Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Catholicism: A Journey To The Heart of The Faith by Father Barron

In Chapter 3: "That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought": The Ineffable Mystery of God, Father Barron explores the concept and nature of God. He begins by relating Moses' encounter with God on Mount Sinai.

Father Barron explains only one of Thomas Aquinas' five arguments for the existence of God by considering the principle of contingency. Every thing in this world is "contingent" upon something else for its existence here. Every living thing and every inanimate thing begins and ends, it has a cause to start it and eventually an ending. "Such things do not contain within themselves the reason for their own existence. If they did, they would exist, simply and absolutely;they would not come and go...in regard to contingent things, we have to look outside of them, to an extrinsic cause, or set of causes, in order to explain their existence."

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe

Sixteen year old Kaelyn lives with her mother and father and her brother Drew on an island. Her father is a microbiologist at the ocean research center on their island while her mother works at the local gas station. Kaelyn and her family moved to Toronto five years earlier and then moved back to the island. When Kaelyn returned to the island community, she figured that she could just pick up where she left off but it wasn't quite that simple.

The story opens with her childhood friend Leo having just left on the ferry to the mainland where he is traveling to go to school in New York. Because of an argument, Kaelyn never said goodbye to Leo. After losing Leo to another girl, Kaelyn resolves to try to reach out to people,and to be a new person, so that when he comes home she can tell him how she really feels about him. She decides to keep a journal and it is through this journal that we experience the events of the raging epidemic that sweeps across the island, changing her life forever.

The epidemic begins when the father of her best friend, Rachel, becomes ill and dies. Soon Rachel and then others in the community succumb to the illness. Schools close, the hospital is filled, and the island is quarantined. There aren't enough people to run the businesses or maintain basic facilities like hydro and water. With the number of infected and dying increasing daily, Kaelyn's father and other health care workers struggle to find a treatment for the deadly virus.

The story is told in the voice of Kaelyn who develops from a quiet, introspective teen who observes and writes about coyotes and other wildlife, to a maturing, responsible young woman who tries to help those around her, even those who have tried to harm her and her family. For example, when Tessa and Kaelyn discover that Quentin, one of the vigilantes on the island is desperately sick, Kaelyn tells Tessa that despite what he's done, they need to take him to the hospital. The coming of age of Kaelyn is wonderful to experience.

We see Kaelyn struggle to cope with the loss of so many people around her. She must find a reason to go on when there doesn't seem to be one. She has to discover what makes life worth living.

"...We're on a cliff, all of us, and surviving isn't about who's the best or the brightest. It's about holding on as long as we can and trying, and failing, and trying again until we've inched a little closer to getting through this."

Layered over the drama of the epidemic is Kaelyn's developing romantic interest in a new guy, Gav, and her new friendship with Tessa, a girl whose actions Kaelyn comes to realizes she has misunderstood.

The Way We Fall is the first book in the Fallen World trilogy. This book was well written and engaging; its short chapters make it fast paced with a layered storyline. However, I found the overall tone of the book to be somewhat depressing and bleak, despite the hopeful ending. Although the end of the book leads the reader to feel that things are looking up, we don't know for sure whether the mainland has experienced any of the epidemic. We don't know how many of the islanders are left and whether the epidemic is truly over. I also felt that too many of the main characters were killed off in the novel.

While reading The Way We Fall, I struggled with the fact that the outside world seems to have just abandoned the community until the very end. No medical professionals were allowed onto the island which I found profoundly puzzling. And although there was a hint at the development of a vaccine, this aspect of the storyline wasn't pursued. The military came and then abandoned the islanders. Kaelyn's father seemed to be the only medical personnel working on the disease and yet never became ill. Despite being a courageous man to risk his life and his family for the sake of the community, in the end he was portrayed as a man afraid to take risks. This disappointing development was not in fitting with most medical researchers during serious outbreak; many risk their lives especially when it is an all or nothing game.

When I read the book I wasn't aware that this was part of a trilogy, so I am eager to read the second book. I am eager to find more out about Leo and whether Kaelyn will continue to develop her relationship with Gav.



