Thursday, June 28, 2012

K-Pop: Exo-K

Exo-K is a relatively new Korean band formed in 2011 by S.M. Entertainment. The group which has twelve members is actually two groups Exo-K which is marketed in Korea and Exo-M is marketed in China. I will be focusing on Exo-K in this post.

The group's name comes from exoplanet which is a term that refers to a planet outside the Solar System. Exo-K is comprised of six members; Suho (Kim Jun-myun), Kai (Kim Jon-in), Sehun (Oh Se-hun), Baekhyun (Byun Baek-hyun), D.O. (Do Gyung-soo), and Chanyeol (Park Chan-yeol). All members were introduced to the public through teaser trailers. Suho is considered the leader of Exo-K.

Mama, their debut single was released on April 8, 2012. The group has exceptional dance abilities which are featured in the video for this single. Unfortunately, the first few minutes are very strange, a mish-mash of nonsense English. The opening lines quoted here will provide the listener with the general idea:

"When the skies and the grounds were one the legends, through their twelve forces, they nurtured the tree of life. An eye of red force created the evil which coveted the heart of tree of life and the heart slowly grew dry...."

So my suggestion is to pass up the first minute and thirty seconds and cut to the chase with the actual video. Overall the dancing is fantastic and the vocals are promising, but the screamo section at approximately 4:39 is bizarre and doesn't really fit in with the style of the song and video.

This video might be more representative of what the group is capable of. The short dance sequence with the jacket is innovative and should have been more than a few frames:

It will be interesting to see what this group's future efforts produce.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Slide by Jill Hathaway

 "I can never get used to the feeling of looking through someone else's eyes. It's as if each person sees the world in a slightly different hue. The tricky part is figuring out who the person is. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle --- what do I see, hear, smell? Everything is a clue."

Sylvia (Vee) Bell is a pink haired sophomore who lives with her constantly absent, pediatric surgeon father and her annoying younger sister, Mattie.  Her mother died from pancreatic cancer and Vee misses her terribly. Diagnosed as having narcolepsy (a sleeping disorder in which a person experiences "sleep attacks"), what Vee really has is the strange ability to "slide" into another person's consciousness and see things from their perspective. This ability comes in quite handy when a friend, Sophie Jacobs is found dead and believed to have committed suicide.

Vee however, believes there is more to Sophie's death. Although she knows Sophie is very distraught over something, she knows for certain that Sophie did not kill herself. This is because Vee unintentionally slides into the killer's consciousness when she touches a sheet from a calendar pad she found taped to her front door and not only sees Sophie on her deathbed but the killer's gloved hands as well.  Since Vee can only slide into a person by touching something that they have emotionally imprinted on, she reasons that the killer was at their house that day. Although everyone believes Sophie's death was a suicide and not a murder, Vee cannot tell others what she knows. She doesn't want her father to send her back to the psychiatrist as he did when he first found out about her ability to "slide:. Vee must try to figure out who killed Sophie and the best way to do this is to slide into potential suspects.

At first she suspects her sister's friend, Amber Prescott, who had a "plan to put her back in her place". Vee knows that Sophie has been the target of bullying by her sister Mattie and Amber. Both girls took compromising pictures of Sophie and sent them to the phones of the football team. She also knows that something bad went down between Sophie and Vee's ex-friend Scotch Becker, who almost succeeded in raping Vee.

But circumstances soon lead Vee to consider potential suspects. First there's her guy friend, Rollins, who's been acting strange lately. Is he jealous of her new friend Zane Huxley or just strange for another reason? Then when Vee remembers seeing Sophie with Mr. Golden who teaches AP Psychology, and crying, she wonders if he could be the killer. The only way for Vee to find out is to investigate on her own, using her ability to slide.

When another girl dies, Vee begins to realize that there is a real possibility her sister Mattie will be the next target. As she slides into more people, Vee begins to uncover secrets about her friends and teachers, but more importantly about her father. What she learns about her father will become important later on. Vee is able to eliminate some suspects but is still not able to solve the mystery of Sophie's death. In a sudden twist of events, Slide comes to a heart-stopping climax, revealing the killer and the motive behind the murders.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. First Hathaway's concept of sliding is brilliant and makes for an interesting beginning to the novel. But the novel begins to unwind after the point where Vee sees Sophie's death. Knowing that she can only slide from objects that others emotionally imprint upon, Vee's logical next step would be to try to locate the owner of the sheet from the calendar pad since it was this item that caused her to slide into the killer's consciousness. This piece of evidence comes directly from the killer. Instead, she loses this evidence and therefore contact with the killer. We however, don't really pick up on this important piece of information until much later in the novel. I felt the author could have used Vee sliding into the killer as a more effective means of creating suspense in the novel.

Vee's sliding doesn't really help her solve the crime other than by eliminating potential suspects, and providing the author with a device to tell the reader more about each character. Instead, Vee relies on her ability to think quickly and reason together pieces of the evidence - the key being the sheet from the calendar pad- to figure out what is happening.

In fact, the actual perpetrator ends up being a minor character introduced only at the very end of the novel, who has the most ridiculous motive for murder. It feels like the storyline and its ending weren't well thought out. A disappointing ending to a novel that began with much promise. Because the murderer is a minor character this means that the reader really can't solve this mystery but must follow along as things happen to Vee or those around her.

