Saturday, April 28, 2012

Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez

Seventeen year old Carmen Bianchi is a violin prodigy. She's won a Grammy for best classical album and has been on the cover of many weekly magazines - the face of virtuosity in America. For the past four years she's be preparing for the prestigious Guarneri competition. Winning means being awarded one of the richest grand prizes in classical music; fifty thousand dollars, the use of the 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin for four years, and the opportunity to perform with symphonies throughout the world. Carmen knows she will likely be one of the three musicians to make it to the final round and she desperately wants to win this competition. Winning the Guarneri will make Carmen a superstar. But Carmen has one major obstacle: Jeremy King.

Jeremy King is an eighteen year old violinist from London, England. He too is a virtuoso. When Carmen tries to catch a discrete glimpse of him outside the Chicago Symphony Center, he sees her and later sends her a nasty email. From this difficult beginning, Carmen and Jeremy gradually begin a love-hate relationship. However, Carmen's mother, Diana, learns of their relationship, and warns Carmen that Jeremy's motives are not honest. However, Carmen doesn't trust her mother and continues seeing Jeremy in an act of rebellion.

In the meantime, we also learn that Carmen has been struggling with a psychological addiction to a prescription drug. While on tour in Tokyo last year, Carmen had a meltdown on stage. Her mother, who is also her manager, arranged for Carmen to take the anti-anxiety drug, Inderal. Although the drug calms her, it has begun to stifle her playing, removing the passion she once had. Soon Carmen finds herself taking the drug not just for performances but also for her lessons with her elderly Russian teacher, Yuri. Taking Inderal makes Carmen feel like she is a fraud, a fake who goes through the motions to make music. In an attempt to recover what she feels she has lost, and after witnessing Jeremy's impassioned playing, Carmen stops taking the Inderal for a period of time.

When Jeremy and Carmen make it to the semifinals, the Guarneri competition becomes much more complicated due to their relationship with each other and even more so when Jeremy makes an astonishing request of Carmen - to throw the competition and allow him to win because of a difficult family situation. Carmen, who is shocked by Jeremy's request, refuses to see him. When the three finalists are announced and Jeremy is not one of them, Carmen begins to suspect that something isn't quite right. A little investigating on her part, soon turns up the shocking reason for Jeremy's absence in the competition finals. Torn between her desire to win and her desire to do what is right, Carmen has a decision to make. It is one that will affect everyone's future.

German cover of Virtuosity
Carmen is a strong, honest character, who faces some hard realities in both her personal life and also her musical career. As it turns out, Carmen's real obstacle proves to be her mother, Diana, who is stifling Carmen by controlling every aspect of her life, and who is also willing to do anything so that Carmen can have the career she never had. Because of this, Carmen is at risk of losing her integrity as a person and also as a musician. She has been doing everything for someone else - her mother and her wealthy grandparents who purchased a Gibson Stradivarius for her. In making the decision she does, she allows herself the time to discover again, why she is playing violin. She has to find out what it is that Carmen wants.

Virtuosity provides a fascinating look into the competitive world of classical music, and some of the issues young musicians must navigate around as they develop their careers. Martinez was herself a classical violinist and because she is writing about a subject she knows well, this novel is a realistic portrayal of the classical music world. Many young musicians experience extreme pressure from parents and teachers to lay down that perfect performance. In the competitive world of music, performances must be perfect, dynamic and unique - no small thing for a young person. This pressure is in addition to coping with memorizing huge amounts of repertoire, dealing with criticism that can at times be brutal and working through injuries. Some musicians struggle with eating disorders as well as with addictions to prescription medications. Others experience the same sort of self-doubt that Carmen experiences in Virtuosity.

Jessica Martinez talks about her book in the following video:

Book Details:
Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez
Simon & Schuster 2011
294 pp.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Movie Review: The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady is biopic about former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, her rise to power in 1979, and her remarkable ten plus years governing a country experiencing both political and economic turmoil. The movie opens with Thatcher,  played by award-winning actress, Meryl Streep, in her old age, frail and suffering from dementia. She cannot remember that her beloved husband, Denis Thatcher is deceased and sometimes doesn't even know herself. She has hallucinations of him living with her and often speaks as if he were in her presence. Margaret cannot bring herself to let go of Denis' clothing.

In a series of flashbacks, we experience the significant milestones of Margaret Thatcher's life. At age twenty-four, the young Margaret Roberts, daughter of a grocer, made an unsuccessful bid for election as an MP in Parliament. Although discouraged at this "disaster", she is persuaded by Denis, who loves her, to not give up on her ambitions. Denis proposes to Margaret, with the full knowledge of exactly the type of woman she is. "One's life must matter." she tells him, emphatically stating that she will not be the type of wife content to muddle about at home cleaning tea cups.

In 1959, she finally does win a seat in the election as Conservative MP for Finchley. Her strong personality stood her in good staid in the man's world of British politics, where heckling and derision by opposition MP's in Parliament was a frequent occurrence.

In 1974, Margaret decided to run for the leadership of the Conservative Party mainly because she wanted to force the party to remain true to its principles. "Someone must force the point - say the unsayable!". She doesn't believe she will win but she does.

As history tells us, Thatcher is elected as Prime Minister in 1979 and the film runs through many of the major crises she experienced as leader of the British Commonwealth; the 1983 strikers, IRA bombings, the Falklands War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her rule was characterized by uncompromising resolve and she was soon dubbed "The Iron Lady" by the Soviets who were more familiar with the vacillating leaders of the West.

