Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Icons

"Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!"

As is often the case, art mimics life. Easter is the most important feast in the liturgical year for Catholics and Christians so it's not surprising that some of the world's most beautiful artwork has its basis in religious practice. Icons are probably one of my favourite types of art because of their unique style in portraying religious subjects. Icons are painted images of important religious figures such as Christ, angels and saints, and the devil. They also can portray biblical scenes, the parables of Christ and famous feast days. Like most religious art icons serve many purposes; they beautify churches and religious buildings, aid us in prayer, instruct us in the faith, and encourage the practice of virtue. You can read more about this on the Functions of Icons webpage.

One last note. I have chosen to write about icons today because they are an art form that has helped me in the practice of my faith. However, Orthodox Christians will not be celebrating Easter this Sunday, March 31,  with the Roman Rite church. For Orthodox Christians, their season of Lent is just beginning, and Easter will celebrated May 5 this year. This is because the Roman Catholic Church follows the Gregorian calendar which the Orthodox Church does not. Most Orthodox Churches use the Julian Calendar.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

This short novel in verse tells the unfortunate adventure of little Mavis Betterly after she is abandoned on the Kansas prairie. After their wheat crop fails and the Betterly's are financially strapped, May is taken by her father to the Oblinger homestead 15 miles west to stay until Christmas. For helping Mrs. Oblinger, who is a new bride and who hasn't adapted well to prairie life, she will earn some money for her family. May doesn't want to go. She doesn't want to leave her home and give up schooling.

Around my finger
I twist a blade of grass
It's what I've always wanted,
to contribute,
but not this way.
If I leave,
schooling is as good as finished.
Come Christmas I'll be home
but even farther behind.

When she arrives at the Oblinger's soddy, it's quite obvious to May that Mrs. Oblinger hates living on the prairie, despite her kindly husband's efforts. One day Mrs. Oblinger dresses up, saddles her horse on the pretense of going for a long ride on the prairie, only to never return. When May and Mr. Oblinger find her note, he sets off in pursuit of his wife. Not surprisingly, he doesn't return either and May is left alone on the prairie to fend for herself.

At first May revels in her new found freedom. There is no one to tell her to do chores, when to eat or sleep. She enjoys the lovely fall weather but soon May is filled with fear. The appearance of a wolf at the soddy and her loneliness lead her to attempt to walk home but she soon understands the futility of this. May realizes that she is stuck at the soddy until her father comes for her in December. As she struggles to survive on the remaining food stores left in the Oblinger's sod home, May reminisces about her time at school and her struggles to read. The reader comes to understand that May has a reading disability and that she has been labelled as stupid by the new Teacher. But May's response to her difficult situation is anything but stupid and she shows herself to be a resourceful, brave young girl.

Readers will enjoy Caroline Starr Rose's spirited heroine who loves the wide open prairie. Readers will be touched by May's struggle to learn how to read and how this difficulty can be so tied up in self esteem. May knows she isn't stupid but she is soon labelled as such and humiliated in front of the entire class. The author has created an interesting storyline filled with suspense and the poetry is short and tight, perfect for young readers to try a novel in verse. We eventually learn how May came to have her nickname, May B. and what happened that caused May B to be abandoned by the Oblingers.

Book Review:
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
New York: Schwartz & Wade Books     2012
231 pp.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Carl Bloch, Painter of Christ's Life and Passion

Carl Bloch is a Danish painter well known for his exquisite religious paintings. Bloch was born in 1843 in Copenhagen, Denmark. His parents were like most of any era, they were not keen on him studying art and hoped that he might become an officer in the Navy. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Art where is artwork garnered him a silver medal and eventually the opportunity to travel and study art. In the 1850's Bloch was able to travel to many European countries. The work of Rembrandt was a major influence on his art and this is very evident in his pictures.

Bloch received a commission to paint the life of Christ from J.C. Jacobsen who was a brewer. This project took him fourteen years and had a great impact on him both personally and artistically. Bloch was commissioned to paint 23 pictures for the Praying Chamber. He also painted eight altar pieces during his lifetime. His pictures of Christ are considered among the best ever painted and are my personal favourites. I enjoy Bloch's paintings because they make Christ more personal and are helpful for meditation.

The ones I love the best are those of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.In this image below of Christ with the soldier, Bloch captures the hatred and insolence of the soldier as he mocks Christ crowned with thorns.

Christ's crucifixion and his burial capture the horror of these moments, Mary prostrate at the foot of the cross, while John weeps inconsolably.

These paintings deal with Christ resurrected and when he meets the apostles on the road to Emaus.

In addition to his religious paintings, Bloch also painted landscapes and portraits. However, second only to his religious paintings were his beautiful etchings which captured the deep emotions of the passion of Christ. Among his most moving is the etching of Peter weeping over his denial of Christ.

Bloch died in 1890 of cancer.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Darkest MInds by Alexandra Bracken

The Darkest Minds is a fascinating science fiction novel, with a very unique premise. After the prologue set in the present, the novel opens by backtracking to when Ruby was ten years old. All around her, her classmates and friends are sickening and dying with what was first called Everhart's Disease but which eventually came to be known as IAAN - Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration. Children first began getting sick when Ruby was in Grade 4 and her first experience of it was seeing her classmate, Grace, drop dead in class.

But Ruby soon discovers that the adults, including her parents are terrified of the children who have not sickened and died. So terrified in fact, that the surviving children have been sent to special "rehabilitation" camps like Thurmond, located somewhere in Virginia. These camps are guarded by special armed forces known as PSI Forces but they do not rehabilitate.