Hathaway does a wonderful job of recreating the high school environment with its changing loyalties, cliques, bullying, and blossoming romances. The interactions between characters are believable, especially those between Vee and her teachers. There are lots of issues that are a part of high school life which are touched upon even if only briefly in Slide; teen pregnancy, eating disorders, over the counter drug abuse, mental illness, bullying, teen dating, cyber bullying, date rape and suicide.

The author also does a great job of having Vee explore the relationships she has with the people around her - her family and friends. Vee's introspective character allows the reader to understand her and the relationships she has with her father, her sister Mattie, and with her friends, Rollins and Sophie.

Slide is an interesting novel, with some weak plot points, and which should have ditched the mystery element, focusing instead on the characters and their inter-relationships. This novel could have had a more intriguing cover too.

For those who are interested, Slide does have a sequel, Impostor, which is due out March, 2013. The synopsis from Jill Hathaway's blog reads:

What if a killer took control of you?

Vee Bell’s gift (or curse) of “sliding”—slipping into the mind of another person and experiencing life, briefly, through his or her eyes—has been somewhat under control since she unwillingly witnessed the horrific deaths of her classmates six months ago.

But just as things are getting back to normal, Vee has a very bizarre experience: she loses consciousness and finds herself in a deserted area, at the edge of a cliff, with the broken body of the boy who took advantage of her on the rocks below.

As Vee finds herself in stranger and stranger situations with no memory of getting there, she begins to suspect that someone she knows has the ability to slide—and that this “slider” is using Vee to exact revenge on his or her enemies.

Book Details:
Slide by Jill Hathaway
New York: HarperCollins Children's Books    2012
250 pp.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes

The World of Downton Abbey is the companion to the popular television series, Downton Abbey. This book provides the background to the world of Downton Abbey with chapters on family life, society, working in service to the upper class British society, fashion, the estate and romance.

Highclere Castle
The series which is set in the time when Edwardian society is beginning its decline, follows the story of one family and their servants. Downton is home not only to the Crawley family but also to the many servants who keep the estate house functioning.

The World of Downton Abbey provides wonderful insights into what it meant and what it was like to be in the life of service. For example, in Chapter One: Family Life, there is a short piece on Life in The Kitchen which tells us that kitchen staff worked the longest hours. The kitchen was the domain of the cook who did not tolerate interference from any other member of the household staff. In the chapter titled, Life In Service, Fellowes goes through each of the serving positions from lady's maid to butler to valet.

In Chapter Two: Society, there is background information on the real-life woman who formed the basis for the character Cora Crawley. That real person was Mary Leiter who was the daughter of the a very wealthy Chicago real estate speculator. Following in the tradition of other wealthy American girls traveling overseas to meet and marry upper class men, Mary managed to meet and dance with the Prince of Wales in 1890, thus ensuring her place in high society. She eventually went on to meet the Honourable George Curzon whom she married in 1985. To set the stage for presenting such people as Mary Leiter, Jessica Fellowes provides some historical background about "Buccaneer" girls, like Mary. The Buccaneers were eligible, wealthy young American women who came to Britain beginning in the late 1870's seeking husbands. These were the daughters of wealthy self-made Americans who sought entrance into high society - something "new" money couldn't buy in America. Early Buccaneers had no problem finding men to marry because many of the titled estates in Britain needed the American money to finance these huge properties. Other topics explored include primogeniture - the right of the eldest male to inherit an estate and a young woman's "coming out" in society.

The double library at Highclere
In Chapter Six: House and Estate, the focus is on Downton Abbey itself. The house, is actually Highclere Castle which has been home to the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679. The current turreted castle is built around a Georgian house which contains part of a medieval monastery used by the Bishops of Winchester many years before. The castle  is built in the Jacobethan style which is a mixture of Gothic and Elizabethan. The estate itself is comprised of 1000 acres of parkland and exquisite gardens. The State Dining Room contains the famous portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck. Another beautiful room is the double library which contains over 5600 books, some dating to the 1600's. There are eleven bedrooms on the first floor, including the Stanhope bedroom which is used as Mary's bedroom in Downton Abbey. It was decorated in rich reds for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1895.

As was the case for many British estates of the late 1800's, Highclere was saved by the money of an American heiress, Almina Wombwell, who was believed to be the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild.

Chapter Eight: War deals with the First World War including the effect of the war on society in Britain, the experiences of the soldiers, the changing role of women in society, and the Spanish flu.

There is no doubt that The World of Downton Abbey captivates the reader with it gorgeous photographs from the television series as well as numerous plates of historical images from the time period. It is well written, informative and will provide the series viewer with a solid background into the time period of Downton Abbey.

Book Details:
The World of Downton Abbey. The Secrets and History Unlocked by Jessical Fellowes
New York: St. Martin's Press     2011
303 pp.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The House of Djinn by Suzanne Fisher Staples

The House of Djinn continues the story of Shabanu, ten years into the future. Shabanu has continued to live, hidden from the Amirzai tribal clan, in their very own haveli in Lahore, along with Rahim's sister, Selma and their servant, the Christian woman Samiya. Meanwhile her daughter, Mumtaz (Muti), who lives in the home of her Uncle Omar and his wife Leyla and their son, Jaffar, has grown into a fifteen year old.