Although The Iron Lady is not a captivating film, and at times is dry, it's impossible not to be amazed at Steep's ability to capture the mannerisms of Margaret Thatcher and effect a brilliant portrayal of the woman who was the first head of state in the West. Streep effectively juxtaposes the youthful Thatcher's strong personality with that of the elderly Thatcher who is shown as a frail, elderly woman, unmoored by the loss of her beloved husband. In the end, The Iron Lady was after all, human - something the film attempts to portray and in my opinion succeeds.

Streep has a strong supporting cast especially Jim Broadbent as Thatcher's husband, Denis. I was especially taken with Alexander Roach's performance as the young Margaret Roberts and I wish the film had delved into more of the young Margaret's life.

To aid in the film's realistic portrayal of the Thatcher era, there is news footage of Thatcher and also specific events that occurred during her years as Prime Minister. This footage defines the cultural setting Thatcher existed within and the magnitude of the problems she faced head on. For those of us who lived through the 1980's, these clips brings back many memories.

 The Iron Lady is a film about a one of the most important world leaders in the late 20th century. It is also yet again, a vehicle showcasing the fine acting talents of Meryl Streep.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Watch That Ends The Night by Alan Wolf

Alan Wolf's The Watch That Ends The Night is a uniquely crafted novel that tells the story of the Titanic tragedy in both rhyming and free verse, using twenty-three voices of those on Titanic. Wolf uses real people from the tragedy - those who were on the passenger list - and successfully builds an engaging storyline for each through poetry. These stories, when woven, together not only tell the larger story of the maiden voyage and the sinking of the Titanic, but also convey a sense of the magnitude of the tragedy on a personal level; the fathers never to be seen again, the lovers lost, the new life in America never to be realized.

The many voices include those of immigrants such as Jamila Nicola-Yarred and socialites such as John Jacob Astor and Margaret (Molly) Brown, Bruce Ismay, the director and head of the White Star Line;  and Thomas Andrews, the chief naval architect at Harlan and Wolff ship builders. Also included are many different Titanic crew members including Captain E. J. Smith known as "the Storm King", a stoker, Junior Office Harold Lowe,  wireless operator, Harold Bride; and Frederick Fleet, the lookout. Each  voice offers the reader a different perspective on sailing the Titanic, on life in the early 20th century and on the tragedy. These many voices make the storytelling realistic and appealing.

Added to the human voices are those of the Iceberg and a ship rat. The Iceberg is portrayed as a malevolent entity whose purpose is to meet with a ship - seeking out human hearts! We learn its history, from its birth in Greenland, its thousand year existence to its calving off the glacier and its ocean voyage southward.

I am the ice. I see tides ebb and flow.
I've watched civilizations come and go,
give birth, destroy, restore, be gone, begin.
My blink of an eye is humankind's tortoise slow,
Today's now is tomorrow's way back when.....

I am the ice. I've seen the ebb and flow.
I watched as Abraham and Moses spoke.
I watched the prophets met with wine or stone.
I watched as Christ was nailed upon the cross.....

I am the ice. I've seen the ebb and flow.
Conceived by water, temperature, and time,
gestating within Greenland's glacial womb,
I carved out massive valleys as I moved.
At last the frozen river made its way
and calved me with a splash in Baffin Bay.
Since I've traveled southward many weeks,
for now that my emergence is complete,
there is a certain ship I long to meet.

Especially poignant is the voice of the undertaker, John Snow, who sailed on the cable ship, Mackay-Bennett, out of Halifax, Nova Scotia to collect the bodies of Titanic's victims. John Snow's poems capture the horror sailors experienced when they arrived at the site of the sinking.

I turn again to the far-off flock of gulls --
smudges of white floating on the green waves --
and I admit to myself what I knew at the first sight of them:

Those are no seagulls at all. Those are bodies.

More bodies. Each one waiting in a bright white vest.
My God. My God. My God.
Bodies scattered for miles, in every direction.
Bodies as far as my indifferent eyes can see.

Many of the poems use the element of foreshadowing mingled with irony, hinting at the coming tragedy. Wolf also uses concrete poetry with Thomas Andrews, Titanic's shipbuilder, to convey, typographically the sinking of the Titanic. Another poem, with its random words in the center of two pages, suggests the terror and confusion of people as they drown in the icy waters.

The novel is divided into seven watches, the seventh being "The watch that ends the night", which covers the time the survivors are in the boats and watch in horror, the sinking of the great oceanliner. The novel opens with a  Prelude which tells of preparations to sail and sets the story for many of the characters and closes with a Postlude; Morning which tells of the aftermath of the sinking.

Alan Wolf includes detailed notes at the back of the book,  on each of the voices/characters, all of which were real passengers on the ship, as well as an extensive Titanic bibliography.

The Watch That Ends The Night is brilliantly conceived, and succeeds beyond measure, in capturing the essence of the Titanic tragedy, one hundred years later,  for avid teen readers and interested adult readers alike.

Book Details:
The Watch That Ends The Night by Alan Wolf
Candlewick Press: Massachusetts    2011
466 pp.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My Mother The Cheerleader. A Novel by Robert Sharenow

My Mother The Cheerleader explores a very specific event in 20th century American history; the desegregation of schools in 1960 in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. This event is recounted through the eyes of thirteen year old Louise Collins, who lives with her mother, Pauline, in their boardinghouse, Rooms On Desire.