Once there, the children are examined and undergo a CT scan to check their brains. They are then classified according to their special abilities into various categories; Green, Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Red. Blues have telekenetic abilities, while Oranges can manipulate other peoples minds. Ruby sees this for herself when she arrives at the camp and a 13-year-old Orange causes an army officer to kill herself. When she sees how the yellow, oranges and reds are treated, she knows she cannot be classified as an Orange, so she manipulates the doctor who examines her and she is classified as a Green.

Eventually however, the scientists discover that some Yellows, Oranges and Reds have managed to escape detection. At Thurmond, the Calm Control, a special auditory signal designed to control the children is changed to expose those children who have hidden their abilities. Ruby is one of these children and she is discovered through her serious adverse reaction to the CC signal. However, to her disbelief and great fear, a doctor, Cate Begbie surreptitiously slips her a note telling her to do exactly what she asks so as to save her life.

Ruby does what Cate asks and she is rescued from Thurmond. But when she meets Cate's boyfriend/partner and she inadvertently touches him she learns that he is not what he seems to be. Ruby decides that she needs to part ways with Cate and Rob and that happens sooner than she expects. While in the convenience store, she catches a young girl scavenging in the ruins and gives chase. When Ruby hears Cate and Rob searching for her she makes the decision to follow the girl into the van being driven by two other young people; Liam, who is 18 and a Blue as is his partner, Chubs, while the little girl Suzume (Zu) is a Yellow who wears yellow gloves to protect others from her touch. Fear of being abandoned, once again leads Ruby into lying and she tells Liam and Chubs that she is a Green.

Shortly after picking up Ruby, the group finds themselves being pursued by Cate and later on by PSI Forces, as well as a skip tracer named Lady Jane whom Liam had a run in with earlier. Driving in a battered black van Liam calls Black Betty, they flee from one town to the next in a game of cat and mouse. Their overall goal is to find a mysterious, hidden community of children and young people called East River. East River is run by a young person named Slkip Kid who supposedly has repeatedly escaped the authorities, and offers children with special abilities a safe haven. The three of them, along with Zu want to find East River, contact their parents and hopefully go home. Ruby also wants to learn how to control her abilities so that she can live without the fear of harming people. As things are now, she must avoid all human contact.

However, when the four stumble across a group from East River and are taken there, Ruby is shocked to learn who Slip Kid is. The identity of Slip Kid is foreshadowed earlier in the novel, when Ruby was still an inmate at Thurmond. Very quickly she, Liam, and Chubs come to realize that East River is nothing like what they hoped. And Slip Kid even more so. Chubs even suggests that they have left behind one type of camp for another. Eventually, their confrontation with Slip Kid turns deadly leading Ruby to make some very difficult choices.


Bracken has crafted a remarkable tale, managing to create realistic characters and place them in heart-pounding situations that keep the reader craving more. The story is told in Ruby's voice which is authentic, making us feel every one of Ruby's fears and emotions. Ruby is a caring girl, who fully believes she is a monster. She knows what she is capable of, something readers don't know until more than halfway through the novel. As Ruby matures, she wants to understand how to control her unique abilities, rather than using them to harm people. She doesn't understand why other Oranges have done terrible things, whether they were this way before or  became what they are because of how they were treated. One of the great strengths of this novel is how Ruby begins to quickly mature throughout the story. Slip Kid although a cruel and manipulative person, manages to teach Ruby something about her abilities and she begins to understand how she might survive in her "brave new world" without losing who she is.

In addition to the suspense, Bracken has added a developing romance between Liam and Ruby. This romantic element is filled with a great deal of angst however, because Ruby is afraid that her touch might hurt Liam. Nevertheless, the two manage to develop a deep friendship and it is this friendship that results in Ruby making the shocking decision she does at the end of the novel.

Perhaps more significant is the wonderful, pure friendship that eventually develops between Ruby and Chubs who is skeptical of Ruby the moment he encounters her. This leads to an element of conflict between the two, because Chubs intuitively knows she's hiding something and thinks she's a danger to their group. This conflict continues throughout most of the novel but is resolved near the end.

One of the interesting features of this novel is the author's use of the novel, Watership Down by Richard Adams. In this novel, a small group of rabbits living in southern England have their own culture. One of the rabbits, Fiver, has a vision in which he sees their home destroyed. Unable to convince the other rabbits to seek safety, Fiver, along with a group of rabbits leaves their warren to find a new home. When their warren is destroyed, they look for a new home and settle in Watership Down. But Watership Down is not ideal and problems ensue. They have no does and send representatives to another warren called Efrafa. However, they soon learn that Efrafa is a rigidly controlled warren where there are few freedoms. Some of the does however, do wish to leave the tyranny of Efrafa and they are helped by Hazel, Fiver's brother and the other rabbits. This results in a great conflict between the two warrens and an epic battle.

Ruby has read Watership Down and Chubs is reading it when they are traveling around in Black Betty.What happened in Watership Down is similar to what is happening in Ruby's life and she can relate to the rabbit's situation in the novel. Like Efrafa, East River was supposed to be a haven for the Psi children. Instead, it is ruled by the cruel Clancy Gray, who considers Oranges to be above everyone else. But Ruby knows that "by cunning and full of tricks" she can preserve a part of who she is and she can survive.

The Darkest Minds has a great cover that readers won't understand until they get a little ways into the novel. And the title is a reference to the mind of those labelled as Oranges, as it becomes evident that these young people have the superior capability to manipulate others - leading to the possibility of great abuse and tyranny. In other words, they have the darkest minds. The symbol on the cover is not a trident but is in fact the Greek letter Psi (φ) done in orange and yellow.

There's no other way to describe this book than awesome. It is in the same league as The Hunger Games, well written, good plot development and a kicker of an ending. I can't wait to read the next book, Never Fade, which will be published Fall 2013.

