Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kpop: Block B

from left to right: P.O., Taeil, Zico, Kyung, U-Kwon, B-Bomb, Jaehyo
Block B is a seven member hip-hop boy band formed by Cho Joong Hoon (known as Cho PD) in 2011. In case you don't know, Cho PD is a rapper and South Korean record producer.  The band was formed under Cho PD's Creating Korea's Eminem Project in 2011. Cho wanted the band to be similar in ability to Big Bang and all members have experience in singing, dancing, and rap.

Block B (the group's full name is Blockbuster) is made up of Zico (Woo Ji Ho), Taeil (Lee Tae II), B-Bomb (Lee Min Hyuk), Jaehyo (Ahn Jae Hyo), U-Kwon (Kim Yoo Kwon), Kyung (Park Kyung), and P.O. (Pyo Ji Hoon). Zico is the group's main rapper and helped produce the groups first mini-album, Do You Wanna B? Twenty year old Kyung is also a rapper as is P.O.  Taeil, Jaehyo, Ukwon and  B-Bomb are vocalists, with the latter two also specializing in dance. This group is young and talented and has every expectation of developing into an innovative band.

Their first single, "Do You Wanna B?"  was followed by their debut music video, Freeze, which was banned as too sexy for Korean youth by South Korea's Commission of Youth Protection. The video, shown below could only be televised after 10pm in Korea.

Freeze is a combination of electronic hip-hop and rap with a catchy tune and strong beat. Main rapper Zico sings the chorus:

I like the way you move STOP
Where are you going girl? STOP
Don’t try to stop me, don’t STOP

Stop right there stop
Where are you going girl? STOP
Don’t try to stop me, don’t STOP

"Nalina" or "Go Crazy" was part of their mini-album, Welcome to the Block, which was released in January 2012.

In February 2012, the group was involved in a public image crisis over their controversial remarks at a press conference in Thailand where they seemed to be insensitive to recent floods in Thailand. During the interview, members of the group goofed around, made light of the disaster and implied they didn't have money to donate to the relief efforts. Block B later apologized for their behaviour and comments. Whether their remarks were misconstrued or careless, there's no doubt the group could have behaved more maturely. As relative newcomers to the international music scene, they have learned a valuable lesson about the image they project through their actions and words and about being a role model in an industry crowded with self absorbed artists.

After an eight month hiatus, Block B recently released their newest single, Nillili Mambo from their Blockbuster album. In this video they play diamond pirates involved in some very typical pirate antics. The musical orchestration at the beginning is even vaguely reminiscent of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. This video is quite a contrast to their previous ones with its playful, fun atmosphere and bits of humour. And I love those HUGE diamonds!

So after enjoying all of these videos, I'm looking forward to what this group will do in future albums. They have the look and the talent and are managed by one of the premier hip-hop artists in South Korea.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Skinny by Donna Cooner

Skinny tells the story of a morbidly obese teenager who decides to have surgery in an attempt to lose weight. Fifteen year old Ever Davies is 302 lbs. She's so fat she cannot fit into the desks at school, she can't wear a seat belt in a car, and she can't sit at a restaurant table. Withdrawn and depressed, Ever believes she's ugly and unlovable. Her constant companion is the voice in her head of Skinny, who tells her over and over what she really is.

"'You can paint a pig, but it's still a pig,' Skinny whispers in my ear."

"'Congratulations. You're fat and mean,' Skinny says."

Things weren't always like this for Ever. Growing up in Huntsville, an hour north of Houston, life was good. Her mother was an artist who illustrated children's books, her father the local sheriff. Everything changed when her mother died from cancer and her father married Charlotte, who is mother to Lindsey and Briella. Ever misses her mother more than anything. And she's not happy about having a stepmother and two stepsisters who are thin, beautiful, and popular.

When Ever's mother was alive, she was always on a diet. By the age of nine Ever was as well. Her mother was curvy and pear shaped and she worried that Ever would be overweight. Gradually after her mother's death, Ever began to eat and put on weight. And as she gained weight her life changed and her relationships with family and friends also changed.

Her two best childhood friends were "Rat", Theodore Simon Wilson and Jackson Barnett. Jackson, whom Ever once kissed and still crushes on, and Ever have drifted apart as she put on the pounds. Once Jackson was skinny with buck teeth, but now he has grown into a good looking guy, who doesn't give Ever a second glance.
As I covered myself in grief  and fat over the years, his memory of me as his best friend trickled away until now I am completely unrecognizable. I know the feeling. I don't recognize me either."
Her only friend is "Rat", Theodore Simon Wilson, a brilliant, geeky boy she's known since Grade One.  Rat has always been there for Ever. He provides Ever a ride to school and after school she accompanies him to the Sam Houston Boys and Girls Club where he works on the computers while Ever entertains the children at the club with her beautiful voice and her ability to tell stories, especially Cinderella. Rat encourages Ever to develop this voice, her wonderful ability to sing.

After a disastrous accident at her high school awards ceremony, Ever takes the drastic step to have gastric bypass surgery. She does this in the hopes that Jackson will once again look at her and remember what they had when they were younger and Ever was thinner.
"But it's a simple solution, really. Girl loves boy. Boy loves girl. Girl gets fat. Boy leaves. Girl cuts her stomach up into a little bitty pouch to get boy back."
Ever has her surgery near the end of the school year but it is Rat who is at the hospital and who comes day after day encouraging her and charting her weight loss. He plans her post-surgery program and helps her begin exercising. When Ever returns to school in the fall she has lost almost 100 lbs and her peers begin to take notice. Popular girl Whitney Stone takes charge of Ever's transformation, taking her shopping for new clothes that fit her slimmer body and taking her to a top salon to get her hair styled. Meanwhile Rat tells her if she want to be a part of the musical next spring, she needs to enroll in drama class. But all Ever is interested in now is trying to recapture the interest of Jackson, her childhood sweetheart, forgetting that it is Rat who truly loves her for who she is. Sadly, when Ever viciously lashes out at Rat, she alienates the one person who loves her through good and bad times.