Life for young Louise is uneventful until desegregation is ordered for the Ninth Ward's all-white elementary schools. In November 1960, six black girls are permitted to attend the schools; one of these girls, Ruby Bridges, is enrolled in Louise's school, William Frantz Elementary School. This has resulted in the white students being pulled from school in protest and a group of mothers known as "the cheerleaders" gathering every morning to taunt and harass little Ruby as she is walked into the school by federal marshals.

"The cheerleaders" are a group of foul-mouthed women who received a great deal of media attention and who also drew the ire of writer John Steinbeck, one of Louise's favourite authors. His views on the Cheerleaders didn't really sit well with Louise because, like those opposed to segregation, he too tended to dehumanize those he didn't agree with. But Louise believes that what we see on the outside isn't necessarily the full picture.
"I don't blame Mr. Steinbeck for writing what he did. He saw my mother and the other Cheerleaders from the outside looking in. From that point of view, I'm sure he thought he was painting a very accurate portrait. However, I saw my mother and her friends from the inside. And I've found that people always tend to look different from that angle, when you can really get in close and get a good look at all the details that hang just below the surface."
So My Mother The Cheerleader tells the story of Louise's mother, over a period of a few days, and what happens when she meets a friend of John Steinbeck who comes to stay at their boardinghouse. This friend, Morgan Miller, arrives in the Ninth Ward with the intention of reconnecting with his brother. Unlike most of the men who frequent Rooms on Desire, Morgan is a gentleman, confident and "usually comfortable in his own skin and with the world in general." He treats Pauline with respect and Louise with a gentle kindness, often helping smooth things over for her, when her mother is harsh.

Louise who has been pulled from school decides to spend her time "snooping" on Morgan. She wants to know who he is, because he's so different from anyone who has ever stayed at the boardinghouse. However, Louise's snooping reveals secrets she's not prepared for, about her mother, about herself, and about the world.

Looking back on this event, almost 52 years later, it seems almost incredible that a little 6 year old black girl would need a contingent of federal agents to see that she got to school unharmed. It's hard to believe people held these views and that some still do.  My Mother The Cheerleader provides readers the opportunity to try to understand the views people held in 1960 about race and civil rights and does so very effectively. These people were judges, lawyers, teachers, mothers, fathers and children, and just like anyone else living in the United States in 1960. Some were outstanding citizens, while others were just ordinary folk.

We are treated to the southern white view of desegregation when Pauline violently argues with Morgan about why black children shouldn't be attending white schools. Her prejudice, like those of her peers, goes much deeper though and doesn't just include black people. When Pauline is attacked and Louise goes to the home of their black cook, Charlotte Dupree, for help, the reader learns why each race can't help the other, even if they wanted to, even in deadly circumstances, simply because of the class restrictions in place at that time. What would be needed is an act of supreme courage, to go against the conventions of society at that time. And we come to see what happens to those in the segregated South, who believe all men are created equal, and who stand up for that belief. All of these are teachable moments, woven seamlessly into this brilliant story by author, Robert Sharenow.

One of the elements I especially liked about this novel was the depth of characterization. While some of the characters are stereotypical, (there's the typical "red-necks" and earthy no-nonsense black maid) it still works because the characters are believable. Each person, Pauline,  Louise, Charlotte Dupree, Morgan Miller and even minor characters, are well drawn and yet are not what they seem to be.  For example, Louise's mother, Pauline is the stereotypical single mother; lazy, not a good mother to her child, a heavy drinker, and "loose" around men. She is loud, self-absorbed, and vain. Yet we learn later on in the novel that she is not really what she appears to be on the outside - she has compassion and really does love Louise.

There is the wonderful theme of courage throughout the novel, not just on the part of Ruby Bridges, but also in the characters of Morgan Miller and surprisingly - or maybe not, Pauline Collins. Courageous acts come in all sizes and ways.

If you'd like to read more about the real Ruby Bridges, you can check out her website, Ruby Bridges where Ms. Bridges talks about her experiences in 1960.  Ruby Bridges spent her first year at William Frantz being escorted each and every day through the lines of white working class women known as "the cheerleaders" whose sole purpose was to confront the child and block her path into the school. Many adults helped Ruby through this difficult time in her life, especially her mother who encouraged her and reminded her of God's love and protection, and her white teacher, Mrs. Henry, who recognized Ruby's dignity and personhood.

Book Details:
My Mother The Cheerleader by Robert Sharenow
Laura Geringer Books (HarperCollins Publishers)    2007
289 pp.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Starters by Lissa Price

Starters is Lissa Price's debut novel set in America decimated by war and a deadly sickness. Lissa Price has created a fascinating post-apocalyptic world in her debut novel, Starters.  America is comprised of very elderly people, Enders, and very young people, Starters. Price's post-apocalyptic world arose after the Spore Wars between America and unnamed Pacific Ocean countries (does she mean China?). Fearing a bio-war, America began vaccinating it's citizens, with those considered most at risk, the very young and the elderly, being the first to be vaccinated. When the spore bombs were unleashed earlier than expected, all people between the ages of 20 and 60 died, leaving many children orphaned and uncared for.