The book trailer is short and sweet:

Book Details:
The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken
New York: Hyperion 2013
488 pp.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Kpop: Heo Young-Saeng

Heo Young-Saeng was the well known lead vocalist of the Korean  boy band SS501. Once his contract with DSP Media expired in 2010, he left to begin a solo career, signing on with B2M Entertainment. His debut solo mini album, Let It Go was released in 2011. Heo Young Saeng has also been working on establishing himself as an actor. He has had cameos in several sitcoms and dramas including Boys Over Flowers and Nonstop. It was recently announced that he has a part in the Korean sitcom I Need A Fairy (Sent From Heaven) and B2M Entertainment has indicated that he will be part of the Summer Snow musical.

The two video's I've posted here show a very diverse artist with good vocals and definitely a great theatrical side.

From his second mini album, Crying:

For a completely different look, and a totally fun style of video, The Art of Seduction from the 3rd mini album, Life:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sever by Lauren DeStefano

Sever is the final installment in the Chemical Gardens trilogy. In this novel, readers learn the truth about Vaughn's experiments, about the post apocalyptic world, about Rhine and Rowan's history, and most of the loose ends of the story are tied up in a satisfying ending.

Sever opens with Rhine in hospital recovering from two months of Vaughn's experiments on her and Linden promising to protect her from his father. Linden and Cecily, who is now four months pregnant with their second child, are concerned about where Rhine will go once she is released from the hospital. Rhine wants to find her brother, Rowan, whom she believes is in Rhode Island. Rhine decides to take Linden up on his offer of staying with his Uncle Reed, who is Vaughn's brother. She finds safety with Reed, an older, gruff but kindly man who loves to tinker with machines. Linden still does not believe what Rhine told him about his father. He feels that Rhine imagined what she saw in the basement of his home. However, when Cecily miscarries and Linden experiences her terror at Vaughn's presence in the hospital, he begins to acknowledge that they might be right about his father.

After listening to Rowan on a radio broadcast, Rhine realizes that she needs to find her brother. He believes she is dead from an experimental procedure designed to find a cure. The broadcast also refers to Rhine and Rowan's parents, who ran nurseries as part of their Chemical Gardens projects. These nurseries were also research labs. The broadcasts also tell Rhine of a connection between her parents and Vaughn - that he was working off of her parents research on twins hoping that the virus might be duplicated and used in vaccinations to make people resistant and therefore, live a normal life span. This however, is not the understanding Rhine has of her parents. Vaughn is the madman, not her parents.

Questions swirl in Rhine's mind. Did Vaughn know the Ellery's were Rhine's parents? Was her Gathering part of some sinister plan by Vaughn? More than ever Rhine has to find Rowan, since learning that he is now a terrorist, bombing medical facilities to stop what he considers to be deadly research being conducted to find a cure for the virus. Cecily also wants Rhine to find Rowan and to learn about the Chemical Gardens and to determine if Rhine and her brother are in any way connected to a possible cure.

Reed takes all of them by car to see his friend Edgar, who confirms that the broadcasts are indeed real. Rhine learns from Edgar, that Rowan was told by Vaughn that she is dead. The only way to learn the truth about her parents, about Rowan, about Vaughn and his research, is to find Rowan. Linden, Cecily and Rhine set out to locate Rowan by traveling to South Carolina, where he was last seen. However, their journey leads them back to Madame Soleski's carnival-brothel - and ultimately to Vaughn who holds the key to Rhine understanding her past and her future.

Sever was a satisfying ending to this bizarre trilogy that featured forced marriage, human experimentation, genetic manipulation, prostitution and murder. As such it is a story filled with tragedy but which ends in hope. The world Rhine, Rowan, Linden and Cecily inhabit has been altered irrevocably. It is a world where genetic manipulation has removed all of the major illnesses but resulted in shortened lifespans.

DeStefano holds the reader's interest by only revealing to her characters some of the information. We are viewing the world through Rhine's point of view but Rhine doesn't have all the information and it soon becomes apparent that what she thinks she knows isn't always correct because she doesn't have all the facts. These plot twists are frequent throughout this third novel, ratcheting up the suspense level.

The major characters are well done, with unique and believable personalities. From the very first book, Rhine is a strong person, and she remains that way throughout the trilogy. She is also a tragic figure, having lost her parents and her brother, endured kidnapping, being experimented on and the loss of the man she loves, Gabriel. Her world is constantly shifting yet she seems able to adjust and remarkably focused on her goals. She finds it difficult to watch Cecily and Linden in their marriage, knowing she could have had Linden's love. She is strongly conflicted about this, even jealous and has to keep reminding herself that this is not what she wanted.

Cecily is a character who changes considerably from who she was in the first novel. She was quite young when she was "gathered" but is quickly growing into a mature, young woman who takes decisive action near the end of the novel to protect herself and her son, Bowen. She has been transformed from someone who things happen to, to a person of action.

Linden is a man who seems "ruined" in this installment. The death of yet another child, seems to break him and he appears to never fully recover from his loss. Like Cecily, he too begins to mature, eventually having the courage to face down his father. This increases his esteem in the eyes of Rhine, who sees him beginning to break free of his father's control and to try to see the world as it really is.

My disappointments with this novel include Gabriel's absence until the very end and therefore, no further development in his relationship with Rhine, and the rushed ending which ties up all the loose ends and reveals all. I felt the novel (and the series) deserved a more detailed conclusion, despite the fact that it was approaching 400 pages. Nevertheless, fans of this trilogy won't be disappointed with Sever.

Like the other novels in the trilogy, the cover of Sever contains items referencing storyline of the novel. This beautiful and unusual cover is a great draw to actually picking up the novel and reading it. DeStefano has stated that the idea for the series came about while she was ill with the flu and looking through her abandoned story ideas on her laptop.

DeStefano's next effort will be the Internment Chronicle with the first novel titled, Perfect Ruin.

