Sunday, September 30, 2012

Heart of a Samauri by Margi Preus

Heart of a Samurai is a fictionalized account of the true story of Manjiro Nakahama, whom the Japanese called "the boy who discovered America".

Manjiro's amazing story begins in 1841 with the sinking of the fishing boat he had joined. Manjiro along with four other sailors, Jusuke, Denzo, Toraemon, and Goemon, dto land on a deserted island which they named Bird Island, for its large albatross population. Manjiro was just fourteen years old and had left his mother and younger siblings to find work. At the time of the shipwreck, Japan was extremely xenophobic and isolationist. Any person who left Japan and later tried to return was put to death. For this reason, fisherman were warned not to stray too far from the coast for fear of "contamination" by the barbarians who lived outside of Japan. If they were lost at sea, there would be unable to return.

Once on the island, Manjiro and his companions waited for rescue by a passing ship, their situation becoming more dire with the passing of each day. Eventually after about six months, they were picked up by the whaling ship, the John Howland, captained by John Whitfield. Terrified of these strange bearded barbarians, Manjiro and his companions expected to be humiliated, poisoned and possibly eaten. Instead the sailors fed and clothed them. Manjiro began to learn English so that he could learn what the sailors were doing sailing such a large ship on the ocean and to find out what they intended to do with him and his fellow Japanese. Not understanding Manjiro very well, the American sailors gave him the name, John Mung.

Manjiro found that Captain Whitfield was a kindly man who expected Manjiro to ask questions and learn. Captain Whitfield tells Manjiro that they had hoped to take them back to their homeland, but when they discovered they were from Japan, they knew this to be impossible since Japan will not accept any foreign ships in their ports. Manjiro comes to understand that the John Howland is a whaling vessel and when they finally make their first whale kill, he learns about whaling and why the Americans hunt whales.

After three and half years at sea, the John Howland returned to its home port of New Bedford in Massachusetts. Manjiro was one of the first Japanese to visit America and people did not know how to treat him. This made Manjiro's adjustment to living in America difficult at times. He decided to accept Captain Whitfield's offer to live with him and his new wife and also attended school in America. However, Manjiro eventually decided that he needed to try to return home to Japan, both to see his mother whom he greatly missed and also to work for change in Japan's isolationist ways.  Manjiro has many more adventures, including being part of California's gold rush before he does return to Japan with some of his remaining friends who were shipwrecked with him so many years before. Wishing to bring about change in Japan, it was his influence which finally made the Emperor open Japan to other countries.

Heart of a Samurai is a great book for young teen boys who enjoy historical fiction. The  novel is a fictionalized account of Manjiro's adventures and includes many of Manjiro's drawings and some photographs as well. The novel takes its title from the fact that Manjiro wanted to be a samurai but because he was a lowly fisherman, he could never achieve this high station in Japanese society. However, he had the heart of a samurai for his bravery in living among the "barbarians" and he was eventually made a samurai when he returned to Japan.

This is a beautifully crafted novel in every way; the writing is superb and the illustrations enhance the reader's understanding of this unusual, interesting story. The hero is a likable, brave soul whom we can't help but root for! There is an Epilogue, a Historical Note, a Glossary and a Bibliography where readers can find books about Manjiro, whaling and also Japan.  Highly recommended.

Book Details:
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus
New York: Amulet Books        2012
301 pp.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Once by Anna Carey

Once is the second book in the Eve series, which in my opinion is the "sleeper" young adult dystopian series of the past two years. Pleasantly surprised by the first book, Eve, Anna Carey's follow up is equally engaging and readable.

The novel opens with Eve living in Califia, a sanctuary for women, in post-plague United States, now called New America. Califia is an all-female colony that was founded ten years ago in Marin County. Many of the women were escapees from the Government schools, plague survivors and escapees from gangs. It is a refuge for orphaned girls attempting to escape the government breeding centers. Eve fled her school after learning that she had been promised to the King as his future wife, to bear his children. She knows he will continue to search for her and that she will always be hunted.

Although Eve initially felt safe in Califia, she decides to leave after three months, when she learns that Maeve, one of the Founding Mothers of Califia, will use her to barter for the protection of the colony from the King's soldiers, should she be discovered. She decides to leave with her friend Arden who recently showed up in the colony, when she learns that Caleb has been sighted on Route 80. Eve had to leave Caleb behind on the mainland, injured and bleeding when she entered Califia. She deeply misses him and despite the warnings about men from her teachers at the school, she has fallen in love with him.

However, Eve's freedom is short-lived as this turns out to be a trap and she is soon captured and taken by the King's soldiers to the City of Sand. There she learns the real reason behind the King hunting her and that her true name is Genevieve. Living in the Palace with the King, Eve questions how New America is being rebuilt and wants to know how he can justify women being used like cattle and men worked like slaves. He tells her that using Hoover Dam and Lake Mead he has been able to begin rebuilding Las Vegas; restoring hospitals, a school, office buildings, and oil well and refinery, creating housing for people, converting golf courses into vegetable gardens and building factory farms. The King explains to her that the next superpower will be the country with the most people and that he had to make these difficult decisions.

Eve meets some of the King's government and one in particular, Charles Harris, Head of Development seems to like her. Charles is nice enough but Eve continues to worry about Caleb and how she will meet up with him again. That problem is solved when, during a parade showing off Eve as the rescued Princess Genevieve, Eve sees Caleb in a crowd of onlookers. They manage to arrange to meet outside the palace, where their relationship deepens and they fall in love. Eve learns that Caleb is working with dissidents who are planning to attack the city and challenge the King. However, Eve's determination to keep meeting Caleb is bound to create many problems. When the King discovers her secret meetings he sets out to end them and remove Caleb. Eve is a prisoner now in The City of Sand and must do what the King asks of her. Her liaisons with Caleb result in tragedy and force Eve to make an awful choice that could change her life forever.

I enjoyed this novel and felt it didn't suffer from the usual flaws that second novels in a trilogy have. We learn more about Eve's post-plague world and get a sense of how badly the plague destroyed society. We see how choices were made that overstepped the personal freedoms and dignity of women and men.

We also learn more about Eve's family, in particular about her mother and her father. Eve is a well developed character, who shows concern for her friends still caught in the breeding facilities, for Beatrice her maid, and even for the King at times. This makes her believable and puts the reader firmly on her side.

At the same time the story moves forward in a well paced manner, with a few surprises thrown in, some romance, some tragedy, and an unresolved ending. The next installment is sure to be exciting.

Book Details:
Once by Anna Carey
HarperCollins Publishers     2012
354 pp.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

DVD: Snow White and the Huntsman

"I will give this wretched world the queen it deserves!"