It takes the Fall Ball for Ever to learn who her true friends are and how she has pushed away those who have always loved her. She also has to decide between letting Skinny run her life or taking charge herself.

In the end, Ever discovers that other people carry hurts too and that she is not alone in this regard. Once Ever is able to confront Skinny, she realizes that Skinny is her own voice who bases everything on appearance. But she also understands that Skinny is only one part of her and she can change what Skinny is. Skinny also doesn't listen - she just talks. Ever realizes that she has been very selfish and self-absorbed. She isn't the only one hurting; Briella and Lindsey have been hurting just as much with the loss of their father through divorce and his repeated absence in their lives. Once Ever starts to listen and hear what others say, she realizes the hurts and problems other carry too.

My concerns with this book revolve around its presentation of gastric bypass surgery as a solution to morbid obesity in teenagers. At 5'6'' and 302 pounds, Ever has a body mass index of 48 (a BMI of >30 is considered morbidly obese), so there's no doubt she is very overweight. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, there are numerous causes of obesity in teens including genetics, cultural influences and personal behaviours, and biology. However, the website indicates that "less than 1 percent of all obesity is caused by physical problems". Often overweight teens have lifestyle habits and/or have suffered some major stressful life event. Therefore, losing a large amount of weight will take time and unless a holistic approach is taken, the weight is likely to be regained. Gastric bypass surgery for teens therefore seems to be a drastic step that should be a last resort and certainly Cooner seemed to suggest that this was the case with her character Ever. She had tried numerous diets and exercise programs all to no avail.

Another concern I have is that Ever never receives any counseling regarding her obesity. On the one hand it was assumed that she was fat because her mother was overweight and that Ever simply inherited her mother's genes. However, by Ever's own admission she was a normal looking girl when she was younger, despite her mother encouraging her to diet. Yet it was obvious that Ever was deeply affected by her mother's death and her father's remarriage later on. Both Ever and her father appeared to have difficulties coping with the loss of her mother. Her father busied himself with work while Ever retreated into an angry, sad world of her own making. Although her father did write her a note expressing concern about her weight gain, apparently little else was done to help her. And there is no hint of counseling after the bypass either. I really felt that author Donna Cooner should have contained an author's note dealing a little more in depth about gastric bypass surgery.

Despite this reservation, Skinny is probably one of the best young adult books I have read this year. Ever's voice is authentic and captures her struggle to cope with the loss of her mother and to adjust to high school and life in a blended family. The reader feels empathy for Ever and recognizes her deepest desire to be loved and to belong. The scene where Ever confronts Skinny, her inner voice that tells her she's ugly and hopeless, is a bit strange. However, the reader wants Ever to believe in herself and in the possibilities she has for the future.

The story has an underlying Cinderella theme woven throughout; Ever is part of a Cinderella family with the father, stepmother and two beautiful stepsisters. There is a ball near the end of the story in which Cinderella loses her Prince Charming, only to find true love with the real but unrecognized prince in her life.Told in Ever's witty voice (with help from nasty Skinny), the story is broken into five parts; Ashes (the ruin that is Ever's life), Prince Charming (Ever's blind crush on Jackson and failure to see Rat's devotion), Abracadabra (her surgery and weight loss), The Ball (Ever's transformation by Whitney into a beautiful princess), Midnight (disaster at the ball), and Ever After (finding happiness by recognizing who her friends are and who her real Prince Charming is).

More importantly though we see how Ever's weight gain - a symptom of her grief and anger has isolated her and almost destroyed her life. Her surgery, initially undertaken for the wrong reasons, give her a second chance to discover who she truly is and to work at developing and sharing her true voice - the voice that sings.

Book Details:
Skinny by Donner Cooner
Point an imprint of Scholastic 2012
260 pp.

Friday, October 26, 2012

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

I love picture books, because they offer so many creative ways to tell a story. The saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words" is never more true than for a picture book! Author-illustrator Jon Klassen's second book tells a delightful story using just enough text and simple but effective illustrations.

This Is Not My Hat is the story of a little fish who steals a big fish's bowler hat. The little fish tries to justify his theft and attempts to hide. Unsuccessfully. Klassen's artwork was created digitally and using Chinese ink.

The book trailer delightfully captures the storyline of Klassen's book:

Los Angeles based Jon Klassen worked as a illustrator and concept artist on both Coraline and Kung Fu Panda 2. Klassen has illustrated a number of picture books for children, including Cat's Night Out and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place and more recently, Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett. Last year he made his move as a solo writer/illustrator with his debut, I Want My Hat Back. And it's a move children and librarians will be thankful for!

There's a great interview with Klassen here and also with Illustration Mundo.

You can also check out Jon's website, to view more of his amazing artwork.

Book Details:
This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press 2012

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Erasing Time by C.J. Hill

Taylor and Sheridan Bradford are twins who are anything but normal. Taylor is a brilliant scientist, working on her doctorate in particle physics at University of Texas. Sheridan is the more normal of the two, a typical eighteen year old in her senior year, hoping to study English.

That is until the day they are whisked 400 years into the future by scientists  from a city named Traventon. These men are looking for a famous scientist named Tyler Sherwood and it's obvious they erred in capturing the girls instead. Or did they?

Life in America, 400 years into the future is, as expected, vastly different from what Taylor and Sheridan are use to. America is no longer a united country, but instead divided into city-states which exist under domes and are often at war with one another. There are at least two rebel factions, the Davine who are a subversive force that have infiltrated the government and all the professions, and the DW known as doctor worshipers who believe in freedom of speech, knowledge and belief.

The first people Sheridan and Taylor see upon awakening are Echo Monterro and his father Jeth. Echo has light-blue hair and a turquoise crescent moon around his left eye. Jeth has maroon hair and a large green dots on his face. Most of the other men in the room are similarly decorated.It becomes immediately apparent to both girls that people 400 years into the future, speak an unfamiliar version of English and dress very strangely, often having dyed hair and colourful face art. While Taylor and Sheridan quickly learn how to decipher the modern language which has bits of Spanish intermingled, the 25th century men and women cannot understand their English, the exception being Jeth and Echo. This is because Echo and Jeth are wordsmiths, whose specialty is the language of 20th and 21st century America. As a result, Jeth and Echo are assigned to look after Taylor and Sheridan.