Book Details:
The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe
New York: Hyperion 2012
309 pp.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

K-Pop Artists: Big Bang

One of my favourite Korean bands is Big Bang which is comprised of G-Dragon, Top, Taeyang, Daesung, and Seungri. Formed in 2006 by Korean label YG Entertainment, Big Band mixes hip hop with a little R&B and some electronic music. The group's leader is G-Dragon (Kwon Ji Yong) who is considered a trend-setter in South Korea in the areas of both music and fashion. In Korea, such cultural icons are labelled as "fashionistas"! T.O.P. (Choi Seung-hyun, who is considered the lead rapper in the group, acts in film and Korean dramas. He starred in the critically acclaimed Korean drama, Iris, in which he played Vick, an assassin for a secret organization, Iris. TOP also appeared in 71: Into the Fire, a historical drama about the Korean war, for which he received many positive reviews. Daesung recently starred in the Korean drama "What's Up".

Both G-Dragon and TOP collaborated on an album, GD & TOP, which was released in 2010. The two artists co-wrote most of the songs lyrics on the album, which extends more into the hip-hop genre of music. GD likes to write lyrics that tell a story, as evidenced by the song, Haru,Haru.



Some of their songs are just dance numbers, with a strong funky beat and a catchy melody. Fantastic Baby certainly fits into this category. Initially, their videos incorporated street dancing but they have since moved on to using more mature dance choreography.

In 2012, Big Bang is attempting a comeback with the release of a new mini-album, titled, Alive, due out February 29th. Their annual concert will be held March 2 to promote this new album. They are also planning an international tour. The first title track, Blue, was released on February 22, 2012. Here is the video for this song:



I enjoy many of Big Bang's songs and their accompanying videos and especially love their songs that tell a story. I hope this band continues with their unique approach to music, choreography and videography. Contemporary Korean pop music far outshines its American competitors in these areas and it is this innovative approach that continues to draw young North American adults to their music.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Documentary: Burning The Future: Coal In America



Burning the Future: Coal in America examines the explosive forces that have set in motion a groundswell of conflict between the Coal Industry and residents of West Virginia. Confronted by an emerging coal-based US energy policy, local activists watch the nation praise coal without regard to the devastation caused by its extraction. Faced with toxic ground water, the obliteration of 1.4 million acres of mountains, and a government that appeases industry, our heroes demonstrate a strength of purpose and character in their improbable fight to arouse the nation's help in protecting their mountains, saving their families, and preserving their way of life. Written by David Novack

With the rising price of oil, industrial nations such as the United States and Canada continue to seek other sources of energy that are both cheap and plentiful. For the United States, the coal of West Virginia is seen as a secure source of domestic fuel. Promoted by the US coal industry as a "clean" source of energy, residents of West Virginia tell the rest of the world, the effect of coal mining on their communities. The large coal mining companies such as Massey Coal, have changed their mining practices and now mine coal through a method known as mountain top removal. Mountain top removal is exactly that - the removal of the top portion of a mountain to completely mine a shallow coal seam. The mountain top is then replaced with the left over fill. However, what the rest of the United States doesn't know is how damaging mountain top removal is to the beautiful West Virginia mountains. Besides destroying the delicate Appalachian ecosystem, mountain top removal has poisoned the groundwater of countless communities, destroyed ecosystems and damaged the health of those living near the mining operations and the coal slurry ponds.

This film is an eye-opening account of how individual families have been adversely affected by the coal mining. It brings the viewer into the personal nature of the devastation that families who have lived in Coal River Mountain, West Virginia for centuries, have experienced. Maria Gunnoe, whose family has lived in these mountains for generations, shows viewers how her life has been impacted by the extensive coal mining operations. It was disturbing to see the massive environmental devastation from the open coal mines and to see that even after the mountains are "restored", the Appalachian ecosystem is changed forever. Having a background in hydrogeology, I was horrified to see how the slurry ponds and the coal waste is destroying the groundwater supplies for millions of communities in the eastern US. I did not know that 50 percent of the electricity in the United States is generated using coal.


Made in 2008, I wondered what progress activists have made in the past 3 years or so. A second documentary, The Last Mountain, was shown at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Activists like Maria Gunnoe are determined to save the last mountain and continue to fight Massey Coal.