I missed this movie when it was in theaters mainly because of the mixed reviews and after watching it I too have mixed feelings.Rupert Sander's screen adaptation of Grimm's fairytale, Snow White is characterized by a great storyline, good special effects and by some sub-par performances.

The story opens with King Magnus and Queen Eleanor wishing for the birth of a daughter. The Queen's wish is granted and she gives birth to a baby girl whom they name, Snow White. However, shortly after, the Queens sickens and dies, leaving King Magnus broken-hearted. For several years, Snow White lives happily in the castle along with her friend, William while her father remains unmarried.

Soon King Magnus finds his kingdom under a strange threat. He is called to do battle with another unknown kingdom, and upon arriving at the battlefield discovers a blackened wasteland and a dark army that is easily destroyed. Hidden behind the enemy is a wagon containing a beautiful, captive young woman, Ravenna. Lovestruck by her beauty, King Magnus takes Ravenna back to his kingdom, where he weds her the next day. But unknown to the King, he has admitted to his realm, a dark, overpowering evil. Ravenna murders her husband on their wedding night, opens the doors to the castle, allowing her dark soldiers to overrun it, murdering all the inhabitants, except one. Snow White is spared and placed in a tower prison where she grows to womanhood.

Meanwhile we learn that Ravenna sucks the youth and beauty out of young women and that she is very old. One day she learns from her Magic Mirror, that consuming the heart of Snow White will make her immortal. She sends her brother, Finn, to retrieve Snow White from her prison, but the young woman manages to flee with the help of some birds, into the Dark Forest. Unable to track her further, Ravenna enlists the help of a huntsman, whom she tricks into tracking the princess by offering to bring his dead wife to life again.

However, when the huntsman realizes that he has been tricked and that Snow White is to be murdered, he defends her and helps her to escape. Through a series of journeys, the Huntsman and Snow White travel to Duke Hammond's castle to try to convince them to take up arms against Ravenna. The Duke's men ride back to the castle and this leads to the final confrontation between Snow White and Ravenna.

There are some aspects I truly loved about this movie. One of them was Charlize Theron's amazing performance as Ravenna. Theron nailed the character, portraying a cold, black-hearted queen who was consumed by the desire to be ravishingly beautiful and to conquer men. Immortality was icing on the cake for her.

The storyline, which had the modern twist of Snow White being a warrior princess determined to win back her family's throne and realm, was very well crafted. Despite all her suffering, Snow White unflinchingly accepted that she was the only one who could save her people. She rallies her people, who have lost their collective courage to help her.

Despite having this strength, the movie was brought down by poor casting choices, foremost by its leading lady. Sadly, Kristen Stewart was very much miscast as that warrior princess. Although her acting here is much improved from what we saw in the Twilight franchise, she still fails to impress. She doesn't have the screen presence to carry off a leading role in a movie and at times  her speeches were marred by a stilted and unconvincing delivery. Her role was also a difficult one; to be a beautiful and good princess.

Chris Hemsworth does what he does best; action scenes. At times his performance was bland and uninspiring, as though he didn't believe in Snow White's cause, at other times he was dynamic and energized, giving us a performance reminiscent of that in Avengers.

The special effects were brilliant, if similar to those in Lord of the Rings, giving the movie a definite Ringesque character. This was especially so of the battle scenes. Special effects related to Ravenna were well done though, and added to the air of evil and corruption of her character. The Magic Mirror special effects were especially creepy, enhancing the notion of Ravenna's evil magic.

Overall, I found the pacing uneven, creating a movie that seemed too long. Much could have been edited out of this movie to pick up the pace, hold the terror and suspense, and still provide viewers with the necessary comic relief.

The musical score for Snow White and the Huntman is beautiful and capped off by the powerful vocals of Florence and the Machine in the song, Breath of Life.

This movie is best seen on DVD where you can fast forward through the slow parts. The DVD offers home viewers the choice between the theatrical  or extended version. Below is the movie trailer:

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Online Documentary: Mothers Matter: Who on Earth Cares

Maternal deaths do not take place in a visible and concentrated way, but occur among very young mothers, in small villages, and a few at a time. Most die in terror from haemorrhage or in agony from obstructed labour as their pelvises are too small. Not only are the lives of these mothers abruptly terminated but the chances of survival of their new-borns and the two or more children that they already have and leave behind, decreases dramatically. It is also very likely that their families disintegrate in the aftermath of their death.
from MaterCareInternational
This short online documentary discusses the shocking conditions under which mothers in sub-Saharan Africa give birth and what is being done by a dedicated group of doctors to change this much ignored situation. Produced by MaterCare International, "an organization of Catholic healthcare professionals dedicated to care of mothers and babies, both born and unborn" Mothers Matter outlines the difficult situation many young mothers in Africa face in order to give birth to their babies without access to proper maternal and obstetrical care. Beginning in Isiolo, Kenya, where they were invited by the Apostolic Vicariate, MaterCare has developed an unique maternal healthcare model that is respectful of the local culture and conditions and environmentally responsible.

Currently, the vast majority of women in sub-Saharan Africa deliver their babies at home in the bush without any access to medical care. Many experience serious complications due to malnutrition, chronic disease, tribal warfare, and drought. Without proper care these women risk dying alone and in agony. Others end up with serious problems such as ruptured bladders or rectums, resulting in debilitating and socially isolating incontinence. In fact, the images in the short film of women walking around carrying a small pan in front of their abdomens are both saddening and disturbing - because this needn't happen.

Maternal mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa are 1 in 31 compared with 1 in 10,000 in Canada. Ninety-one percent of the causes of maternal mortality can be treated by access to simple, good obstetrical care. So why hasn't more been done to help women in the Third World have their babies safely? A big part of the problem is the focus by international organizations and governments on "reproductive health" which generally means the promotion of abortion and contraception. This approach is completely irrelevant to the problem of maternal mortality since it does not offer the mother a way to have her baby in a safe and healthy way. It is an approach lacking in compassion because it ignores the great love of family and children that characterize African society. Many governments demonstrate a lack of initiative and political will in finding a solution to the problem of poor maternal care in developing countries . It seems shameful that we in the West have forgotten our sisters in their hour of need, for what should be one of the most basic rights of a woman; the right to basic maternal care.

MaterCare, which was founded by Dr. Robert Walley, has developed a model for obstetric care in poor rural areas. It revolves around a 30 bed maternity care hospital in conjunction with several outlying parish maternity centres that provide quality care closer to the mothers villages. There is also the use of a 4X4 ambulance to transfer serious cases to the hospital at Isiolo. The documentary shows a clean, professional facility that offers the women of Isiolo safe maternal care while respecting their dignity as women and mothers.