Callie Woodland and her brother, Tyler, are two such children, orphaned and living in an abandoned office towers with a friend named Michael. They spend their time hiding from the Marshals who capture unclaimed children  and scrounging for enough food to eat. With Tyler sick, Callie decides to pay a visit to Prime Destinations. She has heard about this company out on the street and knows that she can earn a great deal of money but she needs to know more.

Prime Destinations is a company run by a mysterious man known only as Old Man, that enables Enders to rent the body of a Starter for a period of time. The renter has a cap with electrodes fitted on her/his head which connects them to a Body Computer Interface. The Starter has a neuro-chip embedded into their brain. The renter and the Starter are connected via a computer and once the connection is made, the renter simply uses her mind to take over the body of the young teen, whose conscious mind is put to sleep. The Ender can then use the teen's body for however long the rental period is. The teen-donor remembers nothing of what happened while his/her body was being rented. It's almost the same concept that was used by humans in James Cameron's Avatar.

Callie eventually decides to become a donor. Prior to renting, every Starter gets a complete body makeover, with all scars and imperfections being completely removed. Everything goes well for the first two rents, which are short. Callie knows nothing about what has happened to her body during the rentals. But during the third rent, something unusual happens. Callie wakes up a week into her rental  to find herself in Club Rune in Los Angeles. Confused, she is helped by a boy who another renter claims is "all teen" named Blake.

Even more strange, Callie discovers can communicate intermittently with her renter, Helena Winterhill inside her head. Helena who is close to one hundred years old,  warns Callie not to return to Prime Destinations. Callie returns to Helena's home and continues living as though she is Helena renting Callie's body. She also begins dating a teen named Blake whom she begins to fall in love with. They go horseback riding at Blake's family's ranch. She also meets Blake's grandfather, Senator Clifford C. Harrison. Believing she can trust Blake who is not an Ender, she sends him with money to the abandoned office building Tyler and Michael are living in.

Callie blacks out in Helena's car and awakens eighteen hours later in her renter's bedroom holding a Glock 85 with a silencer.  When she hears the warning voice again, Callie decides to check into Helena's background. She discovers that Helena's granddaughter Emma lives with her and that she has rented her body too. At Club Rune, Callie meets Helena's friend, Lauren who is renting the body of a girl named Reece. Lauren reveals that they are using the body's of teens to stop Prime Destinations from victimizing teens. From Lauren she learns that Helena is planning a murder but Helena hasn't told Lauren who the target is. Lauren's grandson, Kevin, and Helena's granddaughter, Emma, signed up at Prime but never returned. They lied and did it to get the body makeovers, not realizing that Prime takes Starters who have no living relatives. This way if they do not return, they have no family who will investigate their disappearance. Some Starters are released to recruit more teens. Callie learns that many Enders besides Lauren and Helena,  have lost grandchildren who have simply disappeared after becoming body donors for Prime.

Callie receives a memo from Helena on her phone warning her not to return to Prime. She does not know that Callie knows about her plans. When Callie finds herself in the lobby of an office building and realizes that Helena is preparing to kill Senator Clifford Harrison, Blake's grandfather, but she doesn't know why. As Callie grows closer to Blake, she is determined to find out why Helena wants to kill his grandfather.

On the day he is scheduled to present at an awards ceremony, Callie finds herself with an assault rifle scoping the ceremony. She suddenly is able to communicate with Helena who tells her that she needs to go through with the assassination. Helena reveals that Callie's biochip has been altered and the stop-kill switch which prevents renters from killing while they are in a Starter's body has been turned off. Helena wants to stop Senator Harrison because of his connections to Prime Destinations. Harrison is hoping to persuade the president to use Prime to conscript teens for government use. But she also discovers that Prime has a far more insidious design for the teen donors.

Helena and Callie begin working together to try to determine what has happened to her granddaughter Emma. Helena gives Callie money to get a place for Michael and Tyler to stay and asks Callie to visit Institution 37 to talk to a girl named Sara who may know about Emma. In Institution 37 Callie learns that only the prettiest Starters will be chosen by the body bank. 

The next day at a news conference in Washington, the head of Prime Destinations, the Old Man informs his Titanium Premium subscribers that they will soon be able to own the body of the Starter they rent while their "birth body" is kept safe in the chair at Prime. Callie is now convinced of what Helena has been telling her. However, a major setback occurs when Callie discovers Helena has been killed.

When Helena gone, Callie is now on her own to prevent Prime from gaining control and implementing its evil plan. It becomes increasingly difficult to for Callie to know whom she can trust. As she works towards destroying Prime she comes face to face with the mysterious and creepy Old Man, who asks her to join him.


Price does a good job of portraying the post-apocalyptic world Callie inhabits. Especially well done is the explanation of the body donor and renter concept. Each donor has a complete makeover team, so that the 100 year old renter gets a pristine teenage body to live out their youthful fantasies once more. There's something definitely creepy and indecent about someone inhabiting the body of another person as Callie soon discovers. After her first two rentals she discovers that Prime Destinations views her body as belong to the company. When she requests a break before her final rental, Tinnebaum reluctantly grants her request but warns her "Keep this body exactly as it is. Because right now, it still belongs to us."

There's not much in the way of character development in this book, because the story is action driven. The protagonist, Callie Woodland is carefully sketched as a caring, moral person who tries to do the correct thing. At first she refuses to kill even though Helena is determined to go through with the assassination. Callie needs proof about what is happening before acting. Callie is also a strong female character, who fights for what she believes in. She's loyal and responsible, determined to save her younger brother, Tyler.