 
Below is the trailer for The Last Mountain.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Movie Review: The Vow



The Vow, released in time for Valentine's Day, is definitely a tear-jerker, a romantic movie for couples and for singles alike, about staying faithful to a vow even in the most difficult situations. The movie directed by Michael Sucsy, is loosely based on the real life events which Kim and Krickitt Carpenter lived through. Ten weeks after they were married, the couple were in a car accident in New Mexico. When she woke up from a coma, Krickitt could not remember anything from the previous eighteen months. Her doctor suggested that they begin dating again and Krickitt says that since she loved him before she decided to take a second chance. The couple were remarried in 1996, three years after their first marriage. You can learn more about their story in this interview:



The Carpenter's story is about hope, perseverance and commitment, all three virtues the movie more than adequately captures. Leo(Channing Tatum) and Paige Thorton (Rachel McAdams) are a couple who have been together for five years. Deeply in love, they are supportive of one another and share a strong commitment. Leo owns a small recording studio and Paige is a sculptor who is working on a series of sculptures for the Chicago building. Out on a date one evening, the couple are involved in a serious accident that sees Paige in hospital with severe brain trauma. When she awakes, her last memory is of being engaged to her former boyfriend, Jeremy. Paige has lost five years of memories and no longer remembers nor loves Leo.

Like his real-life counterpart, Leo meant what he said in his vows, that he would love Paige forever and prophetically that they would always find a way back to one another. When Paige's parents attempt to persuade her to come home with them, Leo steps in and convinces Paige to return home to their apartment and their life together. But things don't work out as he hoped, and Leo finds himself trying to cope with the loss of the one person he loves more than anything - his wife Paige. Will they ever be able to find their way back to the love they once knew?

Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams have a wonderful onscreen chemistry that makes this movie work. There's a strong supporting cast of Sam Neill as Paige's father Bill, and Jessica Lange as her mother, Rita. The accident scene, done in slow motion but not gory, adds drama and horror to the situation of a couple, in love, enjoying an intimate moment before their lives are shattered. The movie also does a good job of providing viewers of a glimpse of what Rachel's life was like before she met Leo and why she cut her family out of her life.

While the real-life Carpenters are thrilled to see the movie made, they wish that it reflected more the role their Christian faith had in keeping their marriage together. It was their belief in God and in his grace to help a couple through trying times that saved their marriage. Having said that, it's very apparent that the studio wanted this to be a mainstream movie and there is little if anything Christian in this portrayal of the Carpenter's real life experience. In fact Leo and Paige's marriage is a bizarre ritual, occurring in an art gallery and comprising strange vows on the part of Paige.

What impressed me most about this movie is the message of love, forgiveness and fidelity it imparts to viewers. As Rachel's parents and Leo struggle over who wins Rachel's heart, we learn that she left her family over five years ago because of a betrayal of trust. When she relearns what this was and confronts her mother, her mother tells her that she made a promise years ago to Rachel's father and that she made a decision - to forgive him and to love him. "I chose to stay with him for all the things he's done right; not the one thing he's done wrong." says Rita. It's a message worth hearing and taking to heart. Rachel must not only make the decision to love and forgive her parents, but also she learns that mainly, love is almost always a decision.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

"My body is a carnivorous flower, a poisonous houseplant, a loaded gun with a million triggers and he's more than ready to fire."
"I don't want to be anything for anyone but myself. I want to make my own choices and I've never wanted to be a monster."

Shatter Me is yet another dystopian trilogy in the world of young adult literature by new author, Tahereh Mafi. The Earth is in the process of disintegration and decay. The natural world is dying.
"..the animals are dying, birds don't fly, crops are hard to come by, flowers almost don't exist. The weather is unreliable...We can't grow enough food anymore, and we can't feed the people what they need...The natural elements were at war with one another because we abused our ecosystem."
With the population of Earth dying off precipitously, the Reestablishment has promised to save humanity. They will accomplish this by destroying all remnants of the existing culture. This includes eradicating currently existing language and destroying all books and art.  Instead, what has happened is that more people have died through the violent policies of the Reestablishment.

Into this setting we are introduced to seventeen year old Juliette Ferrars who has been in isolation for months. She has been imprisoned because she is considered a danger to others, for Juliette's touch is fatal. Her parents sent her away three years ago, after she hurt her mother and injured a toddler she was trying to help. Her existence for the past 264 days has been a solitary room with a small window, no human contact and little food.

Until one day a young man is placed into her cell. That young man is Adam Kent, a boy she knew when she was a child and whom she remembered because he was always kind to her. Juliette and Adam make the astounding discovery that he can touch her. This leads Juliette to begin to trust and believe in herself again. She begins to reconsider her belief that she is nothing but an unlovable monster. Soon, Juliette and Adam are removed from the solitary cell and taken to a Reestablishment compound where Juliette is offered a chance to work with the Reestablishment. In the compound she meets Warner, a possessive, cruel leader in the Reestablishment who wants to use Juliette's ability to harm others for his own gains.