Echo immediately realizes that the two girls are twins, just like he and his brother Joseph were. He seeks to hide this information from the scientists because he knows this will place them in grave danger.

When Jeth and Echo take Taylor and Sheridan on a tour of the city, Sheridan begins to notice that despite religion being banned, there are religious symbols everywhere. For example, Sheridan sees what she believes is a nun caring for children. Since everyone in this future society is heavily costumed, the nuns go unrecognized. But their long black dresses with a white circular collar and black hair, dyed white around the face like a wimple are unmistakable to 21st century Sheridan.

Hill through the use of dialogue between Echo and Sheridan, tells us much about this future Earth. The people are vegetarians. Everyone has a tracking crystal implanted in their right wrist, making it impossible to go anywhere undetected. The city of Traventon is enclosed in an electrified dome which prevents the inhabitants from leaving. Computer usage is monitored and those who don't follow the rules or rebel against authority have their minds erased. Babies are not conceived the natural way and couples don't marry.

It takes the scientists, led my a man named Helix,  some time but they eventually discover that Taylor is in fact the Tyler Sherwood whom they want. And they want Taylor because they need her expertise to perfect a devastating new weapon - based on something Taylor herself created 400 years earlier.

Taylor eventually tells Sheridan about her doctoral research. Taylor, using the pseudonym Taylor Sherwood, wrote scientific papers in the 21st century describing a transporter she helped design as part of her research. This device, known as a "quark-gluon plasma converter" or QGP. is capable of transporting matter from one place to another by converting it to energy (remember Star Trek!). Taylor was working on it with Dr. Branscomb who strangely enough, died shortly after Taylor disappeared. The work of the QGP was taken over by Dr. Don Reilly, Branscombe's partner. But then two months later he also disappears.

Taylor and Sheridan consider that Reilly might also be in Traventon, 400 years in the future. These scientists used their Time Strainer in the future to send signals to the QGP in the past to capture people from the past four centuries. Taylor decides that she must send a signal from the future, from the Time Strainer to her QGP in the past to destroy it. This is the only way to prevent no one else from the past being brought forward into the future.

They decide to enlist Echo to help them break into the Scicenter to destroy Taylor's QGP. Although they manage to do this, Helix is now after both Taylor and Sheridan because he has learned that the Time Strainer really have captured did capture Tyler Sheridan.  Meanwhile both Taylor and Sheridan discover in a very personal way, that Dr. Reilly has indeed been time strained into the future and that he is working with Helix to further develop the QGP. Taylor and Sheridan now know they can no longer stay in Traventon. But who do they trust? Can they trust Echo who they are certain is part of the Dakine?

When Echo makes an astounding revelation, the situation becomes even more complex. Pursued outside the city by Helix, all must fight for their freedom. They learn that Helix has another QGP that can be used to turn people into energy waves. Possession of such a weapon could create a huge imbalance between the city states leading to all out war.

Erasing Time was one of the best young adult novels I have read this year. It had an engaging great story line with unexpected twists, a well developed and plausible dystopian world, and fascinating, well drawn characters. The element of time travel along with a dose of romance enhances the level of interest. Unlike many YA novels today, there is no objectionable content in this book.

The story is told in both Sheridan and Echo's voices which are believable and have great depth. Echo is a young man who cares for Sheridan and who is looking for a relationship that is real. He loves Sheridan's simplicity and honesty which shine through her personality. And he also admires that she stands up for what she believes in and that she is courageous. But Echo is a complex character, troubled by a terrible secret.

C.J. Hill is the pen name of Janette Rallison, well known for her romantic comedy novels among them, Just One Wish and My Fair Godmother. Of course, Erasing Time will be followed by what promises to be a thrilling sequel.

The booktrailer for Erasing Time is quite good and features the richly coloured violin music of Lindsay Stirling.

Book Details:
Erasing Time by C.J. Hill
Katherine Tegen Books 2012
361 pp.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Girl in the Mask by Marie-Louise Jensen

Sophia Williams is not your typical 18th century young lady. She loves to read the poetry and plays of Alexander Pope and Shakespeare. She is a crack shot with a pistol, can ride a horse, and she doesn't intend to ever marry.

Sophia and her cousin Jack have been very much on their own, after Sophia's father left four years earlier for Jamaica in the West Indies, where he owns a plantation. When he unexpectedly returns home, bringing Sophia's Aunt Amelia with him, he finds Sophia is not the lady he expected. His steward has been fired by Sophia for stealing from the estate, as well as her governess who was to teach and chaperone her. Instead he finds her learning Latin, Greek and mathematics, all subjects that to her father's thinking won't be of use to her as a married woman. As a lady of birth and breeding he expects her to be accomplished in things that matter; embroidery, painting and dancing.

Sophia's father promptly ships Jack off to the cavalry and orders Sophia's horse sold and her poetry and plays burned. Because he wants to marry her off and considers her reputation ruined, and since the London season is over, Sophia's father decides to rent a house in "the Bath"; Bath England, famous for its healing waters.

Sophia decides to get revenge upon her father, vowing he will not break her and what ensues is a titanic battle of wills. When she does anything that he disapproves of, her father either starves or beats her. When she is not allowed to eat at an inn on their way to the Bath, she is given food by a servant named Bill Smith. In exchange for this favour, Sophia promises to find out about his sister, Jenny who has gone to the Bath to find work. In a remarkable conincidence, their coach is robbed just before they arrive in the Bath by no less then Jenny Smith and an accomplice.

Once settled in the Bath, Sophia works hard to annoy her father and to refuse any of his requests. However, she is forced to have new gowns made for her and to attend social events in the town. On her first walk through the town, she meets up with Jenny who tells her that she does not want her brother knowing what she does for a living - robbing coaches.

At her first dance at the upper ballroom at Guildhall, Sophia tries to make everyone dislike her so that no one will be interested in marrying her. She succeeds admirably by insulting the men who dance with her. However, one man, Mr. Charleton, goes out of his way to dance with Sophia and to help her.

