Monday, December 30, 2013

Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas

Dangerous Girls is a murder mystery that involves a group of teens in Aruba on their spring break holiday.

Anna Chevalier is a senior at a private school for Boston's wealthy, Hillcrest Prep, when the events described in Dangerous Girls take place. Anna transferred to Hillcrest at the beginning of her junior year. As an outsider, at first Anna experiences bullying from Lindsay Shaw and her posse of rich girls. But one girl from Lindsay's clique, Elise Warren, befriends her and that is the start of Anna's tranformation from invisible wallflower to popular "it" girl.

Anna and Elise become close friends but Elise's influence on Anna is not a positive one. She begins skipping classes and lies to her father about where she is going, to parties and drinking. "...Elise...She was my catalyst. The glint in my eye, the giddy thrill in my stomach, the voice urging me to be louder, bolder, to blend into the background no more."

Anna first notices Tate Dempsey, one of the most popular guys at Hillcrest, a star athlete and member of the student government the summer before her senior year. Anna is struggling to deal with the return of her mother's cancer  and dreads having to cope with her mother's illness all over again. She had first noticed Tate at a college party near the end of the semester just before summer vacation. Tate is different from the other popular, rich boys because he seems humble and caring. Tate wants to enter politics someday and so his parents urge him to be careful about what he does and how he behaves.

Their summer is spent at the beach and doing road trips. Over the summer Anna and Elise are soon joined by Max and Chelsea Day and an old friend of Elise's, Melanie Chang. Soon Tate's buddy Lamar becomes involved with Chelsea and Akshay Kundra also a friend of Tate, joins their group. And suddenly Anna has her own clique.

In their senior year, tension begins to develop between Elise and Anna, who is falling hard for Tate. Elise warns her not to take Tate too seriously, that he is only going to break up with her in a month or two. Anna suspects that Elise is jealous, especially when she begins to complain about how much time Anna spends with Tate and not with her.

By spring break, the group decides to spend the holiday at Ak's dad's house in Aruba. But their vacation turns deadly when Elise is brutally murdered during what appears to be a break-in. During the course of the investigation by prosecutor, Judge Klaus Dekker, the focus gradually shifts entirely to Anna.

Dangerous Girls is a fascinating murder mystery with a twist at the end that leaves readers truly wanting justice. Haas does provide her readers with clues to the twist throughout the book, but the reader isn't certain until the very last page of the novel.


Besides a good storyline, the strength of this novel is its great character development. Haas has created a complex and enigmatic character in Anna Chevalier, a girl who felt completely abandoned by her parents - an overworked father and a terminally ill mother, and who was an outsider at school. With the help of her best friend Elise, she manages to form her own clique, but her relationship with Elise is deeply enmeshed and ultimately proves to be harmful to Anna. Anna is unable to take responsibility for any of her actions and we see her constantly pushing the blame for her behaviour onto others in her life - her mother and her friends.

Elise is the quintessential party girl, and a young woman who uses sexual attraction to control men. She is emotionally manipulative towards Anna who appears to depend upon Elise for her emotional security. Elise is constantly pushing the envelope on what she can get away with, seeming to avoid the consequences of her actions.

Tate is characterized as a young man already willing to compromise his integrity to achieve his political goals of the future. Although one might excuse him because he's being controlled by his parents, nevertheless he is old enough to know that by lying to Dekker he has now become an accessory to murder. This is something he has to live with the rest of his life.

The storyline of Dangerous Girls is remarkably similar to the real life tragedy of American teen, Natalee Holloway who disappeared in Aruba in 2005 and whose body has never been found. It is likely she was last seen in the company of local resident, Joran van der Sloot and Deepak and Satish Kalpoe.

Overall, this was an interesting read that touches on the themes of betrayal and revenge.

Book Details:
Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
New York: Simon Pulse    2013
388 pp.

Haas captures many of the features of murder investigations in jurisdictions outside the United States;  a group of wealthy senior high schools students vacationing on an island,  a compromised crime scene and a shadowy potential suspects that are never fully investigated.

There's some sexual content in this novel

Friday, December 27, 2013

Broken by C.J. Lyons

At first this novel appears to be about a girl who has a serious health problem, however, as the story progresses readers will soon realize that there is more going on in Scarlet Killian's life than just her illness. Something sinister and deadly. The author weaves together several story lines, all with Scarlet at their center.

Fifteen year old Scarlet is attempting her first week at school - ever. She has lived most of her life in hospital, having been diagnosed with an untreatable heart condition that could cause her to suddenly drop dead. Despite the doctors not completely understanding her symptoms, Scarlet has been diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome which is a defect in the calcium pumps that control heart rhythm.

As a result, carries an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) she calls "Phil"  with her everywhere. Too ill to attend school, Scarlet has been home-schooled by her mother, who is a nurse. For Scarlet, this attempt at high school is her one and only chance to live a normal life. She wants a future that doesn't consist of staying at home being constantly monitored by her mother who feeds her pureed foods and vitamin pills as supplements.

But fitting in at school is going to be alot harder than she ever imagined. On her first day at Smithfield High, Scarlet with her AED in tow, manages to attract the attention of two boys; Mitch Kowalski, a member of the football team who immediately sets his sights on Scarlet as a target for his bullying and Jordan Summers who is her lockermate. When Scarlet meets Jordan, she finds herself attracted to him, causing her face to flush and her heart to pound. Scarlet's mom, who works as a nurse at the school,  insists on checking her over and then forcing her to take her vitamins. But Scarlet doesn't take the vitamins because they make her feel flushed and dizzy. Scarlet has discovered through her online searches, that her vitamins high niacin content are probably making her feel this way making her suspicious of the pills.

On her first day, Scarlet meets her peer support group that includes Nessa Woodring and Celina Price with Jordan as their peer mentor. Scarlet's first class is Grade 10 English taught by Mrs Gentry. Gentry has the class studying Tennessee William's, Glass Menagerie. To study further the theme of unreliable memory in the play, Gentry asks her students to keep a memory journal. During class she asks her students to try to recall their first memory and Scarlet realizes that she has few memories; Scarlet can remember books she's read but few details from her childhood.

In flashback, Scarlet does remember when she was thirteen - the year of "Nothing Good" as she terms it. It was during this year that Scarlet became suspicious that her stepmom was not only causing her symptoms but that she suspected she was trying to kill her too. Doctors had no explanation for Scarlet's symptoms and they decided to stop all her medication. This gave Scarlet the idea that maybe her mother was responsible for her illness. But Scarlet ended up back in hospital and almost died - and her idea that her stepmom was responsible seemed ridiculous.

When Scarlet has to leave school suddenly due to an incident involving Mitch who is intent on getting revenge for Scarlet standing up to him, Anthony (Tony) Carrera, a boy in her biology class stops by her home later on to return her textbook and notes. Anthony has been assigned to be Scarlet's partner in a bio project which is due the following Monday. Tony tells her their project is to trace back the medical family history and identify any possible genetic traits and analyze them. So Tony and Scarlet decide to trace back her condition as it is a genetic one.

Although Scarlet is initially skeptical of Tony's motives for partnering with her, she feels attracted to him. Tony is not intimidated by Scarlet's controlling stepmother, something that she also finds endearing. Tony seems to like her and doesn't look at her like she's a "problem patient or a diagnostic dilemma or a freak." Instead he looks at her like she's "the only thing in the whole wide world."

When Scarlet asks her stepmom to download her medical records on the computer, she refuses, telling Scarlet that she's not ready for the information in her medical records. So Scarlet decides to sneak the records from the USB key on her stepmom's keychain onto the home computer. Then as Scarlet begins to peruse those records she makes a startling discovery that she had a twin brother who died very young. The fact that Scarlet's father has never spoken about this troubles her.

In an apparent turnabout, the next day Scarlet's stepmom gives her a paper copy of her medical files, which Scarlet turns over to Tony for their project. Meanwhile at school, Scarlet sees her mother becoming overly involved in some of the students personal lives, misunderstanding situations and causing problems. Tony tells Scarlet that he wasn't able to locate the results of her genetic tests in the medical files that came from her mother. But when Tony begins to question Scarlet about the pills she's been taking, Scarlet begins to realize that something is terribly wrong. A crisis at school suddenly brings everything to a shocking climax, revealing the truth about Scarlet's illness and her stepmother's actions.

Broken is an interesting novel but there are some weak plot points; the biology project seems too advanced for Grade 10 and it's difficult to understand how Scarlet's stepmom could be a full time nurse at a high school and also homeschool her. The entire bullying situation Scarlet encounters at school seems over the top and unrealistic. Situations in the novel, which takes place over the span of five days, from Monday to Friday, seem to escalate quickly - in a matter of hours - making the ending seem hurried and contrived.

