coda, In The Garden Of The Beasts is a compelling read that takes readers deep into prewar German society. Larson's considerable archival research fleshes out a story that is both horrific and tragic.

Larson is effective in setting the stage for the modern reader who is likely unfamiliar with the world as it existed in 1933. In particular,  he effectively describes the changing political and social situation in Berlin, and the American reaction to Hitler during this time. For example, having read many books about the Holocaust and also about World War II, I have often wondered why America and other western nations did not act more decisively to help the Jews or to express their displeasure over what was happening in Germany, at what appears in hindsight, to have been a crucial point in time - early in the Hitler regime.
Larson explains,
"There existed at this time a widespread perception that Hitler's government could not possibly endure. Germany's military power was limited - its army, the Reichswehr, had only one hundred thousand men, no match for the military forces of neighboring France, let alone the combined might of France, England, Poland, and the Soviet Union. And Hitler himself had begun to seem like a more temperate actor than might have been predicted given the violence that had swept Germany earlier in the year."

As for the "Jewish problem", we learn that Roosevelt refrained from expressing condemnation of the treatment of the Jewish people in Germany by the Nazis. The Jewish problem was seen in America more as an immigration problem. In a country crushed by the depression, with thousands out of work, inviting thousands of Jews to America as immigrants would have been politically volatile. American isolationists also took the view that America had no business being involved in what was essentially a German problem. It was a situation that even the Jewish people in American were divided over.

Into this complex situation, Dodd and his family arrived in Germany, determined to live in a frugal manner, quite different from that of his predecessors. Not a member of the "Pretty Good Club", Dodd managed to turn most in the American foreign affairs against him. At times Dodd focused more on problems with embassy staff than on what was going on around him in Berlin and in protecting American interests.

Yet is was also most remarkable that Secretary Hull of the U.S. State Department, along with many others, expected Dodd to protect the interests of American holders of German bonds. For the US State Department, the primary focus at this time was not Hitler, but that Germany continue to make it's payments on the bonds.

The fact is, Roosevelt placed a man eminently unsuited for the position of Ambassador, someone concerned more about financial frugality in a department known for its excesses. Like many American's, the American government and foreign service had no real understanding of what was occuring in Germany. And like many throughout the world, their view and understanding was tempered by an undercurrent of prejudice against Jews.

In the end, Dodd and others, came to realize the danger the Hitler regime posed to the world but it was too late. The events of June 30, 1934, known as The Night of the Long Knives, or the Rohm purging, would provide those who chose to pay attention, with the understanding of what Hitler really was. Yet many in the US and British Government still refused to acknowledge the threat. Larson quotes historian Ian Kershaw,

"The killings demonstrated in what should have been unignorable terms how far Hitler was willing to go to preserve power, yet outsiders chose to misinterpret the violence as merely an internal settling of scores..."

Erik Larson's In The Garden of The Beasts is a brilliant analysis and recounting of the years William Dodd acted as Ambassador to Germany. He captures all the main characters in this unfolding drama which ultimately led to the Holocaust and another World War.

Book Details:
In The Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson
New York: Crown 2011
448 pp.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Winner of the Best Animated Short Film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a quirky story about the effect of books on our lives. It is a mixture of modern animation, CGI  and silent film. This short film was directed by William Joyce who created the characters of Toy Story and produced by Moonbot Studios in Louisiana. The book adaptation will be released in July, 2012.

Morris Lessmore (who is modeled after Buster Keaton) is sitting on the balcony of his hotel one fine day, writing in his book, when a terrible storm hits. In scenes reminiscent of the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, Lessmore is blown from the building onto a house which eventually lands in a colourless world. In this devastated land, the ground is littered with the pages of destroyed books. Morris has managed to save his book, his memoir, but not before the terrible maelstrom has blown all his words from the book's pages. He sets out along a gravel road (the yellow brick road of Oz) in search of the unknown. Suddenly he sees flying books and a young woman being carried aloft. She has with her a large, thick book with a Humpty Dumpty character on the front. This book flies down to Morris and encourages him to follow it.

Interestingly, the countryside behind Morris is black and white, while the landscape in front of him where the book is leading him, is coloured in rich tones of greens, browns and reds. This technique is used throughout the film as a subtle way to demonstrate the richness and colour books imbue our lives.

The Humpty Dumpty book leads Morris to a large home filled with books of all kinds - a house which is really a library. Morris lives at this library where he cares for all the books. He feeds them their cereal in the morning, puts their "dust jackets" on and also repairs damaged books. The damaged books are brought to life again when he reads them. When people come to the house looking for a book, they are shown in black and white. When Mr. Lessmore hands them a book, they become full of the richness of colours, a subtle suggestion of how books change people.

In the meantime, Morris rewrites his book. The years pass by until one day Mr. Lessmore decides it's time for him to leave. When he does, his portrait is placed on the walls of the library and another young person takes his place. His memoir, once just a lowly book, now becomes a flying one, perhaps hinting that now completed, it has the power to transform others.

This is a delightful short, only 15 minutes long, that will captivate and puzzle you.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

From the back cover of the Hunger Games,

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.
Sixteen-year old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister's place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before -- and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

After committing heresy in library land by not reading the Twilight series, I decided to succumb to Hunger Games fever and read the first book in this wildly popular trilogy. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, fast-paced, original and exciting, and it's easy to see why it's become a cultural phenomena. Collins develops her post-apocalyptic world just enough to give the reader a basis for understanding how things work and what it meant to be chosen to participate in the games. As is typical in modern young adult literature, Katniss is a strong female character, a survivor who uses her intelligence to survive and her heart to guide her actions. She is someone the reader easily identifies with and cheers on at every point.

