Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ru: a novel by Kim Thuy

"...My parents often remind my brothers and me that they won't have any money for us to inherit, but I think they've already passed on to us the wealth of their memories, allowing us to grasp the beauty of a flowering wisteria, the delicacy of a word, the power of wonder. Even more, they've given us feet for walking to our dreams, to infinity...."

Ru is autobiographical, a collection of stories based somewhat on  Kim Thuy's life; from a small child living in a well to do family in Saigon, to a refugee in a camp in Malaysia, to a new life in Canada. Told in the voice of Nguyen An Tinh, each page presents a memory from childhood or adulthood or a recounting of some event experienced by someone who touched the narrator's life.

Nguyen An Tinh tells the story of her family, from their life in Vietnam during the war, their escape on a boat to a refugee camp in Malaysia, and their new life in Granby, Quebec. Born in Saigon, during the Tet offensive, Nguyen's family was well off, living in a large home, until the Communists overran the southern half of the country, and came to occupy her family's home. The contents were inventoried and eventually removed. Nguyen's family escaped Vietnam on an overcrowded boat that landed in Malaysia, where they spent time in a refugee camp, awaiting immigration to a new life in Canada.

Some vignettes portray the realities of life in South Vietnam for a large family; the numbering of siblings and relations, the devotion and respect of the younger generation towards their elders, and the merging of Chinese and Vietnamese families.

Other memories reveal the horrors of the Vietnam war; both personal tragedies and the tragedies other Vietnamese experienced. There are the abandoned children of American GI's, the occupation of the family home by members of the Communist government; the heroics of neighbour Anh Phi and his mother, who found Nguyen's family's lost diamonds so they could pay their passage out of Vietnam.

Flashbacks reveal a childhood in Granby, Quebec where her mother sent her to a military garrison of cadets to master the English language, where a friend Johanne took her to movies, and where she and her family learned the ways of a different culture in a land made beautiful by never-before-seen snow.

Interposed with all of these are present reflections of Nguyen's life as the mother of two boys, Pascal and Henri and her struggle to cope with Henri's autism.

Ru juxtaposes past with present, moving seamlessly between the two, often linking the vignettes with a word or idea. The voice of Nguyen is muted but still manages to convey the horror of war, the dislocation and loss of a way of life, and the struggles to begin again in a strange new land.. In this way Ru is not just a telling of Kim Thuy's experiences but also has relevance to other "boat people" who escaped Vietnam.

Author Kim Thuy discusses Ru in this short interview:

Originally published in French and winner of the Governor General's Award, Ru is a poetic read that will stir the hearts of readers, especially those of us who remember the arrival of the "boat people" in our communities almost forty years ago.

Book Details:
Ru by Kim Thuy
Random House Canada       2009
141 pp.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

DVD Drama: Mozart's Sister

Mozart's Sister is a fictional portrayal of the life of Maria-Anna Mozart, better known as Nannerl, sister to genius composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and thought to be a musical prodigy in her own right.

The movie opens showing the Mozart family traveling through Europe in the cold of winter from one country to the next as father Leopold showcases the talents of his children but especially that of his son, Wolfgang. Wolfgang plays the violin, while Nannerl accompanies him on the clavichord. Life is not easy for this family of this point, Nannerl is fourteen years old, Wolfgang only ten years of age. Nannerl is very gifted, able to play the clavichord, sing and play the violin. She especially loves the violin but her father refuses to allow her to play the instrument, telling her that it is not an instrument for a girl.

On their way to Paris, the axle of their carriage cracks and they are forced to put up at the Benedictine Abbey where they meet the four younger daughters of King Louis XV. These daughters, Victoire, Sophie, Therese and Louise were not raised in the Palace at Versailles but were sent to the Abbey of Fontevraud to stay until they were young women. Nannerl befriends Louise, who wishes for a life like Nannerl's. Louise hasn't seen her parents in years and she wishes she could live with her parents as Nannerl does.

Louise de France confides in Nannerl that she has fallen in love with the son of her music master, Hugues de Tourneur who has since left the Abbey to return to Versailles. She wishes Nannerl to take a letter to Hugues. Strangely, she also gives Nannerl a book about sex and asks her to destroy it. Nannerl agrees to both errands and the two depart promising to keep in contact.

When the Mozart's arrive in Paris, they learn that the Dauphine, Maria Teresa, the wife of Louis, Dauphin of France has died in childbirth and that the court is in mourning. Despite this, Nannerl's father continues to push Wolfgang in his music, arranging performances for the court where Wolfgang plays violin and Nannerl accompanies him on the clavichord.

Meanwhile, Nannerl manages to deliver Louise's letter to Hugues with the help of a friend in the court, who disguises her as a boy. At this time she meets the Dauphin, Louis of France, who is impressed with her musical abilities. He is only sixteen at this time, now a widower, and a lover of music. They begin a friendship with Louis encouraging Nannerl to compose for him. But when she asks her father to allow her to sit in on Wolfgang's composition classes, he refuses her, telling her women do not compose.

Nannerl's father decides to leave France for England and although she accompanies them to the country, she decides soon after to leave and return to France to try to set up her own studio and to compose. The Dauphin of France immediately commissions a minuet for violin and orchestra. In order to compose this piece, Nannerl sets out to attend composition class, which she does, disguised as a boy. With the Dauphin as her patron, Nannerl sees her first composition performed in the palace.

Eventually, Louis tells Nannerl that he must marry again and that he is to be betrothed to Maria-Josepha of Saxony who is fifteen years old. Louis who was very devoted to his first wife, tells her that he is disgusted with the debauched ways of his father who has numerous mistresses and illegitimate children. A devote Catholic, he will not take a mistress.

In the meantime, Nannerl meets Louise at the monastery in St. Denis and learns that she has become a nun. For Louise as a woman in 18th century France, there are only two options; marry royalty or become a nun. She is at peace with the latter choice, but she does tell Nannerl how different their lives would be if they were both born boys.  When Nannerl asks her about Hugues, Louise reveals that he is her half brother, from one of her father's many illicit liaisons.

When Nannerl's family return to France and are homeward bound to Salzburg, Nannerl decides to return with them despite the realization that she has nothing in common with her friends who have all been prepared for marriage. She destroys her compositions and accepts her future, one without composing or performing.

Written and directed by Rene Feret, Mozart's Sister presents a fictional telling of Nannerl's early life within the context of 18th century European society but with a slight feminist slant.  We see Nannerl, in her early teens, devoted to music which up until now has been her whole life, hopeful that she might be able to develop her talents on the violin and in composition. We know from history, that Nannerl Mozart was taught from an early age to play the harpsichord and was known as an accomplished pianist. However once Nannerl came of marriageable age, she was no longer allowed to perform [publicly. There is also some indirect evidence that she did in fact compose music but none of her compositions have survived. Mozart's Sister captures the quiet frustration Nannerl and other young women like her might have felt with so few options open to them in life.

The film realistically captured what life would have been like for the Mozart family traveling throughout Europe seeking the patronage of royalty and seems to be accurate in its portrayal of the relationship between Nannerl and her father, whom she obeyed throughout her life - even to the point of allowing him to decide whom to marry and allowing him to raise her young son.

Mozart's Sister will appeal to those who enjoy period pieces and also foreign films. The movie is a French language film with English subtitles. The director's two daughters star as Nannerl and Louise de France, and the rest of the cast give solid performances. Well paced, this film was shot on location at Versailles.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Obstinate Pen by Frank W. Dormer

When Uncle Flood receives a new pen he sets out to write, but the pen has it's own idea of what should be written. When he writes, "The following story is all true.", the pen writes, "You have a BIG nose." After several attempts at writing, in total exasperation, Uncle Flood tosses his pen. But each new owner finds the pen has more than just it's own mind. It's downright obstinate! with its cheeky remarks that both amuse and annoy each new owner. That is until Horace comes into possession of the pen.

This incredibly funny book is a great read aloud that appeals to both children and adults alike. Frank Dormer's pen and water colour illustrations are not to be missed.

If you'd like to view more of Dormer's work you can check out his blog, My Brain On Paper.

Book Details:
The Obstinate Pen by Frank W. Dormer
New York: Henry Holt and Company    2012
32 pp.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Drama MiniSeries: Titanic. One Voyage. A World of Untold Stories

Titanic written by Oscar and Emmy winner, Julian Fellowes, more recently renowned for his Downton Abbey series tells the stories of people on the fated maiden voyage of the Titanic.