Because of the short timeline for the story, Lyon's spends little time truly developing the characters but the reader does get a good sense of who the main characters really are. Scarlet's manipulative and intense stepmother is creepy especially when contrasted with her kindly but absent father. Scarlet is obviously a good daughter who is beginning to question what is happening in her life and who wants more from life than what she has. This turns out to be her saving grace.

C.J. Lyons has chosen an interesting subject upon which to base a novel. The author who is a pediatrician, has seen cases of Munchausen by proxy syndrome and although it is considered rare, Lyon's believes it is more prevalent than reported. Overall, this was an engaging novel that deals with themes of honesty, betrayal, trust and friendship.

Book Details:
Broken by C.J. Lyons
Naperville, Illinois:  Sourcebooks Fire     2013
325 pp.

Monday, December 23, 2013

12 Years A Slave

"But I don't want to survive. I want to live!"

12 Years A Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in pre-Civil War America, who was sold into slavery. In 1841, Northup, a well educated black man was living with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York. Married to Anne Hampton, a free black woman, they had three children, Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo Solomon Northup made a living playing his violin at the various hotels in Saratoga Springs in the summer but work was difficult to find in the off season. Anne worked as a cook in the United States Hotel.

In 1841 Solomon was introduced to two men, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton who claimed to be entertainers wishing to engage him to play the violin in New York City. While in New York, they persuaded Solomon to travel with them to Washington to attend a circus. Slavery was legal in Washington, so they stopped to obtain a copy of Solomon's "free papers". However once in Washington, they drugged Solomon and sold him to James H. Burch who was a known slave trader. Brown and Hamilton claimed that Northup was a runaway slave from Georgia. Burch beat Northup and shipped him along with other blacks he had kidnapped to the slave market in New Orleans. There he was sold by Burch's partner, Theophilus Freeman to a Baptist preacher, William Ford who had a plantation in Louisiana. Ford had a reputation for treating his slaves well and Northrup wrote years later that he was a kind man.

Solomon with his family in Saratoga Springs.
In 1842, Northup was sold to John Tibaut who was a cruel man. Tibaut was unable to pay the full price for Northup and so owed Ford a debt of $400. When Tibaut tried to whip Northrup, Northup turned on him in self defense and then whipped Tibaut. Tibaut attempted to lynch Northup but was saved by Ford's overseer, Chapin.

Eventually Tibaut sold Northup to Edwin Epps, another cruel slave owner who frequently whipped his slaves if they did not work to his satisfaction. Northup spent ten years in hard labour on Epps' plantation. Epps hired an carpenter by the name of Samuel Bass. Bass was a Canadian who traveled throughout America working odd jobs. He had strong abolistionist views and it was this characteristic that made Northup take the chance and open up to Bass about his true identity. Bass agreed to write letters on Northup's behalf to  friends detailing what happened to him and where he was being held.

Northup meeting slaver Freeman
Finally, in 1853, Solomon Northup was freed by Henry Northup, a lawyer and a member of the Northup family who had once owned Solomon's father, Mintus. Epps was furious to have lost his slave and told Northup that had he known people were coming for him, he would have killed him.

12 Years A Slave follows Solomon Northup from the time he was kidnapped until he was reunited with his family in New York. This is an intensely disturbing movie about the brutal and barbaric slave trade in America prior to the Civil War. Director Steve McQueen who likes to work with actor Michael Fassbender (who plays Edwin Epps) spares his viewers none of the violence that a slave would have experienced in 1841. The whippings, beatings, rape, sexual abuse and unparalleled cruelty that characterized institutionalized slavery are all present in the film. There is no sanitizing of this subject matter and it's hard viewing as it should be 150 years after the demise of slavery. Although this focuses on one man's experience, and he was lucky because Solomon Northup was one of the few actually rescued from slavery, his experiences mirrors those of hundreds of thousands of other black men and women throughout America prior to the Civil War. 12 Years A Slave is a courageous and extraordinary film. It is difficult to comprehend that an entire nation tolerated and practiced institutionalized slavery and even more difficult to understand why part of that nation even sent their sons to die for it.

Solomon Northup is ably played by London actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor who captures the despair, hope and the determination to survive that must have characterized Solomon Northup. Benedict Cumberbatch is the decent William Ford, still a slave owner, but a man trying to maintain some kind of integrity in a social order that views an entire race of people as subhuman. The stunningly beautiful  actress, Lupita Nyong'o plays Patsey, the slave Epps both physically and sexually abused. It's difficult to watch Patsey's suffering and to realize that what she experienced was very very common for beautiful young female slaves.

The movie is based on the Northup's book of the same name which was published the same year he was freed. You can read Northup's book online.

This movie is highly recommended but viewers should be aware of the nature of the subject matter and that there is nudity, violence, and rape.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Invasion by Walter Dean Myers

Invasion tells the story of nineteen year old Josiah (Woody) Wedgewood, an infantryman who was part of the Normandy Invasion which took place on June 6, 1944, and heralded the beginning of the Allied drive to free Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Woody is part of the 29th Infantry set to land on Omaha Beach. Woody's battalion includes Sergeant Duncan, and mixture of Americans from different states and stations in life including Stagg, Gomez, Minkowitz, MacIntyre.

One day while waiting to get the go-ahead, Woody runs into a friend, Marcus Perry, from his hometown of Bedford, Virginia. Perry is part of a colored Transportation unit. Although they attend different high schools (Marcus goes to a colored school), they know each other from working at Johnson's Hardware. Woody attends Moneta High School and has a younger brother, Ezra.

For the past several weeks they have been training for the landing, practicing climbing in and out of boats. There have been several abandoned attempts to initiate the operation, but weather has delayed the start. The troops require two consecutive days of good weather. While waiting Woody and the other soldiers discuss what it will be like in Europe. They are certain that the Germans will simply surrender, that there will be no heavy fighting. They take Eisenhower's warning to the French to stay off the roads as a sign that he has much confidence in the troops and that the invasion will be short and sweet.

Duncan tells his soldiers, "I told you that....This is a mop-up operation! The Germans don't want to fight."

And even Woody says he is feeling good about the invasion.
"I was feeling good about the invasion. I had read about how the Nazis had moved across Europe, crushing people and carting some of them off to work camps. But like Sergeant Duncan had said, they had never gone up against anybody like the United States Army. I knew our guys in the 29th were ready..."
But nothing can prepare Woody and his fellow soldiers for what they experience at Omaha Beach.
"We have reached the sand. There are bodies every where. Men are dead or dying, their legs and arms are sometimes flung out, sometimes tucked under their lifeless bodies. Some are crying out."
He sees people that he joked with only hours earlier, now dying in the water.  Within hours many of the battalions have lost numerous men. Woody is in shock, having seen Sergeant Duncan die along with countless other men on the beach designated Omaha. Woody is almost killed, but the bullet meant to end his life instead shatters his rifle.

When Woody and the other American soldiers who have survived the landing get to Vierville-sur-Mer, they regroup and form a new unit, under the direction of Lieutenant Milton. The new unit consists of Gomez, Shumann, Burns, Stagg, Minkowitz, Friehofer, Petrocelli, Scotty, Lyman, McIntyre, and Kroll. They are told that their next big objective is St. Lo.

Under the direction of Milton, Woody's group attempt to move across the French countryside, moving from one hedgerow to the next. It is a deadly battle as each hedgerow hides German soldiers who pick off more and more American soldiers. What was supposed to be a quick "mop-up" operation turns into day after day of artillery fire, snipers and gunfire battles, where every foot of ground is accompanied by death and fear. As Woody watches the men he trained with, those he talked with about Paris die, he wonders if he will make it out alive.

Invasion is a well crafted story designed to present the true nature of war to young readers. Although war and battles are often glamorized by film and novels, the reality of war is much different as many veterans of the previous two world wars, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts and the more recent Middle Eastern wars in Iran, the Gulf War and Afghanistan can attest. Myers presents these views through the character of Woody.

Soldiers are prepared for war to act and not think, to kill when necessary. Often the enemy is demonized in order to make war more comfortable. Of course, sometimes war is inevitable, in order to remove a deadly regime such as the Nazis. There are some things worth fighting for, but the cost is often enormous.

Woody's view of the Germans quickly changes as the novel progresses. Instead of seeing the Germans as easy and willing to give up France and Europe, his view changes once on the ground and engaged in battle. Woody now sees them as a very determined foe, unpredictable and difficult to fight.
"I thought the Germans were a bunch of superhuman freaks who knew our every movement and a hundred ways of killing us."
Woody also begins to see the German soldiers as human beings after interrogating a captured German soldier named Helmut. Woody and Freihofer are ordered to find out if the young soldier is a spy. Friehofer tells Woody that in order to get himself home mentally and emotionally intact, he needs to thing of the Germans as the enemy rather than as fellow human beings. However, Woody can't help but think about Helmut's life on the family farm.