I expected Katniss to be conflicted about having to kill other competitors, especially her District 12 neighbour, Peeta Mellark, who helped her and her family survive. But for the most part, Katniss doesn't seem distressed about this, instead focusing on winning so that she can return home. Realizing that she has to kill if she is going to survive, Katniss devises a plan to let the other competitors kill one another off. It's a brilliant plan that demonstrates Katniss' ability to assess a situation and use her survival skills to the utmost.

The reality is though, that in Hunger Games, Katniss kills only two competitors and in both of those situations, the reader feels sympathy and identifies easily with her motives for doing so. One killing is done out of revenge for the brutal death of a much younger competitor and the other is essentially a mercy killing.

Strangely, Katniss is more concerned about having to fake a romantic interest in Peeta. This is where the real conflict lies for Katniss because she can't be true to what she feels and believes - that she loves Gale Hawethorne, her hunting companion back home in District 12. Or does she? During the Hunger Games, Katniss ends up returning Peeta's favour and saving his life. She is shocked to learn that Peeta is not faking his love for her. This underlying romantic tension adds greatly to the overall storyline if Hunger Games and is a brilliant stroke by the author. Not only do we have young teens in a brutal life and death contest, but there is the tension of a potential love triangle to carry on through the remaining books.

When the rules of the games are changed once again at the very end, Katniss knows she cannot, will not kill the one person who was responsible for saving her and her family years ago. She defies the Capitol, resulting in repercussions that will extend into the next book.

The only part of the story I didn't like was where the wolves were sent into the arena to attack the remaining tributes. This was completely unexpected and yet it somehow felt contrived. But the twists and turns as the games come to their bloody finale certainly enhances the tension experienced by the reader. Although the end of the book is anti-climatic, Collins manages to devise the beginnings of another conflict - that between Katniss and the Capitol, based on her defiant act at the very end of the games.

I'm eagerly awaiting the movie which opens on March 23, 2012. I hope it's a good movie, unlike many young adult novels recently brought to the screen. The clips I've seen so far, appear promising. Although I'd been warned that the book was violent and brutal, I didn't find it overly so. Collins manages to convey the brutality of the games without being too graphic. The movie however, might be another thing.

Book Details:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
New York: Scholastic Press 2008
374 pp.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

Today is the birthday of the late Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss, author of forty six children's books. I never read his books as a child and didn't even know about them until I had children of my own. That's where the fun began.

With my oldest child, we would read The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back every day at nap time. Over the course of a year, I memorized the books, having an especially soft spot for Thing 1 and Thing 2!
My favourite Dr. Seuss book however, is Hunches in Bunches, about a boy who can't decide what to do for the day. So some little characters stop by to give him crunchy hunches as to what to eat and what to do!

Do you ever sit and fidget when you don't know what to do...?
Everybody gets the fidgets.
Even me and even you.

He has Happy Hunches and Very Odd Hunches to help him decide. But some of them are bullies too, like the Real Tough Hunch.
Then things got really out of hand.
Wild hunches in big bunches
were scrapping all around me,
throwing crunchy hunchy punches.
It's classic Dr. Seuss. Unusual characters, drawn by Dr. Seuss, with wonderful rhymes.

There have been several books written about Dr. Seuss, who was born Theodor (Ted) Seuss Geisel on March 2, 1904. He grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, living with his parents and his sister, Marnie, at 74 Fairfield Street. Of German descent, his father and grandfather were brewmasters, but his father also worked at the zoo and eventually became superintendent of parks . Ted's mother, Henrietta Seuss Geisel often lulled her children to sleep with silly stories and funny verses. His fascination with words and verse must have started early on, because his stuffed dog's name was Theophratus! Ted was a boy with a lively imagination that soon found him drawing animals and cartoons.

He attended Dartmouth College where he was the editor for the college humour magazine, Jack-)-Lantern. From there he attended Oxford University in England. At Oxford, he met Helen Palmer who encouraged him in his drawing. He eventually married Helen, who became a children's author. He began drawing cartoons under the name of Dr. Seuss for the Saturday Evening Post as well as creating ads for Standard Oil.

His first children's book,  And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street which he both wrote and illustrated, was published in 1937 after being rejected by twenty-seven publishers. The book was well received despite making little money.  His next book, (and one of my favourites) was The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, whose inspiration he received from seeing a stranger on a train wearing an outrageous hat! Horton Hatches the Egg came about when his sketches were blown around and he saw an elephant sitting in a tree.

After World War II, Dr. Seuss published McElligot's Pool which was a tribute to his father who loved fishing. Readers and reviewers were starting by this time to take notice and this book won a Caldecott Honor citation from the American Library Association. Two more books also won similar honors; Bartholomew and the Oobleck and If I Ran The Zoo.

In 1957, Viking Books challenged him to write a book using the list of 225 words that first graders needed to master. Thus was born, The Cat in the Hat. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, another famous creation was also written that year.

Dr. Seuss also wrote Green Eggs and Ham, a book that used only 50 words!

He also wrote under the pen name of Theo. LeSieg (Geisel spelled backwards) for books that he wrote but did not illustrate.

Dr. Seuss' books were extremely popular because they were funny and oriented towards children. As Katherine Krull writes in her children's biography of Theodor Seuss:

"Reviewers raved that Dr. Seuss books were not like any others previously published for children. They were incredibly funny, with a momentum that propelled readers to the end. They were always respectful toward children, and not always respectful toward authority - the rule makers."

Not only is today, Dr. Seuss' birthday, it is also the day the movie adaptation of another of his books, The Lorax, opens in theatres. The Lorax, as Seuss wrote it, is an environmental fable about the destruction of a forest of Truffula trees and the cascading effects this has on both the environment and the local economy. The movie is loosely based on the book and utilizes CGI special effects.  I'll probably pass seeing this in the theatre and catch this movie on DVD.