There are four episodes to the mini-series, the first of which briefly introduces all the main characters and then follows the Titanic on her fateful first voyage. The remaining three episodes repeat that timeline, each time providing more insight into the characters and fleshing out the events each set of characters experience until the sinking of the ship.

For example, one set of characters we follow are Paolo and Mario Sandrini, two Italian brothers looking for a better life in America. Episode One shows Mario leading his brother Paolo onto the Titanic, but then they each go their separate ways - Paolo to the stewards quarters and Mario to the stokers quarters. In the second episode we learn that only Mario had been hired to work on Titanic and we see Paolo working in first class restaurant and developing a friendship with Annie Desmond who is a Cabin Stewardess for Second Class. Paolo is a dreamer, while Mario is more practical. By the third episode we learn that Paolo secures a position on Titanic as a Steward in First Class when an English Steward goes missing.

Some of the characters followed throughout the miniseries include the fictional Hugh Earl of Manton, his wife, Louisa, Countess of Manton, and their daughter Lady Georgina Grex who is involved with the women's suffragette movement in Britain; Barnes who is the Earl's valet and Watson who is the Countess's maid; John and Muriel Bately who are Second Class passengers; steerage passengers Jim Maloney who is given passage on the Titanic as payment for completing the electrical wiring of the ship on time and his wife Mary and their four children.

There are plenty of historical characters thrown into the mix as well; Bruce Ismay, Chairman of White Star Lines; Lord Pirrie,chairman of Harland and Wolff, builders of Titanic; wealthy American Benjamin Guggenheim and his lover Madame Aubart; Grace and Joseph Rushton, representative of the nouveau riche class; Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon, a Scottish baronet; John Jacob Astor and his young, pregnant second wife Ava who are returning from their honeymoon overseas; and Margaret "Molly" Brown, a wealthy American who insisted that the lifeboat she was in return to pick up survivors.

There is also the controversial Peter the Painter, known as Peter Piatkov, a Latvian national who was thought to be involved in the Sidney Street Seige in 1911 in London, England. Peter has boarded Titanic to escape to America and helps the third class passengers in their fight to be allowed onto Titanic's upper decks.

The trick to a drama in which everyone knows the ending, is to add some new characters (will they survive?) so we can explore their lives, add some historical figures who set down the reality of the situation, and find a unique way to retell that story. Fellowes tries to accomplish the latter by looping back to the beginning with each of the four parts, but it becomes repetitive and even predictable. There are so many characters introduced in the first episode that it's difficult to keep track of them and most of the drama is standard fare and rather boring.

The final episode does have some touching moments, for example, when Jim Maloney finds his lost daughter Theresa, in a flooding stairwell, and when John and Muriel Bates decide to reconcile and accept what their life has been. The ending does manage to capture the horror of hundreds of passengers and crew thrown into the frigid North Atlantic waters, the lifeboats coming upon the dead and the dying, and finally only the silence remaining on a glassy sea while waiting to be rescued. Missing however, were the chunks of sea ice and the frosty breath of survivors in the boats.

There are some puzzling shots in the first episode which appear to show Titanic low in the water as she is sinking rather than in her iconic stern-raised pose - she sank bow first but split apart between the third and fourth funnel.

Titanic does focus a great deal on the class prejudice which existed at this time in Western society and which was so dramatically demonstrated in the Titanic disaster by the difference in survival rates between first class passengers and third class passengers.

Once again, a drama about a terrible tragedy which doesn't really capture the essence of the disaster.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Under The Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples

Under the Persimmon Tree tells the story of two families in war-torn Afghanistan beginning a month after the September 11th attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The story is narrated by two people; American born Elaine Perrin, now Nusrat Faiz, married to Dr. Faiz Ahmed Faiz and living in Peshwar, Pakistan, and Najmah a young girl fleeing her destroyed village in Northern Afghanistan.

The novel opens in Golestan Village, Northern Afghanistan, where Najmah lives with her mother who is expecting a baby very soon, her brother Nur, and her father, Baba-jan. The day begins like any other until a visit by the Taliban ends in catastrophe for Namjah's family. The Taliban take their food and kidnap her brother and her father to be soldiers. A few days later as Najmah and her mother struggle to survive, her baby brother, Habib, is born.

Namjah's Uncle Mohiuddin comes often to the family home, not to help, but to display his avarice openly for their father's land. Her uncle grows poppies for opium, a crop Najmah's father refuses to grow. He also supports the Taliban. Mohiuddin tells Najmah and her mother that they must leave the Kunduz Hills, as they will never be able to manage the farm, but they refuse. They know that Mohiuddin wants their land and it is their duty to protect it until the men return from fighting.

Najmah takes the goats to the mountains to graze and one night watches a wonderful meteor shower. She does not understand this celestial display and is terrified. When she decides to return to her home in the valley Najmah witnesses the destruction of her family. Her life is further shattered by this event. She is taken in by her neighbour's son, Akhtar, and his wife Khalida, who with their two sons plan to walk to the border town of Torkhum, to escape the Taliban and the coming war with America. When they arrive in Torkhum, Najmah decides she must travel on to Peshawar to see if she can locate her father and younger brother.

Meanwhile, in Peshawar, Nusrat visits her husband, Faiz's family. Nusrat met Faiz when she was attending Columbia University in New York. They both lived in the same old brownstone walk-up. Faiz was a physician working at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. A year after they were married, Faiz confessed to Nusrat that he was concerned about the terrible situation developing in his homeland, Afghanistan. He felt he needed to return there, but with an American wife, Faiz felt this was not possible. However, Nusrat was willing to go with him, and in 2001 they traveled to Peshawar, where Faiz's father had moved the family. Shortly afterwards, Nusrat opened her garden with its huge persimmon tree to the poor refugee children while Faiz went to Mazar-i-Sharif to work in a medical camp.

Now Nusrat, has not had word from Faiz for weeks. To take her mind off of her husband's situation, Nusrat decides to organize a dinner party and afterwards invite her husband's family to watch a meteor shower in the backyard. But Asma refuses saying such shooting stars are an omen.

The story of Nusrat and Namjah intersect when Namjah manages to travel alone to Peshawar and is eventually taken to Nusrat's home. Now they both wait as the American forces gradually liberate more and more of Afghanistan, to learn the fate of their loved ones. While they wait, Nusrat teaches Namjah English and helps her to heal from her terrible ordeal, all the while coming to the realization of what has happened to her beloved Faiz.

Under The Persimmon Tree is a deeply touching story; the heartrending love story of Nusrat and Faiz, and the loss and suffering of Namjah. Having read most of Suzanne Staples books now, I feel this is her best effort.

Elaine and Faiz's love story is beautifully described in flashbacks narrated by Nusrat. The gentle, caring Faiz is a most wonderful antidote to a heart broken by the loss of a beloved sister. And Namjah's family life, although difficult in the best of times, is tied to the land,where "the sky is so close you can reach up and touch it with your hands, and to the beautiful mountains.

The author very effectively paints a portrait of a society destroyed by the Taliban rule, of a people terrorized by religious fanaticism and cruelty. We see how the poor farmers of Afghanistan were often powerless to protect themselves and to avoid becoming part of the Taliban insurgency.

An interesting aspect of this book was Elaine's struggle to find meaning in her life after the death of her sister, Margaret. Sadly Elaine's Christian faith  did not continue to develop as she grew into adulthood and therefore could not help her to understand and come to terms with the loss of her sister Margaret. The void she felt spiritually was reflected in the modern, plastic home with its purple Koolaid and packaged food as compared with the texturally rich and colourful apartment that Faiz lives in. Faiz's beliefs are woven into his daily living, something Elaine's modern American family seemed to lack.

Elaine's belief that her Christian faith was unable to provide answers to the questions of why, led her, after meeting Faiz, to look towards Islam and to eventually convert. When she goes to see the Imam Inayatollah of a mosque in Manhattan Elaine tells him, "I am a mathematician...I need a religion that's compatible with science and mathematics. In Islam, is there a belief in an order to the universe." She is directed to consider the work of Muslim astronomers and mathematicians. At this time in her life, Elaine seems to feel that Christianity has no concept of an ordered universe - that things just happen and that it cannot explain the reason behind her sister Margaret's death. Of course this is not true. as Nusrat comes to understand much later on. Christianity, although long maligned as incompatible with science, has a rich history of both the preservation of scientific knowledge and the discovery of the nature of the world. There are more than enough Christian scientists and mathematicians whose work has demonstrated that God has designed a universe governed by laws that can be known and understood. Eventually, Nusrat comes to understand that the answers she was looking for could have been found in her faith, had she chosen to see them.

