Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Essence by Kimberly Derting

The Essence by Kimberly Derting is the second book in the Pledge trilogy and unlike most second books, it is mostly engaging read that is well written. This book picks up where The Pledge left off, with Charlaina now Queen of Ludania after having defeated and destroyed the evil Queen Sabara. However, Charlaina carries a dark secret deep inside her. While everyone else, including her beloved Max thinks that the evil Queen Sabara is dead, in fact, her essence has been transferred to Charlaina. Unlike previous transfers where Sabara simply pushes out the essence (soul) of the body she steals, both her and Charlaina continue to co-exist in Charlaina's body. It is a constant battle for Charlaina to keep control over the ancient queen. Even the healing powers of her younger sister, Angelina, cannot rid her of Sabara. It is this struggle that forms the backbone of the second novel.

When the emissary for Queen Vespaire of the Third Realm, Niko Bartolo arrives at the palace, Charlaina finds herself strangely attracted to the man, despite her deep love for Max. At first she does not understand this attraction, but soon comes to recognize that it is Sabara who is attracted to Niko whose response she is experiencing.

Despite the internal struggle with Sabara, Charlaina has begun to effect changes in her country that she hopes will move her people forward. She has removed the class system and made Englaise the state language. Children from the old classes, vendor, servants, counsel and outcast study together. But there is resistance to her changes too.

When Charlaina appears at a new school dedication, the school is bombed and many are killed and injured. The intent was to kill the new queen. Brooklynn, now head of the Ludania's army, is certain her own father is behind the attack.To protect Charlaina from further attacks, Max decides that she will leave early for the upcoming summit of Queens to be held in Queen Neva's palace. But on her way there, Charlaina and her bodyguard, Zafir are kidnapped by a Scablands sympathizer whose intent is protect her from being murdered by someone in her retinue.

Once at the summit, Charlaina must deal with the queens, as well as with Sabara's attempt to force her to be with Niko. The summit, rather strangely, turns out to be one big girls party that ends rather abruptly when Charlaina is challenged by another queen and Sabara intervenes. Charlaina travels to the south of her realm to be with her family. With the traitor still at large, Niko devises a plan to draw out the murderer. This plan reveals foreign interference in Ludania and the potential for war.

The Essence is much different from the first novel, focusing more on Charlaina's internal struggle to control Sabara and prevent her from taking over her psyche. Derting attempts somewhat successfully, to convey to her readers the struggle and the conflict Charlaina experiences over Sabara. Sabara wants to continue living on, so she can be with Niko, who is also very ancient. Charlaina rejects Sabara's attempts to allow her to transfer to another body and begins to understand that she is a danger to those around her. The summit provides the stage for Sabara gaining increasing influence over Charlaina, while the threat of a traitor in the queen's party takes a backstage to her internal struggles. It must certainly be rather bizarre having someone else inside your head, especially when you are either kissing someone you don't necessarily want to (Niko) or kissing someone  you really want to (Max). 

Lacking in The Essence is further development of Max and Charlaina's relationship. Instead Charlaina's relationships with her bodyguard, Zafir, and with Niko and Sabara are the focus. It will be interesting to see where Derting takes the story line from here. The overall storyline of The Essence is weak; the summit was rather disappointing and seemed quite frivolous, and the terrorist acts which set up the prelude to war is obviously a hint at part of the third novel's focus.

Overall, The Essence is a decent second installment which draws the reader in with the strange problem of Charlaina struggling against her old nemesis, Queen Sabara.

Book Details:
The Essence by Kimberly Derting
New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books    2013
341 pp.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Waiting For Superman

In Waiting For Superman, director Davis Guggenheim explores how America's public school system is failing students and their families, resulting in tens of thousands of drop-outs, while also contributing to the phenomena of failing neighbourhoods. Guggenheim initially filmed a documentary in 1999 on teachers which showed that many teachers are heavily invested in the children they teach, coping not only with academic problems but also those problems from home that children bring into the classroom. Ten years later however, as he was preparing to send his own daughter to school, aware of the precarious state of education in America, he chose a private school for his child. But most parents do not have this option. They may not have the finances or they may not live close enough to a good school.

Education has captured the social conscience of America for decades now. Starting in the 1950's almost every president has claimed to be an "education president". The solution has been to throw more and more money at schools in an effort to improve the quality of education that a child receives. The amount of money spent per student has gone from $4300 in 1971 to over $9000 in 2007, while test scores in math and reading have flatlined.

In 2002, President Bush announced across the board testing for all students in the No Child Left Behind initiative. In 2009, with 4 years left in the program, most states show math and reading levels that are well below proficiency. In Washington, for example, only 12 percent of students are reading at grade level.

Researchers have begun to study the problem of why students are not learning and have identified that certain public elementary schools are "dropout factories", producing students who are poorly educated, unable to read and do basic math. They identified 2200 such schools across America. One such school is Locke High School in Los Angeles. Approximately 1200 students enter grade 9, most reading at only a grade one to three level! By grade 10 only 300 to 400 students remain. Why do so many kids drop out?

Experts use to believe that failing high schools were the result of failing neighbourhoods, but now the opposite is believed to be true: failing neighbourhoods are the result of failing schools.