The novel opens with Shabanu deciding she has had enough of living in secret. After all these years, she has a deep need to see Mumtaz, and plans to leave the haveli and return to her parent's home in Cholistan to teach the desert women how to read and write. But she first sends a message to Ibne, Rahim's devoted servant, letting him know that she is alive. When Selma discovers that Shabanu has been wandering outside the haveli, she finally agrees to arrange a meeting between Mumtaz and Shabanu. When this occurs, Muti has mixed feelings. She is both happy and angry to learn that her mother is alive. Muti wonders how this will change the plans she has for her life.

Meanwhile, Leyla is still up to her scheming, evil ways, using Muti as a servant and now trying to marry her off to a local farm boy. Muti refers to these and other abuses as her auntie's "thousand pinpricks". She has grown into an independent, intelligent young woman, like her mother. Muti plays tennis at the Lahore Club and often meets her friend Fariel. Her meetings with her friend are a front for secret meetings with Jag, a Hindu boy whom Muti has fallen for. She knows the relationship is a dangerous one because her Muslim family would never allow her to marry a Hindu boy.

Muti has also become good friends with her first cousin once removed, Jameel, a fifteen year old boy who was born and raised in San Francisco. Jameel's family's yearly visits have allowed the two to grow close, sharing stories, secrets and dreams. Like Muti, Jameel has his own dreams and has fallen for a Jewish girl named Chloe who is a skateboarder. When he and his family suddenly leave San Francisco to fly to Lahore because of Grandfather's illness, he has just begun a relationship with this girl. He wonders what will happen to his life. And he is about the find out that this journey will change his life forever.

Against this family background is the drama of Grandfather's death. Grandfather, who is really Mahsood, Rahim's brother, was the leader of the Amirzai clan. His death means that a new leader must be chosen and the choice is somewhat predictable, given the author's considerable foreshadowing of who that might be. Not only that but these new plans involve Muti in a way that will guarantee and safeguard her life within the clan.

Muti and Jameel rebel against the clan's plan's for their lives. Both Uncle Omar and the maulvi explain to Jameel that he is not American and that he has a duty to the clan. If he turns his back on his family, he will lose them forever. He also tells Jameel that mahabbat or love in Pakistani culture is different from love in America. Love in Pakistan involves "tradition, piety, duty and family." He promises Jameel that he will be able to return to America and that he and Mumtaz will be able to attend college together.

Staples incorporates the idea of the djinn, a spirit, to guide Mumtaz but especially Jameel during this life-changing situation. The djinn is subtly woven in and out of Jameel and Mumtaz's stories. For Jameel it both saves and guides him throughout. For Mumtaz, it indicates that all is not well with Baba. The touch of paranormal in this novel is well done and will be of interest to young readers. The title, The House of Djinn is a reference to the House of Amirzai which is honoured by a spirit that inhabits both the old haveli and the house Omar and Leyla live in.

Overall I enjoyed this finale to the Shabanu series. It was well written and interesting but it was difficult for me as a Westerner to understand the decision of the Amirzai clan regarding Jameel and Muti. I found it hard to believe that Jameel's family would allow the clan to take a fifteen year old boy, who has lived his entire life in America, marry him off to an equally immature young woman and make him a tribal leader in a country like Pakistan, without telling him until circumstances forced doing so. I also felt it was terrible of Omar to put this responsibility on a boy when he himself refused this same duty to his father years earlier. His response to Jameel was unsatisfactory - that for Pakistan to survive the country needed people like a fifteen year old boy to run the tribal clans and introduce new ideas?? Omar refused Jameel's right to determine what kind of life he wanted to live. Having friends from Pakistan they told me this could happen but it would be very unusual.

I didn't like the author's tendency to give descriptions of events that occurred in previous books. This was repetitive and drew the reader away from the present narrative. For readers new to the series, this means they can pick up the book and read it as a stand alone, but for those who have read the previous two novels, it's a distraction.

Suzanne Staples does a good job of creating an exciting and unexpected climax to the story and using Uncle Omar to explain what will happen to Muti and Jameel. I'd love to see another book perhaps eight years into the future with Muti and Jameel in America, telling us what has happened to them and maybe further developing the storyline of Omar and Shabanu. This series is highly recommended for those readers interested in other cultures.

Book Details:
The House of Djinn by Suzanne Fischer Staples
New York: Frances Foster Books 2008
207 pp.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Baby Experiment by Anne Dublin

Set in Germany, in 1703, The Baby Experiment tells the story of a 14 year old Jewish girl, Johanna Richter, who signs up to work at an orphanage. With her father dead, Johanna and her mother try to support themselves by selling their lace in the market but it is becoming increasingly more difficult to make enough to feed their family. Johanna gives a false name, one that isn't Jewish because she knows as a Jew she would never be hired. When Johanna is offered the job, she is told that she must follow one rule absolutely. She must never talk or sing to the babies nor may she hold them longer than is absolutely necessary. Although she thinks the rule is strange and unnatural, Johanna needs this job badly and she accepts the position, without further thought.