Nusrat also begins to realize that her rejection of her parents faith and her Judaeo-Christian heritage have hurt her parents greatly and that this is something she must address.

Under The Persimmon Tree tackles themes of identity, loss, love, coming of age, and war. It is beautifully written and provides another window into a unique and beautiful culture, far different from our own.There is a helpful map of Afghanistan and a glossary of Dari terms in the back.

Book Details:
Under The Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux     2005
275 pp.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Enchanted by Alethea Kontis

Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace,
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is blithe and bonny and good and gay.

Enchanted is a fractured fairytale telling the story of the frog prince while incorporating parts of many other fairy tales.

Sunday Woodcutter is the seventh daughter of Jack and Seven Woodcutter; Jack, a seventh son and Seven, a seventh daughter. Sunday's family includes her older brothers Jack Jr., and Peter, and Trix who was adopted as well as Sunday's six sisters all of whom are named after days of the week. Monday and Tuesday are twins, Wednesday who is quiet but poetic and lives in the tower of their boot-shaped home, Thursday who ran off and married a Pirate King and plunders ships, Friday who spends all her time helping those less fortunate, and Saturday, a large, strong young woman brandishing an axe, who loves to work hard with her axe.

Sunday's family has suffered much tragedy in their life. Tuesday who was graceful and loved to dance, died after putting on a new pair of shoes charmed by her mother and which caused her to dance herself to death. Jack Jr. was changed into a puppy while serving in the King's Royal Guard, after causing the death of the Prince's puppy. Jack Jr.'s death has meant that the Woodcutter family can never forgive the Royal Family. And Jack has forbidden his family from ever speaking about it again.

One day while sitting in the woods, writing stories in her journal, Sunday meets a frog - a talking frog named Grumble. Grumble is smart, eloquent, well mannered and moves and behaves as though he were a man trapped in a frog's body. Sunday, whose family has fey blood in them, is not surprised much by the appearance of Grumble. Sunday reads Grumble her entry about her family but tells him she never writes something unless it's already happened, because things have a "tendency to come true".

Sunday continues to meet Grumble, whom she feels at ease with and who makes her laugh. Sunday doesn't know who Grumble is, only that he is a man with a spell on him. Every day before she leaves, she grants Grumble his wish that she kiss him in the hopes that the spell will be broken. And every day nothing happens to change poor Grumble back into the prince he once was. The longer Grumble stays a frog, the less he will remember until he forgets he was ever a man. He will no longer understand Sunday when she talks and their friendship will be lost.

Gradually their friendship blossoms into love. One day when Sunday does kiss Grumble, unknown to her, he turns back into Prince Rumbold. Her true love for Grumble has broken the spell. That night there is a raging storm, a sign that a powerful spell has been broken. Prince Rumbold returns home to the palace, determined to win Sunday's love. To this end, he requests that three balls be held in three days and that every eligible young woman in the land is to be invited.

Meanwhile, we also learn that Sunday is in fact, no ordinary girl. Besides being able to turn frog princes back into men, Sunday has fey magic in her blood and so do her sisters and brother Peter. This is because Sunday's grandfather spent time in the Fairy Queen's court and was changed as a result. Because of this Sunday is instructed by her Aunt Joy who is her godmother,in the various abilities of fey magic. This storyline is never fully developed in the novel.

Since Rumbold's early return from his spell, (it was supposed to last a year but he spent only nine months as a frog) he struggles to adjust to palace life. He can remember how to walk and talk, but he can't remember his life before becoming a frog. He also is haunted by dreams and voices that ask him to help. Prince Rumbold has no idea what this is. When Rumbold goes to see his father, the King, whose name no one knows, he discovers that his father is actually extremely ancient and is being kept alive by the blood of a fairy. Prince Rumbold's mother, the Queen, has been long dead.

Not yet understanding the significance of this, Rumbold attends the first ball and easily picks out Sunday as the young woman he fell in love with as a frog. He begins to court her, not telling her that he is her frog prince. Meanwhile, his father chooses Sunday's sister, Wednesday, as his new queen. But Rumbold learns even more about his father and his evil plan, and knows now that he must not only tell Sunday the truth about who he is, but also try to save Wednesday from the terrible fate his father has planned for her.

Told in the alternating voices of Sunday Woodcutter, and Prince Rumbold, Enchanted is a truly bizarre story whose main fairy tale is that of the frog prince, but which also incorporates many other fairy tales, all of them fractured as well. There is Jack in the Beanstalk, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, The Old Woman Who Lived in A Shoe and Cinderella. Kontis' attempt to weave in elements of other fairy tales was in itself interesting and might have worked but for the convoluted main story which was further broken up by having two narrators. In addition to the main Frog Prince storyline, there are two fairy godmothers who are at war with one another, casting spells and counter spells which affect the lives of the families they are attached to. All of this made the novel difficult to follow and tedious to read.

Since the novel is plot driven and there are so many twists and turns, so many different story lines, characterization is all but forgotten and eventually so is the romantic drama between Rumbold and Sunday until almost the very end. Alethea Kontis simply tried to do too much. A simple retelling perhaps focusing on romantic intrigue might have sufficed.

The original Frog Prince fairy tale, the first in the Brothers Grimm, has a spoiled princess meeting a frog. She undoes the spell by throwing the frog against a wall.

Book Details:
Enchanted by Alethea Kontis
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012
308 pp.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen

What She Left Behind tells the gripping story of a dysfunctional family falling apart after the father suffers a mental breakdown that leaves him violent and dangerous.

Sara Peter's dad wasn't always like this; violent, angry and abusive. At one time, when they lived in Philadelphia, he was a cop, always smiling and good to his family. But a terrible incident changed all that. He was shot in the leg during an altercation with an Hispanic gang, which left him disabled, unable to work and his partner dead. Life for Sara's family spiraled downward ever after.

In an attempt to start over, Sara's father moves the family back to his hometown of Scottsfield, Michigan, where he now runs the family hardware store. Her father was not the happy man he was before and he became even more unhappy after her older brother, Matt, committed suicide four months ago. After Matt's death, the abuse and violence towards Sara's mom escalated to the point where her mother has finally decided to leave her dad even though he has warned her against leaving.

Sara and her mom make arrangements to pack and her mother tells her that she will pick Sara up the next day at Dairy Dreams. But when Sara's mom fails to meet her, Sara knows something has gone terribly wrong. When Sara returns home that night, her father tells her that her mother has been sent to a training convention in North Carolina.

Although Sara wants to believe her father and even pretends for awhile that what he is saying is true, she knows that something has happened to her mother. Calls to her mother's cell phone go to voice mail, and when Sara calls her mother's workplace she is told that her mother is on holidays for two weeks and that the company doesn't have an office in North Carolina. Sara, understandably unable to function much at school, begins skipping and now begins to actively attempt to find out what has happened to her mother. Has her father killed her mother? Did her mother just abandon her and leave Sara to live with her dad? Has she left to find a place for them to stay?

 The story is told in the voice of Sara over a period of ten days, from Monday to the following week. Even though Sara knows her situation at home is not normal (her father still talks about Matt as if he's alive), she pretends it is. She also tries to pretend that things are normal at school, although it's very evident that she's under some kind of stress. Some of her teachers pick up on this, but Sara is expert at hiding what's going on, and no one digs deeper. Her friend Zach, knows something of her home situation. Zach is like a brother to her and Sara does tell him eventually that her mother is missing. She also meets and begins dating Alex Maloy, a member of the football team. Alex gives Sara's life some semblance of "normalacy" during this time of anxiety.

Meanwhile, Sara comes to the realization that she can no longer hide behind her silence, as she use to do when Matt and her mother lived at home. Her silence was her protection and her father took out his anger on Matt, and then when Matt was no longer around, her mother. That slowly begins to change as the days pass and her father begins to physically abuse her, becoming increasingly violent over the smallest things.