After a beating by her father for her intolerable behaviour at Guildhall, Sophia decides that she will get revenge upon him by robbing him when he leaves to go to London. After a successful robbery, Sophia senses that Mr. Charleton suspects what she has done.

Even though Mr. Charleton treats her kindly and with great deference, Sophia feels that he has an ulterior motive for befriending her. She soon discovers that he believes she is involved in a plot to overthrow the King. She furthers this view when she agrees to help Jenny rob someone of important papers. That person turns out to be Mr. Charleton, whom she is developing some feelings towards.

In the meantime, her father, having fallen into debt towards the unscrupulous, lecherous Mr. Mould, decides that she will marry Mould as a means of settling his debts. Finding herself under pressure from both her father to marry and Mr. Charleton who suspects her of treason, Sophia decides she must try to escape before she is either trapped in a loveless marriage or caught and sent to the gallows.

Set in 1715 around the historical event of the failed rebellion of (Catholic)Stuart supporters to regain the British throne, The Girl in the Mask was a surprisingly entertaining read. Jensen creates a character with whom a reader can sympathize despite her willful, rebellious nature. Her situation is desperate and unfair and we can't help but root for her. Some of the situations are bit contrived, for example, when Sophia happens to have her coach robbed by Jenny Smith, whom she has just promised to be on the look out for. The author also resolves the conflict and ties up all the loose ends quickly and neatly, but in a way that is too convenient. Nevertheless, fans of historical fiction will enjoy this novel, with its spirited heroine and touch of romance.

The Girl in the Mask is almost a cross between Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel and Georgette Heyer's regency romance novels. Older teens enjoying this novel are recommended to try both of these author's books.
I didn't much like the cover of the novel which is a reference to the masquerade ball near the end of the novel. However, teens may find it appealing.
I almost feel like there could be a sequel to this novel. What happens to Mr. Charleton, Jenny and Sophia? Do Jack and Sophia, childhood friends, ever meet again?

Book Details:
The Girl in the Mask by Marie-Louise Jensen
Oxford University Press
311 pp.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue from War/ One Step at a Time by Marsha Forchuck Skrypuch

Marsha Skrypuch has written two short books for young readers that tell the story of eight year old Son Thi Anh Tuyet, a Vietnamese orphan who was adopted by a family from Brantford, Ontario. Living in an orphanage in Saigon, in 1975, Tuyet  had been crippled by polio when younger and was suffering from psychological trauma as a result of  her experiences during the Vietnam War.

With the fall of South Vietnam and its capital city, Saigon, to the North Vietnamese communists, the West began to evacuate children and babies from orphanages all over the city. Tuyet was one of fifty-seven babies and children airlifted out of Saigon and flown to Toronto Canada. This flight, on April 13, 1975, was the last to arrive in Canada. The children on this flight were not yet adopted. Last Airlift goes on to describe Tuyet's experience, leaving Vietnam and her new life with John and Dorothy Morris who adopted her into their family. Marsha Skrypuch intended to write Tuyet's story as a novel. Tuyet initially couldn't remember much of her early childhood, but as her memories resurfaced, Ms. Skrypuch decided to tell Tuyet's story instead.

The second book, One Step At A Time, tells about Tuyet's struggle to have her leg, damaged and weakened by polio mended so that she would be able to walk again. Tuyet's surgery took place at the newly opened McMaster University Hospital in Hamilton, ON in 1975. At this time, parents could not stay with their children, and there were no translation services available to a newcomer to Canada,  like Tuyet. Skrypuch effectively captures Tuyet's confusion and fear at being left alone in a hospital for a procedure she didn't understand.
Eventually Tuyet begins to adapt to her new home and family, largely due to having regained the ability to be mobile and also due to the loving care of the Morris family.

Tuyet's early attachment to John Morris is truly endearing. One family picture with Tuyet's arm draped over her father's knee suggests that Tuyet immediately formed a close bond with the man who was the first father she had ever known. Tuyet was very blessed to have been adopted into such a loving family. Her two younger sisters treated her with kindness and repeatedly reassure her. They introduced her to the strange, new customs of her adopted country, Canada.

These two books will serve as a gentle introduction for younger children to an event known as the Fall of Saigon and also the Vietnam War. Skrypuch's books can also be used as the jumping point for children learning about the Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada in the mid-1970's.

Book Details:
Last Airlift. A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue from War by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way
Pajama Press

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel

"I won't go back inside because it's such a wicked endeavor, and if you were smarter, you wouldn't go back either."
A prophetic statement by Elizabeth, which Victor Frankenstein should have taken to heart. Such Wicked Intent picks up where This Dark Endeavor left off; the books from the Dark Library are being burned by Victor's father, and the library is to be sealed up. As they watch them burn, Elizabeth reveals to Victor that she has decided to enter the religious life, now that Konrad is dead. Victor mocks Elizabeth for her decision, causing the two of them to quarrel. When he turns to leave the scene of the book burning, he makes an astonishing discovery of a red metal book that was not consumed by the fire. Inside this metal "book" he discovers the instructions for a "spirit board". Unable to resist, Victor follows the instructions which lead him to make a kind of Ouija board that uses a pendulum. Against the advice of Elizabeth, Victor uses the spirit board in the hopes of contacting his dead twin, Konrad. A message is received, which Victor is convinced has come from Konrad, although as Elizabeth points out, he can't really be sure who the message is from.

Victor and Elizabeth tell Henry Clerval what has happened. Convinced he has received a message from Konrad to raise him from the dead, Victor decides that he will not give up on black magic to attain what he wants - raising Konrad from the dead.
"I sighed. 'I've no idea, not yet. Here's all I know: that the world is uncontrollable. Chaos reigns. That anything and everything might be possible. I won't subscribe to any rational system again. Nothing will bind me.'
Henry realizes that he has seen the red metal book before -- in a portrait of Wilhelm Frankenstein in the chateau. The three of them study the portrait and from what they learn, they make an astonishing discovery of a secret room in the ceiling of the chateau's long abandoned chapel. There they find Wilhelm Frankenstein's notebook and an elixir that allows them to enter the spirit world for short periods of time.