So what is the cause of failing high schools? First the education system in America is a huge bureaucracy which makes reform almost impossible. But more importantly, the quality of teachers is important to student success and there are many poor teachers who are impossible to remove from the education system.
"Students with high-performing teachers progressed three times as fast as those with low performing teachers. A bad teacher covers only fifty percent of the required curriculum in a school year. A good teacher can cover up to 150%."
When bad teachers were caught on video, Milwaukee school superintendent, Howard Fuller attempted to fire them, only to be forced to rehire them with backpay due to a "tenure" provision in their contracts. In public schools today, tenure is automatic, regardless of teacher performance. School boards across the country do, what in Milwaukee is called the "dance of the lemons" - bad teachers are passed on from school to school because they cannot be fired. Every state has its own way of dealing with bad teachers - except firing them. In comparison to other professions, in teaching, only 1 in 2500 teachers have ever lost their teaching credentials due to poor performance. But say researchers, just firing the bottom 6% would vastly improve the American education system. Of course, opposing this type of action are the powerful teacher unions.

But some, like teacher, Geoffrey Canada are successfully attempting to reform the school system by starting their own schools. Geoffrey Canada is passionate about children and a strong advocate for both social and educational reform. He has demonstrated that good schools are possible and make a difference in student outcomes. Taking a 24 block area of Harlem, known to be the worst for poverty and crime, Geoffrey Canada organized a school that took an active interest in student's academic progress. The Harlem Children's Zone is brilliantly successful - demonstrating that children from failing neighbourhoods CAN learn.

Similar to other excellent schools,  there are more students than places and that means that lotteries must be held to determine which students are accepted. To demonstrate how precarious the situation is for these children, Director Guggenheim followed five children, Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily and Francisco, as they struggle through a school system where the emphasis is not on learning but on the rights of teachers and adults. Each of these children have dreams of what they would like to be when they grow up. But whether or not they achieve their goals will largely be determined by the school they attend. So for many, the race is on to try for a spot in a good school which means entering the lottery system. Whether or not they are accepted will profoundly affect their future lives.

This documentary was eye-opening mainly because it reveals just how many schools in America are failing schools and it drives home the importance of good teachers. The statistics were sobering and more than adequately demonstrate that good schools are within everyone's grasp. We now know that students from poor neighbourhoods can learn and it is up to the teacher unions to decide whose side they are on; their own self-interest or kids in America?

You can watch the trailer below:

To continue to advocate for better schools in America go to

If you would like to know more about the work of Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children's Zone, check out their website,

Monday, February 25, 2013

Shadowlands by Kate Brian

At a first glance, Shadowlands by Kate Brian appears to be psychological thriller involving a serial killer. However, as the novel moves along, it morphs into a blend of horror and mystery that draws the reader in to the very end.

One day after school, Rory Miller takes a shortcut through the woods near her home, only to be stalked and attacked by her math teacher, Mr. Nell (isn't that every high schooler's nightmare!). In a stroke of luck, Steven Nell slips and Rory fights back, escaping to the road. There she is picked up by her new boyfriend, Christopher, who calls police. It turns out Nell is serial killer, Roger Krauss, who has murdered fourteen girls in the past decade and who has been the subject of an intensive FBI manhunt. The Miller's are ordered to remain sequestered in their home, because Nell has a history of murdering a girl's entire family when he fails to succeed in a first attempt. When police fail to catch Nell, and he demonstrates that he won't be denied Rory, the FBI decide to send the Miller's far away with new identities. But, Nell, notorious for his brilliance, continues to stalk the Millers.

Rory, along with her older sister, Darcy, and their father travel nonstop to Juniper Landing, an island off of South Carolina. During the trip, Rory falls asleep and has a nightmare involving Nell. When she wakes up she is still in the car with her Dad and Darcy, on the ferry to Juniper Landing.

Rory's relief at being on an island soon gives way to a vague unsettled feeling. The island has no phone or internet service and is often surrounding by a creeping fog that blocks out the mainland. Rory and Darcy meet a group of young people; Tristan and Krista whose mom is the mayor of the island, as well as Joaquin and Aaron. Rory's unease increases as she learns that Tristan is watching her from the house across the street.But when people begin disappearing and others on the island don't seem to remember their existence, Rory enters a state bordering on panic. Added to this are signs that Steven Nell has indeed followed Rory to Juniper Landing? Convinced that she and others are in grave danger, Rory begins pressing Tristan and Joaquin for answers. What is going on?

In many ways this novel was both bizarre and fascinating. The situations with the FBI and how they handled Rory's family lacked realism. Rory arrives home in Christopher's car to find her house surrounded by police cruisers while there doesn't seem to be any organized manhunt of the woods (using helicopters and infrared cameras for example) where Rory was attacked. One week after the attack, when their house is broken into, the FBI sends the Millers off on their own to an unknown destination, with new identities.

However, Brian does a great job at ramping up the suspense as Rory struggles to figure out what is happening, while also dropping the reader numerous clues. The presence of a methodical, brilliant killer, mysterious happenings on Juniper Landing, dense fog that seems to have a will of its own, and three deadly encounters with a serial killer keep the tension high.

The story is told mostly from Rory's point of view, but Brian occasionally adds a second narrator, that of the killer, Nell. His chapters are very well done, and especially creepy. Readers may guess at where Rory is and what's happened, but for most part, the ending is a surprise.