Book Details:
Sever by Lauren DeStefano
Simon & Schuster Books for Young People     2013
400 pp.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Brave by Josh Groban

There is simply no way to describe Josh Groban's voice except to say that it is pure music! I love his voice because of its depth and great warmth. His albums are well produced, with rich orchestrations that appeal to my classically trained ear.

Brave is one of my favourites from his sixth and latest album, All That Echoes, which was released February 5, 2013. Brave was released as a single in December, 2012. Lovely string accompaniments including among others, pizzacato violins and a harp, gorgeous back-up vocals, and timeless lyrics make this simply a beautiful track.

If you want MORE of Josh, he will be featured on the PBS concert series, Live from Lincoln Center,  "Josh Groban: All That Echoes" on April 12th at 9pm. "This special Live From Lincoln Center program was taped at The Allen Room at Lincoln Center on February 4th, 2013. The special will include live performances of songs from Josh's new album, All That Echoes, plus other popular favorites." You can read more about this here.

In the meantime, enjoy the official video below.

Brave by Josh Groban

Wake up, wake up, the sun cannot wait for long.
Reach out, reach out before it fades away.
You will find the warmth when you surrender.
Smile into the fear and let it play.

You wanna run away, run away and you say that it can’t be so.
You wanna look away, look away but you stay cause’ it’s all so close.
When you stand up and hold out your hand.
In the face of what I don’t understand.
My reason to be brave.

Hold on, hold on, so strong, time just carries on.
And all that you thought was wrong is pure again.
You can’t hide forever from the thunder.
Look into the storm and feel the rain.

You wanna run away, run away and you say that it can’t be so.
You wanna look away, look away but you stay cause’ it’s all so close.
When you stand uṗ and hold out your hand.
In the face of what I don’t understand.
My reason to be brave.


Go on, go on…

You wanna run away, run away and you say that it can’t be so.
You wanna look away, look away but you stay cause’ it’s all so close.
When you stand up and hold out your hand.
In the face of what I don’t understand.
My reason to be brave.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Of Poseidon by Anna Banks

Anna Banks debut novel, Of Poseidon, is a well written novel with an unique storyline, good characters, and plenty of romance.

Emma McIntosh and her best friend Chloe are summer vacationing in Florida when an apparently chance encounter changes their lives forever. On their way into the water with their surf boards, Emma collides with a handsome guy named Galen and his sister Rayna. Unknown to Emma and Chloe, Galen and Rayna are Syrena, beings from the sea who have the ability to change into human form.

Syrenas are forbidden to have any contact with humans, whom they despise, but Galen has special permission to be on land. He is an ambassador assigned to keep an eye on the world of humans. One human Galen does have a friendship with is Dr. Jerry Milligan, a highly respected oceanographer. Galen was responsible for rescuing Milligan in a scuba diving accident.  It was Milligan who contacted Galen to let him know about  "a blond Syrena visiting the  Gulfarium in human form" who seemed to be able to communicate with the fish - a characteristic of Syrenas. That blonde is Emma McIntosh.

Galen has managed to locate Emma in Destin, Florida. He believes she is a Syrena, even though she doesn't look like one, with her white blonde hair and porcelain skin. If she is indeed a Syrena, why is she here? If she is a Syrena, this means that she must be from the House of Poseidon and that is significant as we later learn.

As Galen is pondering this, Emma and Chloe's swim  takes a tragic turn when Chloe is dragged off her surfboard by a bull shark. With no one to rescue her, Emma dives into the deep to confront the bull shark, ordering him away from Chloe. But she is too late. Galen witnesses this encounter and is now convinced that Emma must be a Syrena. She has the requisite violet eyes and the gift of Poseidon; the ability to communicate with fish.

The Syrenas are divided into to kingdoms, that of Triton and Poseidon. Galen and his older brother Grom belong to the kingdom of Triton while King Antonis rules the kingdom of Poseidon. The two kingdoms were always united every third generation, by the pairing of their first born children, which allowed the Gifts of Triton and Poseidon to passed on. Grom of Triton was engaged to Nalia, King Antonis's daughter, but after an argument, she fled into a human mine field and there was an explosion. Grom was injured but Nalia was never found and is assumed to have died. King Antonis blamed Grom for her death and decided that he would not sire another heir so that that the two kingdoms would never again be joined. Grom is now in the position of becoming king of Triton and that means he must now find a mate - one from Poseidon. If Emma is a true Syrena from Poseidon, then she will be the next in line to be Grom's mate. This is what Galen must determine and so he needs to find Emma.

After the accident Galen catches up with Emma in Jersey, enrolling in Middle Point High School. Emma is still dealing with the death of Chloe and is creeped out by Galen's reappearance. Galen manages to get Emma to come over to his home to have dinner with his sister Rayna and her husband, Toraf. But when Rayna and Emma get into a brawl that spills out onto the beach, Galen grabs Emma and takes her into the sea where she learns that she can hold her breath for an extended period of time. Galen explains to Emma that he believes she is a Syrena. However, Rayna does quite accept that Emma is a Syrena because she doesn't seem to be able to change form like a true Syrena. In order to spend more time together to determine whether Emma can change into a full Syrena, she and Galen pretend to be dating.

Despite spending hours in the ocean, Emma does not seem to have the ability to change, although she can definitely talk to marine animals and stay underwater for lengthy periods of time. At this point, Galen decides to take Emma to see Dr. Milligan and during his examination they conclude that Emma must be half human and half Syrena. This means that she is unsuitable as a potential mate for Grom. This is bittersweet for Galen, because he has fallen for Emma, but because she is likely half-human, it means they cannot be together as it is forbidden by the House of Triton for Syrenas to mate with humans.