Initially only Victor travels into the spirit world where he meets Konrad. But eventually Victor manages to entice Elizabeth and then Henry too. This spirit world is a sort of parallel world in which Victor and his friends can see through the layers of time in the Frankenstein chateau.

Around this time, workmen, who are sealing up the Dark Library and filling in the well in the library, discover that the well leads to a series of subterranean caverns underneath the Frankenstein Chateau. These caves contain many primitive paintings but also some kind of mysterious writing that no one can yet decipher.

When Henry, Victor and Elizabeth return to the spirit world, they investigate the caves and Victor with the help of some kind of supernatural force, learns what they need to do to raise Konrad - essentially build him a body. However, both Henry and Elizabeth sense that there is something very ancient and evil in the caves.

When they return to the real world, the trio set about creating a new physical body for Konrad, although how they would merge his spirit with this new body I can't imagine. As this creature grows, Victor begins to suspect that not all is as it seems. It has a hidden malevolent side, that Elizabeth refuses to recognize and Henry can't understand. Meanwhile, a visiting professor researching the paintings and caves beneath the chateau discovers an ancient burial mound that held a monstrous creature, who bears some physical similarities to the creature Victor is growing.

As Victor makes more visits to the spirit world, he also visits the caves beneath the chateau. He learns more about what was buried in the caves so long ago and begins to understand that this creature is using them to be reborn. Through the use of the occult and black magic they have opened the door to a great evil. Can Victor end what he started?

There's no doubt that Kenneth Oppel is a gifted author. His development of Victor Frankenstein as a young man increasingly obsessed with creating life is brilliant. Victor is a megalomaniac - a man hungry for power but not just any power. It is the power that is gained through knowledge and a desire to use that knowledge to control the physical world around him, including the very force of life. Even after the dark and terrifying events described in this novel, he still can't quite let go of his obsession and the ending hints at where his thoughts might lead him next!

The characterization of Victor is aided by a well conceived storyline which not only portrays the lengths a person might go to be godlike but also develops the idea that Victor Frankenstein's desires span generations. Wilhelm Frankenstein, Victors grandfather, lived in a chateau that had given up God and closed the chateau's chapel, replacing it with a library filled with books about dark magic.

Elizabeth is portrayed as a devout Catholic, yet she goes along with Victor's escapades - so I feel in this sense that she is a character that is not true to herself. No truly devout Catholic would dabble in the occult in this manner. Konrad was portrayed in the first novel as the kind twin, gentle and caring. This is what attracted Elizabeth to him. As a Catholic she would take great solace in the fact that at death, he would be in the hands of God. Apparently, her desire to see her true love and the possibility presented to her by Victor of creating a body for Konrad are too tempting for her to ignore.

Most of the characters we met in the first novel, Victor's brothers, his parents and even Henry, are not much further developed. This is plainly a novel that continues the characterization of Victor Frankenstein as a young scientist headed towards madness and ruin.

There is plenty of objectionable content for Catholic youth in this book; the use of Ouija-like objects, necromancy which is communication with the dead, and possession by demons, as well as Victor Frankenstein's blasphemous attitude towards God. I understand that all this is setting the stage for Shelley's Frankenstein, the madman scientist who creates a hideous monster from dead bodies. The book ably demonstrates the dangers of flirting with the occult, as Victor unleashes a horror that they barely survive, suggesting to young readers that there exist powers we cannot understand. Such Wicked Intent does offer an opportunity to discuss the occult and black magic, although I certainly have strong reservations about recommending this book to younger readers. I'm betting the final book in The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein will be even more disturbing.

Such Wicked Intent has a good trailer that sets the stage for the novel:

Book Details:
Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel
Toronto: HarperCollins 2012
310 pp.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

DVD Documentary: The September Issue (2009)

This documentary follows editor in chief, Anna Wintour, in 2007, as she and her staff prepare for the largest-ever edition of the September issue of Vogue magazine. Typically over 13 million women buy the September magazine, mainly for it's unique approach at presenting upcoming fashion trends.

The September Issue provides brief sketches of Anna Wintour and her fashion editor, Grace Coddington, who joined her at American vogue in 1988. Anna's father was a newspaper editor who had a very Victorian upbringing. Anna became interested in fashion during her teens and it was her father who decided she should work in fashion. She stated during the documentary that her two brothers and sisters are amused by what she does and don't view her job as a serious one. Anna has two children, a daughter and a son, neither of whom has any interest in working in the business.

Grace Coddington came to Vogue via a different route. While a teenager on the small Welsh island of Anglesey, Grace too became interested in fashion. She was entered in a modeling contest and won, and this is how she began modeling for Vogue. Unfortunately, her face was damaged in a serious car accident and she left modeling to become an editor with British Vogue. She eventually came to American Vogue after working for designer, Calvin Klein, in the late 1980's.

The September Issue follows Anna as she attends fashions shows in Paris and views new collections all towards deciding on which trends to feature in the magazine. During this time, they also look at up-and-coming designers such as Thakoon Panichgul, a designer who was working on a line for Gap after being mentored and promoted by Wintour.

The cover face for the September 2007 issue is to be actress, Sienna Miller. Anna realized early on that celebrity culture was becoming a more important part of fashion and that it could be used to sell magazines. People were interested in what celebrities wore as well as their personal lives. At one time, models such as Cheryl Tieg and Cindy Crawford were the face of fashion covers. Not so anymore. Actresses and singers such as Lady Gaga have now largely replaced them.

Parts of The September Issue focus on Anna Wintour's famous aloof and reticent personality. In truth, we see a more little of who she really is and what she is really like. Although she certainly doesn't exude warmth, Anna is seen as a serious, intense person, who in fact does sometimes smile and who definitely knows her work. There are shots of her meeting with staff in her office, viewing Polaroids of photo spreads in her typical critical manner, but often the camera is kept at a distance.The scenes of her discussing her work with daughter, Bea, provide a human perspective to woman once nicknamed, "Nuclear Wintour".