Adam is now assigned to guard and live with Juliette while Warner attempts to convince her to make her life with the Reestablishment. During this time, Juliette and Adam develop an intense physical attraction for each other. This attraction dominates their relationship and the lengthy descriptions of make-outs between the two begin to make the novel read at times like romance pulp fiction. I was hoping the author would spend some time further developing her characters because Juliette's strange ability showed promise of making her an interesting character.

They decide to plan their escape from the heavily guarded compound and are successful. From this point on, the novel focuses on Adam and Juliette avoiding recapture by the Reestablishment army and the obsessed leader, Warner, and finding sanctuary with a rebel group known as Omega.

Told in the voice of Juliette, Shatter Me contains many crossed out lines in the text - thoughts she has but doesn't want to admit to. At first much of the text is crossed out, but as Juliette gains self-esteem and control over her situation, as she comes to terms with who she is, the crossed out text gradually disappears. This was a very original way of demonstrating such a significant change to the reader.

Mafi's writing is decidedly metaphorical and laced throughout with similes and unique descriptions. Her writing style is truly different and at times captivating. Some examples include  "his voice like an icicle piercing the flesh of my memories"  to describe Warner's effect on her and "My bones are like cubes of ice clinking together, chilling me to my core." to describe how she feels when Warner tries to tell Juliette why Adam volunteered for his project with her.

While the novel began in an original way, it eventually devolves into an X-Men remake in the final chapters. I felt the plot line fell apart after Juliette and Adam escape to Adam's home. There were many possibilities at this point, but the author chose a less than unique way to move forward. We learn that there is a rebel group named Omega comprised of approximately fifty-six others who have "superpowers". They wear special suits designed for their particular "powers" and live underground in a secret, high-tech society. These people appear to be kind and altruistic. They are fighting the Reestablishment who has fed society with lies and are starving the people to control them. Since this is the first book in a trilogy, it will be interesting to see how Mafi develops the story line further, without it reading like an X-Men story.

Another aspect I didn't like about Shatter Me was the fact that both Adam and Warner are able to touch Juliette. When only Adam was able to touch her, it made the relationship between them special and significant. With Warner added to the mix, that twist evaporates. Again it remains to be seen why this is and how the author develops this part of the story line.

I'm also puzzled by the cover of Shatter Me, which I frequently looked at while reading this book, trying to figure out why this design was chosen. If the girl on the cover was wearing a purple gown, it might have made sense, since this is the dress that Warner wanted her to wear and by doing so would mean that Juliette was beginning to acquiesce to his demands. The subtle colour contrast in the cover design, the black versus the white seems to suggest a conflict the character might have over her ability. However, I felt that Juliette did not experience any deep conflict over how to use her ability. She knows her power harms others. She knows she can't use it as a weapon. She wants to be normal but in the end she does see herself as something special.The book's byline of "My touch is lethal.  My touch is power" suggests a change in how Juliette viewed her power, which I agree does happen. But I actually prefer the byline on her website of "Be a weapon. Or be a warrior" This is the choice Juliette was given and there was never any doubt which she would choose. I felt the conflict was more about how Juliette views herself.

Although there are plenty of things I didn't like about the book, the storyline for the most part was interesting and I enjoyed reading the book. What I did enjoy very much was the dialogue between Adam, his friend Kenjii and Juliette. This section of the book added much comic relief to a story which up until this point had been rather intense. I will be interested to read the next book, which at this point is titled, Unravel Me and is due out in 2013.


You can check out Tahereh Mafi's website at http://www.taherehmafi.com/

Book Details:
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
New York: Harper Collins      2011
338pp.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

Chopsticks is a unique novel that tells the story of fictitious piano prodigy, Gloria Fleming, through the use of text, pictures, chat text, and YouTube videos. Gloria, whose mother died when she was young, was raised by her father, Victor, who trained her as a classical pianist. Described as the "Brecht of the Piano", Gloria was renowned for her "innovative performances of classical pieces alongside modern scores."
Gloria, however, has never really recovered from the loss of her mother at age seven. Despite hints of gradual but deepening emotional and mental turmoil, Gloria's life is one of strict schedules of practicing and performing in sold out concerts, worldwide. Until one day, Francisco Mendoza, a teen from Argentina moves in next door. Their blossoming love changes both of their lives and causes tension between Gloria and her father, who wants nothing to interfere with Gloria's career as a concert pianist.

The novel opens with the announcement of Gloria's disappearance. From there, readers attempt to piece together what has happened to Gloria by looking at the pictures, watching videos, and reading the text and IM chats, all of which recreate the events of her life up until her disappearance.