A great novel, with a puzzling cover that seems unsuited to the horror and suspense of the story.

The book trailer is well done:

Book Details:
Shadowlands by Kate Brian
New York: Hyperion    2012
328 pp.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Crash by Lisa McMann

Crash is a romance/suspense novel with a touch of the paranormal and a Romeo and Juliet theme.

Jules (Julia) Demarco lives with her parents,Paula and Antonio, her older brother, Trey, and her younger sister, Rowan, above the family's pizzeria. Everyone works in the family restaurant, which they barely managed to keep afloat, partly because her father's mental illness. Jules has been crushing on Sawyer Angotti, who is the son of a rival Italian restaurant family ever since first grade. However, the Angotti's and Demarco's are not on speaking terms and are in the midst of an intense rivalry that for Jules, has vague roots. Because of this, Jules and Sawyer haven't had much contact since seventh grade.

Jules begins experiencing a recurring vision which at first,  she sees only on electronic screens. The vision is of a disaster in which nine people are killed, including Sawyer. As time progresses the vision becomes longer, revealing more and more detail. Finally Jules decides to tell Sawyer and eventually her brother Trey. While Sawyer is skeptical, Trey is more open-minded and vows to help his sister, although he believes she should tell their mom.

After Jules tells Sawyer, the vision seems to let up somewhat, but when Sawyer fails to believe her, the visions resume at a greater intensity. Jules comes to the conclusion that she is being told that she must act if she wants the visions to stop. Strangely, Jules is able to watch the visions on the television over and over and she begins to take notes to try to figure out exactly what will happen. Soon she is able to figure out the date and the time and she also learns that what she does can influence the future. In an effort to learn more, Jules visits the area around the Angotti's restaurant, which causes even more tension between the two families. Can she stop or at least change what will happen in the future? And more importantly, can she save Sawyer?

This was a suspenseful, engaging and very enjoyable novel. The story is told in Jules voice but because of her family's history of mental illness and the visions she is experiencing, the reader is unsure as to how reliable a narrator Jules is.  The relationships within the Demarco family are well portrayed. All of the family is struggling to cope with the father's hoarding problems, while working hard to keep the family business alive. Trey's character was particularly well done; he was realistic and his concern for Jules seemed genuine.

The ending is unexpected. We learn what instigated the rivalry between the Demarco's and the Angotti's. But, there's also a twist which seems somewhat ridiculous at this point,. However, readers will have the opportunity to see determine whether or not this works in the next installment of the Visions trilogy.

One issue with this novel was the brief swipe McMann takes against Catholics in one part of the novel. Unnecessary to the plot and a bit of misguided intolerance in what is otherwise a good novel with a beautiful cover.

Book Details:
Crash by Lisa McMann
New York: Simon Pulse      2013
233 pp.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

February: Black History Month

As most of us know, February is Black History Month. Here are few resources that I've come across this month that might be of interest.

One of the best movies about the abolition of the slave trade is Amazing Grace which was released in 2006. Directed by Michael Apted, it tells the remarkable story of William Wilberforce, a young British parliamentarian who worked relentlessly to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. British slave ships brought Africans to the West Indies to be bought and sold as property. Wilberforce was working against cultural biases which viewed the dark-skinned people of Africa as less intelligent, less modest, less virtuous - in short, less human than people with white skin. In addition to this, many British parliamentarians and wealthy persons owned plantations or had a stake in the slave trade.  Ioan Gruffudd gives a stellar performance as Wilberforce while excellent supporting performances are given by Benedict Cumberbatch as William Pitt and Michael Gambon as Sir Charles Fox.

The title of the film, Amazing Grace, comes of course, from the hymn of the same name, written by John Newton, a slave ship captain who converted to Christianity and whom eventually became an Anglican priest. His conversion to abolitionist came about gradually. In 1788 he published his Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade which described the terrible conditions on board slave ships traveling to the Americas. Wilberforce was eventually successful with the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which abolished the slave trade but did not free those already enslaved. Sadly, that did not happened until 1833.

In America, where the slave trade flourished, and eventually led to civil war, it took well over 200 years to abolish slavery and to establish equality for African Americans. In the 1930's, during the Great Depression, men and women were hired to record the stories of slaves, those who were still alive some 70 years after Emancipation and could who could recall life as a slave. Often these people had been slaves as children or adolescents. The project, called the Federal Writer's Project, was part of an initiative to write about American history. Former slaves were interviewed from all Southern states as well as many other states such as Rhode Island, North and South Carolina, Texas and Alabama.

The Slave Narratives can be found on the Library of Congress website. These narratives contain 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery. There are also hundreds of archived photographs.An interesting discussion of the limitations of the Slave Narratives can be found here. Please explore this site in detail as it has much information on the Slave Narratives.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Short Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer

Meredith Hayes is under the guardianship of her Aunt Noreen and Uncle Everett. Meredith had already been living with her aunt and uncle so she could attend the Palestine Female Institute when both her parents died of fever three years ago. When she comes of age, Meredith will inherit her father's land.

Now at the age of 19, Meredith wants to finish school and teach, not marry Roy Mitchell. But her Uncle Everett is pressuring her to marry Mitchell, an ambitious lumberman. Meredith knows she doesn't love him and she's certain Roy Mitchell feels the same about her, but she's torn between following her heart and doing right by her uncle. That is, until during a lunch with Roy, Meredith overhears him giving orders to burn out Travis Archer from his family land forcing him to sell.