Woody comes face to face with the brutal reality of war and it changes him forever.
"On Tuesday, the sixth day of June, 1944, the world had stopped being what I thought it was." Woody has changed so much himself that six weeks after landing at Omaha Beach, when he meets up with Marcus Perry at St. Lo, Perry does not recognize him.

Woody also has a sense of futility about the war. When the Germans are defeated at St. Lo he recognizes the paradox of their victory; the town is leveled and St. Lo doesn't exist anymore and he wonders how they can call it a victory.

Invasion is a realistic portrayal of the D-Day Invasion undertaken by the Allies to retake Europe from the Nazi regime. My own father who passed away this January, landed on the beach at Normandy in June, 1944, several weeks after the initial invasion forces. Like Woody and his fellow soldiers, my father experienced a great deal of fear. The beaches were bombed constantly by the Germans and my father who was a signalman with the Canadian army took cover with his buddies in trenches covered with corrugated aluminum. Like Woody he too had no idea what he was going into, what war was about, or the reality of what fighting in Europe would mean. He signed up in 1939, at the age of nineteen, looking for adventure. He watched a fellow soldier simply walk off into a forest in France never to be seen again, likely suffering from PTSD. My father often told me he was glad he never killed anyone during the war, but he felt he would have done so if necessary. He once told me about having to guard a German prisoner of war and being terrified. And when he returned home to civilian life in 1946 after being part of the occupying army in Germany, he couldn't bring himself to walk on grass for months because of a fear of land mines.

Walter Dean Myers lost a brother, Sonny in the Vietnam War and also had to deal with his eldest son deploy to the Middle East during the Gulf War. Myers states in his Note at the end of the novel that "The basic truth about war is that it is unbelievably brutal and I want my readers to understand that."  Myers has definitely achieved this goal in Invasion. Well written, gritty, and filled with a realism about war that provokes both consideration of the nature of war and gratitude for those who have fought for the freedoms we enjoy today.

Book Details:
Invasion by Walter Dean Myers
New York: Scholastic Press    2013
212 pp.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Champion by Marie Lu

Champion opens with Daniel Altan Wing (Day) living in San Francisco with his younger brother Eden. They have settled there so Eden who was made into a biological weapon by the Republic can recover from the effects of the experimentation done on him. Day is contacted by the Denver City Patrol requesting that he attend an emergency meeting in Denver during the Independence Day Ball. Day is also personally contacted by June Iparis, one of the Princeps-Elect. She tells Day that the Republic has received a communication from the Colonies stating that the plague is spreading throughout their war-front cities. For the last four months, the war has been on hold, while the Republic and the Colonies have worked on a peace treaty. That treaty is now off.

When Day travels to Denver and attends the emergency meeting he learns the truth about what is happening. The Colonies are demanding the Republic hand over the cure or they will invade the Republic with the help of the world superpower, Africa. June tells Day that they want him to bring Eden in for more experiments so they can try to find a cure for the new plague. Day refuses June's request.

After meeting with Day June attends the sentencing of those Patriots who intended to follow through with the assassination of Anden. Razor has already been executed and June attends the sentencing of Captain Thomas Bryant and Commander Natasha Jameson.

Meanwhile Day who has an infection in his hippocampus, suffers a severe setback and is hospitalized. Doctors treat him, changing his medication but tell him he has at most two months to live. While he is recovering at home, the Republic Armor is attacked by the Colonies. Due to the timing of the attack and the fact that both Bryant and Jameson are freed when their cohort of guards is changed, it appears that the Colonies are being aided by traitors within the Republic. At this time Eden is evacuated to Los Angeles.

Anden decides he must contact Antarctica for military help so he, June and the two other Princeps-Elects, Serge and Mariana travel there. June finds the Antarctican society to be much more technologically advanced. President Ikari refuses to supply military aid, instead offering scientists to help find a cure for the plague. He does indicate that Antarctica will supply military aid however, if they are offered land. Ikari also tells Anden that the Republic of America and the Colonies borders and ports must be sealed.

Denver falls to the Colonies just before Anden and June return to the Republic, forcing them to land in Los Angeles. There they meet up with Day at the Central Hospital where they learn that Tess has become ill with the plague. This event is the impetus that finally pushes Day to bring in his brother Eden for further testing.

At this time Day reveals to June that the Chancellor of the Colonies has offered him immunity as well as a guarantee of June's safety in exchange for Day leading the people into accepting the rule of the Colonies. Day has no intention of doing this but he knows he must come up with some kind of plan.

When the testing on Eden reveals a stunning result, and the Colonies prepare to attack Los Angeles, June and Day devise a plan to both  thwart the attack and force military intervention by Antarctica. Can they save the Republic from the Colonies' insidious grasp without losing everything they hold dear?

Champion is a thrilling finale to the Legends series, with a page-turning climax that leads to a sad but hopeful ending. Lu ties up all the lose ends and even takes her readers ten years into the future. Readers learn a bit more about the larger world as June and Day step outside of the Republic to travel to Antarctica. The encounter an advanced society where behaviour is strictly monitored, where everything has points - a feature June soon tires of.

Like the two novels before it, Champion is well written and essentially plot driven. Nevertheless, Lu does a good job of developing the two main characters throughout the series, focusing on their heroic journey to creating a more just society. Day and June, although initially on different paths, band together to forge a new path, mirroring the journey the Colonies and the Republic take. Day began his journey to rescue his brother, reveal the true nature of the Republic and take it down in doing so. June was the Republic's prodigy but Day made her aware of what was truly going on. Both Day and June quickly discovered the Colonies did not offer the alternative they had hoped for. Instead, they end up working to save the very regime they worked so hard to bring down. And, as a result they just might affect society in the Colonies too. In many ways, Day and June are both very tragic figures who have lost everyone dear to them, and almost lose each other.

Readers will enjoy the action sequences which are well written. Lu maintains the tension by telling the story in alternating chapters written from June and Day's perspectives. The world map at the front of the novel helps readers develop a sense of the world June, Day and Anden live in.

Overall, a solid, exciting finish to a well written series.

Book Details:
Champion by Marie Lu
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons 2013
369 pp.

Monday, December 16, 2013

How To Love: A Novel by Katie Cotugno

How To Love is a cautionary tale about a young woman whose promising future is derailed by her relationship with a troubled older boy. The novel is narrated by eighteen year old Serena (Reena) Montero, who tells in flashback chapters titled Before what happened to her in her junior year alternating with After chapters that tell about her life as it is today.

The novel opens with an After chapter describing Reena's unexpected meeting with her ex-boyfriend, twenty year old, Sawyer LeGrande, in a 7-Eleven store. Sawyer left town at the time Reena learned she was pregnant with their child and she hasn't seen him in two years.

Upon his return, Sawyer has learned that he has a daughter and now seems intent upon re-establishing a relationship with Reena. But Reena is dating Aaron,  her best friend, Shelby's, brother. Aaron who works as a  treats Reena very well.  Reena now lives with her daughter, Hannah, and her father and stepmother, Soledad. Reena still works in the family restaurant while taking classes at Broward College.

In the Before chapters, the back story which takes place two years earlier, of Reena and Sawyer, is presented. Reena is sixteen years old and with her good marks in school has plans for her life. Those plans entail getting out of town, traveling and writing about the world. To achieve this goal she intends to study creative nonfiction at Northwestern.

Reena and Sawyer's fathers have known each other since childhood and have owned a restaurant, Antonia's, together for the past 10 years. Sawyer's parents, Roger and Lydia introduced Reena's parents to one another in college. Reena's mom passed away when she was four years old and Soledad was hired by Lydia to help the grieving family after her death. Eventually Soledad and Reena's father got married.

Reena is somewhat of a loner in high school, where she feels she doesn't fit in. She has trouble letting people get close to her emotionally. Her best friend, Allie Ballard, a party girl who frequently shoplifts has always been there to help Reena socially. When Allie begins dating Sawyer, Reena is shocked because she has always had a crush on Sawyer for as long as she can remember.  But Reena has never told Allie how she felt about Sawyer and now it feels impossible to do so.

While Allie and Sawyer are dating, Allie and Reena begin to drift apart. Reena who is in grade ten has almost no friends, feels unmoored and becomes socially isolated. At a party, Allie tries to tell Reena that she has done her a favour by dating Sawyer because he's not who they thought he was. But Reena misses this message when Allie tells her that they have been intimate. She is utterly devastated.

One night Sawyer shows up asking Reena to "hang out" with him. Reena agrees but lies to her father who doesn't seem to like Sawyer much. Their unofficial date ends with them learning that Allie has been in a terrible car accident. With Allie's death, Sawyer disappears over the summer but continues to get into trouble, getting arrested and blowing off going to college in September. Sawyer's parents force him to move out of the house and he flops at a house with a few drug addicts.