Mothers Matter provides us with the opportunity to meet some of the mothers and their children in this part of the world and to understand some of the unique problems that need to be overcome in order to bring safe maternal care to African communities.

"Mothers Matter" because when a mother, who is the heart of the family dies, the family often struggles to remain intact. This is true in North American society and it is even more true in the family centered culture of Africa. Take time to investigate the innovative work done by MaterCare International and please consider a donation. As far as I was able to determine, Dr. Walley who hails from Eastern Canada, receives no support from the Canadian government nor from the Canadian Bishops Development and Peace Fund.

Update: MaterCare International has written a post about the lack of funding support from DPF. Dr. Walley writes,
"MCI has presented Development and Peace with the opportunity to participate in projects that directly reflect the claimed beliefs and missions of their organization, and yet they have time and time again squandered these opportunities in favor of advancing their own dated and unfocused agenda. Sadly, requests to participate in Development and Peace’s fundraising campaign, Share Lent, were greeted with a sharp “NO”."

Perhaps it's time to bypass DPF altogether and give directly to organizations like MCI whose work directly impacts women and children in the developing world?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

This gritty, short novel tells the story of a young Marine, freshly returned from Afghanistan, whose life is gradually unraveling due partly to modern culture and partly to circumstances beyond his control.

Travis Stephenson is the oldest son of the Dean Stephenson, former NFL player with the Green Bay Packers. When his father began grooming him for a potential career as an football player, Travis wanted no part of it and quit the game. Fresh out of high school, he enlisted in the Marines, and after boot camp was sent overseas to Afghanistan. Now on leave and back in his hometown of Fort Myers, Florida, Travis is struggling to assimilate back into American society. He arrives home trying to cope with his girlfriend, Paige Manning, having dumped him and taken up with his brother Ryan, Ryan having taken over his car, his parents crumbling relationship and the death of his best friend and fellow Marine, Charlie Sweeney, in Afghanistan. Of all of these things, it is Charlie's death that is the most troubling for Travis who is experiencing nightmares and hallucinations, and tremendous guilt over Charlie's death.

Things appear to be going all downhill until one night Travis stumbles into a bar and runs into a former schoolmate, Harper Gray. Harper and Travis do not have a good history mainly because in Grade 8 Travis told everyone lies about her and permanently ruined her reputation. Although Harper at first rejects Travis, a sort of cautious friendship develops between the two. Harper seems to recognize that Travis is struggling and needs some companionship. What Harper offers Travis however, is very different from what ex-girlfriend Paige has offered and continues to offer; the focus is on friendship and not sexual encounters. This is a change for Travis, who doesn't understand how to proceed in such a relationship. Harper takes Travis to the beach at night to watch and help sea turtles hatch, they go to a movie, and have dinner at a pirate adventure dinner theatre. She accompanies Travis to Charlie's memorial and also spends time with his Marine buddies. Harper offers Travis a chance at a meaningful relationship; Paige is about hook-ups. It is Harper's caring concern that provides a mooring for Travis to begin to heal the hurt he has in his life, and he wisely takes hold of it.

Something Like Normal is mostly about a young Marine's battle with post traumatic stress disorder. Not only Travis, but some of his Marine buddies also exhibit symptoms and Doller uses all of these characters to educate her readers on the disorder which is quite common in soldiers returning from combat duty in Afghanistan. At first Travis is very reluctant to seek out help. He even walks out a veteran's clinic after finding a picture of himself and his company in a magazine.
That Marine right there in the magazine doesn't belong here -- at a veteran's clinic with old guys and liars addicted to prescription painkillers. That Marine is hard. That Marine is tough. That Marine is not crazy.
This novel also provides an interesting opportunity to discuss the hook-up culture which plays out extensively in the novel. Doller's work makes a strong statement about the banality and emptiness of the hook-up culture in North America. Travis and Paige had an open relationship when they were "together", often sleeping with other people. It's no surprise then when Travis goes off to Afghanistan that Paige dumps Travis and has moved on to his brother Ryan. But Paige isn't faithful to Ryan either; she repeatedly hooks up with Travis when he's home again.
"So let me get this straight," I say. "You hook up with my brother behind my back and now you want me to do the same to him?"
She flicks her ice-blue eyes toward the night sky. "It's not like it means anything."
Somewhere in the recesses of my beer-soaked consciousness, I think this is meant to hurt me, but it doesn't. When I think about what Paige and I have had, love has never entered into it. "That's so messed up. You know that, right?"
Travis agrees to these encounters even though they are empty and don't mean anything to him or to Paige. He realizes that he does this only because he can. When he questions her motives, she tells him "It's only sex, Travis." Later on in the novel, Travis learns that Paige expected him to love her and try to win her back from Ryan, even though she had no intention of loving him. Their entire relationship is not based on any sort of mutual respect or regard; instead it is manipulative and indifferent, even destructive.

While both Paige and Travis are remarkably self-centered, because Travis has been developing a real friendship with Harper, he comes to the realization that his relationship with her is much more satisfying in the end, than the no-commitment, free sex thing he had with Paige. Travis also begins to recognize that Harper brings out the best in him, and he realizes this is what he truly wants.

The major strength in Something Like Normal is the superb development of all the major characters. Doller manages to flesh out each character from many angles making them interesting while creating characters that evoke strong emotions. Harper is a breath of fresh air with her straightforward approach to life. Travis is more complicated because he is dealing with many issues at once. Although he appears to be self-centered and a player, he is also caring and supportive of his mother, encouraging her to no longer be a doormat, but to stand up to his father.

Having said all this, Something Like Normal is definitely a book with a mature theme, a great deal of sexual content and profane language. I would like to see Doller write a sequel, catching us up on Travis and Harper, two years later.

Book Details:
Something Like Normal by Trish Doller
New York: Bloomsbury
214 pp.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus

On April 9, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded an unprepared Norway, a peaceful country whose people looked like the blond haired, blue-eyed Aryan's Hitler thought should rule the world. The people of Norway tried to fight the invasion of their beloved country but were to small to organize much of a military resistance. A puppet regime was installed, headed by Vidkun Quisling, head of the Norwegian Nazi party and King Haakon and his government fled to England. Since they were unable to overthrow their Nazi occupiers, the Norwegian people began to resist in other ways.

In Shadow on the Mountain, the experiences of Espen are based on those of real life Erling Storrusten, who was a teenager in Lillehammer, Norway during the Nazi occupation. Living in the fictional village of Lilleby with his parents and his younger sister, Ingrid, Espen is fourteen years old when the Nazis occupy Norway. Although the Germans at first are friendly, Espen watches as his way of life gradually disappears. Gone are scouting and his beloved soccer team. Hoping to undermine the Nazi occupation in any way, Espren joins the resistance as a courier. As he becomes a trusted member he is given more difficult tasks and drawn into the inner circle of the resistance.