Meredith has been in love with Travis Archer ever since a chance meeting with him at age ten, some twelve years ago. The four Archer boys, Travis, Crockett, Jim and Neill had a reputation for being trigger happy and hostile to all who ventured onto their land. Travis had honored the promise he made to his father not to leave the land for fear of  being forced off the homestead. Meredith had gone onto Archer land to retrieve her lunch pail and was injured by one of the Archer coyote traps. Travis had taken good care of her, behaving quite differently from their unfriendly reputation; in fact, he was tender and kind to Meredith, taking her home to her family. Although the injury had healed, Meredith's leg was slightly shorter and her leg was lame. Overhearing Roy Mitchell order his men to set fire to the Archer barn prompts Meredith to risk her life and reputation by riding out to the Archer property to warn them beforehand. Meredith realizes that all Mitchell wants is her land and the timber on it and that he doesn't love her.

When Meredith arrives at the Archer homestead, although she is recognized by Travis, she is given the typical Archer welcome, hostile and cold. But when Mitchell's men strike and Meredith is badly injured, she is forced to stay the night at the Archer homestead. Soon after, Uncle Everett shows up at the Archer homestead, furious at Meredith's ruined reputation and determined to force one of the Archer men to marry Meredith. Travis, who has begun to fall for Meredith, is determined to be the one to marry her. He proposes that they each draw straws and the loser who draws the short straw will be the one who marries Meredith. Travis rigs the draw and wins - Meredith will become his "short straw" bride.

Meredith and Travis are married but Travis decides that he will court his new wife first, rather than claim his marital rights. This creates considerable sexual tension in the novel because Meredith is in love with Travis, and appears to be more ready that he is, to take on her duties as his wife, in every aspect. Meredith struggles to determine whether Travis truly loves her or is just doing his duty, as he carefully treats her with respect and offers her little in the way of physical affection. As they grow in love for one another, more troubles appear, which challenge their relationship. Meredith also attempts to convince her husband to open his family to helping others in Christ-like charity, rather than greeting all who come on Archer land with a locked gate, a closed heart and rifles. Can Meredith truly win the heart of the man she married and make him see that he has much to offer those around him?

Short Straw Bride was a very enjoyable novel. The novel is not well paced, being somewhat slow in the middle as Meredith struggles to cope with Travis' courtship while wanting much more from him. The story then rushes from one exciting event to the next and onto a satisfying, very predictable ending.

Travis and Meredith are the focus of the story, and their relationship is well portrayed, with both characters well developed and in strong contrast to each other. Meredith is impulsive, trusting and devout, while Travis tries to control all aspects of life in order to minimize risk. Less well developed are the secondary characters of the novel, such as Roy Mitchell, Uncle Everett and Cassie, Meredith's attractive cousin. The author doesn't take the opportunity to develop Mitchell's character much, simply giving him a small part that is meant to portray his main flaw: an unbridled love for money.

Witemeyer skillfully portrays different types of love in the relationships in the novel. The Archer family is used to portray agape - the Christian love that we are to have for one another. Agape is sacrificial love, that seeks to do what is best for the other person and this is especially exhibited by both Travis for his younger brothers, whom he has been charged to look after, but also by Meredith when she seeks to help the Archers despite the personal risk. Of course, eros, which is love geared more towards personal satisfaction is developed to a lesser extent between the couples in the novel. Travis and Meredith acknowledge their physical attraction for each other, but pursue developing their sacrificial love for one another first.

Being that this is a Christian romance, Biblical scripture is well integrated into the story, avoiding preachy undertones. The main characters seek to do the will of God and ask him frequently for guidance in all important life decisions.

Overall, Short Straw Bride is a good read that holds one's interest. Witemeyer plans a sequel, Stealing the Preacher, which follows Crockett as he struggles to begin life as a preacher. Expected publication is June, 2013.

Book Details:
Short Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer
Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers 2012
363 pp.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dr. Frankenstein's Daughters by Suzanne Weyn

Novels based on Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein seem to abound these days. While Kenneth Oppel's This Dark Endeavour and Such Wicked Intent explore Victor Frankenstein's life BEFORE he creates his monster, in Dr. Frankenstein's Daughters, Suzanne Weyn crafts a good story about his fictional daughters AFTER their mad father's death.

Giselle and Ingrid Frankenstein are the twin daughters of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist. The novel opens with excerpts from Victor Frankenstein's diary, in which he acknowledges the birth of his twin daughters, but dares not to claim them after the death of their mother. Victor is being pursued by his monster-creation, who demands that Frankenstein make him a mate. Frankenstein agrees but in the end, decides to destroy the creature.

Seventeen years later, twins Giselle and Ingrid arrive at Castle Frankenstein, located on Gairsay Island in the Orkneys. They are accompanied by their uncle, Baron Ernest Frankenstein, who has revealed to them that they have inherited both the castle and a large amount of money from their father. Giselle and Ingrid have learned that their father was considered to be raving mad, and although considered lost in the Arctic wastelands, his frozen body has only recently been located and returned to Germany.