Sara can barely contain her panic as the week goes by and she does not hear from her mom. She begins searching the house for any clues to her mother's disappearance. When she finds the shovel is missing she begins to suspect the worst, but tries to reason away her fears.

"When I get back home, Dad is washing his truck. He's kneeling in the bed of the pickup, scrubbing something with a brush. I try not to think about the missing shovel.
Don't be ridiculous, Sara! If  Dad were trying to cover up evidence that he'd had a dead body in the truck, he would have done that last Tuesday, the day that Mom disappeared.
The day that I didn't come home until well after dinner. The day I found my dad alone in the dark, smoking."

Eventually Sara finds the the name and number of a storage locker. When she and Zach make an important discovery, Zach wants to call the police but Sara decides to finally speak up and confront her father, leading ultimately to a deadly confrontation.

What She Left Behind seems like a crazy, strange novel. It is contrived to some degree. Sara can't go the police in Scottsfield, because the police officer, Jack Renolds, is a good friend of her father's. This leaves Sara pretty much on her own in terms of who can help her. Instead, she relies on her two friends, Zach and Alex, who both become drawn into the family's dire situation and in the final confrontation.

Many readers might have a hard time understanding why Sara would continue to live with her father. Her home situation is not only creepy, it's downright dangerous. But leaving an abuser is very difficult, as Bilen demonstrates in the novel. Sara is extremely conflicted about her father; she still loves him and remembers him as the father he use to be when she was younger. The flashbacks (written in italics) inform the reader what life was like before Sara's father was injured.

It takes time for Sara to absorb and face the reality of her situation. This is explained best in a flashback, where Sara remembers her father picking out her stuffed dog, a toy she still has. She loves this dog, even though he's well loved and worn.
"'I love him! Thank you so much, Mom!' She smiled and shook her head.
'Don't thank me, thank your dad. He picked it out.'
Even at that age I knew that Mom did most of the shopping, so knowing Dad had chosen him made the stuffed dog extra special. ....

Lately when Dad did something that hurt one of us, I would think about that day and I would remember him the way he used to be. The way I believed he could be again someday.
Somewhere between last Tuesday and today, I stopped believing."
The one aspect of the novel that felt somewhat unrealistic is Sara's blossoming romance with Alex, the unattainable "hot boy" at a time when her mother has gone missing.  I feel that a young teen who suspects that her father has done something awful to her mother, wouldn't have the emotional capacity to be involved with someone else. Sara would be in considerable emotional turmoil especially given the fact that her father threatened her mother. At the same time, people who live in abusive relationships, whether it be physical/emotional abuse or alcoholism, are often experts at maintaining or presenting a facade of normalcy to the outside world. They are good at pretending, which may explain why Sara's teachers didn't pick up on the clues she was giving, writing them down to teenage irresponsibility.

This short novel is a good read for those who love both mystery and suspense. The somewhat predictable but chilling ending is also satisfying.

Book Details:
What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen
New York: Simon Pulse       2012
237 pp.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

I read Frankenstein many years ago and of course, loved the story which was originally published in 1818. Based on a dream Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly had when she was just 16, the novel tells the story of a scientist who discovers the secret of life and constructs a living human being out of body parts. The creature he creates however, is eight feet tall and hideous. Frankenstein is horrified by what he has created and leaves his laboratory and the monster unattended. The creature escapes and this sets in motion a series of tragic events that ultimately lead to Frankenstein tracking his monster with the hopes of destroying it. The entire Frankenstein narrative is set with another narrative, that of Captain Robert Walton, who while exploring the North Pole, encounters Frankenstein pursuing a huge man driving a dog sled. Frankenstein, old and weakened from his pursuit of the monster, relates to Walton the story of his creature and asks him to continue in his place, the pursuit. Shelley's novel combines both gothic and romance, and is arguably one of the first true science fiction novels. An interesting aspect about this novel is how the name Frankenstein, which was the name of the scientist, became known associated as the name of the monster. Perhaps a suggestion and warning that scientists in their desire for knowledge, might unleash upon the world, creations that will not benefit mankind.

This new reprint of the unabridged but revised third edition of the novel, is enhanced by the steampunk illustrations by Zdenko Basic and Manuel Sumberac. The illustrations add to the horror of Shelley's story by incorporating gears, mechanical devices and steam machines. Zdenko Basic is well known for his steampunk work having illustrated Steampunk: Poe. There's a wonderful review of this book over at wired.com by GeekDad.

 Steampunk: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the second book in the steampunk series. The gothic novel works well with the steampunk subgenre as does Edgar Allen Poe's works. There's a mad scientist, body parts, and a frightening monster, set in the Victorian age when some scientists believed in galvanism - the potential use of electricity to create life. Diehard fans of classic horror or steampunk may not be too enthusiastic, but if this book encourages the younger generation to pick it up and read the story, I am fine with that.

Zdenko Basic is also well know for having directed the short film Guliver, whose trailer is shown below.

If you enjoy steampunk you may want to check out this blog, Steampunk Revue.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The second installment of Paolo Bacigalupi's novels dealing with a post-apocalyptic America is set in the Drowned Cities, one of which is Washington, DC. The Drowned Cities picks up the story of Tool, a half man who was captured at the end of the first book, Ship Breakers.

Tool is half man, a genetically designed war machine, trained to make war and kill. He had been part of a battalion commanded by General Caroa and had fought in the Kolkata Delta, as well as many other wars and survived them all. Tool escapes the prison he is held captive in and flees into the salt swamps around the Drowned Cities. He is being pursued by Colonel Glenn Stern of the United Patriot Front and his boy soldiers.. In an attempt to hide from the soldiers, Tool submerges himself in a swamp only to be viciously attacked by a gigantic alligator. The two behemoths end up in a life and death struggle.

Meanwhile not far away, in Banyan Town, Mahlia, Mouse, and Doctor Mahfouz struggle to survive. Mahlia's father was a Chinese General who came over to America with his troops as peacekeepers. When the Chinese left, their peacekeeping mission a failure, Mahlia's father left too, leaving behind Mahlia and her mother, who sold antiques to survive. Eventually Mahlia's mother disappeared and she was left on her own. Mahlia is considered a castoff - someone who sympathized with the peacekeepers. She lost her right hand to the boy soldiers of the Army of God, one of many armies battling for control of what remains of America. Finding refuge in Banyan Town, Mahlia helps the kindly Dr. Mahfouz as he tends to the wounded and sick with the limited medical supplies he has managed to salvage.

Mouse, or Malati Saint Olmos as he was once known, saw his family farm burned, his parents and his little brother Simon shot dead, and his older brother Shane recruited as a boy soldier. Mouse and Mahlia are together because he saved Mahlia from the Army of God.

On an expedition for food, Mouse and Mahlia encounter Tool, fatally wounded and in the process of dying. Tool manages to capture Mouse and in order to free him, Mahlia offers to bring back medicine from Banyan Town. Tool agrees and Mahlia leaves for Banyan Town. But when she returns home, she finds that the soldiers who have been hunting Tool are in the town, pillaging and terroring the inhabitants. When they see that Mahlia is a castoff and half-Chinese, they try to kill her. Dr. Mahfouz intervenes and he and Mahlia are made to treat the wounded survivors from their encounter with Tool.

But this means that Mahlia will be delayed in bringing the meds back to Tool, thus endangering Mouse's life. So she concocts a plan that brings about a devastating coywolv attack on the soldiers and ultimate ruin upon Banyan Town. Mahlia, Mouse and Dr. Mahfouz escape into the jungle and locate Tool who is now barely alive. Against the wishes of Mahfouz, Mahlia treats and heals Tool, whom she hopes will help her escape the Drowned Cities, to find freedom and peace. But things become complicated when Mouse returns to Banyan Town and is captured and recruited into the UPF. Mahlia is faced with a terrible choice; save Mouse or leave with Tool for freedom in the north.


The Drowned Cities is not for the faint of heart. Moving from one violent, raw scene to the next, Bacigalupi tells the story of an America run by warlords, where children are recruited to fight, scarred and shaped into cruel killers, and where civilization has all but vanished into the swampy recesses of the jungle.China which once occupied the country as peacekeepers for a decade have fled, leaving the nation to wallow in its own tyranny. Bacigalupi effectively portrays the brutal world America has devolved to; waring factions divided by ideology as to how the country will be run. There is the Army of God who want a nation founded on religion and who cut off the hands and feet of those who oppose them. Their main opponent is the United Patriot Front who believe in a constitutional nation and who equally maim and kill, only with acid and knives.