Working against Espen are a few of his fellow Norwegians who have decided to side with the Nazi occupiers. Aksel a former soccer team member, who wasn't well liked, is determined to make a name for himself, no matter what the cost may be. There is Kjell, another soccer mate who struggles with cooperating with the Nazis so as to obtain medication for his grandmother. Preus uses these two characters in particular to explore the reasons why some people cooperated with an evil regime and what motivated them to do so.

As the Nazi occupation drags on, and Espren grows up both physically and emotionally, he learns not to hate his occupiers, but to "move toward the light", to shun the emotions of hatred, anger and bitterness that encompass the Nazi ideology. Espren is helped in his work by Ingrid and also a neighbour, Solveig, whom he has a crush on. When Espren's group is compromised and with the Nazi net tightening, Espren must make a choice; stay in Lilleby and risk the lives of others in the resistance or make the dangerous journey to freedom in Sweden. Preus does a wonderful job of building the novel to its exciting, climatic ending.

Shadow on the Mountain is well written historical fiction that will appeal to younger teens who enjoy war fiction with a touch of excitement and romance, and at times a dash of humour. The story is told from the perspective of four characters, Espen, Ingrid, Aksel and Kjell.

Preus does just about everything she can to help orient and familiarize her young readers with the situation in Norway during the Second World War. There is a prologue which sets the stage for the novel, helping readers understand how neutral Norway was overrun by a large German military contingent. There is a map to help the reader understand the layout of the setting of the novel in Lilleby. The Author's Note at the back sets out more information about Erling Storrusten, and about what is fiction and what is fact in the novel. There is a lovely photo album at the back of the book with pictures of Erling, a timeline, a detailed bibliography and suggestions for further reading.

I especially liked the shorter chapters and the breaking up of the novel into years using separate black pages containing interesting and relevant quotes. I highly recommend Shadow on the Mountain both for its quality of writing, and for telling the story of a lesser known aspect of one country's resistance to the Nazi war machine.

Book Details:
Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus
New York: Amulet Books 2012
286 pp.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Origin by Jessica Khoury

Sixteen year old Pia is the most perfect human being ever created. She is perfect and she is immortal. She has a perfect memory, acute senses, excellent reflexes, impenetrable skin and she cannot drown nor suffocate. She is the culmination of a five generation breeding program, Immortis, designed to make an immortal human being.

Pia lives in Little Cam, a research compound in the middle of the rainforest, with her mother and a group of other scientists whom she addresses a Uncle and Aunt. The head scientist is Dr. Paolo Alvez whom Pia calls Uncle Paolo. There are many other researchers there as well, all of whom Pia calls aunt or uncle. There is Uncle Antonio - her favourite, and also the one who is responsible for her education, Uncle Will a quiet, gentle man who is Pia's father, and Uncle Timothy who deals with supplies. Her mother, Sylvia, also a research scientist, lives with Pia in a little house on the western side of Little Cam. Pia's bedroom is unusual in that it has three walls and a ceiling made of glass. The newest member, Dr. Harriet Fielding whom Pia at first dislikes, becomes an ally.

At this point all Pia knows is that Immortis scientists used the elysia flower and some unknown catalyst to make her immortal. But she doesn't yet know what that catalyst is and she's desperate to find out. In 1902, scientists searching for new medicinal plants from the rainforest heard about a plant that could extend the human life span. Dr. Heinrich Falk who was in charge of the expedition located the plant; Epidendrum elysia, which cannot be grown or replanted. The plants living in the Falk's Glen now are the same ones he discovered years ago. Falk's successor Wickham established Little Cambridge Research Station and developed the Wickham tests to assess new scientists joining the project. The group experimented on rats first. Pia has been told that the nectar from elysia was combined with that of another flower to make it safe to inject into animals. It is this other flower that Pia believes is the catalyst for Immortis. When scientists injected rats with Immortis, nothing happened until the 5th generation. The immortality gene in the elysia was assimilated into the rat's genetic code making one rat, Roosevelt immortal. Dr. Falk then began experiments on humans, bringing thirty two humans to Little Cam and began injecting them with Immortis. Each generation had children and Pia is the product of that breeding program.

In order to become part of the Immortis research team, Pia is being rigorously trained and must undergo a series of tests, named Wickham tests. These tests are designed to increasingly test her ability to function rationally and without emotion in stressful and disturbing situations. Pia is beginning to become unnerved by the tests however, as they seem to be requiring increasing cruelty and emotional detachment.

Despite Pia's intensive scientific education, she knows little about the outside world. For thirty years no books, magazines or movies from the outside world have been allowed into Little Cam. Her textbooks are redacted. Only instrumental music is allowed. This is all because of some mysterious Accident which occurred thirty years ago. When recently arrived Aunt Harriet mentions the city of Manaus, Pia's curiosity gets the better of her. She tries asking Uncle Paolo but he refuses to tell her anything. Later on Harriet mentions San Francisco and Pia becomes aware of how little she knows about the outside world. On the night she turns seventeen Aunt Harriet sneaks Pia a map of the world. From this map Pia learns where she lives (Brazil and the Amazon rain forest) and begins to understand just how big the outside world is.

Coincidentally, that night she also discovers a hole in the electric fence that surrounds Little Cam. Pia decides to take advantage of this to sneak out into the jungle. On her first trip outside the compound, Pia meets Eio, a member of the Ai'oa tribe that lives in the Amazon jungle. Attracted to one another, Eio and Pia become friends and try to understand the different worlds they live in. Pia learns that Eio knows about elysia which his people call yresa. She also discovers that Eio's "Papi" is someone from Little Cam and that the Ai'oans believe that Little Cam is a place of evil. At first Pia thinks that this is because they do not understand the important work that the scientists are doing at the research station.

Pia wants to return to the jungle to see Eio, but she feels intense conflict. For one thing, her feelings for Eio are unscientific and make her feel wild and out of control. They are unlike anything she has ever felt but she likes the way she feels when she is with Eio. This is the opposite of the way she has been raised which is to use reason and to approach everything in a rational way, without much feeling. She also struggles with issues of loyalty. She is forbidden to leave Little Cam by Uncle Paolo, the man who created her, yet she wants to see Eio and she wants to learn more about the world at large. At first the choice seems easy, to follow Uncle Paolo, but soon Pia discovers that much at Little Cam is not as it seems, that she has been lied to and deliberately manipulated.