While Chopsticks appears initially to be similar to a graphic novel, it really is a story told in a much more intimate format. It is like looking through someone's personal scrapbook, with personal artifacts of their life displayed. For example, there are clippings of newspaper articles, pictures of piano recitals, programs, lists, personal notes and texts between Gloria and Frank.

The storyline isn't really unique, but the format is, with the book also being available through an iPhone app. My only complaint is that already, at least two of the youtube videos are unavailable (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaMclmrNnOQ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bq1HSjZUL5l).



Book Details:
Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral
New York: Razorbill 2012
unpaged

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Pale Assassin by Patricia Elliott

The Pale Assassin is the first of two books by Patricia Elliott that tell the story of an aristocratic family during the French Revolution. I had the misfortune to read the second book, The Traitor's Smile, first, so I know how the story ends. But The Pale Assassin is just as good as its sequel and just as engaging and well written.

In The Pale Assassin, Elliott concentrates on developing her characters and setting the stage for what will happen in the second novel. The reader develops a good sense of what Paris and France was like before the Revolution. Like its sequel, The Pale Assassin works its way to a thrilling conclusion.

In this novel we are introduced to our heroine, Eugenie Boncoeur, a 14 year old aristocrat and her older brother, Armand, a royalist who is intent on helping King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette escape from Paris. Armand is part of a secret group who are plotting to save the King. Helping him is his best friend, Julien de Fortin, whom Eugenie doesn't much like. We also meet their adversaries, the "Pale Assassin", Raoul Goullet, an evil man who is intent upon destroying the Boncoeur family, and who is determined to kidnap Eugenie who has been promised to him in marriage. He is aided in his attack on the Boncoeurs by Guy Deschamps, a two-faced scoundrel, whom the naive Eugenie is infatuated with. Deschamps goes by the pseudonym of "Le Scapel".

As the situation in Paris grows increasingly violent, the Boncoeurs realize, almost too late, that they must leave for England, where they have a wealthy uncle. Armand decides to delay their departure until the day King Louis is to be guillotined, also the day when the royalists plan to attack and save the king. Julien is part of this attack, but when things do not go as planned, Armand and Julien must change their plans. Will they be able to get Eugenie out of Paris, out of France and more importantly away from La Fantome?!!

The Pale Assassin is a well crafted novel which teens who love historical fiction will thoroughly enjoy. In addition to the suspenseful plot line, there is a touch of romantic tension that is developed further in the second book. The Pale Assassin evokes memories of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel series written at the turn of the last century (1905).  It has a dashing hero, a damsel who is being blackmailed by a scoundrel all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. The Pale Assassin is believable, with realistic full characters, an exciting plot line and is well written. Patricia Elliott has written two excellent historical novels for young adult readers.

Book Details:
The Pale Assassin by Patricia Elliott
New York: Holiday House 2009
336 pp.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Elise LeGrow

I don't often write about music, despite a deep love for many different genres and a desire to listen to different artists. So today while driving back from some minor retail therapy, I heard this great song on the radio. At first I thought it was Duffy, but then I learned it's actually 24 year old, up and coming Elise LeGrow from Toronto, Canada! So here's a shout-out to Elise.

According to her website, www.eliselegrow.com, Elise has been influenced by the late Whitney Houston and also by Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey. Her powerful voice with its earthy vocals and delicious R&B themes remind me of Adele and Duffy. As her website indicates, her single, No Good Woman, is in rotation on radio stations across Canada which is how I heard it today! Elise currently has an EP with 5 songs on it, one of which is No Good Woman.

Check out the song below. This isn't a music video but here's hoping one will soon be produced for Elise's impressive vocal talents:




You can learn more about Elise LeGrow here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

private peaceful by Michael Morpurgo



Private Peaceful is the heart-rending telling of the life of Charlie and Tommy (Tommo) Peaceful in the hours leading up to the execution of Charlie for "cowardice in the face of the enemy". The story is narrated by Tommo who wishes not to think about what will happen at dawn, but to remember instead what went before.

"I want to try to remember everything, just as it was, just as it happened. I've had nearly eighteen years of yesterdays and tomorrows, and tonight I must remember as many of them as I can. I want tonight to be long, as long as my life, not filled with fleeting dreams that rush me on towards dawn."