America is now populated by a people who have no connection to their past and who are rapidly destroying their history by bartering artifacts for guns and bullets. Incredibly, it is the half man, Tool, who recognizes this.

"'I see things here that were thought lost long ago. These are the sorts of objects that should live in the greatest museums of the world.' He gingerly lifted up a piece of parchment and studied it. 'Some of them once did.'"
This makes Tool a very unique character. While he is considered a "half-man" because he has the genetics of dog, hyena and other animals mixed into his makeup, Tool still has more humanity than genetically pure men, who now behave like animals, fighting and killing, destroying their culture and heritage.

The ongoing destruction of the Capitol near the end of the novel is heartrending to read.

"Mahlia craned her neck. A huge marble building loomed into view. The palace. Marble from top to bottom. Steps marching up from the lake to its grand presence. A soaring dome stood central, seeming to touch the sky, and it was flanked on either side by broad marbled wings that encompassed more space than Banyan Town....

One wing of the vast structure looked as if it had been hit by artillery, and its fascade had turned to crumbling rubble. Scavenge gangs were ripping into it, men and mules dragging material out of the shattered building, skins gleaming sweat under the burning sun."

One aspect of this novel that was very well done, is the development of the main characters. Mahlia, who despite being maimed and discriminated against for being half Chinese and therefore a peacekeeper collaborator, is a strong woman, loyal to Mouse who saved her, but also open to reconsidering who and what Tool is. Mahlia is true to herself and her beliefs, even if it means hardship and risk.

Tool, the half man, is described as a war-raging monster. And certainly the opening scenes of the novel lead us to form that opinion. He can move faster than a normal human, he has acutely developed senses, and he has incredible strength. Tool even behaves like an animal,eating the heart of his victims. But as the novel progresses, Tool's humanity begins to show through more and more often. He can control his animal instincts to a point and he can reason with his human mind. He can make choices and he understands war. We even learn that when he was younger, his human side was stronger but like the child soldiers he was molded into the war machine that he is.

The child soldiers, brilliantly characterized by Bacigalupi, show both their brutality and their humanity. Child soldiers were once children, but who were molded into killing machines by adults and older children. They are the mirror to Tool; once human, now behaving like animals, maiming and killing.

The Drowned Cities is an excellent novel, the writing exceptional and unique to young adult literature. The gore in the novel makes it suitable for older teens and adults. Watch the book trailer:

For a more thorough insight into Bacigalupi's writing and this novel in particular, readers are directed to an interview the author did with Brit Mandelo at Tor.com entitled "War, Killer Children, and More: An Interview with Paolo Bacigalupi".

Book Details:
The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2012
434 pp.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Documentary: Waking The Titanic

Addergoole Parish in North County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland became known in 1912 for one distinguishing fact besides its crushing poverty; fourteen of its own were involved in the Titanic disaster of April 14th of that year. Known as the Addergoole Fourteen, these young people were aboard Titanic, on her maiden voyage, to the New World, filled with hope for the opportunities of a better life. Only three of them would survive the sinking. For one hundred years, the families of the Addergoole Fourteen never spoke about what happened, about their terrible loss. Waking The Titanic , tells their story.

Lahardane, was a small village in Addergoole, comprised of only 96 souls living in twenty-two houses. The county was extremely poor, with large families often crammed into three room houses. The people of Lahardane led a very harsh life, with the average person dying in their forties or fifties, often from tuberculosis, due to the damp, cold homes.Despite the difficulties, families and communities were very close knit.

Nearly every family had a relative in America. Families often had between six and twelve children and at that time only one child could inherit the land. This meant the other children had to find work, but there were few jobs in Ireland. So these children, once they came of age, emigrated to America, Australia and Europe. Between 1855 and 1912, over four million Irish emigrated - a significant percentage considering the population was only eight million.

In the early 1900's the trans-Atlantic steamer transportation was big business and there was heavy competition between White Star and Cunard. Steerage passengers were the bread and butter" of the business and steamer lines actively recruited and advertised for steerage passengers in Ireland. The cost of passage to America was expensive though - about seven pounds for steerage. It would usually take about three years to save this amount. Often the money came from those already in America and was known as remittance, that is money to pay for the next generation to go over. It was remittance that got the Addergoole fourteen onto the Titanic.

It was very important for Irish families to get their daughters to America, since there were very few options open to women in Ireland. And likely most women did not want their daughters to lead the hard life they had experienced. America was a land of opportunity. Catherine McGowan, one of the Addergoole Fourteen,  was a perfect example of this. She had come to America twenty-two years earlier and she was now wealthy. Catherine ran a boarding house for newly arrived immigrants. She returned to Addergoole to collect her neice, Annie McGowan to take her back to America. It was Catherine who convinced the other young people from Addergoole that they should all travel together on the same ship.

For the Irish, there developed the tradition of the American wake, which was held for those who left the emerald isle for America. Emigrating was like a death because the person leaving would most likely never return. It was a bittersweet time; sad to leave loved ones, but thrilled at the opportunities.

The Titanic was built in Belfast, about 100 miles away from Addergoole. Strangely, Titanic was never christened, nor was she blessed. Perhaps it was because she was considered "unsinkable". This was unusual and added to the superstition that is was unlucky to travel on a ship's maiden voyage. The Irish were very religious and very superstitious. It is claimed some of the Addergoole had premonitions that something terrible was to happen.

On April 10, 1912, the Addergoole Fourteen left home to travel to Queenstown, where Titanic would embark on her first voyage to America. When they boarded Titanic and settled into her third class berths, they were astonished at the incredible luxury. For many, it was the first time they had seen electric lights, used silverware, had a bed to themselves and had proper bathroom facilities. They were among the poorest passengers.

When the Titanic struck the iceberg, the collision went mostly unnoticed. Steerage passengers were told to remain calm and stay where they were. At first they did so, but as the ship began to develop a steep incline, the Addergoole Fourteen knew something was seriously wrong. They were unable to get access to the second class lifeboats and they knew there were not enough boats for everyone on board. Since there was no way to get to the lifeboat deck which was in first class, they climbed three or four decks until they found a ladder leading to the lifeboat deck.

What they found was chaos and soon they became separated from each other. There were only three lifeboats left. In the end, only three of the Addergoole Fourteen survived; Annie Kate Kelly, Delia McDermott, and Annie McGowan, the niece of Catherine McGowan. Of the eleven who perished, only the body of Mary Mangan was recovered. She was buried at sea.

The three survivors were taken to St. Vincent's Hospital in New York where they stayed for two weeks. They were very traumatized and did not speak about the tragedy afterwards. They simply "moved on" and continued with their lives.

This docudrama tells the story of Ireland at the turn of the century, reenacts the tragedy of the sinking of Titanic as it pertains to the Addergoole Fourteen, and interviews historians and the direct descendants of the three survivors. It preserves for posterity, the story of the Addergoole Fourteen. The documentary, directed by Frank Delaney and produced by Gillian Marsh is gripping and emotional.

About ten years ago, the residents of Addergoole decided that they needed to preserve a remembrance of the tragedy for the younger generations that came after, otherwise this piece of their history would be lost forever. One can only imagine the sorrow of the families who lost loved ones and the bittersweet happiness of those whose children survived.

The trailer for Waking the Titanic can be watched below:

And here is a report done by CBS News on the 100th anniversary of the disaster:

The following websites may be of interest as well:

Addergoole Titanic Society

Addergoole Fourteen

Also, the Titanic website has information as well: Titanic Stories.

Those interested will now find a wealth of information on the Addergoole Fourteen, perhaps fitting for the one hundred years of silence that hid the pain and sorrow of a deeply wounded community.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Balloons Over Broadway tells the remarkable story of Anthony (Tony) Frederick Sarg, creator of the wonderful balloon marionettes that floated above the crowds in the annual Macy's Parade. Tony Sarg was born in Coban, Guatemala in 1880 to German Consul, Francis Charles Sarg and Mary Elizabeth Parker, an Englishwoman. Tony grew up in an artistic household; his grandfather was a woodcarver and his father an artist. His grandmother loved to collect toys of all kinds and he inherited her collection when she passed away.