The situation at Little Cam slowly begins to unravel. Harriet and Pia discover that part of the compound which is suppose to have burned down, was in fact a torture chamber, leading to more questions about what really happened thirty years ago. When it is discovered that Pia has been outside the jungle her home becomes a prison, just as Eio tried to tell her.

Eventually Pia learns how she was made immortal, her connection to the Ai'oan tribe and the great evil being done at Little Cami.She must now make a choice, continuing making more immortal people like herself and perpetuating the evil of Little Cami or refuse to participate and end it. Her choices make for a suspenseful but open ending to the novel.

Origin is told through Pia's voice, which is that of a young woman struggling to make sense of her world and her existence. One of the best aspects of this novel is the development of the internal conflict Pia experiences as she learns more about the Ai'oan people and the experiments which led to her creation. She is horrified that her creation came about through the innocent death of some many people. Pia wants to live on her terms and questions whether the price of immortality is worth it. For "Uncle" Paola, immortality is all that matters. For Pia, some things are simply wrong and the end does not justify the means.

There are many interesting questions that Origin raises, especially in our age when we have genetically manipulated crops and animals. Many scientists continue to struggle towards the goal of cloning and also to lengthening human life span, continuing to assure us that these are noble goals that will benefit mankind. What is the cost to human beings on a personal level and what is the cost to society of such manipulation? Is how we view the human body important to these questions? And what are the effects on the ecological systems of our planet as we play God and manipulate life without understanding the full effect of what we are doing?

Jessica Khoury does a great job of developing her characters, which are realistic and develop as the story moves along. Pia is naive and tends to think well of others but her curiosity allows her to quickly learn what is happening and to see that those she thought were concerned about her have very different goals in mind. Eio is faithful to death if necessary. He warns his Pia bird not to return to her cage as Dr. Paola Alvez is a megalomaniac, bent on seeing his project to its daring ending.

Enjoy the well done book trailer by Penguin Books:

Book Details:
Origin by Jessica Khoury
Toronto: RazorBill an imprint of Penquin Group Inc. (USA)
394 pp.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

DVD Documentary: Food Inc.

Food, Inc is an eye-opening documentary on how the way we grow food has changed remarkably over the last 50 years. Although the food industry promotes the idea that food is produced on the family farm in its labeling of food products, this pastoral fantasy is entirely marketing. Instead the food industry in America is controlled by several multinational companies whose goal is to produce vast amounts of food as cheaply as possible, using heavily subsidized specific crops (corn and soybeans mainly) without concern for the environment, the treatment of animals and least of all without concern for the health and safety of workers.

The average American supermarket contains a whopping 47,000 products. Take a close look at what's being sold in your grocery store today and it's evident that the grocery store of the past 25 years is vastly different from the grocery store of the 1960s and 70's. There are no seasons in today's grocery store and there are no bones. Everything is precut, prepared and prepacked.

The reality, as Food Inc. effectively sets out to demonstrate, is that food is manufactured and not grown. Food production in the United States is controlled by a small group of multinational corporations who deliberately hide how food is produced from the unsuspecting public. And the less the public knows, the better.

The manufacturing/industrial system was grafted onto food production beginning with the development of fast food. In the 1930's, the McDonald brothers opened a very successful restaurant. But wishing to expand and serve more customers they grafted the factory system onto the back of the restaurant in the 1950s. They changed the way jobs in the kitchen were performed, so that workers were trained to do only one job, such as cooking hamburgers, meaning they could be paid less. They also wanted all their food to look the same, and since they were selling more hamburgers, french fries and so forth, they required vast amounts of meat, potatoes, tomatoes and other foods. MacDonalds became the largest purchaser of hamburger meat in the United States and it is not surprising that they changed the way beef was produced. The massive quantities of beef required by fast food restaurants meant that beef could no longer be grown on family farms but instead needed to be produced in a way similar to that of a factory - on CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). The result is that today, instead of many beef producers, there are four top beef producers in the United States who control 80% of the market.

From this stunning beginning Food, Inc. takes us through various aspects of food production in the United States, starting with the production of corn. Supermarkets give us the illusion of diversity but many products have some type of corn or soybean derivative in them. Corn is a commodity crop because it can be stored and is heavily subsidized. One of the most astonishing facts I learned from Food Inc. was about the use of corn as cattle feed. Having grown up in a farming community and having lived the past 15 years of my life in a rural farming area in Canada, I know that corn has been used for years as feed, especially in the winter, but never exclusively. Cattle are ruminants, which means that they have evolved to eat grass. When a cow is fed corn, the bacterial population in its rumen changes predominantly to acid resistant E. coli - which is the most dangerous form of this common bacteria . This is a product of both the corn diet and living in a cramped feedlot, the latter meaning that all the cows in the lot eventually have E.coli. This bacteria is in the cow manure which coats their bodies and gets into the meat in the slaughterhouse. As a result most meat today is tainted with E. coli and now this contamination has spread to many other foods such as spinach and apple juice.

As Food, Inc. posits, one would think that as more and more technology is applied to food production, the safer our food products would be. But instead, food is more contaminated than ever today.

Food Inc. explores the feedlot, the darkened tunnel-fan chicken barns, and the vast slaughterhouses, such as the Smithfield Hog Processing Plant in Tar Hell, North Carolina. It also explores grass, seeds and organics. Not many people know for example, that farmers in the United States are no longer able top save their best seeds to replant the following year. Chemical manufacturer, Monsanto, which has a record of producing deadly chemicals such as Agent Orange, created a genetically modified soybean that can survive spraying by their pesticide, Round-Up. Due to Monsanto's prosecution (read, persecution) of farmers who wish to plant non genetically modified soyabeans, over 90% of soybeans today are Round Up Ready soybeans, meaning Monsanto is gradually gaining control of a major part of food production in the United States.

Food, Inc. presents its case in a logical, straightforward manner, without shocking the viewer. By making consumers aware of how their food is being produced, and why our food today is more contaminated than ever, it hopes to motivate viewers into pressuring the industry to change. As the film states near the end, we vote three times per day about how our food is made and what is sold in supermarkets. To prove this point, Food, Inc. indicates that Walmart, a mega-retailer often vilified by consumers, has made changes is what it purchases for its grocery section. It has listened to consumers and the changes it has made are positively affecting the type of food sold in stores. As we did with the tobacco industry, we can effect positive change in the food sold. The film provides viewers with ideas they can do to influence what food shows up in the supermarket.

Directed by Robert Kenner, Food,Inc. interviews major players in the attempt to waken the American public and effect positive change in the food industry. If you are concerned about what you eat, the environment, the treatment of animals and the health and safety of food industry workers and farmers, Food, Inc. is just the film to enlighten you.