The Enders were especially well done and it was clear that Callie and her generation  deeply fear and despise them. Most Enders in the novel are portrayed as self-absorbed, superficial people concerned only with living longer and experiencing as much as possible, preferably in the body of a teenager. The also have no qualms using other people's bodies. When Callie learns of the Old Man's plans to permanently steal the bodies of Starters, she recognizes it as murder, in contrast to Madison who is occupied by an Ender who sees it only as kidnapping.

Callie recognizes what the body bank does is a form a slavery where the bodies are used for the pleasure and the whims of the Ender's.

 While Starters has an interesting concept, its complex storyline meant that some things weren't always clear or explained. Price never really expanded on why the government should or would get involved in using the bodies of teens supplied by Prime. We don't know why the Enders live to be so old. We also don't know the outcome of the war for other parts of the US or for the Pacific countries involved in the war. Readers know very little about the Old Man, his true identity and how he came to be. It's possible Price will develop this further in the next book, filling in the details as required.

Starters is a suspenseful, intensely satisfying book that will leave readers anxiously anticipating the next installment.

This novel  has a magnificent book cover that was brilliantly designed by Melissa Greenberg.

Book Details: 
Starters by Lissa Price
Random House: Delacorte Press    2012
336 pp.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Remembering The Titanic: Photographs, Books, and Movies

One hundred years ago tonight, April 14, 1912, 23:40PM (ship's time - UTC-3), the RMS Titanic, with 2,224 people on board, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Deemed "virtually unsinkable", the Titanic, at that time, was the largest ship in the world and the most luxurious passenger ship afloat. That the ship sank on it's maiden voyage, that over 1,500 passengers and crew died, this most devastating maritime disaster has been immortalized in 20th century culture through books, movies and music.

My favourite movie, and one which I think best portrays the Titanic disaster, is A Night To Remember (1953), which is based on the book of the same title by Walter Lord. The movie was directed by Roy Ward Baker who used the testimony of some of the survivors.

Walter Lord's book, A Night to Remember is also a well written account of the disaster and remains one of the best books about Titanic. A new book, Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson was published in March, 2012 and considers the profound effect the disaster had on the lives of those who survived. Wilson used memoirs, unpublished letters, and diaries to assess the aftermath of this tragedy.

There are many stories that were well known at the time of the tragedy but today are not well publicized. One such story is that of Father Thomas Byles, a Protestant convert to the Catholic faith. Father Thomas boarded the Titanic to travel to America for the upcoming wedding of his brother William who lived in New York. William and his fiance, Isabel Katherine Russell,  were to be married at St. Augustine's Catholic Church. Father obtained a ticket for second class berth and arranged with Captain Smith to say Mass for those aboard the ship. April 14 was the first Sunday after Easter and Father Thomas said Mass for those on board.

Father Thomas was reading his breviary on deck when the ship struck the iceberg. He went about helping people, especially the third class passengers whom he calmed and administered the Sacrament of Confession. Several passengers related later that Father Thomas twice refused a seat in a boat, preferring instead to offer comfort, confession and absolution to the many passengers who were about to die. At 2:20am when the boat was finally sinking into the ocean, Father Thomas led more than one hundred souls in reciting the Act of Contrition and gave them absolution.

Upon learning of the tragedy, William and Isabel hoped that Father Thomas might be among those rescued, but it was not to be. His body was never found. There is a website devoted to Father Thomas Byles,  who chose to continue his priestly ministry until the very end.

When the wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1985 by Robert Ballard, the world was awestruck by the first eerie pictures of the silent, broken ship. For those of us for whom the sinking was a historic event,  the scope of the tragedy was again made all too real. Interest in the Titanic was reignited and resulted in James Cameron's blockbuster movie hit, Titanic in 1995. I am not a fan of this movie, which I believe trivializes the disaster with its storyline of two men fighting over a disillusioned and unhappy woman whilst the ship is sinking and over a thousand people are soon to perish. It is a rendition typical of an era in which post-modern culture focuses on mundane, irrelevant themes while ignoring the more noble.

The discovery of the Titanic also allowed scientists to do forensic research on the wreck and this has resulted in new theories about exactly how the ship, considered state of the art in both luxury and engineering at the time, could sink so quickly. An example of the such recent research can be found in scientific journals such as Materials Today with its article, What Really Sank The Titanic.

The discovery also allowed some artifacts from the ship to be recovered and these have been on exhibition this year, in remembrance of the tragedy. We now know that the wreck will not live forever as it is being rapidly consumed by iron-reducing bacteria. What we do have to remember Titanic and to preserve her memory for future generations, is a fascinating archive of photographs from the first part of her maiden voyage.

Father Frank Browne, a Jesuit priest, was an accomplished Irish photographer who recorded the first part of Titanic's maiden voyage, the journey from Southhampton to Cohb, Ireland. His uncle, Robert Browne who was Bishop of Cloyne, gave his nephew a ticket for the first part of the Titanic's maiden voyage. Despite his desire to continue onto New York, Father Browne disembarked at Cohn and his record of the Titanic survives today. You can view his amazing photographs here.

At 2:20 am, April 15, one hundred years ago, over 1,500 people died in a tragedy that could have be averted.

Eternal rest grant unto to them, O Lord.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

"Every new year Mother visits
the I Ching Teller of Fate.
This year he predicts
our lives will twist inside out."