Tommo recounts his years growing up in England with his parents, his older brother Charlie, whom he admired, and Big Joe, a older brother who was severely affected by a bout of meningitis when he was a baby. The cast of characters is rounded out by Molly, the daughter of a neighbour whom both brothers fall in love, Grandma Wolf, and the Colonel, on whose estate the Peaceful family lived.

The story of the Peaceful family is one of love and kindness, of a family who love each other no matter what. Their simple tenderness and care for Big Joe is touching. Big Joe has a profound effect on the development of all the Peaceful folk, who are quick to respond with love, rather than judgement and harshness.

There are many poignant moments; when tragedy strikes the Peaceful family, Tommo feels he is to blame. This guilt he carries for most of his life until he finally confesses it to his brother Charlie in his last hours. Tommo must also deal with the fact that his older brother has captured the heart of Molly, whom he also dearly loves. When Big Joe wanders off and his whereabouts are unknown for two days, the fear and sadness of the Peaceful family permeates all those who know the family.

There is a wonderful contrast between the idyllic rhythms of rural life in England and the harsh reality of a bloody war in which the young of a nation are bled off. There is also the contrast between the kindness and consideration of good family life and the brutality of boot camp, where soldiers are abused and conditioned to kill.

And of course, there is the insanity of executing young soldiers for "cowardice" and desertion. The matter of Charlie Peaceful's execution is ironic, because in fact, he was not a coward but a very courageous soldier who stood up to the irrational order of an officer ordering his men towards certain death.

Private Peaceful, is one of Michael Morpurgo's best books. At the back of the edition I read, Morpurgo states that the 305 soldiers executed during World War I have never received the pardons they deserved, this is now not the case. In 2006, the Armed Forces Act pardoned these men, removing the stain of dishonour. Shell shock and battle fatigue as well as post traumatic stress syndrome were unknown at that time.Many men were tried without representation, some of them too young to actually be in their regiments. Nevertheless, the executions were considered necessary to prevent mass desertion by the large number of soldiers who did not want to fight what was becoming a war of attrition.

For more information the following resources might be helpful:

BBC History: Shot at Dawn: Cowards, Traitors or Victims?

Canadians Shot at Dawn

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Between by Jessica Warman



Between is a story about two ghosts/spirits who spend time "between" Earth and the afterlife solving the mystery of how they died, so they can find eternal peace.

It is the eve of Elizabeth Valchar's 18th birthday and she's spending it on her family's boat with friends, drinking and doing recreational drugs. Elizabeth is attractive and popular, part of the "in" crowd in her high school. She has it all; beauty, a cute boyfriend, a flashy car, and plenty of money. Early in the morning, Liz is awakened by an annoying, persistent, thumping noise outside the boat. When she goes to investigate she makes the shocking discovery that it is her body, face down in the water. Liz soon discovers that while she can see and hear the living, she cannot touch or interact with them in any way.

However, Liz is not alone for long. Her spirit is soon found by another spirit, that of Alex Berg, a boy from her school who was killed a year ago by a hit and run driver. His death was never solved with the identity of the driver unknown. Alex can see and touch Liz and communicate with her. Because Alex lived in another part of town, wasn't wealthy or popular, Liz and her posse ignored Alex. Now in death, Alex can barely contain his contempt for her.

Liz finds that she has no memory of what happened on the night she died, nor of many other details of her life. But she learns that she can slip back into memories, which begin to help her piece together the final months leading up to her death. Together Alex and Liz begin through a series of flashbacks to uncover the truth about what happened on the eve of Liz's eighteenth birthday.

Jessica Warman does a good job of retaining the reader's interest throughout the novel with a well paced narrative that paints a picture of a group of selfish, spoiled teens concerned only with looking good and being popular. There are several mysteries to be solved, and these serve as the hook drawing the reader in. A few examples will suffice. What is the connection between Liz and Alex? Was Liz's death an accident or the result of something more sinister? Some readers may solve these mysteries sooner than others but as the story begins to come together it's not hard to piece together what happened.

As the narrative progresses, we see Liz undergo a process of self-discovery that transforms her from a self-absorbed, spoiled teenager, concerned only about money, looks and status, to a more caring person who is sorry for some of the things she did when she was alive. So the book opens with most of the characters being being genuinely unlikable, including Liz. That changes by the end with Liz having redeemed herself as much as is possible for a ghost.

Between is a book with themes of redemption, loss, love and forgiveness. The premise of the book is what caught my attention and I wasn't disappointed. Some readers might be put off by the length of the book (slightly over 450 pages) but the story is well told in Liz's voice, which is authentic, full of angst and regret at some of her poor choices.