The discovery of another Syrena of the House of Poseidon, Paca ensures that Emma is no longer necessary for the unity of the two kingdoms, because Paca will now be mated to Grom. Things become complicated however, when Galen, Toraf, and Rayna sense another Syrena who seems to be stalking Emma and when Paca doesn't measure up. The results of Dr. Milligan's DNA tests also indicate a deeper puzzle as to whom Emma really is and who her parents might be. Add to this the romantic conflict Emma and Galen experience over his mission and how they feel about each other and you have the makings of a story with plenty of twists and an exciting lead into a second installment.

Although complex, Banks succeeds admirably in presenting the story of the Syrena to her readers. Their backstory is gradually constructed throughout the novel, as Galen tries to solve the mystery of Emma's heritage. While the romance between Galen and Emma is definitely the main attraction of the novel, the world of the Syrenas is fascinating too because what is happening in the depths of the sea has a direct bearing on what is happening on land with Galen and Emma. There are some problematic areas concerning Emma as a Syrena; for example how Emma is able to "talk" underwater to animals while holding her breathe was never explained.

The characters are well developed, and the author does a good job developing the inter-relationships between characters, with great dialogue and by allowing us to know what the characters are thinking. Emma is strong willed and smart, while Galen is kind and honourable. There is great chemistry between Galen and Emma, with plenty of sexual tension, but also lots of admirable restraint on the part of Galen. Banks uses both characters narratives to tell the story; though strangely, Emma's chapters were written in first person and while Galen's were in third person.

At times, some of the writing and turn of phrases were weak and choppy, suited to a more juvenile book, but for the most part, despite my initial skepticism, this novel works, and in the end, left me pining for the next book!

Banks second installment in the trilogy, Of Triton, will be published May 28, 2013.

You can read about Anna Banks on her blog  Anna

Book Details:
Of Poseidon by Anna Banks
New York: Feiwel  and Friends      2012
326 pp.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky is one of those great books that I feel are often overlooked by young readers, librarians, and teachers. With not an especially attractive cover by today's standards, this novel, written only seven years ago, offers readers a delicious dose of the pioneer spirit set during the last year of World War I. Those who enjoyed the Laura Ingalls saga in Little House on the Prairie will certainly enjoy Hattie Big Sky and the recent sequel, Hattie Ever After.

Sixteen year old Hattie Inez Brooks lives with her Aunt Ivy and Uncle Holt in Arlington, Iowa. Hattie lost both her parents when she was very young; her father was a miner who died from lung disease and her mother died a few years later from a fever. After her Mama died, her Aunt Seah took her in and was very loving towards her. But after Aunt Seah became too elderly to care for Hattie, she was passed from one relative to the next until she ended up in the home of her distant cousin, Uncle Holt. Aunt Ivy was not happy about this and now that Hattie is sixteen, she wants her to move out and work.

Hattie has a good friend in Charlie Hawley, a boy who stuck up for her, walked her to school and back every day. He also taught her how to through a baseball properly and gave her a cat named Mr. Whiskers. Charlie has just enlisted and is on his way to England and eventually to France. Although Hattie, along with the rest of the town believes Charlie is sweet on another girl, she decides to write him.

One day Hattie receives a letter informing her that her Uncle Chester has bequeathed his 320 acre land claim in Montana. The letter was written by Chester's neighbour, Perilee Meuller, who writes to tell Hattie that if she wants to come out to claim the land, they will help her. Knowing she has no future in Iowa in home where she is not loved,  Hattie decides to take a chance and move to Montana. So in January of 1918, she and Mr. Whiskers take the Great Northern Railway to Wolf Point, Montana. There she is met by Perliee Meuller and her husband, Karl, as well as Perilee's children, eight year old Chase, six year old Mattie and the baby, Fern. In Wolf Point, Hattie learns that in order to "prove up" on the claim, she must set 480 rods of fence and cultivate 40 acres of land by November 1918. She has no idea how she will accomplish this but Hattie decides that she needs to go to Montana because all her life she has been Hattie Here-and-There. Montana offers her the chance to have a real home of her own.

The Meuller's drive her out to the claim the next day, and Hattie is dismayed by what she sees. The house is a mere shack set in the middle of a vast tract of land and sky. While winter sets in, Hattie gradually adapts to the homesteading life, making good friends with Perilee and Karl, Rooster Jim a crochety, bad-smelling old friend of Chester's, and Leafie Purvis, an older woman who makes a living training horses.

Another person Hattie encounters is the handsome Traft Martin, a young man who runs his family's ranch, The Tipped M, which is the largest ranch in the area and which butts up against the northeast boundary of Hattie's claim. Traft is attracted to Hattie and tries to court her, but she isn't fooled by his good looks. It soon turns out that he has more than just courting on his mind. She also discovers that despite his winsome smile, Traft has a darker side. When Traft and those on the Council of Defense begin singling out Americans of German descent, Hattie refuses to follow along and break off with the Meullers even after she is threatened by Traft. Tragedy follows tragedy but Hattie remains strong, faithful to those who have helped her, and learns about herself and life. Although Hattie works hard on her claim can she succeed in spite of bad weather, little money, and a rancher trying to steal her claim?

Larson has crafted a truly delightful story that engages the reader right from the beginning. Hattie is a strong heroine, determined to make her way in the world, despite terrible odds in a troubling time. She remains true to herself when she stands up, at great personal risk, for those who are being unjustly attacked only because they come from a country that America is at war with. In this way, Hattie demonstrates that she is maturing into a principled adult who knows what she believes in and acts on those beliefs.

Hattie's story is told in a strong first person narrative but also includes the letters she writes to Charlie and Uncle Holt as well as her submissions about homesteading to the Arlington News. This allows us to know something about Charlie and to see how both Charlie and Hattie change over the year. Charlie's view of the war changes in that time. At first he brags about killing Germans, but later on when his best friend is killed, he realizes that killing another person is nothing to brag about. In Hattie's case, she came out to Montana to find a home for herself, but instead found friends who were as good as family. Initially she was only concerned about herself, but as she matures, she begins to develop a concern for those around her.