For vintage pictures of the first McDonald's store in San Bernardino, California and a brief history of the fast food restaurant, check out this recent story from The Daily Mail in the UK.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

"In any case, the short answer to that first question--How do a million and a half people die with nobody knowing? --is really very simple. You kill them in the middle of nowhere."
The Sandcastle Girls is a tale of two stories, separated by almost one hundred years. The present is narrated by Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in New York with her husband and two children. From Laura we learn about her life as a half-Armenian American raised in the eastern United States.We also learn about her family's history one that has a connection to the Armenian genocide of 1915. That connection dates back to Laura's American grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott and her Armenian-born grandfather, Armen Petrosian. Although Laura doesn't mention them by name at first, we come to know that this is Elizabeth and Armen, whose story, set in Armenia of 1915,will be related alternately with that of Laura's current narrative.

Laura becomes interested in her family history  in her first year of college while writing for the student newspaper. She is sent on assignment to explore the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts and to write about a resolution by the US House of Representatives to declare the 1915 Armenian slaughter a genocide. There she encounters a photograph that is both puzzling and haunting.

However, life goes on and Laura never really follows up on the picture. However, just before Mother's Day, when she is forty-four years old, an old college friend calls Laura to tell her that there is "an old picture of her grandmother in The Boston Globe". Thinking she will see a picture of her grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott, instead it is the same photograph she saw years ago in college. However, this time the photograph has a caption identifying a woman with the last name of Petrosian, who carried her dead infant for days on a march from Harput to Aleppo.

Laura's grandparents rarely spoke to her about the First World War and the Armenian genocide. Not knowing who this woman is, Laura decides to travel to Boston to attend the showing of the photographs at Harvard's Peabody Museum and then travel again to the Watertown Museum where, she has learned, her grandmother's letters and diaries and the reports she wrote for the Friends of Armenia" are held in the archives. Besides the photograph of a young woman bearing the same last name as Laura's family, Laura remembers how her father spoke about his parents moodiness, especially his mother's moroseness.

Interspersed with Laura's narrative about investigating into her grandparents past and the woman with the same last name, is the story of Elizabeth Endicott and Armen Petrosian. This narrative, set in 1915, is provided by twenty-one year old Elizabeth, a graduate from Mount Holyoke College in Boston. But there are also other narrators from this time as well; Armen Petrosian, an Armenian engineer who has lost his wife, Karine, and their 12 month old daughter in what is becoming a genocide, and also by Nevart and Hartoun, Armenian refugees, and by two German engineers.

Elizabeth and her father,Silas Endicott, a banker, are in Aleppo as representatives of Friends of Armenia organization. Elizabeth came to Aleppo because she felt this would be a meaningful way to finish off her studies at Mount Holyoke. There they are horrified to see refugees, women and children, who have arrived from the desert, naked, emaciated, starving and dying. The American Consul, Ryan Martin tells them that there were at least one thousand before they left Zeitun or Adana, but many have been crucified, tortured and murdered on the march to Aleppo.

My favourite cover
In the town square at Aleppo, Elizabeth and her father meet German engineers who are photographing the refugees in order to document what is happening. Although Germany is an ally of Turkey, they disagree with what is happening and hope to show the world the fate of the Armenians. With them is a young Armenian engineer, Armen. Armen had attended Euphrates College in Harput but escaped with his two brothers, Garo and Hratch into the hills around Van, a beautiful city of 50,000 people, half of whom were Armenian. Garo is possibly with the Russians while Hratch is dead. Armen had a young wife, Karine and a young daughter, both of whom he now believes have perished.

Armen and Elizabeth are instantly attracted to one another and begin to meet daily, talking and going for walks. When they start to become physically close, Armen decides to leave for Egypt where he plans to meet up with the British and enlist. He leaves abruptly and Elizabeth and her father continue trying to help the refugees both in Aleppo and also those sent to camps in the desert.

Bohjalian gradually weaves both stories together, telling us what happens to Elizabeth and Armen and how their story and the mysterious woman in the photograph is connected to Laura's family. It is a story of profound tragedy and terrible loss that reaches into the future to touch Laura. It is also a story of family secrets, too painful to have been broached therefore history not passed on.

Laura's narrative besides providing a storyline also serves to instruct the reader about the Armenian genocide, in a matter of fact, but in-depth manner. As such Laura's perspective tends to reinforce what her grandmother and great-grandfather saw in Aleppo in 1915. Laura informs us about the 1908 revolution in Turkey, where Talat Pasha seized power and masterminded the genocide of the Armenian Christians; how the Turks systematically descended upon the Armenians, disarming them, rounding up the men, massacring them and then deporting the women and children; how the world refused to believe what was happening; how the Germans were complicit in the genocide. It's a tragedy that the world still seems loathe to recognize, despite the 100th anniversary which will be in 2015.

Bohjalian's novel is well researched, well written, and definitely gripping to the very end. There is some sexual content, but the overall story and especially the subject matter is too important to be missed. 

Book Details:
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
New York: Doubleday      2012
293 pp.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Harvest of Rubies by Tessa Afshar

Harvest of Rubies tells the story of a young Persian scribe during the Reign of King Artaxerxes. Set in 457 BC Persia the novel opens with Sarah, daughter of Simeon who is a royal scribe in the Persian court, revealing her ability to read. When Sarah's father and her Aunt Leah balk at her learning to read and write, Sarah's cousin Nehemiah, cupbearer to King Artaxerxes intervenes.
If the Lord has gifted the child, then perhaps it's because He has a plan for her life that requires such skills. And who are we to stand in the way of the Lord."
Her father sets about teaching her and eventually Sarah becomes accomplished in writing and languages. By age sixteen she can read and write Persian, Akkadian, Aramaic, and Hebrew. Sarah is driven to succeed as a way to get her father to notice her and to have some sort of relationship with him. When Nehemiah questions Sarah about her faith she tells him that she doesn't believe that God helps people. Instead she feels that people help themselves by their own efforts and that only her work makes her valuable as a person.

Eventually Sarah is recommended by Nehemiah to become the Queen Damaspia's senior scribe. Although initially reluctant, because she fears that she will fail, Sarah does agree to take on the position and moves to Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Empire. There Sarah becomes a trusted scribe to the Queen.

One day she is summoned by Damaspia who tells her that the queen mother, Amestris has accused Damaspia's servant, Frada, of stealing. Damaspia is furious. When Sarah reads the tablet she finds evidence that things are not as they should be. She manages to convince Damaspia to allow her to try to sort out the situation. Damaspia agrees and when Sarah solves the mystery in the three days allotted to her and salvages the relationship between the king's mother and the king's wife, Damaspia decides to reward her senior scribe in a manner Sarah never dreamed.