Wintour is of course, largely believed to be the inspiration for the cold fashion director in the book, The Devil Wears Prada, written by her former assistant, Lauren Weisberger. The book was made into a movie of the same name, which did well at the box office.

Instead, we are given a much more intimate view of the work that Grace Coddington does. Grace exudes a warmth that extends to even the cameraman shooting the documentary. She puts together the fashion shoots, which try to tell a story, often in a whimsical way, while featuring the latest fashion trends. To her dismay, some shoots are almost completely withdrawn, other times, she wins and her creations make it into the magazine.

I haven't looked at a Vogue Magazine in over 25 years. I stopped reading this magazine in my late teens because the photo spreads were often highly sexual, likely the result of the work of Helmut Newton, who is mentioned in the documentary as being a photographer who often demanded his models make love to the camera. I took home the September 2012 issue and was pleasantly surprised by Grace Coddington's incredible craftmanship. Her unique photographic spreads, which are now the standard for fashion magazines, are definitely a form of art. Vogue Magazine is more like a giant fashion picture book than anything else, although I have to say that I found some of the articles interesting too!

If you like fashion, and if you like Vogue Magazine, you will enjoy The September Issue, directed by R.J. Cutler. One interesting thing I did note, was that Anna did make the decision to photoshop Sienna Miller's smile for the cover because it was deemed too large!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Listening Tree by Celia Barker Lottridge

Nine year old Ellen Jackson lives on a farm in Saskatchewan with her mother, Martha, and father, Mike. It is the summer of 1934,  and another bone dry day like many in the past four years. What use to be a thriving farm is now dusty and barren. Ellen's parents have sold all their cattle and Ellen's pony. Mike, has hopped a train and gone to British Columbia to find work. With almost no money left and nothing to farm, Martha decides to accept her sister, Gladys, offer to come live with her in Toronto. Gladys runs a boarding home and has room to take in both Ellen and Martha.

They move to Toronto where Ellen's mother gets a job cleaning the house of a wealthy friend of her sister. Meanwhile, Ellen struggles to find the courage to meet the children living in the house next door to her Aunt's boarding house. She takes to climbing the large elm tree outside her bedroom window and listening to the children play. The elm becomes Ellen's " listening tree" where she can learn about the three children, Charlene, Joey, and Gracie.

The situation changes drastically one day when Ellen overhears a conversation between two men who are determined to force the children's family out of their home. Forgetting her shyness, Ellen knows she needs to tell someone what she has heard and act. Together Ellen and the three children come up with a plan that just might save Charlene and her siblings from "flitting".

This short novel provides young readers with a good idea of what life was like in Toronto during the Great Depression and how people sometimes helped one another through this difficult time. Many problems common to the Great Depression, such soup kitchens, homeless and unemployed young men are not dealt with but Lottridge does give her readers a sense of how precarious life was for some families. Charlene, Joey and Gracie's mother owes forty dollars in back rent - a large sum for a family in 1934. Families who couldn't pay their rent, often "flitted", that is, left in the middle of the night. My father who was born in 1920, often told me about how his family moved from home to home during the 1930's because they were unable to pay their rent. They simply packed up and moved at night. My grandparents lost all of their money, just enough to buy a house, in the stock market crash of 1929.

Casa Loma
The Listening Tree also sets part of the story at Casa Loma, at one time the largest home ever built in Canada. Unfortunately Lottridge doesn't give much background information in her note at the end of the book. It was built between 1911 and 1914 by Sir Henry Pellatt, founder of the Toronto Electric Light Company. Pellatt was a renowned philanthropist who loved the British royalty and all the attendant pageantry and pomp associated with the aristocracy. The castle was designed by one of the most prominent architects of the early 20th century, E.J. Lennox. You can learn more about Casa Loma at

Lottridge ties up most of the story lines adequately; Charlene's family is helped, Ellen's situation in Toronto seems secure, and we learn that her father has found work on a farm in northern Alberta, where the drought wasn't so bad.

Again I take issue with what is a reasonably good book trapped in an awful cover that is unappealing to young readers. It seems to be almost a foregone conclusion that a Canadian novel will have a terrible cover. Celia Barker Lottridge is a first rate author who deserves better.

Lottridge who lives in Seaton Village, a part of the Annex in Toronto, Ontario, decided it might be interesting to explore what life was like in her neighbourhood during another era, in this case, the 1930's Depression. The author wanted children to learn about this era and what life was like in Canada during the difficult times of the Depression.
“I saw it as a time when life was full of practical problems—the majority of people were having to cope with the day-to-day of getting money … the Depression had a huge impact here in Canada, but I don’t think a lot of children or adults have any idea of how extremely hard it was. We like to forget about hard times,”
(taken from )

Recommended for 9 to 11 years of age.

Book Details:
The Listening Tree by Celia Baker Lottridge
Markham: Fitzhenry & Whiteside 2011

Monday, October 8, 2012


DBSK (Dong Bang Shin Ki) is a Korean pop group that was formed in 2003 under the SM Entertainment umbrella. Comprised of five members; Yunho, Changmin, Jaejoong, Yoochun, and Junsu, the group is also known as TVXQ! which is an acroynm for the Chinese Tong Vfang Xien Qi.

In 2008, the group's fourth Korean album, Mirotic, contained the smash hit of the same name. Mirotic debuted on top of the charts with its strong beat, and mixture of urban and electronic pop. The title song's theme was one of infatuation and obsession. In fact, the lyrics of Mirotic were deemed too sexually suggestive and therefore harmful to Korean youth by the Korean Commission of Youth Protection. In fact, in comparison to North American artists the lyrics are only mildly suggestive. At the center of the controversy as the phrase, "I've got you under my skin." Nevertheless, SM Entertainment agreed to make a clean version of the song, which was performed at 23rd Annual Golden Disk Awards.