Book Details
Between by Jessica Warman
New York: Walker & Company 2011
454 pp.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

When Cinder arrived on our library shelves, I was undecided as to whether I would actually read it. After all, it was yet another take on the Cinderella fairytale. But putting aside the fact that I didn't like the cover of the book, I decided to give it a try and I'm very glad about that.

Cinder is a unique mash-up of fairytale and science fiction. In terms of science fiction this novel is a dystopia but there is also a flavour reminiscent of Star Wars which I will expand upon shortly. The fairytale is an underlying theme until the end of the book where it rears up in full force.

The story is set in post World War IV Earth, during which whole cities were been annihilated, including Beijing. Cinder is set specifically in New Beijing which is part of the Eastern Commonwealth, ruled by Emperor Rikan. Many generations ago, Earth colonized the moon. The descendants of the colonists became known as Lunars. Lunars are not considered human but a different race that is greedy and violent. This is partly due to the fact that they have developed the unique ability to manipulate what humans see and feel through the use of bioelectrical energy. For this reason, they can easily control humans and are considered very dangerous to "Earthens". However, not all Lunars have this ability and these are known as "shells".

Earth is experiencing a deadly plague called metumosis for which there is no cure. Anyone who becomes ill with the plague is automatically taken away and quarantined to die. Emperor Rikan is on his deathbed from metumosis and his son, Kai is poised to be named the new emperor. This occurs at the time that Emperor Rikan was attempting to negotiate a new alliance with the Lunars, possibly through the marriage of Prince Kai and the Lunar monarch, Queen Levana.  Queen Levana is cruel and manipulative and it is widely held that she murdered her sister to ascend the throne. Queen Levana is also believed to have murdered her niece, Princess Selene who was her only threat to rule. Because of her ability to control others, the Lunars have been unable to rise up against Queen Levana. Some Lunars have escaped to Earth and live as Earthens. This is the dsytopian world that Cinder lives in.

Linh Cinder is a cyborg and an extraordinary mechanic who runs her own repair booth at the nearby marketplace. Cinder's body was altered when she was eleven years old. She has a mechanical hand and foot, a heart that is partly silicon and her brain has computer software integrated into it. Cinder is ashamed that she is a cyborg.

Cinder lives with her guardian, Adri Linh, and her two stepsisters, Pearl and Peony, in New Beijing. Her stepmother is cruel to her and Cinder's only friend is Peony, whom she loves dearly. Similar to the Cinderella fairytale, Adri orders Cinder around, pushing her to do all the repairs. When they learn that there is to be a ball held by Prince Kai on the occasion of his coronation as Emperor, Pearl, Peony and Adri discuss dresses and shoes. But Adri makes it quite clear that Cinder will not be attending. She has too much to do and besides, why would an ugly cyborg want to attend anyway?

Because Cinder is well known for her mechanical abilities, Prince Kai shows up one day at her booth with a malfunctioning droid. They meet and are instantly attracted to one another. But Prince Kai is unaware that Cinder is a cyborg and Cinder knows she can never be with him.

When Peony sickens from the plague and is quarantined, Adri has Cinder sent to the research facility to be used as a test subject for a plague cure. It is during these tests at the research facility attached to the palace that Cinder is discovered by Dr. Erland, head of plague research, to have some remarkable qualities. When he questions her about her past life, all Cinder can remember is that she was injured in a hover accident and made into a cyborg. Dr. Erland promises Cinder that he will run tests to try to understand her situation better. The reader though, by this time should have a pretty good idea just who Cinder is, so that when Dr. Erland reveals to Cinder what he has learned about her, it really comes as no surprise.

Cinder also meets Kai again and he invites her to the coronation ball. Despite her repeated  refusals to attend, Kai continues to insist that she do so. Meanwhile Prince Kai must deal with the evil Queen Levana who has arrived on Earth for his coronation. Queen Levana continues to pressure Prince Kai into marriage by blackmail. Kai knows that if he marries her, his life will be over but that if he refuses, war with Lunar will ensue.

Pearl and Adri leave for the ball,  and Cinder is left at home to finish her mechanical chores. But instead of a fairy godmother showing up to provide a way to get there, Cinder learns some important information that makes it imperative that she attend and warn Prince Kai of a trap. The resulting confrontation places Cinder in great peril and brings the book to its climax.