Reena and Sawyer begin to date in the fall and soon are involved in a sexual relationship. As Reena begins to fall for Sawyer, her father recognizes what is going on and attempts to warn her that he knows the real Sawyer LeGrande. But for Reena, Sawyer is like a drug she can't get enough of. Her relationship with Sawyer begins to affect all aspects of her life; she skips school, misses meetings with her guidance counsellor and begins lying to her father and sneaking Sawyer into her room at night. Her life finally unwinds completely when she learns as she breaks up with Sawyer, that she is pregnant.

The After chapters focus mainly on Sawyer's attempts to restart his relationship with Reena and her conflict over his reappearance in her life. Sawyer's presence is intensely painful to Reena because his abandonment of her at sixteen left her life in turmoil. Reena has to face him almost daily when he returns to bartending at the family restaurant. She experiences a great deal of conflict because she's in a relationship with her best friend Shelby's twin brother. Reena recognizes that Aaron has been a good influence in her life, offering her stability when she needed it most. When she starts meeting Sawyer, this results in tension between Reena and Shelby.

Sawyer's continued presence causes Reena's stepmother, Soledad to caution her to think more carefully this time before getting involved with him again. However, Reena comes to recognize that she still cares for Sawyer. But a confrontation between Reena and her family over her rekindling her relationship with Sawyer leads to a family crisis, the beginning of healing and Reena taking control of her future.

How To Love is a story of hurt and conflict, but also forgiveness and redemption. Sawyer is a sort of  prodigal son, an Oxycontin drug addict who impregnates his girlfriend and abandons her, only to return, clean and set on repairing the situation by accepting his responsibility to Reena and Hannah. Sawyer returns home, begins to work again at the restaurant and tries to repair relationships with his parents, Reena and her parents, especially her father.

Like Sawyer, Reena also is in need of forgiveness and redemption. Reena was an awkward teen with few friends, whose secret crush gradually drew her into a manipulative relationship that ended in disaster. As a result Reena is a young woman burdened by a great amount of guilt; guilt over Allie's death  "...I wished her away for the first time in our entire friendship while we sat here, thinking maybe you'd notice me after she was gone...",  guilt over lying to her father and eventually sneaking around with Sawyer, guilt over hurting Aaron and Shelby. Reena needs to forgive herself for what happened surrounding Allie but she also needs to forgive Sawyer for the wrong he did to her and her father for his emotional abandonment when she needed him most.

A major source of stress and conflict in Reena life is the relationship she has with her father. Reena is well aware that her pregnancy has been a huge disappointment for her father who did not speak to her for eleven weeks after she revealed her pregnancy. Reena is still struggling two years later with shame, frustration and guilt. Sawyer's reappearance does little to help this but instead revives the feelings:
"I knew from the second I saw him that Sawyer turning up here was going to unearth all kinds of nastiness for my father, and just standing near him I'm hit with that familiar sear of frustration and shame. For a second I'm sixteen again, pregnant and hopeless, every careful plan for my future scattered like hayseed in a dry wind."
Cotugno does an excellent job of demonstrating that the responsibility for and burden of the consequences of sexual activity fall heavily upon women. A very poignant part of this novel is when Reena discovers she is pregnant and how she reacts to this. Reena can't tell anyone at first and it is heartrending to see her come to the realization that her plans for the immediate future are no longer possible. Typically, she dreads telling her parents because of how they will react.

Another interesting facet of How To Love, is the issue of religion. Reena and Sawyer's family are practicing Catholics who attend church regularly. Her father is a devout Catholic who goes to confession regularly and Soledad prays to the Virgin Mary for everything. The reader knows less about the LeGrandes devotions. Regardless, both sets of parents react strongly when their children step outside of what is considered acceptable behaviour. The LeGrandes throw Sawyer out of the house when he tells them he's not going to college and Reena's father doesn't talk to her for almost three months. While there are many Catholics who do take a hardline towards their children who make mistakes, the majority of Catholics today tend to have a more compassionate approach to their teenage sons and daughters who get into trouble.

Overall, How To Love is one of the better young adult novels that realistically explores the issue of teen pregnancy. Its strengths are the well crafted characters who are complex and therefore, believable and the relationships Cotugno creates between them.

Book Details:
How To Love by Katie Cotugno
New York: Balzer & Bray an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers    2013
389 pp.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Girl Who Was Supposed To Die by April Henry

April Henry has crafted yet another riveting novel of suspense with The Girl Who Was Supposed To Die. The novel opens with an unnamed girl awakening to find herself a captive of two unknown men. She can't remember her name, nor how she came to be where she is - in a cabin alone. She has also experienced some kind of torture as she's missing two fingernails on her left hand and has a loose tooth.

The two men are discussing what to do with her. She panics when she one man tell the other to take her out back and kill her. As she is being dragged out to be "finished off", she overpowers the other man who is now alone with her, knocking him unconscious and taking his wallet, gun, cell phone and car keys. From his ID she learns his name is Michael Brenner.

After checking the cabin, the girl takes the SUV in the driveway and using the cell phone makes her way to Newberry Ranch - an Oregon Park security station.  At the security station she talks to Officer Dillow, telling him what has happened and how she doesn't remember who she is or how she came to be at the cabin. He is skeptical of her claims, but she shows him her injuries and Brenner's wallet.

Shortly afterwards, Dillow fields a phone call which he says is from the Bend police station. He tells her that he will take her to the Bend station where they have police officers who can deal with her situation. He manages to get her into the police car back seat and when she is safely locked in, Dillow tells her that he received a call from a Dr. Nowell who informed him that her name is Katie and that she is a inpatient at the mental hospital, Sagebrush. Dr. Nowell also tells Dillow that Katie attacked a counselor, Michael Brenner, there and that without her medication she hallucinates.

While Katie doesn't know if any of this is true but she does know that the story doesn't quite add up because of her injuries and the fact that she has Brenner's gun. Katie forces Dillow to release her at gunpoint, from the police car and driving Brenner's SUV sets out to try to learn the truth and find someone she can trust.

The person turns out to be a guy named Ty working at the McDonald's in Bend where Katie stops to buy a meal. Ty surmises that Katie is in trouble and when two men come looking for her at the fast food restaurant, Ty manages to throw them off long enough to get her safely to his apartment. With the help of Ty, maybe Katie can recover her memory and find out why she is being hunted by mysterious men in black, who want her dead.

The Girl Who Was Supposed To Die is exciting and fast paced, as Cady faces one situation after the next. The plot twists keep readers guessing until the last chapters unfold to a appealing resolution. Henry weaves together a complicated storyline containing murder, kidnapping and torture all in order to make millions from a potential biological weapon.

While readers don't know much about Katie, who we later learn is really Cady, a nickname for Cadence, she is presented as a resourceful, quick-thinking girl with a touch of martial arts skills. The story is told from her point of view, so the reader is uncertain at first as to how reliable a narrator she really is. This only adds to the deepening mystery of why Cady is being tracked down.

The star is really Ty, a quirky student living on his own, who demonstrates compassion and courage as well as a determination to stick by Cady no matter what, even when it appears she might at last be safe. The bad guys in the novel are presented as typical cardboard men in black who talk in tough cliches but seem mostly inept at coping with a teenage girl. But none of that really matters because the reader is more concerned with the outcome for Cady.

Readers wanting a quick suspenseful read will enjoy Henry's latest in her canon of short mystery thrillers.

Book Details:
The Girl Who Was Supposed To Die by April Henry
New York: Henry Holt & Company    2013
213 pp.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

DVD Movie: The Impossible

On Sunday, December 26, 2004, countries bordering the Indian Ocean experienced one of the deadliest natural disasters, an enormous tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean. Over 230,000 people died in fourteen countries from the tsunami which produced waves approximately 100 feet high. Most of the dead, injured and missing were locals from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. These countries are also popular tourist destinations for Westerners, who enjoy vacationing at resorts in Indonesian and Thailand over Christmas. As a result many tourists also lost their lives, with most families losing at least one member. But for the Belon Alvarez family from Spain, the impossible happened - the entire family survived against all odds. The Impossible tells their story.

Maria Belon Alvarez and her family consisting of her husband Quique (Enrique) Alvarez and their three sons, Lucas 10, Tomas 8 and Simon 5, had only just arrived at the resort in Khao Lak, Thailand on Christmas Eve. On the morning of December 26, the family was lounging at the resort's pool when Maria heard a thunderous noise that she could not identify. Instantly she and her family were swept away, through the churning waters filled with debris and bodies. Maria and her son Lucas managed to find each other quickly and cling to a tree. Maria had serious injuries including a terrible chest wound and a more serious deep wound to her leg. They took refuge in a large tree but Maria could feel her life ebbing away. Eventually they were found by a Thai man who dragged Maria through the swampy area to a village and then made sure she was taken to a hospital. Lucas was certain he would not have survived if he had not jumped into the resort pool as the wave hit.