Since 2009 DBSK has been comprised of only two members; Yunho and Changmin. Jaejoong, Yoochun and Junsu were involved in a contract dispute with SM Entertainment and when the group returned to performing it was as a duo with only Jung (U-Know) Yunho and Max Changmin. The three members of DBSK complained about the extraordinary length of their contracts - 13 years, and that the profits from the group were not distributed equitably. The contract dispute is still ongoing.

In 2011, DBSK released their fifth album, Keep Your Head Down and in 2012 they released their sixth album, Catch Me. Both title songs have done very well and feature Yunho and Changmin with a set of back-up dancers.

Keep Your Head Down is a combination of hip hop, electropop, and rap. The video has dance choreography characteristic of DBSK, with plenty of special effects and a rap section:

Catch Me has DBSK's familiar urban style and some very unique dance choreography and visual effects:

Jung Yunho joined SM Entertainment when he was thirteen after winning a dance competition. Although Yunho has branched out into acting, his main success has come in the past few years as a member of DBSK. Yunho was the target of an anti-TVXQ! fan in 2006. The fan somehow got onto the set of a variety show where Yunho was filming and laced his drink with superglue. Although he suffered no physical harm and was hospitalized for several days, he has said that it took him some time to cope with what had happened to him.

Max Changmin was the youngest member of DBSK when it was formed. He joined SM Entertainment after winning best singer and best artist in the annual talent search conducted by the entertainment agency.

This duo has an exciting future as they continue to develop their unique style of music and dance.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Lester's Dreadful Sweaters by K.G. Campbell

When Cousin Clara's cottage is consumed by a crocodile, she comes to live with Lester's family. Unfortunately for Lester. As it turns out, Cousin Clara is a knitter, a curiously prodigious knitter. One morning Lester awakens to learn that she has knitted him a sweater. But this sweater is unlike any sweater Lester has ever seen. It is a "less-than-pleasant yellow and smothered with purple pom-poms".

Forced to wear the dreadful sweater to school, the fastidious
Lester does not have a good day. When the sweater is found damaged, Cousin Clara is quick to supply another quirky sweater. As fast as each sweater is mysteriously damaged, Cousin Clara supplies another. When Lester wears another Cousin Clara creation to his friend, Enid Measles' birthday party, he is mistaken as one of the party clowns. But Lester finds that there are some people who are very appreciative of Cousin Clara's sweaters. It is an ending that is happy for all involved.

Campbell's hilarious book contains delightful pictures done in pencil crayon, that wonderfully convey just how dreadful Lester's sweaters are. Other illustrations portray Campbell's quirky sense of humour, such as when Lester is caught cutting up the sweaters in what appears to be . The clowns are creepy looking but not in a frightening way - more a comical creepiness.

Lester's Dreadful Sweaters is Campbell's debut. Campbell will illustrate the next book by author Kate DiCamillo, entitled The Illuminated Adventures of Flora and Ulysses, which is due to be published in 2013. 

Book Details:
Lester's Dreadful Sweaters by K.G. Campbell
Toronto: Kid's Can Press                    2012

Thursday, October 4, 2012

everything I was by Corinne Demas

Thirteen year old Irene watches as her family's lifestyle unravels when her father, Leland, a vice president at Bryce Morehouse, loses his job after a merger. Gone are the burgundy jaguar, the health club memberships and the tony New York penthouse with its black granite counter top and the Carvaggio drawing. For Irene, it means no more exclusive private school or expensive summer vacations.

With Leland unable to find work, Irene's family moves back to her grandfather's farm, now a plant nursery. Irene's grandfather is kindly man, who tries to stay out of the deepening conflict between her parents and between Irene and her mother. Although her mother, Andrea, doesn't like it there, Irene and her father settle in reasonably well with plenty of loving help from her grandfather. Soon Irene meets a fascinating family in town and begins a friendship with a girl Meg, who is a year older than her. More importantly, Irene begins to develop a friendship with Meg's brother, fifteen year old Jim.

In the meantime, Irene's father struggles to find work in the city and to cope with being unemployed. He enjoys helping his father in the nursery, getting dirty and mucking about. Irene's mother however, is too much the New York socialite and she chafes at living with grandfather and at the unrefined, earthy lifestyle on the farm.

Irene knows from talking with her half-sister, Jenna, that her parents had a lifestyle beyond their means and that this unrealistic way of living is what brought them down. This knowledge makes her angry at both of them, but more at her mother, who seems unable to accept the reality of the family's dire financial situation.

Just as Irene is getting settled into the farmhouse, her parents ship her off to Wyoming to visit Jenna who is doing research on bighorn sheep in Montana. This gives Irene and Jenna a chance to reconnect, as Jenna left home and went to live with her dad when Irene was very young. Irene also learns from Jenna that her mother might be pressuring her grandfather to sell his farm so that they will have a solution to their money problems. Irene does not want her grandfather to do this, not for her nor for her parents.

When Irene returns from her vacation in Wyoming, the situation at home rapidly reaches a crisis point when her parents take her to see their new apartment in New York. Unable to make yet another adjustment, and furious over the fact that her parents continue to make decisions about her life without ever consulting her, Irene takes a drastic step that finally gets their attention and their consideration.

Everything I Was is a coming of age novel that is brilliantly written and wonderfully engaging. In Irene, Demas has crafted a realistic character whom the reader can easily identify with and grow to love. It is wonderful to see Irene's relationship with her grandfather develop more depth. His wisdom and advice provide a strong support for Irene in this time of uncertainty. He also encourages her to be more tolerant and forgiving, especially towards her mother.

Irene's mother's inability to accept their financial situation and her unwillingness to sacrifice much helps the reader to empathize with Irene and her father. Andie is selfish and superficial, caring more for status and appearances than anything else. When she discovers that Irene has made new friends, Andie tells Irene to be careful about the people she "selects" to be her friends, further alienating Irene.

I enjoyed how Irene was the type of person who accepted others even though they might be different or believe differently. When an accident happens to one of the members of the family she has befriended, Irene recognizes how their Catholic faith might help them through this tough time. She remembers her friend in New York, Frankie, who was also Catholic.