When Tony was seven his family moved to Germany where he attended school and eventually joined the army. But Tony was interested in artistic endeavours. He met his wife, Bertha Eleanor McGowan, an American tourist in England and eventually travelled to the United States to marry her. Tony did not become a citizen of the U.S. until 1920; he and his family moved to Cincinnati at the outbreak of the First World War. When he moved to the United States he was able to find work as an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post.

Tony's time in England had prepared him well. He learned a great deal about puppetry and used marionettes to establish his artistic business and reputation in America. He formed a puppetry troupe that toured in the 1920's and 30's, including the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

Soon his marionettes became famous and he was hired by Macy's to design puppets for their first ever holiday parade in 1924. He was also asked to design a puppet parade for their Christmas holiday windows in 1935 and created many beautiful mechanized displays that enthralled the public.

Balloons Over Broadway focuses mainly on Tony's work with Macy's in a wonderfully attractive manner with beautifully crafted artwork throughout. Some of the pages show photographs of toys made by the author Melissa Sweet. There are also lovely watercolour illustrations and collages made from fabric, newspaper and paper from old books. All this in an very successful attempt to give this picture book an atmosphere that captures the era Tony lived in.

Balloons Over Broadway is a delightful picture book about an very famous artist whose almost forgotten legacy includes Bill Baird creator of the "Lonely Goatherd" marionette show in the 1965 movie, The Sound of Music. Baird in turn trained Jim Henson who created The Muppets, loved by children and adults alike.

Book Details:
Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet
New York: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children      2011

Tony Sarg nha exhibition

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Girl In The Park by Mariah Fredericks

"They found her. I shake my head, because there's something weird about found. You find sweaters in the park. Or lost dogs. Found is like Wendy's not a person. Not a living ...
My mom is crying. That tells me what found means. Why Wendy isn't a person anymore. That Wendy is dead."

The Girl In The Park is a gripping murder mystery told in the voice of schoolgirl, Rain Donovan, over a period of twelve days, after the murder of her classmate, Wendy Geller.

Rain lives with her opera singer mother in a colourfully decorated apartment. She wakes up the morning after Karina Burrough's party to phone call from her former best friend's mother who asks Rain if she's heard from her daughter, Wendy Geller. But Rain left the part early, when she saw that things were going to go bad, and she has no idea what happened to Wendy.

Rain and Wendy Geller use to be best friends in grade nine, almost two years ago. At that time both Rain and Wendy were new to the exclusive school, Alcott, and were outsiders. Alcott is an exclusive school where everyone's parent is a Somebody. Rain's mother is a well known opera singer, but Rain with her cleft palate and her poor pronunciation will always be an outsider in a school that doesn't tolerate difference or imperfection. For Wendy, whose single mother has no significant social status, making friends was hard. Alcott is a school where making friends is difficult and where there is a pecking order. So Rain advised Wendy to start with the girlfriends of the top girls and work her way up.

Wendy decided that she would work her way up to the top of the school's social status, by being a "bad girl" and stealing other girls' boyfriends. Although Wendy wasn't especially pretty, she had a lot of energy and a wonderful smile. However, Rain soon learns that Wendy becomes a different person when she parties - more like the girls who make fun of her. It was this trait that made Rain sever her friendship with Wendy.

At Karina's party, it was bad boy, Nico Phelps, Wendy was after. Wendy was crazy for Nico but he was dating Sasha Meloni, a ballet dancer, and girl at the top of the social ladder at Alcott. Wendy was so crazy for Nico that she put up a video on facebook saying she was going to get him. Nico was danger and he'd been in trouble and maybe that was part of the attraction for Wendy.

When a newspaper article suggests Wendy's hard partying lifestyle was to blame for her death, Rain realizes that she must speak up for Wendy. This injustice leads Rain to feel that she might be able to help police solve the mystery of Wendy's murder. Despite the loss of her friendship with Wendy, Rain remembers that it was she who told Rain that despite her speech problems, she should speak up, that she "might have something to say". Knowing what it's like at Alcott, and that Wendy was intent upon hooking up with Nico, Rain does not believe that Wendy was killed by some random person in the park.

So she sets out to try to find out from her classmates just what happened that night at the party. How did Wendy end up in the park? Did Wendy leave with Nico? Did Nico kill her or was someone else involved?

As she talks to the people Wendy partied with, and her own classmates, Rain becomes convinced that Nico is the prime suspect. But is she biased against Nico because of a cruel incident that occurred between the two of them years ago?

The Girl in the Park is a well written story that keeps the reader guessing until almost the very end. The plot twists and turns, with Fredericks leaving hints here and there. As the book moves on however, some of these clues do become obvious but nonetheless Fredericks is successful in maintaining the mystery to the final revelation.

Rain is very authentic as a young teen struggling to figure out who she is and trying hard not to be labelled by her speech problems. Fredericks does a great job portraying life in high school with its cliques, moments of kindness juxtaposed with cruelty. Wendy's murder forever changes Rain. She is no longer the girl afraid to speak. She does have something to say when she finally puts the pieces of the puzzle together and solves Wendy's murder.

"As I finish and the applause starts, I don't want to say farewell to Wendy. But I have to. She's gone. And with her, a scared little girl who never said what she thought or felt. I'll miss that girl, too. Even though I"m glad not to be her anymore."

I especially liked how the author portrayed the real Wendy early on in the novel, bracing us for the way the media and some of her classmates would distill her character down to a person who "deserved" what happened to her.

My one complaint against this novel is the brief description of a sex act at the beginning of the book, that in my opinion, mars this novel. It is unnecessary, especially given the fact that we soon come to understand through other characters, that Wendy's way of climbing the social ladder at school was to mess with other girl's boyfriends. It's true that elements of society today can be incredibly crass, but I'm not convinced that this has to necessarily pass over into our art and literature.

Older teens who love murder mysteries will enjoy The Girl In The Park.

Book Details:
The Girl In The Park by Mariah Fredericks
Schwartz & Wade Books 2012
217 pp.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Reckless Heart by Amy Clipston

This so called "bonnet-ripper" by Amish romance fiction writer, Amy Clipston has all the right ingredients for a successful teen romance full of angst and restlessness.

Sixteen year old Lydia Bontrager's family is part of a large Amish community. Her mother is Beth Ann Kauffman whose family runs a successful Amish bakery. Clipston has written a series of books on the Kauffmans, called the Kauffman Amish Bakery novels. Reckless Heart focuses on the younger generation and their struggles as part of the post modern world.

Lydia's family is in full crisis mode when the novel opens. Her four year old sister, Ruthie has been ill for months and the strain within the family causes Lydia to make a bad decision in a weak moment. She arrives home from a youth gathering intoxicated but manages to sneak upstairs and to bed without her parents noticing. Word gets around that a group of youth have been sneaking away but Lydia's name is not connected with them.

In the meantime, Lydia forms a friendship with an Englisher bu and his family who have just moved nearby. She meets Tristan Anderson and his younger sister, four year old Michaela, one day while walking home from the Amish school where she works part time. Tristan is handsome and very friendly, and Lydia finds herself attracted to this boy even though she knows it is forbidden for Amish girls to mix with the English. Besides, Lydia is interested in Joshua Glick, an Amish boy who also seems to like her too.

Ruthie is eventually diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and must go to Hershey for chemotherapy. Lydia's parents decide that Mamma will go with Ruthie. This means that Lydia, in addition to working at her grandmother's bakery, and being a teacher's assistant at the one room Amish school house, must also run the home and take care of her younger brother Titus and her sister, Irma. Lydia feels overwhelmed by the responsibility and wishes her life were normal again. She is completely unprepared emotionally to carry the burden of these responsibilities, so she becomes angry and rebels against her strict Amish culture.
"Tears filled her eyes. How was she ever going to cope with taking care of the family while her mother was gone? It didn't seem fair that this was all landing on her so quickly. Why was this happening to her?"
Lydia continues to develop her friendship with Tristan, visiting his home and also inviting him for a tour of the Amish school. Despite Tristan's honourable intentions and his respectful treatment of Lydia, members of the Amish community and her own family warn her that her reputation will be ruined and that she is setting a poor example for the kinder. Lydia struggles to understand why it is so wrong to have a friend outside her Amish community. Her friendship with Tristan doesn't feel wrong and yet she is told that there will be serious repercussions if she continues to see him.
"As she hurried toward her house, she held back threatening tears. It didn't seem fair that Lydia had to walk away from a good friend like Tristan. Why couldn't her community accept that she and Tristan shared a perfectly pure and innocent friendship? As she moved toward her driveway, she couldn't stop the heartache that gripped her."
Meanwhile Lydia almost loses Amanda's friendship when she accuses her friend of not understanding how difficult her situation is at home. And her relationship with Joshua also becomes strained as both struggle to determine nature of their friendship and what their future holds. Joshua also confronts Lydia about her behaviour both at the youth group and tries to understand her friendship with Tristan.
Lydia also struggles with her role in her family. She is sixteen years old and wants to do the things a young person would be doing at this age, but she is being asked to put those aside and be a mother to her family, while Ruthie is in the hospital. In part, this is due to Lydia's emotional immaturity. This leads to Lydia having a serious confrontation with her father that deeply wounds their relationship. She cannot understand why her father doesn't seem concerned about her growing feeling of isolation from the other Amish youth because she can no longer attend the youth gatherings. Amidst all this, Lydia is also struggling to discern whether she should work in her family's bakery or take on the teaching position next year at the local school.