Ten year old Kim Ha lives with her family in war-torn Saigon, South Vietnam. Her family includes her older brothers Quang, 21 - an engineering student, and Vu who is 18, as well as younger brother, Khoi who is 4, and her mother. Her father, a Vietnamese navy officer, was captured nine years ago while on a mission. Ha's family continue to hope he is alive and will return some day. It is 1975, what will eventually be the final year of the Vietnam War, and for Ha this means celebrating her birthday and waiting for the delicious papayas to ripen. Little does she know how dramatically her life will soon change.

Two More Papayas

I see them first.

Two green thumbs
that will grow into
orange-yellow delights
smelling of summer.

Middle sweet
between a mango and a pear

Soft as a yam
gliding down
after three easy,
thrilling chews. 
April 5

At first, despite her father's absence, the war seems to have little effect on the family. When war finally does come to Saigon, Ha, along with her family make the decision to leave their beloved country and flee via boat. Crammed onto a navy vessel along with thousands of other Vietnamese who do not desire to live under communist rule, they are rescued by the American navy. Their boat is towed to Guam where they are placed in a refugee camp. Eventually the family is sent to South Florida and are sponsored by a man and his wife from Alabama. Despite the good intentions of the couple from Alabama, the transition from Asian culture into what is essentially the American Bible Belt proves to be intensely confusing and painful for everyone.

For Ha, the transition proves to be almost impossible until one day she meets Miss Washington, a neighbour who agrees to tutor Ha and her family in English. However, learning English only adds to Ha's pain because she now understands the insults made by her American classmates. Eventually, as Ha grows to trust Miss Washington, she confides that she has been hiding at school, eating lunch in the bathroom and is being bullied by her classmates. Efforts to make things better only worsen the situation. But, as Ha and her family begin to acquire more language skills, the transition to their new life begins to go more slowly.

Thanhha Lai poignantly captures the essence of what it was truly like for an immigrant from Vietnam in 1975. This was a time when the world was a much smaller place and a profound lack of cultural understanding permeated the well-intentioned help offered to Asian refugees in America (and Canada). The prejudice that Ha and her family experience are due not only to racial intolerance but also to ignorance. Settling immigrants in an area of America with very different customs and beliefs, and especially in a part of America known for it's staunch biblical beliefs, made integrating into American society much more difficult. In Canada, many Vietnamese refugees settled in Montreal, Quebec, where they at least had the familiarity of the French language.

Some of the intolerance may also have been due to the anger and pain Americans especially felt in the aftermath of losing the Vietnam War. Many Americans were angry at their government and military for the country's involvement in a guerrilla war they couldn't possibly win. Still others were angry at the Vietnamese people, whom they saw as being ungrateful towards the sacrifice made by American soldiers.

In eloquent and moving free verse, Thanhha Lai chronicles Ha's journey from February 11, 1975 until January 31, 1976. The novel's simple poems allow the reader, through the voice of Ha, to experience the raw emotions of hope, loss, and fear, thus making the character very realistic. It's hard not to feel a deep empathy towards Ha, whose entire life has been turned inside out. Beside being in a new and strange country, she must also come to terms with the loss of her beloved father, and cope with the frustration of repeating a grade because she is struggling to learn in a new language.

Inside Out & Back Again provides young readers the opportunity to explore the situation immigrants face when coming to a new country. It also provides an opportunity to discuss the Vietnam War, an almost forgotten conflict that consumed America and Asia during the 1960's and early 1970's.

Book Details:
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
New York: Harper Collins 2011
262 pp.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Documentary: Kinshasa Symphony

In Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a remarkable and wholly improbable cultural entity exists amid the poverty and chaos of this troubled Third World nation. That entity is the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste (Kinshasa Orchestra) - Central Africa's one and only symphony orchestra.

The orchestra grew out of the efforts of founder and conductor, Armand Diangienda. Diangienda who is a cellist and also a composer, began fifteen years ago to bring the gift of music to his community with a few instruments which were shared amongst beginner musicians. Some of the instruments were donated, others rescued from the trash and repaired.

These self-taught musicians had to practice in shifts when there weren't enough instruments. The dedication and discipline demonstrated by the members of the Kinshasa Orchestra was evident from the beginning as many came to rehearsals after long workdays, and often had to make long treks into Kinshasa on foot or by taxi. Orchestra rehearsals were challenging but Diangienda proved to be a man with much patience and a deep love of music. Such perseverance has paid off. The Kinshasa Orchestra has performed the music of many composers including Beethoven, Handel and Orloff.

If the orchestra's conductor impresses, so too do the orchestra's two hundred musicians and vocalists, many of whom have risen above difficult personal and social circumstances to learn classical music well enough to perform in an orchestra or to sing in a choir. Their music not only overwhelms and impassions the listener, but the participants themselves.

For many involved in the Kinshasa Orchestra, it is a sanctuary, a reprieve from a world filled with tragedy, war and poverty. As one woman put it, "When I play music, I become myself."

The documentary, Kinshasa Symphony, directed by Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer explores this unique orchestra from three perspectives; the people, the city, and the music. All three have influenced the orchestra's development and its current musical direction.