Meanwhile her husband, Quique had lost his grip on the two boys, Tomas and Simon. However, he found both boys clinging to trees. Determined to find Maria and Lucas, Quique left Tomas and Simon with adults at the hotel and limped through dozens of hospitals and camps before finally locating Maria and Lucas at Takua Pa Hospital. Eventually the family made its way to Singapore where Maria was treated further for her serious injuries.

The Impossible accurately portrays their experiences during and after the tsunami, switching out the nationality of the family to that of a British family and changing their names to Maria and Henry Bennett. Maria Belon was intimately involved in the process of making the movie, choosing her favourite actress, Naomi Watts to portray her and working on location in Thailand where the movie was filmed to ensure their story was faithfully retold.

Central to The Impossible is a story that is both overwhelming and unbelievable. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor give solid performances as Maria and Henry Bennett, in shock, disoriented, wounded and yet struggling to save their children and to process the magnitude of what has just happened to them. Maria who was a doctor, knew her life was in danger and feared that she would die leaving Lucas alone. Lucas played by Tom Holland, knew he needed to be strong, to encourage his critically injured mother to survive.

Although the scenes portraying the tsunami seem incredibly realistic, they are obviously nowhere near what survivors and victims encountered. Yet likely due to Maria Belon's presence during filming, small details are present in the movie that survivor accounts mention; the flight of birds away from the seashore, a sudden unexplained wind and the screams of people in the water. Even the water, turbulent, brown and filled with deadly debris of all kinds was accurately portrayed. This was best demonstrated by the flashback Maria has during surgery, showing her being battered by all manner of debris, tree branches, broken chairs, glass and objects that can't be identified. It's easy to understand how so many people died not just from drowning but also from terrible injuries due to the debris. Most people who ended up in the water did not remain clothed as Maria and Lucas were; the force of the waves simply ripped away all clothing. The movie does hint at this when Lucas is traveling with his mother to a hospital and he sees a completely stark naked man, dazed, walking by the side of the road. If you are interested in how the tsunami scenes were filmed check out this article from fx Guide, "Making The Impossible".

The Impossible also captures the state of confusion in hospitals and make-shift camps which are quickly overwhelmed with injured survivors and people searching for lost family and friends. In some places the water traveled up to 2 kilometers inland, devastating villages and crops. Yet desp

ite the horror of what happened, despite having lost everything they owned, as the movie shows, the Thai people selflessly helped tourists, seeing that they were brought to hospitals to be treated. Maria experienced this, when she was dragged through the mud by a Thai man who ensured she was transported to hospital. The movie also portrays the patience and kindness of the Thai people in coping with a disaster of gigantic proportions in a country lacking the resources and infrastructure to do so.

The Impossible was criticized for whitewashing - that is taking Third World tragedy in which the majority of people who were affected were brown people, Indonesian and Thai - and making a movie about a white family who eventually returned home to their lives in Spain without having to deal with the lasting devastation. However, this movie is about a unique story - a family,  which against enormous odds, everyone survived - the impossible. It tells one family's story and that is all. It does not minimize the impact the tsunami had on the local population nor does it trivialize their suffering. There are scenes where we see dead Thai people and a truckload of children most of whom are Thai. We see the devastated countryside and villages.

Be prepared for a movie that packs an emotional punch unlike many of the disaster films that have preceded this one. Though one family is the focus here, the emotional, economic and human costs of the 2004 tsunami tragedy are evident even in the last shots as the family flies out of Thailand to Singapore. The Impossible was directed by Juan Antonio Boyona. As an interesting aside, the producers decided to make this film after hearing Maria Belon speak about her family's experiences on Spanish radio. If you missed this movie in theatres, it's time to watch it on DVD.

Here's the movie trailer:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Perfect Ruin by Lauren Destefano

Perfect Ruin is the promising first novel in the Internment Chronicles by Lauren DeStefano, author of the Chemical Garden trilogy.

In the first two chapters, readers learn a great deal about the world that Morgan Stockhour lives in. She lives in Internment which is a floating city in the sky. This city has no contact with the people on the ground. Internment is enclosed by trains which stop for 35 seconds to allow passengers on or off. Beyond the trains is a fence and then sky. Overhead is a dome of wind that prevents the clouds from passing directly over the city and also prevents anyone from jumping and falling to the ground.

Internment is ruled over by King Furlow, whose ancestor was chosen to hear from the god in the sky. King Furlow has two children, Princess Celeste and Prince Azure.

On Internment you can live your life however you want, be anything you want. However the people of Internment can never leave. and they are forbidden to go near the edge of the floating island. The population on Internment is strictly controlled due to the lack of land on the floating city. People are allowed to live until they are seventy-five at which time they must be "dispatched". Births are only allowed when a certain number of "dispatches" have occurred. People must queue to have children, so most begin to register for a birth when they are still in school.

Morgan lives in an apartment with her family which includes her mother and father. Her older brother Alexander (Lex) is twenty-four and lives with his wife, Alice, in the apartment above them. He used to work for a pharmaceutical company but when he tried to jump from Internment he was left blind. He now spends almost all of his time dictating his books into a transcriber and must attend special group therapy for "jumpers".

The novel opens with Morgan, along with her betrothed, Basil Cowl, and her best friend Margaret (Pen) Artmus taking the train home from the Academy where they attend school. It is the month of December when the festival of stars takes place. During the festival, people give gifts to one another in thanksgiving for having them in their lives. People write their request to the god above on a piece of paper which is then burned at the final gathering in the city, sending their requests skyward. Their train is delayed when there is an incident on the tracks. They learn later that evening from her father who is a patrolman, that a young girl was murdered and left on the tracks. The King orders everyone to stay in their apartments for the evening and in the morning tells the inhabitants of Internment that there will be extra patrolmen on the trains and in public places watching out for the killer.

After this, life on Internment gradually begins to unravel due to a series of incidents. Pen finds copies of an essay, Intangible Gods, posted in the washroom at the Academy. The essay was written by the murdered girl, Daphne Leander and contains blasphemous statements against Internment and the sky god. Several days later there is a fire at the flower shop in the city. Morgan also sees a young girl who looks remarkably like the murdered girl and whom she suspects is Daphne's younger sister on the trains. She learns later on that her name is Amy when she finds her posting extracts from Daphne Leander's essay on mirrors in the women's bathroom at the theater.

Daphne's murder is followed by the arrest of a suspect,  Judas Hensley, who happens to be Daphne's betrothed. Shortly after his arrest, Judas manages to escape and is helped to hide by Morgan who is out walking near a cavern and encounters him fleeing from the patrolmen. Morgan continues to meet Judas at the cavern where he is hiding, bringing him food. The presence of Daphne's sister, Amy reinforces Morgan's belief that Judas is innocent. This is further supported by the fact that the news reports do not tell of Judas's escape.

A second murder occurs shortly afterwards causing even more panic and uncertainty in Internment. When After the second murder, Morgan goes to meet with one of the King's specialists, Ms. Harlan, and becomes deathly ill. Only the skill of her pharmacist brother Lex, saves her from certain death. Morgan learns she has been poisoned and that the medications that routinely come for Lex and Alice have also been poisoned. But it was too late for her parents, both of whom died from poisoning. Morgan has been taken to a special mechanical device, a metal bird, built by Amy and Daphne's grandfather, Professor Finnian Leander who holds the key to leaving Internment. Will they be able to attempt an escape with time running out?

Perfect Ruin is a sort of Wizard of Oz dystopia with a steampunk flavour that is definitely an intriguing read. The back story of Internment isn't provided in this novel, only that it once was on the ground, but the author provides significant detail about life on the floating city. How it came to be a floating city and why, DeStefano hasn't yet explained and hopefully will come out in the second novel. 

DeStefano has created an interesting cast of characters in Perfect Ruin. The main character, Morgan, is a bold, inquisitive young woman who dreams of seeing the ground. She wants to actually visit the ground, rather than just look at it through a scope, despite knowing that this is forbidden. Her best friend, Pen is equally well cast and the dialogue between the two girls is well written and realistic.

Most of the supporting characters are not as well fleshed out, Basil Cowl, being the character best described. Lex and Alice are a tragic couple who exemplify most of what is wrong with life on Internment. Alice became pregnant when it was not her turn and her child was forcibly aborted. After this both were never the same again.

We also learn that Morgan's father is somewhat of a dissident on Internment. His work as a patrolman has led him to see things that cause him to no longer believe in their way of life on Internment. Lex soon discovers this for himself as a pharmacist, having been forced to give drugs to kill people.