All these personal struggles plus a crisis with Ruthie's health build to an emotional climax whose resolution is both rewarding but somewhat predictable. Readers will love the strong willed Lydia and identify with her desire to make her own choices and find her own path. This is a part of her coming of age and her struggle to forge her own identity within her Amish community. Her sudden decision about which career path to take seems a bit contrived, but it is believable. When she has doubts, Lydia turns to God to find out what his will for her will be. When she discerns what God's will is, she is able to move forward and be at peace with the path she has chosen.

Clipston expertly recreates the Amish world and its deep sense of community. The author also seamlessly explains Amish beliefs and culture through Lydia's interactions with Tristan and through her confrontations with her parents and family members. For example, Tristan can't understand why Lydia is suddenly ignoring him and when he confronts her she explains her community's views on Englishers. Lydia tells him that such friendships are considered inappropriate and could have serious consequences for herself and her family. When Tristan refuses to accept her explanation the two part ways until the conflict is unresolved later on when Tristan and his family step up to help the Bontrager's in a moment of crisis. It seems both Amish and English have something to learn from one another.

Clipston avoids the preachy tone that plagues many authors of Christian novels while managing to develop a high interest storyline with themes of coming of age, identity, responsibility and community.  There is an extensive family tree at the front of the book so readers can place the characters and there is a list of High German words which are used throughout the novel. The back of the novel contains a small study guide for the reader. A nice cover completes the package.

I hope Amy Clipston writes more novels for young adults because this subgenre remains largely unexplored in young adult literature. Amish romances continue to be very popular but I'd also like to see some historical Christian romance written for teens.

Book Details:
Reckless Heart by Amy Clipston
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan      2012
271 pp.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Dead To You by Lisa McMann

Ethan De Wilde went missing when he was seven years old. Stolen from the sidewalk in front of his home, while his younger brother Blake watched, he's been missing all these years. Suddenly, at sixteen he is reunited with his family; his mom and dad, and his twelve year old Blake and his younger sister, six year old Gracie.

Ethan meets his family for the first time in nine years at an Amtrak station. In those years, Ethan can only remember a woman named Eleanor who abandoned him at a group home in Omaha, Nebraska. He eventually ran away from the home and lived on the street, in a park and near a zoo.

Ethan can't remember much of his life before the kidnapping. When he googled his name, Ethan Manuel De Wilde he got hundreds of hits and found that people had been looking for him. Ethan also found a family website where there were posts and pictures. This website eventually led him back home.
"I feel bad for having had to relearn everything about them from our little family website -- all those years I missed. And I feel bad that I don't remember them -- like I didn't care enough or something, you know? There's so much stuff to know. I've been gone more than half my life."
Ethan returns to school but struggles to fit in. At home things don't go much better. His strange behaviour and his inability to remember what happened when he was abducted and in the time afterward are puzzling. Ethans memories don't return and he seems unable to remember family and close friends. This begins to make twelve year old Blake suspicious. and he begins to confront Ethan about who he really is.

As the De Wilde family continues to unravel, and the tension over Ethan increases, Dead To You races to its poignant, heartbreaking and somewhat surprising ending.

Lisa McMann has written an engaging, suspenseful novel that deals with the themes of identity, loss, betrayal, and love. Ethan is a deeply tragic character, for whom it's impossible not to feel some kind of empathy. His strange behaviour at times leads the reader to suspect that he is deeply disturbed young man who desperately needs help. When faced with intense anxiety, Ethan experiences uncontrollable laughter. It is this trait that makes Ethan a very realistic, believable character in the novel.

In contrast, there is Blake, the younger sibling who has been the oldest child for many years now and who sees his world turned upside down again. Blake is angry at Ethan for getting into the car when he should have known better. Blake's distrust, cynicism and his lack of compassion for Ethan make him a less likeable but very real character. Blakes mistrust is offset by the innocence and love that Gracie has towards Ethan. Because of this, Gracie is a truly heartwarming character whose love for Ethan affects him deeply.

This psychological thriller is definitely for older teens mainly because of the numerous f-bombs and the mature content in relation to the principal character, Ethan.

Book Details:
Dead To You by Lisa McCann
New York: Simon Pulse          2012
256 pp.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Secrets of the Henna Girl by Sufiya Ahmed

"I knew everything there was to know about family honour. My dad had always talked about it. When I was a child he would sit me on his knee and tell me that wives, sisters and daughters were like precious glass vases within which a man's honour was contained. These glass vases must never be broken. If the female did not behave accordingly then a man's honour was compromised. His friends would laugh at him, his brothers would jeer at him and -- even more shamefully -- other women would ridicule him."
Sixteen year old Zeba Khan, a Muslim girl from Yorkshire, has just finished high school where she excelled at writing and all her other subjest. Zeba anticipates attending college to complete her A-levels and then enrolling in university. Her whole life is before her, with all the excitement and promise of a brilliant future.

But Zeba's world as she knows it comes to crushing halt, when she learns on her family's holiday to Pakistan, that she is to be married at sixteen to her cousin Aisf who is a soldier in the Pakistan army. Her uncle, Taya-ji is worried about his only son, Asif's future in the army and wishes him to leave Pakistan and emigrate to England. The only way he can do this is to marry an English girl.

Zeba is sent by her parents to live with her maternal grandmother, Fatima or Nannyma as she is called in the hopes that she will gradually accept the marriage. Nannyma is a dignified woman who is well respected because she owns land. She is the voice of moderate, progressive Islam in the novel. Her other daughter, Nusrat, lives in America and is married to Tahir, an engineer. Nannyma encouraged Nusrat to "follow her fate, her kismet."  and Nusrat believes that women should be free to follow their dreams and reach their full potential. Zeba realizes that just maybe Nannyma is her sole supporter.

When her father comes to Nannyma's home and tries to explain the reason for the marriage, Zeba confronts him, telling her father she will not marry Asif. He tells her that it is his duty to protect Asif and to put his honour first, rather than protect his daughter! Zeba cannot believe that her mother and father would use her and sacrifice her happiness for Asif's safety - that they would make a promise of marriage without consulting her.

While living with Nannyma, Zeba meets another bakri or sacrificial lamb, Sehar, who is from Birmingham and who was forced into marriage by her family to the youngest son of the powerful village landlord, Sher Shah. Sehar tells Zeba that when her family announced a trip to Pakistan, unlike Zeba, she became suspicious and contacted the Forced Marriage Unit in Birmingham. A woman from one of the charities, named Tara, offered her help if she felt she needed to leave her family. But Sehar thought that if she just stood her ground, her parents would relent. She was wrong. Now she finds herself married, seven months pregnant, being beaten often by her husband, and planning her escape back to England. Sehar's story makes Zeba realize that this might very well be her future.

One of  Zeba's lowest moments comes when her parents leave for England and tell her they will return in one month for her wedding. Nannyma attempts to intervene in Zeba's forced marriage by appealing to the imam. The imam tells them he was tricked into marrying Sehar and did not realize that she did not consent to the marriage. But when he tries to appeal to Taya-ji who has arranged the marriage, Taya-ji becomes enraged and has the imam driven from the village. The fallout from Nannyma's intervention is widespread and Zeba begins to understand that she will not be able to escape. She also learns that Asif has no intention of leaving Pakistan because he is very dedicated to his career in the army. At this point, Zeba gives up all hope of returning to England.