Many of the characters in the book are memorable, from Rooster Jim with his wild ways, to Perilee and Karl, the stoic couple who help Hattie and who are attacked because Karl is German. Traft Martin, who at first seems like a potential love interest, is revealed as a complex character. Even the animals have interesting personalities as evidenced by the hilarious descriptions of Hattie's cow, Violet, and the three hens she gets from Rooster Jim.

Hattie Big Sky is a wonderful novel about the meaning of friendship and loyalty, finding your place in the world and coming of age.

Larson indicates that many of the events in the novel actually happened. It was her great-grandmother Hattie Inez Brooks Wright who homesteaded in Montana. While doing her research on homesteading during World War I, Larson realized that anti-German sentiment was very common during this time period and therefore, needed to be part of the story.

Book Details:
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
New York: Delacorte Press 2006
289 pp.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Monster's Monster by Patrick McDonnell

Three little monsters, Grouch, Grump, and Little Gloom 'n Doom are bad, bad, bad. But they can't decide who is the baddest of all, so instead they decide to build their own very monster. This monster will be the baddest ever. But to their surprise, he doesn't tramp through town and countryside terrorizing people. Instead, Monster is gentle and grateful, not at all what they were aiming for! McDonnell's delightful rhyme is a lesson in gratitude for little people -- and big people too. Illustrations and text seamlessly go together to make a truly delightful book for ages 3 to 6.

McDonnell is the author of the acclaimed comic strip, MUTTS and also author of numerous children's picture books. He began writing picture books in 2005, with the publication of his first book, The Gift of Nothing, which was a New York Times bestseller. This marked the beginning of some very engaging books which McDonnell has written since then.
You can check out Patrick McDonnell's website at Mutts.

Book Details:
The Monster's Monster by Patrick McDonnell
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers    2012
40 pp.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

All these lives by Sarah Wylie

Most people think the biggest sacrifice, the greatest act of love you can give is to die for someone. And probably it is.
But sometimes it is the opposite.
The biggest thing you can do for someone is to live.
Finally a Canadian novel with an interesting cover that might actually appeal to Canadian readers!

Sarah Wylie's debut, All These Lives, is a strange, heart-rending account of a young girl struggling to cope with her twin sister's incurable cancer. What makes this novel so intriguing is that the focus of the novel is not on the character with the disease, but on her sister and family.

Danielle (Dani) Bailey is twin sister to Jena who has cancer. Jena's leukemia has not responded to treatment and she needs a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, Dani is not a suitable marrow donor and all she can do is simply watch her sister suffer and perhaps draw closer to death.

When she was younger, Dani survived both a serious car accident and a serious chest infection, Dani's mother has always told her how she was "the girl with nine lives." Later on, her Uncle Stephan tells Dani about the history of the nine lives myth - that when a cat loses one of its nine lives, that life is released into the universe to be caught by another. This misguided and very strange belief that she has nine lives, leads Dani to engage in behaviours she hopes will rid herself of her remaining seven lives, allowing Jena to grab one and be well again.

When Dani isn't trying to harm herself, she is busy being sarcastic to everyone, embarrassing cute Jack Penner whose family is also dealing with a difficult situation, auditioning for a toothpaste commercial, and ticking off Candi and Spencer, two people she truly dislikes at school.

But every time Jena's health takes a downturn, Dani decides to do something that will cause her to come close to dying. Her mother soon recognizes that Dani needs help and sends her to a therapist. Of course, Dani isn't co-operative and is her usual sarcastic self to the therapist. But it is when she commits an act that almost leads to her death, that Dani realizes that she must face her greatest fear, which is not of her sister dying but of living to see her suffer.

In Dani, Wylie has crafted a character who is disagreeable, but also tragic. Dani's constant sarcasm is irritating but it's also part of Dani's limited way of coping with her sister's illness. Readers will probably develop a healthy dislike for Dani, but by the end we begin to appreciate just how difficult her family's circumstances are. Part of her problem is the way her parents are also coping. Dani can't ever talk about "IT", her sister illness, because in her family this is a topic to be avoided at all costs.
"Even now, it's still hard for him to say it. I don't blame him. It's an icky word. Why couldn't whoever was in charge of naming things call cancer "sugar" and sugar "cancer"? People might not eat so much of the stuff then. and it's so much more pleasant to die of sugar."
Another part of Dani's inability to cope is that fact that despite being a twin, she cannot donate the one thing her sister needs most - bone marrow. This leaves her feeling devastated and frustrated, and determined to help her sister in the only way she knows.

All These Lives offers a unique treatment of young people and cancer, is well written, evenly paced, and a good first novel for Canadian author, Sarah Wylie. Readers might also like to contrast this novel with  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green which also deals with young people coping with a terminal illness.

Book Details:
All These Lives by Sarah Wylie
New York: Margaret Ferguson Books 2012
248 pp.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Prodigy by Marie (Xiwei) Lu

Prodigy, the second installment in the Legend series. If Legend was great, Prodigy is  amazing and just as thrilling as its predecessor.

It opens with Day and June Iparis on a train traveling to Las Vegas, now a military city, to meet up with the Patriot rebels. Shortly after arriving, the Primo Elector suddenly dies and his son, Anden Stavropolous takes his place. Day and June are in disguise, walking along the strip attempting to locate the rebels. His injured leg is in dire need of medical attention and as a result Day is barely able to stand and is slipping in and out of consciousness.