The reward Damaspia has in mind, horrifies Sarah;  Damaspia has arranged for Sarah to marry Lord Darius, son of one of the king's cousins, Lord Vivan. Both Nehemiah and Damaspia put forth Sarah's name when Lord Vivan complained about his son's inability to find a wife. Not only will Sarah marry Lord Darius, but she will do so within the week because Lord Vivan will be departing for Ionia.

Panicked, Sarah seeks out her father and her cousin, Nehemiah, in the hope that they will be able to get her out of the marriage to Darius Passargardae but she soon learns that this will not be possible as both men sealed the contracts. Nehemiah encourages Sarah to trust God, that he has a plan for her. Instead, Sarah gives in to despair and refuses to prepare properly for her marriage.

The week before her wedding passes quickly, with Sarah refusing to prepare properly. Her lack of personal care and outrageous appearance at her wedding both shock and humiliate the groom. Darius is revolted and furious and Sarah realizes too late what she has done.
The last of my defiance vanished as I realized how I had demeaned him in my foolishness. An avalanche of shame and regret covered me with such force, I almost cried out. I turned to leave, to run away from this devastating disgrace, to free Darius Passargadae from the humiliation I had brought upon him.
After spending the night together in which their marriage is not consummated and Darius is drunk, Sarah is taken before Queen Damaspia the next morning where she confesses to the Queen what happened and how herdemon-like appearance was completely unintentional. The queen asks her to persevere and sends her a maid, Pari to help her and be her companion.

Sarah then travels to Darius' large estate where she finally has the opportunity to speak with him and tell him what happened. Darius believes that Sarah schemed and manipulated her way into the marriage after their first encounter years earlier on the dunes outside of Persepolis. When she tries to tell him the truth her refuses to believe her, thinking she is a liar.
'I cannot abide liars. I do not think I can abide you. Your very presence is like a poisoned dagger pressing against my flesh.'
And so she is left alone on Darius' estate. After wallowing in grief, depression and utter loneliness, Sarah is encouraged by Pari to get out of bed. Sarah must make a choice; wallow in her despair or try to win the heart of her husband. Will she allow her faith to sustain her and will she trust in God's plan for her life?

Fearing that her behaviour might cause harm to Pari, Sarah decides to try to make the best of her situation. She soon discovers that her husband's steward, Teispes, is abusing his position and stealing from the estate, allowing it to go to ruin. She manages to build her case against Teispes, and when Darius returns, Sarah presents the situation to him. This is the beginning of their reconciliation and Sarah's realization of the true state of her relationship with God as well.

Harvest of Rubies is another beautifully written novel by Tessa Afshar that captivates the reader both with its well crafted romance and its unique historical setting - a hallmark of Afshar's novels.

This book has plenty of biblical references and allusions to parables seamlessly woven throughout the story. When Sarah is young, Nehemiah reads one of the psalms to her and Sarah remembers learning them when her mother was alive. Later on during Sarah's marriage to Darius, Nehemiah brings him a copy of the psalms of King David. Darius crumples the valuable gift, but Sarah later on these same psalms serve to draw Sarah back to the Lord.

When Sarah finds Bardia, the groundskeeper cutting back the grapevines until there was almost nothing left of the plant, she admonishes him to stop. But he tells her that the sweetest wine in produced when the vine suffers and that he, the gardener knows what is best for the vine. This encounter leads Sarah to reconsider her relationship with God. Was he allowing all that had happened to her; the neglect by her father, the loss of her beloved mother, the loss of her work that she held so dear, and her difficult marriage for a greater purpose?

We travel with Sarah through her journey of faith beginning when she recognizes how she has lived her life up until her marriage. She remembered her mother's painful death and wondered at God allowing such suffering - a question many people struggle with. She struggled to earn her father's love but only received what seemed to be indifference.
"At that point I stopped reciting the Scriptures and relying on the Lord. I still kept the outward form of the Law when possible, living amongst Gentiles as I was, but my heart no longer made room for God. I learned it was far better to rely on myself."
Instead of trusting God, as Nehemiah suggested, Sarah fought him and made her life more difficult. Eventually with time, Sarah comes to realize that she has been putting the Lord to the test, questioning and accusing God instead of clinging to him. She understands that she must either unconditionally surrender to God or continue to stubbornly resist his will for her. With her arrogance and rebellion, and her need for control, Sarah had constructed walls around her heart that had kept God out.

But her lack of faith is not her only problem. Sarah's view of herself not only affects her own life but has now spread to how others view her. She believes her only value comes from her work. She tells Nehemiah to look at her, and that no man will value her, especially not a rich spoiled man like Lord Darius who will likely want only beautiful women. Sarah believes she has value only through her work as a scribe.

One of the major themes in this novel is that of reconciliation. As Sarah's relationship with God changes so does her relationship with her husband and ultimately her father. Allowing God to lead her, frees her from her fear and helps Sarah open her heart towards those in her life.

Thankfully, Afshar will continue Sarah and Darius' story in a second book that deals with Nehemiah's journey to Jerusalem. The first chapter of this novel can be found in the back of Harvest of Rubies.

Harvest of Rubies Trailer from River North Fiction on Vimeo.

Book Details:
Harvest of Rubies by Tessa Afshar
Chicago: River North Publishers 2012
372 pp.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

I've decided to do a detailed synopsis of this book, because the storyline is so complex that I will never remember it when I go to read the final book in the trilogy. In order to read Insurgent, I had to go back and reread almost half of Divergent.

Previously, Tris, her brother Caleb, Tobias and his father Marcus, and Peter escape a mass simulation that has the Dauntless faction killing the Abnegation faction. The simulations make the Dauntless unaware of what they are doing and in a kind of mind control in which they are ordered to kill anyone who looks like Abnegation. The above mentioned five people however are all Divergent, meaning they are able to resist the simulations.

Tobias and Tris learned that the simulations are being created by Jeanine Matthews, a scientist and representative of the Erudite faction who wants to create a new government, one without the Abnegation. However, the Divergent, most of whom come from Abnegation do not respond to the simulations, so she needs a way to either remove them or control them. She wants Abnegation to be absorbed into Dauntless. Tris and her parents, along with others thwart Jeanine's attempt by destroying the simulation and stealing the data from the simulations.

Insurgent picks up exactly where Divergent left off. The five fugitives are on a train that takes them to the Amity headquarters outside the city. There, they hope to secure the Amity faction's help. However, the Amity, under the direction of Johanna Reyes, decide to remain impartial and to establish their faction headquarters as a safe house for all factions provided that there are no weapons and no fighting or discussion of the current conflict. This is mainly because the Erudite and Amity factions work closely together.