The king's children, Princess Celeste and Prince Azure are bizarre, having lived a life of ease and isolation. Princess Celeste dominates her brother and similar to Morgan is keen to explore the world on the ground. Whether she is working for her father or is actually attempting to leave Internment to be free is uncertain at this point.

Overall this was a well paced novel which engages the reader from beginning to end. There are a few twists in the plot, especially near the end of the novel that make for a suspenseful ending. Perfect Ruin is a promising first novel in the Internment series.

A minor criticism is that readers don't learn the protagonist's first name until the end of chapter two which seemed rather odd.

While the cover of this novel is attractive, I much prefer the one above showing the floating island.

Book Details:
Perfect Ruin by Lauren DeStefano
Toronto: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishers 2013
356 pp.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

BBC Documentary: Pompeii: The Mystery of People Frozen In Time

Narrated by Margaret Mountford, this documentary seeks to answer two questions: How exactly did the people of Pompeii die and why are their bodies so beautifully preserved. Mountford's is shown around the amazing ruins of Pompeii by Paul Roberts, Head of the Roman Collections at the British Museum.

Unlike many historic volcanic eruptions, Pompeii provides a very unusual archeological setting; the casts of Pompeii preserved real people which makes them unique.

The eruption began on August 24, 79 AD, heralded by a powerful earthquake in the morning. At 1pm Vesuvius erupted violently. A huge column of ash 14 km high was pushed into the atmosphere. It became dark as night and pumice, ash and chunks of solidified lava began to rain down on the city. In less than one hour, the column was 32 km high. It was thought that the ash was responsible for killing the people of Pompeii by causing them to suffocate. This was based on the statue of a muleteer with his hands covering his face which was seen as evidence that the people suffocated by ash. But this interpretation was questioned by some including Dr. Peter Baxter or Cambridge University who felt that the sitting posture of the man did not suggest suffocation?
If they didn't die from the ash, what did cause their deaths and the unusual positions of many of the people in death?

Body cast of muleteer
Herculaneum, a smaller city of five thousand to the west provided the clues. Herculaneum was a city of mainly very wealthy Romans who holidayed there. It was closer to Vesuvius and therefore felt the eruption much more strongly. There were very few human remains found and it was assumed the population of the city fled in time. However, in the 1980's a group of sheds near the harbour were discovered. In these sheds and in their vicinity during excavations, some 300 skeletons were discovered. Dr. Pier Paolo Petroni states that based on the condition of the skulls, which are fractured and blackened inside, there is evidence that these people were subjected to very high temperatures, high enough the cause their brains to boil and explode. Their bodies were reduced to skeletons. Like Pompeii there was no lava found in Herculaneum, suggesting a very different kind of eruption.

Pliny the Younger, a Roman magistrate was a witness to the eruption of Vesuvius. His letters to the historian, Tacitus, describing the eruption in great deal have provided geologists and archeologists with valuable information on the eruption. Twelve hours after the initial eruption, Vesuvius was still spewing forth large volumes of ash and gas. Pliny wrote about a great mass of material which swept down the mountainside. His description was not fully understood until the eruption of Mount St. Helen's in 1980, in which a pyroclastic flow, of approximately 700 C flowed horizontally for 10 km, destroying everything in its path. It appears Herculaneum and the people in the the boat sheds experienced a similar event during the Vesuvius eruption.

One of the casts in Pompeii is that of a woman with her arms raised. It was thought that this woman was defending herself against an attacker but now it is understood that her position is characteristic of a person who was killed by intense heat, causing her to raise her arms, with the arm muscles contracting permanently in this position which she remained after death. Could there then have been a second pyroclastic flow from Vesuvius that reached Pompeii? And if so why are the remains of the people there so different from those found at Herculaneum?

Watch this short documentary to learn the answers to these questions and watch them reconstruct the skulls of two victims of Vesuvius. Pompeii: The Mystery of People Frozen in Time is a fascinating reconstruction of this historic disaster that has captured the imagination of archeologists and the public for decades. The reconstruction of the faces of two people who died in the disaster put a human face on this tragedy that occurred two thousand years ago.

For further reading:

Pliny the Younger: Witness to a Catastrophe
Letters of Pliny the Younger to the Historian Tacitus

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Movie: Catching Fire

The second installment in the Hunger Games franchise, Catching Fire is now playing in movie theatres across North America. Directed by Francis Lawrence, the movie is based on the novel by Suzanne Collins.

Upon her return to District 12, Katniss Everdeen is stunned to learn that she has become a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol. She learns this from President Snow who tells her that she must convince people in the districts that she and Peeta Malark are in deeply in love or their families will be in grave danger. He will not tolerate rebellion. Snow recognizes Katniss a danger to the Capitol and he intends to have her eliminated.

However, when Katniss, Peeta, Haymitch and their entourage arrive at their first stop on the tour to the Capitol, which is District 11, the people flash the three-fingered symbol of rebellion. When Haymitch and Peeta learn of Snow's ultimatum, they encourage Katniss to try to give Snow what he wants. Even after they announce their engagement,  Katniss and Peeta do not succeed in satisfying Snow and he decides to exact his revenge on Katniss.

The 75th Hunger Games is a Quarter Quell and President Snow decides that the tributes from all the districts will be reaped from the existing Hunger Games victors. In shock, Katniss cannot fathom having to go through another Hunger Games.  As it turns out many of the other victors feel the same way as they were promised by the Capitol that when they won, they would never have to face the games again.

Katniss decides to confront Haymitch and make him promise that he will do whatever it takes to ensure that Peeta survives. At the reaping ceremony, Peeta steps in for Haymitch and all three find themselves heading to the Capitol to begin the Quarter Quell. At the Capitol Haymitch tells them that many of the tributes want to form an alliance with them. They decide upon Finnick Odair and Mags from District 4, Wiress and Beetee from District 3and Johanna Mason from District 7.

President Snow now has a new Head Gamemaker, Heavensbee Plutarch, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman who suggests that the other tributes will turn on Katniss and kill her. But President Snow is in for a surprise. There are traitors lurking everywhere.

As with the first movie, Catching Fire was very well done - even better than Hunger Games. Probably my favourite new character in this movie was Johanna Mason played with suitable sassiness by Jena Malone. Movie fans of Pride and Prejudice will remember that she played the man-crazed Lydia Bennett in the 2005 remake. Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland all reprise the roles they had in the first movie.

Woody Harleson was brilliant again as the brooding, ever-intoxicated Haymitch Abernathy while Donald Sutherland was the personification of evil as President Snow.

Jennifer Lawrence was able to portray the raw emotion one would expect Katniss Everdeen to be enduring as she comes to the realization that she must once again face the games. She also effectively captures the growing conflict Katniss feels regarding Gale and Peeta. She loves Gale, but he can never fully understand what she has experienced in the games.

Catching Fire is well paced, with lots of special effects, some frightening scenes, and many exciting action sequences. The game sequences are especially well done. The deaths of the tributes are off screen, but this doesn't diminish the sense of danger that Katniss, Peeta and Finnick experience as they struggle to stay alive. All this of course, simply leaves us hungering for more.

Mockingjay, the final movie in the trilogy will be split into two movies, the first of which is due out in 2014.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy

Nikki loves her boyfriend Dee, for whom she would do anything. So when the police want to talk to Dee about what went down the day before, Nikki is right there to help him figure out a story to tell the police. On their way from her best friend, Bird's home to the station, they work out exactly what he would say. According to Nikki, he needed her to be strong and to help him. And she did just that until she learns what really happened.

Nikki had met Denarius Pavon, Dee for short, months ago and they had broken up for a period of time. But in May he had returned, with a large tattoo of the letter "N" on his chest surrounded by wings. This was more than enough proof of his love for her. Although Bird had warned her about getting involved again with Dee, Nikki felt her love for Dee was the right thing. Then on Saturday he'd asked her to go for a drive. Nikki thinking they were going on a special weekend was more than happy to go. Without asking Bird, they took her car and went to a part of town Nikki had never been to before. Then Dee had gotten crazy and done something really strange that involved disguises and lots of gunshots.

When Nikki is at Bird's place on Sunday, she see a television news report about a policeman, Deputy Marshall Palmer, who has been murdered outside his home on Saturday. Nikki's blind love for Dee causes her to lie to the police when they come to question her. But when they return to Bird's home, wanting to search Bird's distinctive purple mustang which has been identified by witnesses as being the car seen near the Palmer home, Nikki returns to the police to give them another statement meant to clear her friend Bird. What it does is cause her to be charged with being an accessory to the murder of Deputy Duane Palmer.

In shock, Nikki is sent to jail and provided a lawyer who advises her to plead guilty to the murder charge. However, Nikki tells him that she did not know what Dee was planning or what really happened until she saw it on the news. When she goes before the judge at her arraignment she remains silent due to shock and that is taken as a not-guilty plea. As she struggles to adjust to life in jail, Nikki still clings to her notion of how her love for Dee is all that matters. Until she meets the district attorney's prosecuting the case, who reveal to her the real motives behind Dee killing Deputy Palmer. Nikki has to decide if her love for Dee was real and what matters most, her life or Dee's?