Cinder was an imaginative start to what will be a four book series known as The Lunar Chronicles. While the plot is complicated but interesting, there are many similarities to the first Star Wars movie story line; a prince in distress with an android carrying a secret message that must be accessed and a young girl who has a knack for mechanics, adopted by people she hardly knows, drawn into a crisis of potential planetary war against a cruel dictator with special powers! All of this is superimposed on the Cinderella fairy tale, with its potential to be a love story.

Because there was so much to be developed in this first book, the setting of the dystopian worlds (two of them, Earth and Moon), the plot which is quite complicated, and introduction of many important characters, Cinder, is somewhat weak on depth of characterization but long on action and description.

However, it sets the stage well for the next book, which hopefully will let us see more about the complicated and conflicted characters both Kai and Cinder seem to be. This series promises either to be very very good, or a hot mess of characters and plot lines. Fans of twisted fairy tales will love Cinder!

I enjoyed this book and look forward to the next installment, Scarlet, in 2013. I for one, wish it were published sooner!

Book Details
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
New York: Macmillan (Feiwel and Friends Book)   2012
390 pp.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

You Against Me by Jenny Downham

You Against Me is a visceral and riveting story about two families in crisis and two people who fall in love when really they should hate one another.

Mikey McKenzie's 15 year old sister, Karyn, has been sexually assaulted by Tom Parker. Karyn and her friend Stacey spent part of the evening at Tom's house with his friends. Eventually both Tom and Karyn's friends left, leaving a very drunk Karyn incapacitated. Tom's younger sister, Ellie was the only witness to what actually occurred meaning that it is Tom's word against Karyn's. And Tom has a witness on his side. Or does he?

The novel opens with Mikey forming plans with his best friend, Jacko, to get revenge on Tom for Karyn's assault. But things don't quite goes as planned when he first scouts out the Parker residence and then crashes the Parker bail bash. There he meets Ellie, whom he is attracted to instantly. At first she doesn't know who Mickey nor that his intention is to get "information" on Tom so that he can plan revenge.

Meanwhile Ellie is burdened with the events of that night. Ellie is experiencing serious conflict over helping her brother Tom not go to prison or telling what she saw that night. As a result she begins to act out, skipping school and becoming involved with Mikey. When Ellie does discover who he is, she is furious and attempts to discover what his intentions are. As the pressure on her increases, Ellie's acting out continues to escalate; she leaves home at all hours, does drugs, drinks and continues in a relationship with Mikey.

But in the end, Ellie knows she has to stop ignoring the voice of her conscience. She sees Karyn and understands her pain and when she does that she knows what she must do, even if it means hurting those she loves. She has to tell the truth.

Overall this was an very good book which retained my interest throughout. It is a realistic portrayal of a certain segment of culture in England by British author, Jenny Downham. Her writing captures a snapshot of teen culture in England, effectively portraying themes of class division, as seen through Mikey and Ellie's relationship, as well as justice and honesty. One family seeks truth, the other doesn't care as long as the status quo remains. Both have their own concepts of justice.

The characterization was the strength of this novel. The characters were interesting and very well developed. Mikey was the most likeable character, a young man struggling to keep his family together and pick up the pieces when his mother drinks. Aspiring to be a chef someday, he is kind and loyal. However, at times he seems the typical young male, having few scruples when it comes to moving from one girl to the next. Tom, in contrast, was self-centered and narcissistic, his lack of character often encouraged by his parents who were concerned more about their image than learning the truth about what really happened. Mikey and Karyn's mom was a typical, irresponsible single mother with a substance abuse problem and was a stark contrast to Tom and Ellie's parents who were on top of everything all the time. The character who I would have liked to see more developed was Karyn, who although central to the storyline, was in fact, ended up being more of a background character.

There were several things about this book that didn't work for me. The first was the incredible amount of British colloquialisms that were scattered throughout the novel; for example, "blagged", "prat", "kip" to name a few. Although these words contribute to the British flavour of the novel, as a Canadian reader, I found them frustrating at times.

The second issue I had was more substantial and it dealt with a small part of the plot. When Ellie tells the police that Tom took pictures of Karyn with his cell phone and that she deleted them, they tell her that her statement is uncorroborated and useless because the supporting evidence is lost. But it's not. At least not in North America where everything done with a cell phone is stored in the transmitting towers. Police are often able to access this kind of information as an aid in their investigations.

Overall, You Against Me is an effective and heartrending portrayal of two families struggling to cope with a life changing situation.

Here's a trailer done by Random House Publishers for the book:



Book Details
You Against Me by Jenny Downham
New York: David Fickling Books 2010
413 pp.