Life in Hamburg, Germany during this time is not easy for the Jewish people. They have been prohibited from building a synagogue and rumours are afoot that the Jewish people would no longer be allowed to practice their religion even in private houses. The people of Hamburg have been agitating for the Senate to expel all the Jews in the city and many had moved to safer cities such as Altona and also to Amsterdam in Holland.

When Johanna arrives at the orphanage she learns that the babies are part of an experiment being run by Professor Gottfried Leibniz. Each young woman is assigned a section of the nursery with a number of babies under her care. When a baby cries the girls are to change the diaper and feed the baby but they cannot sing or talk to the baby. The work is tiring and difficult. Soon the babies start dying. Doctor Keller who is the orphanage doctor, tries every remedy he knows to no avail.

One day Johanna overhears a conversation between Keller and Leibniz about the babies and the experiment. She soon comes to understand that the young girls not interacting with the babies is slowly killing them. In effect, they are being asked to emotionally neglect the babies and Johanna cannot do this any longer. Johanna comes to a difficult decision and chooses a drastic course of action. She decides to flee with one of the babies in an attempt to rescue at least one child from death. With the help of Daniel the wagon driver who delivers fresh vegetables and fruit to the orphanage, and accompanied by another young girl, Cecile, Johanna slips out of the orphanage with baby Rebecca.

Johanna's journey is a difficult one, fraught with many dangers. She is aided by a Jewish man who has taken on the appearance and public practice of a Christian, Mendoza. Johanna feels a strange attraction to him. After many adventures, Johanna arrives at her destination knowing she has saved at least one of the babies from certain death.

Author Anne Dublin, lives in Toronto and is an award winning author of historical fiction and juvenile biographies. The Baby Experiment will appeal to younger fans of historical fiction who are looking for something a little different to read. This plot driven short story is well paced and provides young readers with a map to aid in understanding Johanna's journey and the setting of the story. The characters are believable and well conceived.

Johanna is a likeable character who struggles with the ever prevalent discrimination against Jews in Europe at this time. Her deep faith forms the basis for her actions. She is both courageous and intelligent, quick thinking and resourceful. Liked well enough by Cecile at first, when she learns that Johanna is a Jew she changes her opinion almost immediately.

The Baby Experiment touches on a few delicate subjects including human experimentation and prejudice.

Dublin is planning a new historical fiction which is set in 1931 Toronto and deals with the dressmakers strike. This should prove to be another interesting read.

Book Details:
The Baby Experiment by Anne Dublin
Toronto: Dundurn Press    2012
152 pp.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cape Town: A Novel by Brenda Hammond

Set in apartheid South Africa, in 1989, Cape Town tells the story of Renee Pretorius, an Afrikaner who leaves her family's sheep farm in the Karoo to study at the University of Cape Town ballet school.

Renee is met in Cape Town by her Aunt Lena who takes her to a single woman's hostel for Afrikaans, Huis Marta, because she is not allowed to stay at the university residences which are considered "hotbeds of sin" by her strict Dutch reform family. At Huis Marta Renee meets Nicolette Dupreez, a liberal Cape Town woman, who helps her adjust to the big city.

Cape Town is fascinating for Renee because for the first time she sees many Whites, Blacks and Coloureds (people of African, European and Malaysian heritage) together in one place. Her initial feelings are of dismay.
"...She was surprised to find herself walking next to a girl of mixed race, dressed much more fashionably than she herself. Ahead strolled three or four Africans. Like the White students, they were wearing jeans.
As she hurried past, one of them stepped to the side. His hand brushed hers. Why such people were being accepted at the University of Cape Town instead of being sent to their own universities where they study with others of their kind, she couldn't imagine."

At the ballet school, Renee meets Meryl Aldwych, a second year student, first year student Charmaine, and Dion October a Coloured boy from Manenberg on the Cape Flats. Renee finds that she is somewhat behind the other students in technique but she works hard to improve and is one of ten students chosen to take the pas de deux class.

As Afrikaners, Renee's family believe that "the state was divine and that the Afrikaners had a God-given right to be arbiters of the pagan people around them." But as Renee meets more people, of different backgrounds and races, her views on Blacks and Coloureds begins to slowly change.

When she has to write a biography on a famous dancer for her History of Dance class, Renee heads to the library to find books on her favourite dancer, Anna Pavlova. There she meets the blond, pony-tailed English man she and her aunt saw at an anti-apartheid demonstration when she first arrived in Cape Town. Andrew Miller is an architecture student, in his fifth year and working on his thesis. Despite their disagreement on apartheid and politics, Renee's attraction to Andrew grows, even though she knows her parents would never approve of her relationship with him. For one thing he's English and for another he is very liberal.

As her friendship with Andrew grows, and he introduces her to new ideas that are different from her strict Dutch Reformed upbringing and explains position of the anti-apartheid protesters. He explains to Renee why he believes the government of South Africa is unjust and its policies must be changed.

All of this creates a great deal of conflict both within Renee and also between her and Andrew.  Renee finds herself questioning the beliefs of her family. When she attends church with her Aunt Lena and the dominee tells the congregation that modern entertainments including live stage shows are corrupting, Renee struggles to understand how something like ballet could be wrong. "Surely the human being's ability to create beauty must be a God-given gift?" she wonders. She also tries to understand her religion's teaching on premarital sex. Renee also experiences deep conflict because she knows she is in a forbidden relationship without her parents knowledge.