The two young women are very different; Ingrid is studious and interested in her father's old scientific journals which she finds in one of the rooms in the castle, while Giselle, who is very beautiful, is of delicate health and suffers from sleepwalking. Giselle is deeply afraid of the dark. Giselle is also recovering from a case of unrequited love after having been rejected by a young man named Johann.

Their story is told in first person narration, through alternating entries in their diaries, beginning in May through to December of 1815. These entries suggest that the madness that plagued Victor Frankenstein, did not die with him! Ingrid is revealed to be inquisitive and intelligent and willing to take risks for the sake of knowledge, while Giselle appears fragile both physically and mentally. Gradually, we come to question Giselle's perspective, as people begin to disappear. Weyn uses the two perspectives to develop two different story lines for each of the Frankenstein twins which ultimately converge unexpectedly.

Once in the castle, Giselle decides that she will oversee its restoration, hoping to create a place where she can hold parties and entertain the social elite of the day. Their new housekeeper, Mrs. Flett, suggests that they hire the young men of Gairsay to renovate the castle, which Giselle and Ingrid agree to. Although Giselle's health appears to improve, she continues to have episodes of sleepwalking and night terrors. She is inexplicably afraid of the dark.  Giselle and her sister take a trip to Edinburgh, where she meets up with Johann, the young man who dismissed her love for him only months ago, but who now seems deeply interested in Giselle. A planned meeting turns disastrous, and Giselle wants only to return to Castle Frankenstein. But even the journey home, results in another bit of tragedy for Giselle.

Ingrid meanwhile, continues to be fascinated by her father's old notebooks, spending much time reading them. She also finds herself drawn to the sullen, wounded naval officer, Walter Hammersmith, who resides in the cottage adjacent to Castle Frankenstein. Ingrid discovers her father's abandoned laboratory, deep beneath Castle Frankenstein, which leads her further into studying his research on animating dead flesh. While in Edinburgh with her sister, Ingrid attends medical lectures disguised as a man, to learn more about the human body. She becomes convinced that her father's research holds the secret to healing, Walter, with whom she has fallen deeply in love, has lost a limb and Ingrid is determined to make him whole again using the knowledge she has gained from her father's research. She manages (somewhat unbelievably) to take him to the laboratory beneath Castle Frankenstein, where she attempts an experimental treatment to try to heal him.

But when people begin disappearing both in Edinburgh and on Gairsay, Inspector Cairo is sent over to the island to investigate. His investigation reveals that both murder and insanity are not far behind the Frankenstein family!

I was pleasantly surprised at how well constructed this story was and how it held my interest. Using the two narratives advanced the story lines quickly and from different points of view. It gradually becomes evident that Giselle's accounts are not reliable and that Ingrid nor her uncle suspect anything. Ingrid's fascination with creating new life and her experimentation with Walter suggest she has inherited her father's obsession. There is a hint of what has caused Giselle's madness near the end and a suggestion that there might be another book?

The novel is filled with plenty of references to the original work of Mary Shelly, Frankenstein. It would be helpful to have read Frankenstein first, but not really necessary as Weyn provides the backstory of Victor Frankenstein and his Monster at the beginning of the novel. The author note at the back of the book explains which elements of the novel are true to the Frankenstein story and which are not. Dr. Frankenstein's Daughter's is a quick, high interest read for younger teens!

Book Details:
Dr. Frankenstein's Daughters by Suzanne Weyn
New York: Scholastic Press 2012
250 pp.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Victoria Rebels by Carolyn Meyer

Victoria Rebels is another fascinating novel for young teens, written by Carolyn Meyer. This historical fiction tells the story of Queen Victoria of England focuses on Victoria's life growing up, beginning when she was a young child from age seven until just after her marriage to Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld of Germany.

Young Victoria lived at Kensington Palace with her mother, Victoire, who raised her in a very strict manner. Victoire was strongly under the influence of Sir John Conroy, an ambitious adviser to the royal household, who hoped to eventually make himself Victoria's private secretary when she became queen. Every aspect of Victoria's life was rigidly controlled, from having her hand held when she walked down the stairs to sleeping in her mother's bedroom until she was eighteen! Her relationship with her mother was so poor, that when she became queen, Victoria banished her mother to a distant part of Buckingham Palace and instructed her that she was not to visit her unannounced.

The novel is divided into three parts; Part I, The Princess, Part II, The Queen, and Part III, The Prince. Told in Victoria's voice, Meyer uses some of the same techniques known to be used by Victoria in her own diaries, such as capitalizing words and profuse use of underlining what she had written!

I found it interesting how Meyer's ability to portray Victoria with such realism, caused my sympathies to change throughout the book. In Part I The Princess, I sympathized deeply with Victoria, who really never had a time to be a carefree child. She was groomed from the very beginning to be a queen by her ambitious mother Victoire and her mother's advisor, Sir John Conroy. Victoria was often caught in the power struggles between King William and her mother, Victoire, causing her great distress and fits of temper. She was forced by her mother to keep a diary of all her mistakes and wrongdoings, something that caused a great deal of frustration and anger for Victoria.