"It seemed a fortunate thing for Meg that both she and her mom were practicing Catholics. My old friend Frankie's family was Catholic, and I knew that being Catholic offered you the activity of prayer, a useful occupation when there was nothing else to do, and it also offered you a degree of hope. Being Catholic meant that there was not only a benevolent God you could appeal to, but also Christ and the Virgin Mary, and a whole collection of assorted saints. If you had to face trials in life, it seemed as if Catholics were better armed than the rest of us. If there was anything that I envied Meg, it was that."

This passage caught me entirely by surprise - and it wonderfully expresses a view about Catholicism that many non-Catholics hold. Ours is a living faith, filled with traditions that offer much comfort in terrible times, but also filled with joyous feasts and celebrations.

Everything I Was is as much a story about a young girls self-discovery as it is about a family's troubles. After a summer of living on the farm, Irene finds that she is not the same person she was months before. She's beginning to grow up and wants to have a say in what happens in her life.

This short novel is relevant to the times we currently live in with high unemployment, poor job security, slow economic growth, and with many people living a lifestyle that is largely unsustainable and often beyond their means. In this way, many teens will be able to relate to the storyline, because it's one we seen over and over again online and in the news. And the storyline in Everything I Was is realistic.

I do hope that Corinne Demas will consider writing a sequel to this wonderful short novel. This book is definitely geared towards younger readers aged 12 to 14.

Book Details:
Everything I Was by Corinne Demas
Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of Carolrhoda Books 2011
209 pp.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Hangman in the Mirror by Kate Cayley

Set in 18th century (1700's) New France, The Hangman in the Mirror presents a fictionalized account of the true story of Francoise Laurent who was sentenced to hang for stealing from her employer, Madame Pommereau.

Told in the voice of Francoise, the story begins when she has just turned fifteen years old. Living in poverty with her father who is a soldier and her mother who is a washerwoman, Francoise must deal with both her parents who are drunk most of the time. She wishes for a better life and desperately wants to move up in Montreal society. When both her parents die during a measles epidemic, she refuses to take over her mother's washing business. Instead, a family friend, Mathilde goes to see her father's commander and forces him to write a letter of introduction for Francoise so that she can seek employment as a maid in the home of the wealthy Pommereaus.

Madame Pommereau agrees to take on Francoise, who leaves behind her impoverished past for the comfort of her employers home. But from the beginning things do not go well. Francoise is sharp and not likeable and she immediately gets off to a bad start with the other servants in the house. Gradually and with patience, Madame Pommereau trains Francoise to be her maid. They develop a sort of distant relationship but when Francoise becomes too familiar one day, Madame reminds her that she is a servant. This angers Francoise, who decides to get revenge. That revenge takes the form of stealing Madame's beautiful black silk gloves. Once her wounded feelings heal, Francoise decides to return the gloves but not soon enough. Her crime is discovered and when Madame Pommereau tells her husband he decides to press charges and have her tried. To make an example of Francoise in the new colony, she is sentenced to hang for the theft of a pair of gloves.

Now in prison, Francoise learns that the hangman has died and that no one has yet stepped forward for the position. One day a young man is moved to the cell beside her own. She learns from this man that he is a soldier who was imprisoned for fighting and killing a man in a duel. Francoise remembers what Madame once told her, about how a woman may escape being hanged. She forms a plan and begins to work it. Will she be able to save her neck from the noose?

Hangman in the Mirror from MovingStories.TV on Vimeo.

The Hangman in the Mirror is well written and is particularly adept at demonstrating the class divisions that existed in the colony of New France during the 1700's. This is especially well portrayed when Madame discovers that Francoise can read the Bible - an unusual skill for an uneducated maidservant of the time. Madame believes that teaching someone from Francoise's class to read is a great unkindness because it would cause that person to wish for a life they could not possibly have.
"Because to read is to imagine another life, a world elsewhere, is that not true? And for a girl, especially a servant girl, to read would surely mean to learn to imagine another life, and so be dissatisfied with how she must live and what she has been born into. Surely it could only lead to unhappiness, Francoise."
Madame feels that the lower classes should be happy with what they have and accept their lot in life, never aspiring to improve themselves. Reading might widen a person's view of the world but not give them the skills to attain a better life. This opinion, along with the waste of food and other basic amenities of life in the Pommereau's wealthy home, cause Francoise much disgust towards the wealthy class of New France.

Francoise's situation serves to demonstrate the severity of the justice system in New France - a system greatly lacking in mercy, especially towards the lower classes. Here was a young woman who stole an item from a family only for the reason of wanting something that was entirely her own and who had the intention of returning it. Authority, property and law are so important that an example must be made of a young woman by causing her to be hanged. At stake are the reputations of the Pommereaus - even if that means the death of Francoise. However, Madame Pommereau's disheveled appearance at Francoise's trial suggests that even she had no idea things would go this far and lead to Francoise being given a death sentence.

The character of Francoise Laurent is also well drawn; that of a willful, manipulative, young woman whom I found to be mostly unlikeable, despite the great injustice done to her by the Pommereau's. Without reading the synopsis of the book, most readers would expect Francoise to get herself into some kind of terrible predicament given her unruly temperament. The difficulty with creating such an unlikeable character is that the reader is unlikely to care much about what happens to Francoise. However, near the end of the novel, Cayley softens Laurent somewhat.
"I had meant to go on, but my voice caught in my throat. Because,  speaking all this, telling the best story I had ever told, I realized it was true. Whether speaking it made it true (for that is the strangeness of words) or whether speaking it made me know it to be true, I could not tell. But in that moment, I found I loved him. He was all I had left to love, and the force of it knocked the wind out of me so that I could not speak."
My only complaint about this book was the negative portrayal of ALL priests whenever they appeared in the book. Otherwise this is a good debut for Kate Cayley who was the writer-director for the play, The Hanging of Francoise Laurent. You can read a review of the play here.

From the Poetry Foundation website comes a copy of a poem written by Margaret Atwood, Marrying the Hangman, about Francoise Laurent.

You can read this entry from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography about Jean Corolere who saved Francoise Laurent from certain death.
Book Details:
The Hangman in the Mirror by Kate Cayley
Annick Press 2011
229 pp.