CBS has done a wonderful segment on the orchestra in its show "60 Minutes". The video may be watched below:

In conjunction with the WDR Symphony Orchestra and Choir from Cologne, Germany, the OSK is working towards the establishment of a classical music school in Kinshasa. It will be fascinating to watch how this cultural force will influence further development of the arts in the Congo, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Night She Disappeared by April Henry

The Night She Disappeared is young adult mystery writer, April Henry's latest creepy offering. Gabie Klug, Kayla Cutler and Drew Lyle work at Pete's Pizza in Portland. One night Kayla goes missing after delivering a pizza order to a male customer. Her car is found abandoned down by the Willamette River, driver's door open, keys in the ignition, and her purse on the front seat. Both Drew and Gabie feel that Gabie was the intended victim because the man who phoned in the order specifically asked if Gabie, who drives a Mini Cooper, would be delivering the pizza. The police however, don't seem to want to explore this connection much, preferring initially to keep their options open.

As Drew and Gabie try to come to terms with what has happened, they are drawn together into a budding romance. But they are two people from very different parts of society. Gabie's parent's are trauma surgeons and as such, her family is well off, living in a large, well kept home. She's alone much of the time, due to her parent's being on-call, and Pete's Pizza is like a family to her. In contrast, Drew lives with his mother in a run-down, cluttered apartment. His mother is a thief and a meth addict and Drew is her main support. How can two people with such different lives have a relationship?

Pete, owner of the pizza store, decides that no women employees will be delivering pizzas and as a result, the store schedule is reworked. For Drew who relies on the shifts at the pizza place for his income, this is a disaster. Gabie steps in and agrees to let him use her car to deliver pizzas. It is this action that will have positive ramifications later on.

When someone phones in a tip about a white pick-up truck having been seen in the vicinity of the river and second tip comes in fingering a young male, Cody Renfew , the repercussions are deadly. Police focus on Cody without much further investigation into the crime and the suspicion results in terrible consequences for him.

With police convinced now that Kayla is dead, despite the lack of a body, little evidence,  Drew and Gabie are determined to find their lost friend. It takes Drew, out on a delivery in Gabie's Mini Cooper, who unwittingly provides the bait that leads to the novel's breathtaking climax.

April Henry uses many characters to tell the story; Kayla, Drew, Gabie, Gavin (a diver, which isn't evident at first), "John Robertson" who is the kidnapper, Todd and Jeremy (two kids who discover Kayla's car). This seems to work surprisingly well because Henry keeps the storyline simple. "John Robertson" is suitably creepy and disturbing as the "perp" in the novel. He's not happy with the girl he got, especially since he really wants Gabie and still plans to grab her.

My one major complaint about this book is how the police seem to ignore the fact that the perpetrator had initially targeted Gabie, and in the end conclude that Kayla, after 13 days, is dead. In real life, this simply wouldn't happen. With only circumstantial evidence, most of it quite weak, and no body, the police somehow arrive at this conclusion, and before we know it, Kayla's family is having a funeral service. This was unrealistic, unbelievable, and wasn't  necessary to the novel's storyline.

Despite this plot weakness, The Night She Disappeared,  is a book that will appeal to younger teens interested in a good suspense novel. The plot is simple, there's an element of first love and conflict between the two main characters, and a crime to solve. It's also a short read that is fast paced, with added pieces of information to draw a reader in. There are police reports, pieces of evidence from the victim, lab reports, web information and 911 transcripts, all of which engage the reader and make the storytelling authentic.

Book Details:
The Night She Disappeared by April Henry
New York: Henry Holt    2012
229 pp.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Fever by Lauren DeStefano

Fever picks up almost immediately where Wither left off - Rhine and Gabriel have landed on the ocean beach and make their way towards lights in the distance. Those lights turn out to be the home of a demented woman who runs a brothel out of a derelict carnival. When they are captured they find dozens of young girls and armed boys who work and live in tents for "Madame". Madame Soleski keeps Gabriel drugged with "angel blood" while she lays out her plan to put Rhine to work as a dancer. Rhine and Gabriel try to plan their escape but this proves difficult as they are often drugged. When Rhine's sinister father-in-law, Vaughan, tracks them to the carnival and tries to bargain for Rhine, she and Gabriel realize it's imperative that they escape. Aided by Jared, Madame's right hand man, and another girl Lilac, they manage to flee, taking Lilac's disabled daughter, Maddie with them.

After several more frightening situations, Rhine and Gabriel manage to make it back to Manhattan. Rhine makes the heart-rending discovery that her home has been destroyed and her twin brother, Rowan, gone. Having no where else to turn, Rhine and Gabriel locate the address written in the front of Maddie's favourite storybook. This turns out to be the home of Maddie's grandmother, who offers to take them in.

But all is not well. First of all, Gabriel is disillusioned with what he life is like outside the mansion. The world Rhine has brought him to is very different from the one she portrayed to him while living at Vaughan's mansion. Secondly, it soon becomes apparent that something is seriously wrong with Rhine, who seems to be suffering from some unknown illness.  She experiences fevers, vomiting and hallucinations. Neither she nor Gabriel can find the cause of her symptoms and wonder whether her evil father-in-law, Vaughan did something  to her. Rhine comes to the realization that freedom might cost her more than she is prepared to give. When Vaughan reappears, she makes a decision that vaults her back into horror worse than she could have ever imagined.

Although the overarching storyline in Fever is appealing, the way DeStefano has structured the novel doesn't work to hold the reader's interest. Throughout the middle portion of the novel, Rhine and Gabriel, either together or at alternating times, are sick, drugged and hallucinating, or asleep. As a result, there is little in the way of character development and not much growth in their relationship. While there is a purpose to Rhine's illness (which is revealed towards the end of the book), it doesn't make for exciting reading, even with DeStefano's decent prose.