In Part II The Queen, Meyers portrays Victoria as petulant, willful, and prideful. It was hard to empathize with her as Victoria felt she was always in the right, stubbornly insisting upon her own way. She often was her own worst enemy. It is quite likely that growing up with so little control over even the smallest areas of her resulted in Victoria herself being very demanding.
Copy of the painting of Victoria and Dash done in 1833
Part III The Prince, relates the events surrounding her brief courtship with the handsome, tall Albert, and the early years of their marriage. Her stormy arguments with her beloved husband, Albert, continue to show Victoria's temper, but she also begins to recognize that the way she behaved when she was younger, was wrong. Yet this portrayal (which is historically accurate) makes Queen Victoria quite real to Meyer's readers.

I enjoyed Meyer's portrayal of Victoria as a young girl who eventually grows up, maturing into her reign to become the longest serving (and a most beloved) English monarch and to have an era named after her! I also found it interesting that Victoria did not want to marry (until she met Albert) and that she was not interested in having children. Whether her views on bearing children changed or she simply did her duty, Victoria and Albert had nine children!

Victoria Rebels is another finely crafted historical novel from Carolyn Meyers. It is based on Queen Victoria's diaries, which were not private, but which Victoria was required to write and which were read by her mother. Meyer has included many resources for her readers should they want to follow up on Queen Victoria and the era she lived, known as the Victorian age. There are also extensive notes at the back of the book on several of the main historical figures in the novel, providing background information.

I applaud Meyer's efforts to write excellent historical fiction, which stays true to the facts and often offers a balanced view of history.

A great follow-up to Carolyn Meyer's novel is the movie, The Young Victoria which covers almost exactly the time period of Meyer's novel. Emily Blunt stars as young Victoria and Rupert Friend as Prince Albert. With the exception of the wounding of Prince Albert in the movie, it is historically accurate.

Book Details:
Victoria Rebels by Carolyn Meyer
Simon and Schuster: A Paula Wiseman Book     2013
265 pp.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mrs Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

Fast on the heels of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, comes Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, a work of historical fiction about Mary Todd Lincoln's African-American dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley. Keckley was the child of  white plantation owner, Colonel Armistead Burwell and his house slave, Agnes.She was born in Dinwiddie Court-House in Virginia in 1818. Her mother Agnes was later allowed to marry George Pleasant Hobbs, who worked for another master.

Her parents were reunited briefly but when George's master moved out west, he was forced to move away. When she was but four years old, Lizzie, as she was then known, was made to look after her master, Col. Burwell's baby daughter, also named Elizabeth. One time when she rocked the baby's cradle too wildly, causing the baby to fall out, little Elizabeth was lashed.

Elizabeth, like many other slaves, endured whippings, cruelty, and rape, eventually bearing a son, whose father was Alexander Kirkland, a white man. Eventually, Elizabeth and her son, George, came to live in the house of Col. Burwell's daughter, Anna and her husband Mr. Garland. The couple was so poor that it was Mr. Garland's intention to sell Elizabeth's elderly mother. To help the family and prevent this, Elizabeth became a seamstress, and was soon supporting seventeen people in the Garland household.

Elizabeth married James Keckley and soon after was able to obtain her freedom at the age of thirty-seven. Special patrons, who felt that it was their duty to pay the fee for her freedom, raised the $1200 requested by the Garland family. However, Elizabeth would be indebted to no white man for her freedom, and she repaid every cent of the fee. Her husband, James, led a dissipated life so Elizabeth left him, moving to first to Baltimore and then Washington, in 1860. While in Washington, she met Mrs. Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis and became a modiste to her.  It was at this time she met Mrs. Lincoln.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker picks up Elizabeth's story when she is working for Mrs. Davis in 1860. The chapters in the book are labelled according to periods of each year and tell Elizabeth's story from November, 1860 to 1901. Narrated by Elizabeth, the novel recounts mostly about the relationship between herself and Mary Todd Lincoln and  President Lincoln during the American Civil War. The exception is the last six chapters which focus on Keckley's life after President Lincoln's assassination. Readers will find that the latter part of the novel is somewhat anti-climatic, as it focuses on Elizabeth's devotion to the increasingly unstable Mrs. Lincoln, and the writing of Elizabeth's memoir, Behind the Scenes.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a beautifully crafted novel, and Jennifer Chiaverini's writing more than adequately demonstrates the impeccable research that went into understanding these historical figures, allowing her to successfully create the conversations and relationships that existed in the Lincoln White House during this time period.

Mary Lincoln in a dress sewn by Elizabeth Keckley.
Chiaverini also demonstrates to her readers how everyone was affected to some degree on a personal level. Mary Todd Lincoln had a brother, three brothers and three brothers-in law fighting for the Confederate army. However, she was a staunch abolitionist. And Elizabeth Keckley was good friends with Jeffereson and Mrs. Davis, despite their beliMrs. Lincoln is portrayed as a passionate but unstable woman, fiercely devoted to her husband and his political career, active socially and politically on his behalf. She was a devoted mother, who suffered greatly over the deaths of her sons, Eddie and later on Willie. However, she was impulsive and ran up large debts in an attempt to refurbish the White House. Her time in Washington as First Lady was marked with controversy and through Elizabeth we see that no matter what she did, she experienced criticism from all sides and was often ostracized by the social elite of Washington. Through Elizabeth's narrative, we learn how Lincoln's assassination devastated Mary and led gradually to the unraveling of her life.