But a terrible tragedy causes Zeba to rethink her situation and her decision to give in to the marriage two weeks before her own wedding. Her own break happens when she is helped by Nusrat and Tahir, who are visiting Pakistan. They take her to Karachi so that she can use the internet to contact the Forced Marriage Unit in the UK, her friend Susan, and a teacher and more importantly Tara. Zeba must now hope that someone will help her before it is too late.

Secrets of the Henna Girl is well written, with Zeba's story easily captivating the reader's attention. Zeba's naivete, helplessness and the overwhelming nature of her situation are poignantly portrayed but it is the tragedy of her friend Sehar that is hard to forget. This is a reminder that for some girls, there are no happy endings, and that their suffering is intense.

Ahmed is not only able to tell a good story but she is also able to provide the reader with interesting background information about Pakistan and its culture along the way, thus educating and informing. Sufiya Ahmed also effectively educates the reader on the tragedy of forced marriage, its cultural basis and what motivates parents and family to do this to their own children.There are some interesting passages on how the feudal society, which still exists in much of Pakistan, perpetuates the practice of forced marriage.

One of the strongest elements of Secrets of the Henna Girl is the tremendous conflict that exists between Zeba and her parents and also between her parents and their culture of honour. Zeba cannot understand how her parents can do this to her. These are the same people who played with her and sent her to school. Zeba cannot understand her parents who are suppose to love and protect her but instead value honour more than anything else.
"All those shared memories that should have invoked a protective arm around me seemed to have disappeared. I was no longer my father's rani, I was my father's honour instead."
Zeba also recognizes that her father does not really want to marry her to Asif, but because he gave his word, his honour is bound to this promise. If he goes back on his word, he will be disowned by his family, and family is everything. The internal conflict her father experiences is evident to Zeba, but she feels that he should put her safety and concerns first before family.
"Today was his only child's engagement ceremony and he looked like he had the world's worries on his shoulders. There was not a hint of happiness on his face, only misery. I knew in my heart that he didn't want this for me, and I just couldn't understand the obligation he felt to his older brother."
One thing I didn't quite understand about the storyline in this novel, is why Nusrat and Tahir did not take Zeba directly to the British Embassy in Karachi where she would have received immediate assistance. Zeba's marriage was imminent, and in the tribal regions of Pakistan I would think locating one girl with no working phone, no passport and no access to the outside would be daunting. Perhaps Nusrat and Tahir, despite their open minds and more liberal views on women and culture, still wished to preserve their place within the family and they also wished to protect Nannyma who might have suffered serious consequences as a result of their actions.In the end though, the family would have come to the realization that it was Nusrat and Tahir who helped Zeba escape.

Overall though, Sufiya Ahmed has crafted a story which puts a human face to the tragedy of forced marriage. Her characters are realShe succeeds in educating her readers and helping Westerners to understand the cultural forces at play in such situations. This novel would be a good addition to a library with a large multicultural population.

Information on the Forced Marriage Unit in the UK can be located here. The website provides detailed information for those who feel they are at risk of forced marriage and those who are already in such a situation. Apparently this is common enough in the UK, that pamphlets are distributed throughout schools so that girls can be made aware of this possibility. According to the handbook put online by the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) in Britain, the British Embassy will arrange a safe flight back to the UK.

For Canadians who are in the situation of forced marriage, The Alliance of Multicultural Agencies Against Forced Marriage In Canada (AMFM Canada) can provide some information. It does not appear at this time that there is one agency who can provide emergency support for young people threatened with forced marriage.

Unveiling the Abuse is a documentary about forced marriage in Canada produced by Azra Rashid and Igal Hecht. Tarek Fatah, Author and Community Activist, states that parents who undertake forced marriage are essentially organizing the forced rape of their daughters. Fatah correctly reminds us that Canadian feminists have nothing to say about forced marriage. "They are indulging in the worst form of racism...it is not their daughters who are suffering. It is the daughters of some brown skinned Pakis who live in this country."  Indeed I could find no explicit webpage for young women (or men) who are in danger of forced marriage or who suspect their parents may be planning such, instructing them on how to get help.

Watch the trailer for the documentary:

Author Sufiya Ahmed talks about what inspired her to write Secrets of the Henna Girl.

Book Details:
Secrets of the Henna Girl by Sufiya Ahmed
London: Puffin Books 2012
271 pp.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari

Jasmine Skies is the sequel to Artichoke Hearts which introduced us to spunky Mira Levenson, who lives in Britain with her dad, Sam, her half Indian mother, Uma, and her twelve year old brother Krish and younger sister Laila. In Sita Brahmachari's newest novel, Mira is now fourteen years old and on a visit with her mother's relatives in Kolkata, India. She has come not only to reconnect with her mother's family but also to help out at her Aunt Anjali's children's refuge center.

Before leaving for India, Mira sees her mother looking at some old letters -- which turn out to be the correspondence between her mother and Anjali, years ago. Mira thought her mother would show her the letters but instead her mother hides the letters and tells her they are none of her business. Of course, this has the opposite effect on Mira, who steals the letters before she leaves on her trip.

Mira's mother and Anjali were very close. They shared the same birth date and frequently sent letters and postcards back and forth. In 1980 her mother went for a visit to Kolkata and something happened during that visit. The last letter was from Anjali to her mother in 1981. Mira wonders why her mother and her aunt would go from writing several times a year to nothing and hopes the letters will provide a clue.

When she arrives in Kolkata, despite feeling guilty about taking these letters, Mira reads them in the hopes of learning what happened over twenty years ago. But the letters only deepen the mystery as to why her mother lost contact with her family in India. From the letters Mira learns that when her Auntie Anjali was a young girl, she lived in a large home on Doctor's Lane in Kolkata. This home was dominated by a beautifully crafted heavy door decorated with wooden carvings of flowers. Mira feels that she must find this home and that it might hold the key to what happened years before.

Meanwhile, Mira gets to know her cousin, Priya, who is a classical Indian dancer and somewhat of a rebel. While Priya prepares to dance in a local festival, Mira is taken to various places by her Aunt Anjali including a sari shop. At the sari shop, her Auntie tries to encourage Mira to select a new sari. But when Mira chooses an old sari with its exquisite needlework over the new and colourful sari, Anjali is unsettled.

Mira also meets Janu, a handsome sixteen year-old boy who was adopted by Anjali and who helps out at the children's refuge center. Mira, who has a long term friendship with a Jide, a boy back home, begins to fall for Janu. This causes Mira much conflict as she tries to sort out her relationship with Janu and figure out what her friendship with Jide back home means.

One night when Priya and Mira sneak out to a house party, which happens to be in the old abandoned home on Doctor's Lane, a terrible accident happens that brings the story to its enlightening conclusion.

Jasmine Skies was a truly delightful story, well written, with vivid descriptions that allow the young reader to experience the culture of India in a real way.

The story is told in the voice of Mira and Brahmachari has captured her point of view in an very authentic manner. Mira's trip to India provides her with the opportunity to mature and is, as the author states in her note to the reader, a "rite of passage". When Mira arrives in Kolkata, she is troubled as a result of a fight she had with her mother prior to leaving London. She also feels guilty for stealing and reading her mother's letters. As time passes in Kolkata and when her aunt finds her mother's letters, Mira must face that fact that what she did was wrong. The letters were personal and private and she violated her mother's trust. She is forced to take responsibility for her actions. But Mira's actions also force her mother, Uma, and Anjali to confront their feelings about what happened years ago and to finally forgive each other.

The trip also provides Mira with the chance to explore her Indian heritage - something she really hasn't been able to do living in London, England. What Mira's grandfather has told her about her family's history, comes alive when she visits Kolkata. Understanding her past becomes an important part of developing her identity.

Through Janu, Mira comes to understand the realities of life in India; that while there are poor in England, the poor in India often have much less, sometimes not even clothes to wear. Mira's volunteering at the refugee center and her trips around Kolkata expose her to the poorest of the poor, beggars, and street children.

I sincerely hope that Sita Brahmachari will consider writing a third book about Mira so that readers can follow this young character into adulthood. She knows her subject well and it's obvious the story is very dear to her. This book would be a wonderful read for a mother-daughter book club, providing the opportunity to discuss another life in very different culture and themes of identity and betrayal.

Book Details:
Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari
London: MacMillan Children's Books 2012
336 pp.