She questions not only her family's religious beliefs but also their political and social values. Through her conversations and arguments with Andrew, Renee begins to wonder about her father's involvement in apartheid. Is her father is a member of the secret brotherhood, the Broederbond, which was instrumental in creating apartheid in South Africa?

Her brother Etienne who works in military intelligence is used by Hammond to voice the views of the ruling white class in South Africa.  Etienne  warns Renee to be careful about who she associates with. He tells her that the army has students who inform on others and that she ought to be aware that she could be watched. When Renee questions her brother about the arrests and the state jailing children, she is astounded to learn that he believes these children are better off in jail.

She also struggles to understand Andrew's role in the Struggle. Is he a terrorist? What exactly is his role? Too afraid to ask at first, she can't decide whether to continue seeing him or not. Eventually Renee grows to not only love Andrew but to admire him for living according to his convictions.

Renee's attraction to Andrew becomes so intense that they become intimately involved. This sets up even more conflict for Renee because she is going against her religious beliefs in the area of sexual morality AND she is in love with an activist that is working against the political order that her family is a part of.  More and more Renee comes to realize that she might have to choose either Andrew or her family and circumstances force her into this scenario. When her parents learn of her relationship Renee must decide whether she will live by her parents values or stand up to them and live according to what she believes in.

Brenda Hammond has written a poignant, coming of age novel about a young girl in a troubled time. The late 1980's were a period of drastic and rapid change throughout the world, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe as well as the eventual fall of apartheid in South Africa.

Renee is a well crafted, endearing character whose struggles many of us can identify with. She must decide the values she will live her life by - something all of us must come to at some point in life. Hammond effectively portrays Renee's journey from a young person who believes everything she's been told by her parents to a more mature person who begins to critically examine the world around her and also the society she lives in.

Aunt Lena is the typical character whose function it is to point out what happens when we do what others expect of us and not what we want in life. A host of other interesting characters round out the storyline. The loveable Kokadais, the family servant who is more aware of the changes in Renee than her parents; Dion October the second year dance student and Coloured; and the faithful Nicolette who helps Renee numerous times.

A map would have helped young readers understand the setting better and an Author's Note on South Africa and apartheid would have been helpful too. The lovely cover, the unique setting and the touch of romance should draw in older teens and young adults. Another well written Canadian novel for teens.

Book Details:
Cape Town by Brenda Hammond
Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications    2012
326 pp.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis

Valli is a coal picker in Jharia, that is someone who picks up the coal that falls from the baskets carried by the women out of the coal pit. When Valli learns the truth of her birth and her family she flees the village to live in Kolkata. She hitches a ride in a coal truck but when she is discovered Valli is taken to a woman in Kolkata. Because she is so dirty, the woman decides to bathe and clean her, but then the women soon realize the truth of Valli's condition. She is driven out and becomes a street child in the city. Using her keen intelligence, and her "magic feet" which don't feel pain, Valli manages to survive from day to day.

One day at the river Ganges, she meets a woman who notices Valli's indifference to her damaged and infected feet. When she questions her, Valli believes she wants to rob her but then she learns that this woman is a doctor. Dr. Indra takes Valli to a hospital and tells her that she has Hansen's Disease or leprosy. This is the reason Valli's magic feet do not feel anything. She tells Valli that she can stay at the hospital and be cured. Dr. Indra recognizes that Valli is very intelligent,  and that she is naturally inquisitive about the human body. However, Valli doesn't trust anyone and she is terribly frightened. So she runs away.

Her life doesn't get better though. Instead it becomes harder to survive on the dangerous streets of Kolkata. Valli finds herself becoming mean and hardened and she doesn't like this. Her feet smell bad and look terrible. She also desperately wants to learn more about the human body. She knows she has to make a choice; either stay on the streets and become sicker or go to the hospital and hope that she can make a new and better life for herself.

This short novel, written by accomplished author Deborah Ellis, provides young readers with a window into the life of the poor street children in India and the devastating disease of leprosy which still plagues many Third World countries today. Through the eyes of Vallie, we view the life of the poorest of the poor -- "those who are truly not seen". Ellis creates an endearing character whom the reader cheers for, from beginning to end.

Well suited to middle grade readers interested in social issues in the Third World.

Book Details:
No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis
Toronto: Groundwood Books    2011
159 pp.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

172 Hours On The Moon by Johan Harstad

172 Hours is set in the year, 2019. In 2010, eight men including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met to plan a return mission to the moon. They want to return to a secret base, DARLAH 2 built in the Sea of Tranquility from 1974 to 1976. It was built there to investigate some unusual phenomena which the Apollo astronauts encountered during the moon missions. We are never told what much about the first DARLAH base until well into the novel. 

The purpose of this new mission is threefold; to make sure the base is in working condition, to investigate the potential for mining rare Earth metals and to attract media attention so as to secure funding for future missions. To attract the necessary media attention, they decide to send three teenagers on the mission to attract a new generation of supporters for space exploration. The teens will be chosen by lottery, an unrealistic aspect of the plot because it assumes that everyone is suitable for space exploration. This information which is provided in the prologue provides the backstory.