We do not learn much more about the state of the destroyed world that Rhine lives in. What destroyed all the other continents? Providing the reader with more details about the world and the state of affairs in America would have helped to make the story more engaging, helping readers better empathize and identify with Rhine.

Second novels are typically bridges between revealing first books and third novels that wrap up the story with a satisfying ending. They are difficult to write, because it is a hard task to maintain the reader's interest, while further developing the plot, characters, and world. What I found intriguing is that both DeStefano and the author of Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver ended their second books with one word - the name of a character.

I especially enjoyed the cover of Fever, which pulled together many elements of the novel; the carnival, the drugged condition of Rhine, tarot cards, and the tacky opulence of the homes of several characters.

Book Details:
Fever by Lauren DeStefano
Toronto: Simon & Shuster Children's Publishers   2012
341 pp.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rachel's Secret by Shelly Sanders

Rachel's Secret takes readers on a journey inside the 1903 pogrom of Kishinev, Russia. The book was inspired by the experiences author Shelly Sander's grandmother endured as a survivor of a pogrom in Russia. Many of the characters in the book are real people who lived through the events Sanders describes.

The novel's three main characters, Rachel Paskar, Mikhail Rybachenko, Sergei Khanzhenkov are friends drawn into horrific events beyond their control. Rachel is a fifteen year old Jewish girl who lives in the Jewish ghetto of Kishinev. Her friends, Mikhail and Sergei are Christians. Mikhail's parents died many years ago in an accident and he lives with his grandfather. Sergei lives with his family and his father is the police chief of Kishinev.

The novel opens with a forbidden romance blossoming between Rachel and Mikhail. Like Mikhail, Sergei is also attracted to the beautiful and intelligent Rachel, but his shyness prevents him from approaching her in the way that Mikhail does. After the three young people skate one evening on the River Byk, Mikhail is accosted by his drunken uncle, a policeman, who is angry over a family matter. The uncle savagely murders Mikhail - a crime Rachel witnesses when she returns to the river to retrieve her shawl.

When news of Mikhail's murder spreads, the Russian community begins spreading the lie that Mikhail was the victim of a blood libel. Fed by anti-Jewish propaganda from the local newspaper, racial hatred ignites and seethes in the town of Kishinev. People have already been blaming the Jews for many things as the area has a history of prejudice against them.

Rachel is devastated by what she has seen but feels she has no recourse to justice. She is burdened by the murder of her friend; there is no one to whom she can tell what she has seen. She cannot go to the local police because the murderer was a policeman, and because she is also a Jew, she knows her story will never be believed by the authorities. Instead such an action might bring deadly harm to her father and her family. So she keeps her secret.

With Mikhail now gone, Sergei finds the courage to approach Rachel and to try to mitigate some of the harm directed towards her and her family. Unlike his fellow Christians, Sergei is struggling with how his friends, family and the Christian community treat their Jewish neighbours. As they begin to develop a friendship, Rachel finally confides in him about Mikhail's murder. Sergei tries to tell his father in the hope that the real culprits will be arrested and the Jewish community exonerated, but his father refuses to act until he hears from the Governor.

Nevertheless, the damage has already been done. Violence and hatred are unleashed against the Jewish community in Kishinev in the form of destroyed homes and businesses and the massacre of fifty one innocent people. Rachel must come to terms with the losses she suffers and Sergei must deal with the part his own father had in the violence against their Jewish neighbours.

Shelly Sanders has written a balanced fictional story based on the horrifying events of 1903. The Jewish folk are shown as being peaceful and integrating as much as they are allowed into Russian society. Through the characters of Sergei, and some of the minor characters such as Father Petrov, Sanders shows that not all Russian Christians were so prejudiced towards the Jewish people. This novel also effectively demonstrates how people who are generally good can, through misunderstanding, ignorance and fear come to hate others who are not like themselves.

The three main characters are well developed even though one of them, Mikhail, has only a minor part in the story. Rachel is strong, sensible heroine who like all young people wishes for a better future. The relationship between Rachel and her father is tender and caring. Sergei is open minded and the author uses him to demonstrate that learning about others who are different can help us to view people in a new way. Sergei shows compassion towards the victims and his care towards a young orphan is especially touching.

All three young people experience a source of conflict with their parents. Their expectations are different from what their parents or society have for them. Sergei doesn't want to be a police officer but instead wishes to travel. Mikhail also wishes to leave Kishinev to attend university rather than take over the family's tobacco business. And Rachel doesn't wish to marry but instead wants to become a writer.

Rachel's Secret is further proof that Canadian authors are producing well written, interesting novels for young adults. Readers will get a real sense of what life was like in Russia at the turn of the last century. One part of the book I very much liked was the explanation of the Passover Seder. Even though I am Catholic, my family has done a Seder supper on Holy Thursday. We do this because elements of our faith, especially the Catholic Mass have taken many rituals from the Jewish faith and incorporated them into the new faith. So it was interesting to read the explanation of this supper.

My one minor complaint is the cover of the book which is more suited to an adult novel and really isn't relevant to the story. Otherwise, a great novel for Grade 7 and up students.

Book Details:
Rachel's Secret by Shelly Sanders
Toronto: Second Story Press 2012
245 pp.