Tris discovers that there is some kind of secret information that the Abnegation were entrusted with. Jeanine attacked the Abnegation faction to steal this information, in order to destroy it. Tris also learns that Marcus is determined to obtain this information and so he decides to return to the city to achieve this goal. But before he and the rest of the Divergent can leave, the Amity compound is raided by members of the Erudite faction with the help of Dauntless traitors. Only Tris, Tobias, Caleb and an Amity woman named Susan manage to escape.

When these four take a train into the city, they find themselves confronted by the factionless (those who failed their initiation into a faction) who are led by Tobias' mother, Evelyn. Tris learns that most of the factionless are Dauntless, Erudite, then Candor, with a few Amity. The Dauntless faction is now fractured with half of the faithful going to Erudite and half with Candor. Evelyn has been tracking the location of the Divergent in the city, in the factionless safe houses. She is concerned that the Erudite who are now looking for more bodies to control, will look to the factionless next, both for bodies to fight with and also to eliminate the Divergent. Evelyn has her own goals however; she wants a new government and a new society, one without factions. And to achieve that she is willing to destroy whatever is necessary to achieve this goal.

Tobias and Tris decide to go to the Candor faction at the "Merciless Mart" where they are arrested and meet the faction's leader Jack Kang. However, while there, the Dauntless traitors raid Candor headquarters, searching for Divergent with the intent of bringing two back to study and killing all other Divergent they can find. This assault is unsuccessful mainly due to Tris and Tobias's intervention. Despite this, Kang wishes to negotiate a peace treaty with the Dauntless and Erudite factions. Tris and Tobias realize they cannot attack the Dauntless traitors and the Erudite factions without Candor's help, so they decide to try to enlist the factionless.

When Kang meets with Matthew's representative, he is told that Candor is disposable since they provide nothing useful to the Erudites. Instead he is ordered to turn over the Divergent and all those who have not been injected with simulation serum. Realizing that they are no longer safe at the Candor headquarters, Tris and Tobias leave and return to Dauntless headquarters.

Tobias who is now leader of the Dauntless meets with his mother Evelyn. Evelyn agrees to form an alliance with Dauntless provided they are given a place in the new government after the Erudite are destroyed.

When Jeanine Matthews threatens to kill a Dauntless every two days unless one of the Divergent surrenders to Erudite headquarters, Tris decides to turn herself in. Jeanine Matthews is desperate to learn why the Divergent do not respond to the simulation serum and therefore cannot be controlled. She never dreamed of getting the strongest Divergent but with Tris she hopes she can learn how to control them. Despite the experiments, Tris  cannot be controlled by Jeanine and she is eventually helped to escape.

Marcus finally decides to talk to Tris about the information that Jeanine Matthews stole from Abnegation. He tells her that a week before the simulation attack, the Abnegation leaders decided to reveal the information they had, to everyone. Marcus tells her that they were placed here for a specific purpose. Marcus says he cannot tell Tris what the information is because she will not believe him. Tris also learns that her mother was trying to retrieve that information from Matthews but chose instead to save her. Marcus asks her to help him, but helping Marcus means betraying Tobias who along with his mother Evelyn, are planning to attack the Erudite and destroy them. For Marcus however, retrieving this information is more important than any attack to destroy the Erudite.

Can Tris retrieve this important information before it is destroyed forever by the attack on the Erudite headquarters? And just what is the information that is so important that Tris' mother and father died trying to retrieve it.

My main complaint is that I found Insurgent to be a terribly long read (over 500 pages), at times confusing because there were so many characters and so many twists in the storyline. To this end, a list of characters would have helped immensely and as would a map of the city. Because the storyline is so complex, it was hard to remember what happened in the first novel and who some of the characters were. For example, I couldn't remember who Will was and had to go back and reread part of Divergent. Obviously Roth has realized that this was problematic and so she created a webpage for readers prior to beginning Insurgent. As part of Roth's blog, the webpage lists all the characters in Divergent and gives a summary of the end of the book. I highly recommend reading this page, otherwise you will be lost, like I was.

There were several week points in the the plot of Insurgent. I did not understand why Tris decided to surrender to Jeanine Matthews. She knew that Matthews wanted to study the Divergent so that she could perfect her simulation serum and make it effective on the Divergent. Helping Matthews do this would mean many more Divergent would be killed and that she might actually succeed in destroying the factions. Was this simply a case of Tris' Abnegation characteristics getting the better of her judgement?

It also didn't make sense that Jeanine Matthews would not have destroyed the information she had on her computer from the very beginning, especially if it would prevent her from achieving her goal of a new government. The book ends with the revelation of what that information was; it turns out these people were put in this place which is fenced off and completely isolated from the rest of the world. This new society was formed based on attributes such as sacrifice, candor, intelligence and divided into factions. They were to stay isolated until those who were flexible and open minded became numerous then they were to come back to the parent society and help save that society which was riddled by war. Given the conditions in this factioned society, it seems unrealistic that they have anything new to offer, since they too are now at war.

Tris' sudden siding with Marcus also didn't feel like a reasonable thing to do either. She had no reason to trust Marcus, whom she knew was a cruel man. And when she confronts him about the sort of information they are seeking to recover, he tells her that he can't tell her because he has "no idea how to describe it" to her. In the end Tris sides with Marcus because she knows that her mother died trying to do the same thing.

Insurgent is filled with themes of abandonment, conflict, betrayal, love, and loyalty. There is conflict between Tobias and both his parents; Marcus for his cruelty and Evelyn for her abandonment. Tris also experiences conflict both on a personal level and also with regard to the war as she must decide where her allegiance lies.

Tris is strong female protagonist. She is a complex mixture of strength and weakness. Physically she is very strong, but emotionally Tris is vulnerable. Tris suffers from post-traumatic stress as she tries to deal with killing her friend Will while he was under the simulation, the death of her parents, and the fact that many of her new faction, Dauntless have murdered innocent Abnegation while under the simulation.

The blossoming love between Tris and Tobias, is tested because of Tris' indecision and confusion over the faction conflict. Tris loves Tobias and wants to be with him but she needs to do what she thinks is right and that might mean choosing a path different from that chosen by Tobias.

Overall, Insurgent was a good read but far too long. Two hundred pages could have easily been edited from this book without much loss to the plot and this would have created a better flow to the storyline. I will be interested to see just where Roth takes the storyline in the third book. I am assuming Tris and Tobias will want to see what is outside the fence?

The third and final book in this series will be released in the Fall of 2013.

Book Details:
Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books   2012
525 pp.