Criminal is a dark novel that has many psychological elements to the storyline which could have been more deeply explored. The focus is on a young woman's obsessive love for a man, to the point that she will do anything for him. It might seem hard to understand how someone can behave like this but McVoy provides brief hints into Nikki's youth that suggest she grew up in a terribly abusive situation, with no one really to care for her. Her mother, Cherry, is a reprehensible character, a crack addict who is still bent on abusing Nikki when she is kicked out of Bird's home and returns home. Her stepdad, Gary is in jail and her home life was so bad that Nikki was forced to live with Bird.

As Nikki spends time in jail she begins to reflect on her relationship with Dee and to understand more about herself and what caused her to do what she did. McVoy uses the format of letters that Nikki writes to Bird's daughter Jamelee to let her readers into Nikki's mind. These letters begin to explain how Nikki believes at first that she had to do what she did to hold on to Dee and his love, even if her actions weren't right. Unfortunately McVoy does not have Nikki continue writing these insightful letters because Bird visits the jail, telling Nikki to stop and that they must never see one another again. However, the letters have started Nikki on a journey of self-discovery and how she came to be involved in a destructive relationship with Denarious Pavon. Nikki gradually faces the reality of her life and her relationship with Dee - that she was used by someone who did not care for her in any meaningful way. Nikki comes to understand that Dee planned this before he came back to her because Dee was a manipulative person who knew he could use Nikki. "He knew before he even called that I would do whatever he said, whatever he wanted."

Nikki also recognizes that she has low self-worth, that she only feels loved when she has sex with Dee, but she realizes that she too was taking from him. She also must face the fact that she helped Dee kill a man and that at first, this didn't bother her. She was only concerned about keeping Dee's love for her.

McVoy goes into significant detail as to the court proceedings, but not in a way that will overwhelm or bore her readers. This helps the reader to understand the process Nikki must go through, and presents the framework for Nikki working through her feelings about her toxic relationship with Dee. What was puzzling was that there was no one helping Nikki through this process, no counselor or psychiatrist while she waited in jail for the case to come to court.

The novel which is much different from McVoy's previous offerings, has much mature content, several sexual situations, and some swearing. The violent murder is not graphically described. Despite the dark subject matter, McVoy has crafted a hopeful ending in which Nikki seems intent upon taking charge of her life and forging a future for herself. Well written, gripping and not to be missed by older teens!

Book Details:
Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy
Toronto: Simon Pulse 2013
269 pp.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Deceived by Melody Carlson

Deceived by Melody Carlson is a cautionary tale that tackles the issue of cults by focusing on a cult similar to the breakaway sect of the Mormon church, The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, headed by Warren Jeffs who was charged and convicted of the sexual assault of two under-aged girls. He is currently serving a life plus 20 years sentence.

Seventeen year old Rachel Hebert is spending her summer working at Nadine's Natural Ice Cream Parlor at the Rock Canyon Lake Resort. Rachel is living in the women's barracks along with other young women who are working at the resort. But Rachel's Christian faith means she doesn't participate in all the partying and drinking that goes on outside of work hours. This difference in values causes tension between Rachel and many of the other young women, leading her to feel isolated and alone.

Added to the stress she is experiencing at the resort, is that in her personal life. Life right now for Rachel is unsettling and confusing. Her mother announces to Rachel that her divorce is now finalized. This leaves Rachel questioning her parents belief in the permanence of marriage as their actions demonstrate otherwise. Rachel feels unmoored and distraught by her mother's willingness to leave Rachel at the resort for the entire summer while she "moves on", which Rachel takes to mean starting to date again.

Despite her lack of girlfriends, Rachel does make one good, twenty year old Josiah Davis, who lives with his uncle, the Reverend Jim Davis who runs both a new church and the Lost Springs Dairy. Josiah, who is from Australia, has been in the US for five months supposedly on missionary work. He told his mother this to escape the overbearing situation at home where his mother and step-dad belong to a radical religious sect called God's Eternal Church (GEF). Josiah's parents once both belonged to this sect, but his father left. Josiah works doing deliveries for the Lost Springs Dairy, the ice cream supplier for Nadine's shop.

Josiah is kind-hearted and respectful towards Rachel, who is completely smitten by him. Josiah shows genuine concern for Rachel, able to pick up on her down moods as she copes with the aftermath of the break-up of her family and also her troubles working at the ice cream parlor, where her coworkers do not like her. After going out on a date which they both enjoy, Josiah invites Rachel to attend his uncle's church. Rachel agrees and after going on a tour of the dairy, she attends two services which are held on the large complex that includes rustic cabins housing men and women who live simply. There are hints that Josiah's uncle's church might not be all that it seems, but both do not pick up on them. Both Josiah and Rachel are in need of stability and companionship in their lives right now and Reverend Jim's church appears to provide that. Meanwhile, a very lonely Rachel finds herself falling fast and hard for Josiah.

Rachel experiences an unexpected blow when she is framed by her co-workers and fired by Nadine for supposedly stealing two hundred dollars from the shop till. Unable to pay her road and board at the resort, Rachel calls Josiah in a panic. He suggests that she can come live at his uncle's compound but that she will have to work in order to stay there. Rachel accepts partly because she does not want to tell her mother what happened at Nadine's; she is afraid her mother might side with Nadine who is a good friend. But Rachel also sees Josiah's offer as a chance to spend the summer with him. Unwisely, Rachel does not tell her mother or Nadine about her move to Lost Springs.

As Rachel settles into Lost Springs, she begins to take note of troubling aspects of life in the compound. Men and women are kept apart, all her personal belongings including her cell phone are taken away from her and women are not free to walk around the compound unaccompanied. Miriam, the older woman with whom Rachel shares a rustic cabin, tells her that they are in the end times and that Reverend Jim is God's chosen prophet. But when Rachel learns several difficult truths about Reverend Jim's church, her doubt turns to fear and she begins to realize that she needs to leave before such a choice becomes impossible.

The issue of cults is an good one to explore through the medium of a fictional novel. Cults are still a serious threat to young people who are often dealing with family and identity issues and whose lack of life experience makes them especially vulnerable. Carlson creates a "perfect storm" for both Josiah and Rachel. Both teens have lost their safety net of the adults in their lives due the break up of their families and the loss of at least one parent from the young person's life. However, not all teens at risk from cults come from broken homes - plenty who are successfully recruited come from two parent homes. In this regard, Carlson's novel is somewhat misleading. The reasons why people join cults is not fully understood, nor why they remain.

The story is told by Rachel, who comes across as self-righteous and annoying in the first half of the novel. She's always on her co-workers case about the cleanliness of the ice cream stand and looks down on her peers as lazy and unmotivated. Unfortunately, we don't get to see Rachel change much in the novel, nor how the experience in the Reverend Jim's church changes her. She does rediscover her faith though when she finds herself in a dire predicament. The likable character in this novel is Josiah, who treats Rachel honorably and who owns up to making a mistake in getting involved in this strange church.

Carlson includes a short study guide at the back of the novel, but no resources or bibliography on cults for teens to explore further. This novel is part of her Secrets series that encourages teens to think about various issues relevant to their lives. Overall, it is a simple, general treatment of an issue that still is of concern to parents today.

For further information on cults check out Info-Cults in Montreal which is an excellent resource on cults.

Anyone truly interested in reading about cults should read Moonwebs: Journey into the Mind of a Cult by Josh Freed. I read this book in the early 1980's when it was first published and the "Moonies" were a real and visible presence in shopping malls (I was approached once by a recruiter) and airports in Canada. Family and friends of Benji Miller had to kidnap him and spent months deprogramming this brilliant young man, who was very resistant to many of the techniques used to deprogram cult victims. Freed details the extensive brainwashing techniques used on Miller in this cult.

Book Details:
Deceived: Lured from the truth by Melody Carlson
Colorado Springs: NavPress 2012
213 pp.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Illegal by Bettina Restrepo

When Nora Mirales' father promises to be home for her fifteenth birthday, her Quinceanera, Nora cannot wait. A period of drought and the diversion of the river by southern Texas, has resulted in crop failure for farmers in Cedula, Mexico. Nora's family are no longer able to make a living selling grapefruit from their orchard at the local market and there are no local jobs. So her father decides to enter the United States illegally to find work to support his family.

At first things go well and he sends money and calls home. He tells the family that there is plenty of work but that they work long days. Nora's mother tells him that the crops are bad, the taxes are late and that she wants to come to America. However, soon the calls stop and so does the money. Unable to pay their taxes on the land, Nora and her mother decide to follow him to Texas in the hope of finding out what has happened.