Although the main relationship in the novel is that between Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln, Chiaverini also gives us glimpses of the relationship between Mary and her husband Abe Lincoln. The integrity, intelligence and wit of President Lincoln is portrayed, as well as his devotion to his sons, and his tender but firm way with his wife. We also see, through the eyes of Elizabeth just how burdensome the Civil War period was to President Lincoln who was criticized for his views on slavery and on the management of the war between the North and South. Chiaverini is able to bring to life these historical figures in a way the is wonderfully realistic. Her presentations of Mary, President Lincoln, their children, and Elizabeth Keckley are complex and believable.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker provides insight into how the war affected the nation as well as how it split apart families and friends. Much like World War I fifty years later, both sides felt they could overcome the other quickly. Incredibly, as in the Battle of Bull Run, residents of Washington traveled to the battlefield to watch, as if they were attending the theatre. Instead it turned into the bloodiest battle in American history, at that point and changed both sides view of the war which was to become a four year bloodbath that saw many lose fathers and ef that they had the right to own slaves. Chiaverini uses Elizabeth to convey to her readers the enormous suffering the Civil War caused on a personal level. When Elizabeth learns that her son, George, has been able to pass himself off as a white man and enlist, she has mixed feelings; terrified that she may lose him, but recognizing that he has a duty to help those of his race, not yet free.

This well-written novel will appeal to readers of historical fiction, and those with a particular interest in Civil War history and the emancipation of slaves.Highly recommended!

You can read Elizabeth Keckley's book at Gutenberg: Barbara Hambly's The Emancipator's Wife is a historical fiction about Mary Todd Lincoln. To see pictures of the dresses Elizabeth Keckley sewed for First Lady, Mary Lincoln, go to

And those interested in learning more about Lincoln are directed to read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Book Details:
Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
New York: Dutton 2013
356 pp.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Altered by Jennifer Rush

It seems these days that almost anything goes today in the world of young adult fiction. All you need is an extraordinary plot, a few cute guys, some sinister element, and off you go. Altered is one such book.

Anna Mason lives in a farmhouse with her father who is a researcher. Located below the farmhouse is some kind of genetics laboratory which contains four young men. These young fellows, Cas, Nick, Trev, and Sam were brought to the lab when Anna was thirteen. They have been genetically altered so that they do not age very much and their memories have been "wiped" so they do not remember their past. All they know is Anna and her father, Arthur, as well as the people who run the program which is run by an organization known as "The Branch". Anna who does not attend school, works with her father in the lab, taking blood samples after gassing each to sleep for 4 minutes (how strange is that?). In her spare time she bakes cookies for her experimental subjects and crushes on Sam, whom she sneaks down to visit at nighttime.

Things rapidly change however, when Anna's father, Arthur, informs her that Connor, who is head of this unidentified, classifed program is coming to visit the lab. Connor arrives with Riley and seven other agents, heavily armed to take Sam, Nick, Cas, and Trev away. But things don't go as planned and the four young men manage to escape, taking Anna with them.

Before they flee, Arthur tells Sam to head for a safe house in Pennsylvania. At this location they find a mysterious note that directs them to look at Sam's tattoo of birch trees on his back. From this point on, one clue leads to another as Anna and the "boys" (as she calls them) try to unravel the mystery of what happened to Sam and how he came to be in the lab. In the process Anna learns her connection to Sam is more than just a passing interest, and that he is part of something more sinister and larger than she could ever have imagined. The sinister program run by The Branch, is designed to create special warriors using genetic manipulation and a mind-changing drug called Altered. In addition, it appears these special warriors are sent on numerous missions, with their memories being wiped afterwards. But Sam was determined to leave clues for himself - clues that would help him learn what has been happening to him. Can he and Anna figure it all out, before it's too late?

Although the underlying premise is not unique and even somewhat strange ( a young girl has four men locked in her father's basement, which just happens to be a government lab?), most readers will soon move past the strange opening and onto enjoying this novel with its fast-paced mixture of  science fiction,action-adventure, mystery, and yes,  even a touch of romance. There are unexpected plot twists which connect together well, although some of discoveries of clues seem contrived. What Anna and the guys eventually learn about themselves, and the government program they are a part of begs questions about how far military experimentation should go when it comes to humans.

Rush does a great job of developing the characters as they begin to unravel Sam's past. Each character is very different; Sam is the intense, thoughtful love interest and leader, Cas is the funny man who is more concerned about filling his stomach, Trev is Anna's best friend who is always throwing out a quote, and Nick is the brooding bad-ass who wants to ditch Anna and isn't much interested in finding out about anything, including the past. Rush mostly succeeds in developing their relationship with Anna, possibly with the exception of Nick. Anna herself is a strong female character who can look after herself but is also struggling with the truths she uncovers and her place in all of this. Still Rush leaves some questions unanswered.

Altered is Jennifer Rush's debut novel and I believe part of a trilogy. Her website can be found here.

Book Details:
Altered by Jennifer Rush
New York: Little, Brown, and Company                 2013
323 pp.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Road from Home by David Kherdian

The Road from Home tells the story of the author's mother's experience during the Armenian genocide. Told in Veron Dumehjian's voice, The Road from Home is a sanitized version of the 20th century's first genocide, the horribly successful attempt by the Ottoman Turks to eradicate all Armenians living in Turkey. Veron was the only survivor of her immediate family.