The first section of the novel, entitled Earth focuses for the most part on the three teens chosen for the mission ; Mia Nomeland from Stavanger, Norway, Midori Yoshida from Yokohama, Japan, and sixteen year old Antoine Devereux from Paris, France. Each has their reason for going. For Mia it's the dream of fame even though her parents signed her up for the lottery , for Midori this is her chance to escape her restrictive life in Japan, while for Antoine it's an escape from a broken relationship. Once they learn they are to participate, things move quickly and the teens undergo a rigorous but short three month training program. 

We also learn about Oleg Himmelfarb, an elderly man who once had been "a custodian with the highest security clearance at NASA's Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the middle of the Mojave Desert." Now suffering from dementia, he lives in a nursing home. When Oleg hears about the mission he is terrified to the depths of his very being, but he can't remember why.  Eventually Oleg remembers the source of his fear, but near death and unable to speak, he can only provide a clue which may or may not be recognized by the nursing home staff.

The second part, Sky relates the unfolding horror once the mission arrives on the moon. On the moon, things begin going wrong almost immediately and people begin to die. What seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, becomes a desperate struggle for survival against something they don't understand but they know is evil. One by one, crew and teens disappear and die. The crew then makes the unnerving discovery of the doppelganger. Harstad introduces the doppelganger into the novel to create both confusion among characters and suspense. Soon we don't know who is real and who is not, who survives and who doesn't.

This novels suffers from a somewhat unbalanced structure with 145 pages devoted to the time before the moon expedition in which background is prevented but not much character development occurs. The lack of character development makes it difficult to relate to the teens and especially the crew who are mostly one dimensional characters. But in a novel driven by plot this doesn't matter quite so much. The effect thous is to want to skip these pages for the most part to get to the more interesting parts of the novel.

Harstad's ending is reminiscent of renowned science fiction writer, John Wyndham, whose novels often left readers to figure out what happened on their own. But unlike Wyndham's endings, there is nothing to suggest the twist the story takes and the ending is largely inexplicable.

Also similar to Wyndham, Harstad's science fiction novel is a combination of horror and psychological thriller.The author uses a great number of devices from modern sci-fi/horror movies including Alien and also Japanese horror movies. The Japanese myth of the Kuchisake-onna, the Slit-Mouth Woman, which is a malicious spirit, is introduced into the novel creating an element of impending horror. There is foreshadowing of this spirit in the first part of the book, when Midori is warned by "Hanako-chan" not to go to the moon.

Harstad also works the mystery of the alphanumeric code 6EQUJ5, which was an unknown signal picked up by the Big Ear Radio Observatory in Ohio in August, 1977, into the novel. The origins of this signal have never been determined and it remains unexplained to date. For Harstad this is a warning not to return to the moon.

If you like horror with your science fiction, and don't mind the loose ends, this book will appeal. Many readers will be drawn in by the innovative cover and the nifty premise. Many will leave unsatisfied.

Book Details:
172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad
New York: Little, Brown and Company
355 pp.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Haveli by Suzanne Fisher Staples

Haveli is the second book in the Shabanu series. It continues Shabanu's story, six years after her marriage to Rahim, an elderly, powerful clan leader. She lives in the family compound in Okurabad and now has a five year old daughter Mumtaz but has had no other children.

Shabanu is the youngest of Rahim's four wives and the only one he is interested in. Because of this, his other wives, especially his first wife, Amina and her daughter Leyla,  hate Shabanu and make her life miserable. They have also threatened her and she realizes that both her and her daughter's life are in danger. Shabanu refuses to defend herself and that fuels their hatred. The wives believe she has bewitched Rahim and call her a witch. So as a first step towards protecting herself and Mumtaz, Shabanu moves into a room behind the stables, against Rahim's wishes.

Life in Rahim's family is filled with intrigue and change. Although the women appear to get along with one another, in fact, the opposite is true.
"But the women's gentle camaraderie and the laughter that rang out from the family zenana in truth covered up something else. Behind their veils, the women also plotted and schemed, usually one against another, often several against one or two, occasionally all united against one, and that one most frequently was Shabanu."
Shabanu knows that the day will come when she will no longer be able to stay in the family. As the younger wife, from a desert family, with no social standing and no education, she and her daughter are in danger. Shabanu begins to consider that she may have to leave and live in the desert with Auntie Sharma not only for her own safety but that of her daughter especially.

One day when Rahim returns from Lahore, he tells Shabanu that he and his younger brother Nazir have come to an agreement which will settle their feud. He plans to marry his eldest son, Ahmed, who is an "idiot" to Nazir's only child, a daughter named Zabo. Shabanu, who was helped by Zabo when she was prepared for marriage at age twelve, is horrified by this plan. Zabo however is resigned to her fate, because although she is beautiful, she is considered unmarriageable. Nazir is the least successful of the three brothers and is a quarrelsome evil man who has made many enemies.

A second marriage has already been decided upon. Mahsood, the middle brother will see his son, Omar, marry Leyla who is Rahim and Amina's eldest daughter. This marriage will reunite the clans for the first time in over two hundred years. Omar will return soon to Pakistan, after studying overseas in America.

To prepare for Zabo's wedding which will take place before that of Leyla's, the entire family moves to Lahore. Shabanu, her daughter Mumtaz, and Zabo stay at the haveli which is Rahim's ancestral home in Lahore. It is rundown but at least they are away from the evil Amina and Leyla and the rest of the scheming wives who stay in the concrete homes in the fashionable Cantonment area.