Nora and her mother arrange to be driven into Texas in the back of a truck carrying crates of mangoes. Stuffed in the back of a stiffling metal container, they travel to Houston. The journey is a long, uncomfortable one full of uncertainty and fear. Nora's mother prays the rosary and tries to comfort her terrified daughter.  When they arrive in Houston, the driver is shocked to see that Nora is in the trailer; Nora's mother had only paid for herself. Also Nora's mother is now ill. Demanding payment for Nora, the driver threatens to turn them into the police, but Nora and her mother manage to escape.

The find their way to a restaurant,a taqueria, where they order breakfast. They are dirty, hungry and thirsty but the waitress is very kind to them. The waitress, Cecilia, warns Nora not to get involved in the local gangs as many of the young girls have done here. Cecilia also directs them to her cousin, Yolanda's home where she has rooms to rent. But when they arrive at the home they find that the room is dirty and smelly. Desperate for a place to live, they decide to take it. They exchange their pesos for American dollars and also arrange to have false work papers done up. Now the struggle to find work begins, but soon Nora and her mother find work with couple, Manuela and her husband, Jorge, who run fruit stands at Quitman Park. Jorge hires Nora who bears an uncanny resemblance to their missing daughter, Tessa. Nora also makes a good friend with a younger girl named Keisha who is black and who is looked down upon by the local Mexicans.

With a place to stay and jobs, Nora and her mother now set out to find out what has happened to their father and husband, Arturo Mirales. They follow a trail of leads that suggests illegal immigrants are treated poorly, working in unsafe conditions and poorly paid. Along the way Nora and her mother must cope with discrimination, fear of discovery that they are illegal immigrants and the gangs that plague the city.

This short novel effectively portrays life for illegal immigrants in America, demonstrating that life is generally not what they thought it would be. Illegal immigrants face loneliness and isolation in a strange culture they do not understand and they are often at risk for abuse by employers and involvement in crime including gangs, prostitution and drug trafficking.

Restrepo also suggests that illegal immigration in America is also partly due to American policies and decisions and inaction by the Mexican government. There are hints that the Morales life was a good one until the river supplying their village with water was dammed on the American side. This combined with drier summers caused crop failure and poverty, resulting in the villagers seeing illegal immigration as the only option available to them.

Nora is a strong character, who believes that with hard work she can succeed - an attitude typical of many immigrants to both America and Canada. Her faith in God and the support of her family, her mother and grandmother help her deal with the predictable outcome of their investigation into the whereabouts of her father and life in America.

Illegal is a strong novel that presents a wide range of issues involved in illegal immigration using believable characters and a strong protagonist.

Book Details:
Illegal by Bettina Restropo
Katherine Tegen Books    2011
251 pp.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Fractured by Teri Terry

Fractured is the second book in the Slated series by Canadian-born author, Teri Terry.

Kyla is confused by bits of memories that begin surfacing after a violent attack by a man named Wayne Best in the woods near her home. Slateds are not supposed to be violent but Kyla is not an ordinary Slated. For one thing her Levo does not work and she doesn't behave like a typical Slated. Kyla begins to have memories of someone named Rain and she starts to realize that she is someone else other than Kyla.

She also begins having memories of a man named Nico. Eventually Kyla remembers and recognizes that her biology teacher, Mr. Hatten, is the enigmatic Nico. Nico finally confronts Kyla and asks her if she remembers who she is. Nico explains to Kyla what happened to her, how he trained her as part of the radical group, Free UK, so that she would survive Slating and recover her memories.

Kyla was born Lucy who was left handed. She joined Free UK when she was thirteen and her left-handedness was changed by Nico (by smashing a brick onto her hand) so that she would be right handed. When she joined Free UK Lucy took the name Rain. Rain taken by the Lorders and was Slated but as a right-handed person. "How Slating is done depends on handedness. Memory access is hemisphere dominated and linked to handedness." So when Rain was Slated, the process did not work because it was done as if she was right-handed when she was really left-handed. This protected her from the procedure.She then returned as a Slated girl named Kyla. Rains memories are intact, just waiting to return which they are now doing gradually.

Kyla continues to meet Nico on and off, but she has mixed feelings about him. She feels alternately repelled and attracted to him but is not certain why. He tells her she is his special one and explains to her, her involvement in the Free UK group. Yet Kyla can't help but feel that Nico is hiding something from Kyla.

Kyla also meets a new guy named Cameron who lives across the street with his aunt and uncle. Cam seems determined to forge a friendship with Kyla, one she's not too interested in developing. At the same time, Tori, Ben's ex-girlfriend reappears, with her Levo removed. Everyone thought that Tori had been terminated but we learn that Tori was spared this fate by a Lorder who "rescued" her and kept her in his home where she was forced to do certain things. Tori murdered this man and escaped and is taken by Kyla to Nico who hides her at a Free UK safehouse.

Nico asks Kyla to learn the layout of the New London Hospital where she continues to go weekly to meet with Dr. Lysander. He also introduces her to an old acquaintance, Katran, who Kyla (as Rain) trained with in Free UK. Because Kyla is experiencing so many difficulties sorting out her identities, Katran warns her to leave Free UK, that Nico has been using her and has had something done to her by a special doctor, Dr. Craig, who has caused her to have two identities. Katran warns her to leave the Free UK group because he suspects Nico's plans for her will place her in danger.

Kyla's situation becomes even more complicated when she is grabbed by the Lorders and taken to see Agent Coulson who tells her they have been monitoring her unusual activities. He knows she is working with AGT (what the Lorders call Free UK) and tells her that if she wants to see Ben again, she will act as a double agent and supply them with intelligence on the terrorist group's activities. Kyla decides not to tell Nico about her meeting with Coulson and to give Coulson only the information he needs while warning Ben.

However, things take a desperate turn when Kyla discovers that Nico and Free UK are planning kidnappings and assassinations, specifically targeting the Armstrong Memorial Day event which her family will attend. This event is in remembrance of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Kyla's current mother's father who was Prime Minister at that time. Nico tells Kyla that she must attend the function because she is the only Free UK agent who can infiltrate such a function. He does not tell her what the purpose of her presence will be.

A series of events now happen to move things forward. Nico makes contact with Kyla's mother and tells her that he will provide her with information on her lost son Robert, who was removed in a school bombing years ago, if she makes a statement against the Lorders and Slating at the Armstrong Memorial Day. In order to impress Nico that she can live up to his expectations for her, Kyla helps Nico and Katran capture Dr. Lysander. She also makes the discovery that Ben is alive and is being trained as a Lorder agent at a special facility. When she sneaks onto the facility to meet him she learns that he does not remember her.

When Kyla is told what her mission will be during the Armstrong Memorial Day she struggles to accept what Nico wants of her. Instead, she begins to think on her own and chooses a different path which has repercussions for all involved including Kyla and her family. These events also result in Kyla remembering more of her past, especially when she was Lucy and before she became Rain.

The beginning of this novel was at times confusing; it took several chapters to get into the story and to begin to understand what was happening with Kyla. Terry complicates her novel by having Kyla have three different identities - Lucy, Rain and Kyla. To some characters she is Rain, to others she is Kyla.

In Fractured, Kyla struggles to uncover the mystery of her three identities and her past. We learn that she has been taken from her family and essentially experimented with so that the Slating process will not fully work and so that she can be used by a terrorist organization. The result is a young girl who has a fractured identity and a fragmented memory which she begins to regain as events trigger their recall. Kyla begins to piece everything together with information provided by Nico and Katran, as well as memories that surface from dreams and situations she experiences. Kyla is very conflicted, wanting to please Nico, but also recognizing that if she does what he wants innocent people who have been trying to help her will be harmed. Kyla has a serious moral dilemma to resolve but she proves she's up to the task, despite having little context to make her decisions. She hardly knows Nico, or Dr. Lysander or her mother or father and she has to decide whom to trust.

Terry crafts Nico as a manipulative, cunning man who uses people to achieve his goals of destabilizing the Lorders and ending Slating. Although his intent is a noble one, his means are questionable at best and there is no doubt that he has done considerable harm to Kyla. The way he treats her is creepy and disturbing and Terry effectively relays this to her readers.

There are plenty of other unknowns in the story besides Kyla's past. Who has betrayed Kyla to Agent Coulson? Who is Cam and why is he so intent upon seeing Kyla? What has happened to Ben and what exactly is he involved in now?

Readers will find Fractured takes some time to get going, but Terry does explain what has happened to Kyla fairly early on in the novel. This allows the story to move forward while maintaining Kyla's struggle to understand her past.

The third novel is due out next year and should provide a fitting conclusion to this interesting, unique dystopia.

Book Details:
Fractured by Teri Terry
New York: Nancy Paulsen Books 2013
330 pp.