Veron lived a peaceful, happy life in Azizya with her family consisting of her mother and father, her younger sister,Yeghisapet, and her two younger brothers, Apkar and Harutiun. Her father Benyat Dumehjian,  was a wealthy, respected Armenian businessman who sold gum from poppies and also mohair. Veron was also blessed to have a large extended family; her Aunt Lousapere and Uncle Apraham (who was her favourite), her beloved grandma, her cousine Hrpsime, and many others.  Her days were filled with visiting her grandma, going to the Turkish baths, and playing with her sister Yeghi.

Although on the surface it seemed like the Armenians got along with the Turks, Veron knew that there had been trouble between the two groups. She was too young to understand what had happened in the years before - the previous massacres in the years before she was born. One day her family learned that they were to be deported. Her mother packed and her father brought the horse-drawn wagon from his mother's home so that they could leave their home. It was 1915 and the Armenians of Azizya were being forced on a march to an unknown destination.

Through the eyes of Veron, we follow her family on its death march through Konya, Adana and onto Meskene. In Meskene, with the unrelenting rain, comes cholera and then death to many of the Armenian Christians. Eventually, almost everyone in Veron's family becomes ill with cholera and when she awakes from the illness, only Veron, and her mother and father remain alive. After such tragedy, her mother, unable to cope with such terrible losses, also dies.

While waiting in Meskene, Veron's papa learns that the Turks mean to march the Armenians to Deir el Zor, a town in Syria. Her father realizes that if they go there, they will not survive, so they escape back into Turkey to a town called Birijik. Here Veron is left by her papa in the care of several Armenian "aunties". When her father dies, Veron begins working for two Turkish ladies so that she and her aunties can have money for food.

Eventually Veron travels to Aleppo to stay with relatives who plan to return to Afyon and bring her back to her grandmother in Azizya. These relatives, her father's cousin and his wife, have opened a coffee house in Aleppo and are waiting for the war (World War I) to end. However, Veron is treated more like a maid than a relative and is not allowed to attend school, something she dearly wants to do. A neighbour, Madame Markarian notices this situation and offers Veron a chance to go the Reverend Aharon's Orphanage, which she accepts. Once there, Veron who is now almost ten years old, has a somewhat settled life, making friends and taking lessons on Armenia and her heritage. She thrives at the orphanage.

Veron stays at the orphanage until she is almost twelve years old, eventually leaving with her relatives to return to Afyon. It is 1919 and for the first time in four years, Veron is reunited with her beloved grandmother. When Veron returns with her to Azizya, she finds her village much changed, like the Armenian survivors. Veron, like many of her fellow Armenians, can no longer trust the Turks, who insist they are not to blame for the mass murders and deportations.

Although the First World War is now ended, for the Armenians, war and genocide continue on. Greece occupied the city of Smyrna at the end of the war but they are, determined to keep Smyrna, which was given to them in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. The Turkish National Army however wanted to establish a new country. They fought the Greeks, who ultimately lost what was called the Greco-Turkish War.

The lower part of the city where Veron lived was Christian while the upper part was occupied by the Turks. But for Veron and her fellow Armenians, it means only more suffering. When the Greeks lose the war and the Armenians are driven literally to the sea by the Turkish army of Kemal Ataturk, Veron realizes her only chance at life will be to flee to Greece and the European continent. After arriving in Greece, Veron finds an unexpected offer that promises freedom, safety, and a future.

Despite the fact that this event, the genocide of Armenian Christians, is told from the viewpoint of a young girl with her innocent understanding, takes away none of the horror and repulsion at what happened. At times Veron's recounting is simple but in tune with how a young, innocent girl may well have barely understood the events happening around her. Kherdian does an excellent job of portraying the immense fortitude, courage, and perseverance of his mother, Veron, as she struggled to survival in a brutal time, while coping with the loss of so many of her family.

David Kherdian spends some time telling readers about what his mother's life was like in Azizya before the deportation and genocide. We are given a picture of a mostly peaceful co-existence between Turks and Armenians, despite the relatively recent mass murders. The Armenians were generally well educated and cultured and contributed greatly to society in the Ottoman Empire. There are some lovely descriptions of wonderful family life that included extended family. All this was lost, through the unprovoked aggression of the Muslim Turks.

My only complaint about this novel is that it was difficult to keep track of just how old Veron was as the years passed by. The chapters are labeled by years, following events chronologically as one would expect. It would also have helped if some of the events occurring in this part of the world during the time period, were explained to the reader in more depth - for example, the British blocking the ports and taking the grain to feed their troops. and the Greco-Turkish War. However, given that the narration is first person and that person is a young child, we experience these events as Veron herself likely would have - not really knowing much of what was happening.

There's an excellent author's note that provides some historical background for what happens in the book, as well as good map showing Veron's journeys through Turkey and ultimately to Greece. There are also two telling quotes at the front of the book, one of which indicates that, despite Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, the Ottoman Turks knew exactly what they were about to undertake in 1915. The fact that the international community chose to ignore the genocide and that the world collectively has a short memory for such things, later on, convinced Hitler that likely no one would help the Jews should they be targeted for mass murder. He was mostly right.

This is an excellent biography that is well worth reading by those interested in the 20th century but also recommended for all of us. "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it."

Book Details:
The Road From Home by David Kherdian
New York: Greenwillow Books         1979