During her time at the haveli, Shabanu meets Omar and unexpectedly falls in love with him. In Omar, Shabanu discovers what it is to love a man. He treats her with kindness and respect. Shabanu notices that he includes the women in every conversation. But she knows they can never be together. If her feelings were ever discovered she would be put to death.

Zabo does not want to marry Ahmed and she begs Shabanu to help her. Nazir has given her a huge sum of money for her dowry to buy clothing and jewels. Zabo decides that she will buy cheap, imitation jewels and save the money that Nazir has given her to use for her escape into the desert. They make arrangements for Zabo's escape but when the wedding is moved ahead by weeks, events are set in motion that result in a brutal blood feud, with catastrophic results.

Suzanne Fisher Staples manages to engage the reader from the beginning to the very end in this beautifully crafted novel about a clan in a specific area of Pakistan. We begin the novel wondering about the future of Shabanu and her daughter Mumtaz, but are quickly drawn into the terrible situation Zabo faces. In the end, Shabanu is in as much danger as Zabo, and her planning to help Zabo, ends up providing for her too.

Layered over this is the theme of a forbidden love which culminates in a truly heartrending scene at the Derawar Fort. Although she tries to push Omar from her heart, her love for him remains buried within her, while a greater love, that for her daughter must take precedence.

Shabanu is a multifaceted character, who is both fascinating and wonderful to read about. She is once again, the strong female character who does not let fate take its course, but instead plans so that she may make her own choices. She is attentive to those around her, recognizing those whose actions indicate an evil heart, and those who truly need help. She saves the servant, Zenat, who is cruelly tortured by the kitchen staff. She recognizes the difficult life her sister, Phulan has, as she bears child after child. She also hopes for more for Mumtaz, whom Amina wishes to make into a kitchen servant.

While the men around her must allow tribal customs to dictate their actions even when they know these decisions will cause great suffering (usually to the women), Shabanu is willing to consider other ways.

Once again Suzanne Staples writing makes accessible and real, the unique cultural life of a small part of Pakistan. We often talk about books being a window to the world. Ms. Staples opens one such window and lets us experience fully the beauty, the tragedy, the good and the bad of one such culture.

Book Details:
Haveli by Suzanne Fisher Staples
New York: Borzoi Books
259 pp.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

While He Was Away by Karen Schreck

 "One year -- he'll be going for one year and then we'll be together again and everything will be back to the way it should be."
 Penelope (Penna) Weaver and David O'Dell are sweethearts living in Killdeer, Oklahoma. The two met last year, when David was a senior and Penna a junior and new to the local high school. Now David is off to Iraq while Penna finishes high school. While He Was Away tells the story of how Penna copes with her boyfriend going off to war for a year.

Layered throughout this main storyline is the story of Penna struggling to unearth her family's hidden past. Penna and her mother Linda moved back to Killdeer, where her mother took over The Red Earth, the family restaurant left to her by her estranged father when he died. She also inherited the family home.

When Penna and her mother go into the attic to rescue a stray killdeer, they find an envelope containing a black and white photograph and a letter. The photograph is of her grandmother, Justine Blue, when she was eighteen years old. The letter is from Justine's husband, Owen Delmore, who was serving overseas in 1945. He never returned from World War II.

The photograph elicits strong emotions from Penna's mother, but her anger and stonewalling only make Penna more determined to find out about this mysterious woman from her family's past and why her mother hates her so much.

Gradually, we learn along with Penna, the story of Justine's life and why her daughter, Linda wants nothing to do with her and will not forgive her. We also discover that Linda's life has been hard because of the choices her parents have made and the choices she's made too.

Despite Linda's pain, Penna becomes determined to find her grandmother and through a series of quirky coincidences soon learns that she has returned to Killdeer. Her grandmother, now elderly, is frail and suffering from Alzheimer's. Penna meets Justine, against her mother's wishes, in order to learn more about her family's roots. She feels a bond with her grandmother because like her grandmother at age eighteen, they both had to wait for a man they love to come home from war. From this meeting Penna decides that she needs to get Justine and Linda together, in an attempt to heal the rift between them before it's too late.

Meanwhile for Penna and David things are changing. Neither of them is the same person they were when David went to war just a few short months ago. Penna is becoming more mature and responsible by working at the restaurant, saving for college and learning to deal with David's absence.

David changes too, but not in a positive way. Penna sees that he has lost weight and that he is deeply affected by the plight of the children in the orphanage in Iraq. He is also upset at how the war is affecting those connected to the soldiers. He becomes fearful of loving as he sees how the war destroys relationships of other soldiers in his unit. While Penna hoped he could hold on, the realities of war push them apart and David is no longer able to cope with the ever present possibility of losing someone you care deeply for.He acts to protect himself, doing the very thing he is afraid of.

For Penna this loss is similar to the loss Justine experienced almost 60 years ago. Life must go on and she must learn to cope until David comes back, if he comes back. To that end her friends and her newly connected family help her.