Fortunately, they are found by Kaede who takes them to Venezia, a high-rise military barracks. In an eighth floor officer's suite they are introduced to "Razor", who is a Patriot rebel leader. Razor is Commander Andrew DeSoto who is in charge of three of the capital's patrols. Razor has connections to the Colonies and is able to bring a great deal of money to the rebels, whose ultimate mission is to bring down the Republic and reunite it with the Colonies, reinstating the United States of America. Razor agrees to shelter Day and June, and to heal Day, provided they agree to help assassinate the new Elector. Day and June both agree to this, although June has some reservations, which she keeps to herself at this time.

The plan is for June to be captured by Republic soldiers and taken to Denver, CO to speak with the Elector. Once she meets him she will warn him of an imminent plan to assassinate him. This however, will be a diversion from the real assassination, which June will lure him to. Meanwhile, Day, Kaede, Tess and Razor will head to the warfront with the Colonies to organize the assassination. Despite her lack of love for the Republic, June pushes down her reservations about Razor's plan.
"What exactly are the differences between Anden and his father? What does Anden think the Republic should be -- and for that matter, what do I think it should be?
I mute the screen again and walk away. Don't dwell too deeply on who Anden is. I can't think about him as if he were a real person -- a person I have to kill."
Author Lu gradually unveils in more detail exactly what the rebels, specifically Razor, have planned for Day and June. Not only will June lure Elector Anden to his death, but Day is expected to be the assassin and the murder will be broadcast live in order to foment a revolution by the Republic's citizens.

As planned, June is captured by the Republic soldiers, although the entire capture is rigged by Razor who has Thomas' patrol capture her. Thomas ensures that June is not harmed and she is taken to Denver, CO to meet the Elector. Meanwhile, Day and Kaede manage to sneak aboard the RS Dynasty and are taken to the warfront where they connect with the Patriots at their underground headquarters.

But things quickly begin to unravel. When June meets Anden, she senses that he is not at all like his father. Anden isn't the cruel ruler his father was - he considers the war to be madness.  June is struck by the fact that he cares about his public image and that he seems to be telling her that things might not be as they appear. June discerns that Anden genuinely wants to win over the people and this is confirmed by Anden telling her that he wants to work with the Patriots to establish a new Republic. June learns that he is clashing with Congress over these policies. All this leads June to begin questioning why Razor and the Patriots want him dead when he is on the side of the people.

When Anden tells her that he will be freeing Day's brother, Eden, along with all the other children who are prisoners,  June knows that she cannot participate in the murder of the young Elector.  She sends a signal to Day not to follow through on Razor's plans. June realizes that she needs to find a way to warn the Elector without raising the suspicions of Razor and the Patriots who are watching her every move via security cameras. Can June save Anden and help him in his fight with Congress, while also helping Day get what he wants?

Day too is filled with self-doubts and is strongly conflicted over his mission. Day's doubts begin when he receives June's signal to "stop" . However when Tess tells him not to trust June because, at heart, she is still a Republic soldier, he is confused over where his loyalty should be.  All Day wants is to free his brother Eden, who is being used as a bioweapon, and to escape to the Colonies, which his father told him are cities of beauty and light. But after seeing a captive young boy being used as a bioweapon, Day's resolve to kill the Elector is further strengthened and he now decides to follow through on the rebel's plans. But even the best laid plans can go astray.

Lu creates incredible suspense by using two narrators to tell the story. The reader follows the story from two perspectives; that of June who is captive and dealing with Anden, and that of Day who is part of the Patriots assassination plot. Each advances the storyline by adding what they know, and struggling with what they don't know. This all leads the reader to question who has the truth, June or Day? Is Anden sincere or is he just playing June? And what about Razor, who seems to have set all this in motion without much suspicion on the part of the Republic?

Both June and Day fall back into the roles they had in Legend; June is the brilliant, highly esteemed soldier who is to be repatriated back into the Republic, while Day is the tough, streetwise rebel and charismatic symbol of the Patriot rebels with his signature white blond hair and daring deeds. But Day is very different from Anden. He doesn't care about the future of the Republic. He simply wants to free his brother Eden and flee to the Colonies. Anden however, wants to save the Republic and the Colonies and reunite America.

Author Marie Lu advances her reader's knowledge of the Legends world considerably in Prodigy.  Of great help is the map at the front of the book of the United States post-catastrophe. Most of the Eastern United States is now flooded. This flooding resulted years ago in mass migration to the western states, followed by anarchy and succession from the country. Through Anden the reader learns how the Trials came about and how the Republic came to be a military dictatorship. This leads us to understand better why the people are rebelling and why Anden might be so desperate to change things.

Our world view is developed when Day is shown a world map at the rebels camp. There he learns that China and Africa are now world superpowers; most of Europe's population has fled to Africa; Antarctica is a beautiful place; and that only Brazil, Chile, and Argentina remain in South America. This was all the result of severe climate change caused by changes in the sun. These changes led to massive melting of Antarctica and flooding of the continents. We also get to experience the Colonies in Prodigy and learn that this part of North America is not the utopia Day and June think it is.

Besides filling Prodigy with well-paced, thrilling action, there are several complex romantic relationships; Day, Anden and June, June, Tess and Day, and Day, Tess and Baxter. There is also a fair measure of tragedy in this novel, not the least of which is the unexpected tragedy at the end.

Prodigy is a well paced, strong,  second novel, that will keep Legend series fans hungering for more -- and soon! This is the only dystopian series that can come close to competing with Suzanne Collin's Hunger Games. The writing is polished, the plot secure,  the characters engaging and realistic and the backstory developed.

Book Details:
Prodigy by Marie Lu
Toronto: G.P. Putnam's Sons    2013
374 pp.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran

 " 'What does want have to do with it? He must do what he is told. We all must do as we are told,' Masi said, her eyes close to mine as she placed a bindi on my forehead."
This poignant, heartbreaking novel, tells the story of a young woman caught between personal desire and cultural expectations.