 Schreck combines the intergenerational story of Justine and Penna, both of whom had similar experiences when they were eighteen. Like Justine, Penna loves her soldier very much, but sometimes circumstances are beyond our control; often war comes between two people in one way or another. My only complaint was that at times, it was difficult to piece together Penna's family history because it is told in parts throughout the novel and because there are many minor storylines too. But Schreck eventually weaves together the narrative in a satisfying manner.

Schreck effectively shows that couples separated by war today experience the same difficulties as those in previous wars. Penna struggles to rebuild her life after David, just as Justine struggled to cope and rebuild her life after losing her first love.

Justine and Owen's story mirrors that of the author's mother whose first husband, Orville, went to war in 1944-45 and who died a hero. Her mother was so heartbroken, she spent months writing letters to him after his death and playing Chopin. Eventually her mother left to study music in Chicago where she met the author's father and eventually remarried. Seventeen years passed between her first husband's death and the birth of the author, Karen.

But while Schreck's mother was able to use her loss as a catalyst for living again, Penna's grandmother was unable to. She was unable to accept the loss of her first love, and eventually abandoned her second marriage and her young daughter, a decision she deeply regrets.

While He Was Away will probably pleasantly surprise most readers who expect just a love story, but this novel is much more. It is a nuanced recounting of love, loyalty, loss, forgiveness and healing across three generations. It is a poignant reminder of the far reaching effects of war, on those who serve and those who love them - effects which often even time can't heal. The author has included a section on tips on how to be an army girlfriend.

I hope that Karen Schreck will consider writing a sequel to this novel, letting us know what happens to Penna and David when he returns from the war in Iraq. I will be rooting for Penna and David.

Book Details:
While He Was Away by Karen Schreck
Naperville, Ill. : Sourcebooks Fire        2012
249 pp.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

In The Valley of the Grizzly by Ed Ferrell

In The Valley of the Grizzly is a wilderness survival novel. Fourteen year old Ben James, a Tlingit Indian and his grandfather Cyrus Paul accompany Dan Taggart, a bush pilot on a trip into the northern British Columbia wilderness. They are flying from Wrangell, Alaska to Tahltan Creek, British Columbia when engine trouble forces their plane to land on a lake. Dan is able to repair the plane and inexplicably leaves Ben and his grandfather in the small camp to cancel the mayday. He never returns. This leaves Ben and his grandfather stranded in the unforgiving northern wilderness, some 300 miles east of Telegraph Creek, British Columbia.

On their own, Grandfather realizes that Ben needs to learn the way of the bush so he begins instructing him in the bush craft used by his Tlingit ancestors. He teaches Ben how to pray before hunting, promising never to waste anything and how to show respect for all the animals and the environment. At first Ben is embarrassed and uninterested in his grandfather's Indian lore. But when it becomes apparent that Dan might not return, Ben becomes more open and he begins to listen and try to understand what his grandfather is teaching him. He learns how to make a fire, set snares, and to be observant about the signals other animals are sending that might indicate danger.

That danger is identified when the two encounter a huge grizzly bear, whose territory they find themselves in. After a first terrifying encounter in which Grandfather talks the bear down using formal Tlingit to show the bear respect, Ben realizes that they will have be on the watch all the time. Grandfather tells Ben that he believes this bear has been hurt by humans and is angry. Further adversity hits when Grandfather dies and Ben now must face the wilderness alone.

Gradually throughout the summer Ben learns how to live off the land and begins preparing for winter. He picks up a friend in a lone wolf who serves to alert Ben to the presence of the grizzly. Although he tries to avoid the grizzly there are more encounters. There is a detailed and gory description of the grizzly killing and feeding on a caribou, which is sure to fascinate boys.
"The silver tip reared up to his full height and located Ben, its broad head just a few feet below Ben. The grizzly stared into Ben's eyes and he saw death looking at him. In a strained voice, Ben said, 'Hootz, I didn't set the trap that tore off your foot or hurt you in any way. I am Ben James of the Gooch Kaynlye House.'"
Ben locates a cave and makes it his home, preparing for winter by stocking up on caribou jerky and using whatever he can to help him survive the coming cold weather. But one day he and Wolf return to find the grizzly has entered their cave. Ben knows he needs that cave in order to survive the winter. This leads to a final, brutal confrontation that forms the climax of the novel.

Originally published in 2002 as Wolf Brother. Survival in the Far North, this novel is sure to appeal to young teen boys interested in wilderness survival and animals. The novel was reprinted in 2011 with a dedication to their father from William and Patricia Ferrell. Overall it is well written, with considerable detail given to surviving in the wilderness. The encounters with the grizzly are exciting, as Ferrell effectively captures the terror and awe of these large, dangerous animals.

Carroll Edgar Ferrell moved to Alaska when he was a young man and loved the northern wilderness. He used his extensive personal experience in the Alaskan and Canadian back country to help him write this novel. Ferrell also relied upon information provided by Tlingit Medicine Man, Cyrus Peck, Jr. and accounts of grizzly attacks in the north.

A map of Ben's territory would have added significantly to this novel, allowing the reader to place the story. A more appealing cover would also entice more young readers to read what is a very well written, but somewhat predictable survival story. And the novel could do without the typo errors, especially the one on the back cover.

Book Details:
In the Valley of The Grizzly by Ed Ferrell
Alaska Northwest Books     2011
179 pp.