Meena (Meninder) lives with her mother and older sister Tej (Tejinder) in North Delta, a suburb just outside of Vancouver. She is almost eighteen when the novel begins, and in Grade 12 in high school. Meena is the youngest in a Punjabi family comprised of six daughters. Her sisters are Serena, the oldest who is married and has produced the desired male first born, Harjinder who has run away from home after being attacked by a group of boys, Parm who lives in England with her husband, Parveen who married and moved to Edmonton, and Tej who is not yet married. Meena's father died in a workplace accident, when she was very young so she doesn't remember him. However, every Sunday, her mother hosts relatives and friends from the Punjabi community, who come to mourn the loss of her husband, sixteen years previously.

Meena meets Liam at school one day. She feels comfortable talking to him, and he is kind to her. She likes to listen to him talk, describing him as being "symphonic".
"You could be an opera," I told him. 
"No, you've got it all wrong. An opera needs tragedy. And that's your department. You're tragic through and through." 
Meena begins rebelling not only in school but also against the restrictions imposed by her culture and family. She spends more and more time with Liam, talking about life despite the fact that her mother has warned her to stay away from that "white boy" so as not to ruin her chances to make a good Punjabi marriage. Eventually the friendship between Liam and Meena develops into a romantic relationship. But, when Liam asks her to leave with him, Meena cannot make a decision, and one day she finds her only friend has left.

Time passes and in part two, Two for Sorrow,  Meena is now a 24 year old woman working for a PR firm. She is still being pressured to marry, and marry someone from her own culture.  Meena gives in and agrees to meet a wealthy Indian-Canadian man, Sundeep (Sunny) Gill. Sunny works as a corporate lawyer and with his entitled attitude is not a good match for Meena.  Even though neither Sunny nor Meena wish to be married to one another, they go through with the marriage to please their families. Three years pass in an kind of banal existence for both of them, devoid of children and in which Meena focuses on her career. When Sunny and his parents take a six week trip to India, in a twist of fate, Meena unexpectedly runs into Liam at an art showing. Her choices during Sunny's absence will have terrible consequences for everyone involved.

Everything was Good-bye is an excellent novel that explores the themes of identity and self-discovery. Meena struggles to develop her own identity and choose her own path in life but is largely unable to because of the expectations placed upon her by her Punjabi culture and the consequences if she steps outside her culture. These expectations have been there since she was a young girl and dictated how she dressed and behaved. Both the expectations and the consequences of not conforming become more imposing as she approaches adulthood.  She can't date a white boy because this will ruin her reputation for making a good marriage to some well off Punjabi boy. She can't take the writer's course in Toronto, because as her older sister Serena tells her, she has a duty to do what her mother wants.

Characterization in Everything was Good-bye is well done. Meena struggles to balance what she wants in life (to be a writer and be with Liam) with cultural expectations of her family (to marry well in the Punjabi community and to be a good wife and mother). However, the pressure to conform is relentless. We want Meena to have the courage to be true to herself, but her repeated inability to do so, thwart her life and her happiness. Eventually this balancing act becomes to much and the reappearance of her beloved Liam results in her first forward action in 5 years .The repercussions of going against her culture are shockingly deadly, in a way she couldn't have predicted. All this makes her a very sympathetic character.

The reader experiences Liam as an intelligent, kind man who loves Meena and who tries to accept her as she is. Unlike Meena, Liam has the freedom to follow his own path. But Meena's indecision leaves him frustrated and feeling confused.

Sunny is a completely unlikeable character mainly because he is a poor fit for Meena and also because he is abusive. Wealthy, well educated,  his sense of entitlement is overbearing. He is like Meena though because he doesn't like the restrictions his culture has placed on him either. He doesn't have the courage to go against Punjabi traditions. Instead he exists within them, but because he is a man, he has more freedom. It's evident by the way Sunny behaves, that he doesn't love her.

Overall the story was quite dramatic, almost like a Hindi movie, and holds the reader's interest to the very end. The ending is absolutely shocking and borders on unsatisfying because as a reader I didn't get what I wanted - a happy ending. Basran gives us plenty of foreshadowing of the unhappy conclusion to the novel.

Everything was Good-bye is a thoughtful, engaging novel on identity and culture that will resonate for many, regardless of their ethnic background. All cultures have expectations for young people and many of us experience the conflict, loss and confusion that this entails.

Book Details:
Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran
Toronto: Penguin Canada 2010
254 pp.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Duchessina by Carolyn Meyer

This wonderfully written historical novel tells the story of Catherine de' Medici, the last surviving member of the Medici family directly descended from Lorenzo Il Magnifico Medici, who was Catherine's great-grandfather.  The opening chapter provides young readers with the background information about Catherine's life before the age of four, which is when Meyer picks up the story. Catherine's parents died just weeks after her birth and she was brought to Rome under the orders of Pope Leo who was her uncle. Pope Leo made her Duchess of Urbino, resulting in her nickname, "la duchessina".

Readers get a brief history of the Medici's but it helps to understand more about this famous family. Lorenzo Medici brought fame, prestige and power to the republic of Florence through his immense patronage of the arts. However, it was his grandfather, Cosimo who began this patronage, spending his vast fortune on both the arts and the government in Florence. Lorenzo continued the patronage.  Some of the famous artists who were supported by the Medici included , Piero, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michaelangelo Buonarotti.

The Medici's had long been involved in banking but by the 15th century (1400's) the Medici bank had became the largest bank in Europe. It is also likely the Medici's were the wealthiest family in Europe during this time and with this wealth came great political power. They were the de facto rulers of Florence often exerting power through the city's politicians and through arranged marriages with other important families. But the Medici banking business soon became entangled in the running of the government. Bank failures and other mismangement resulted in the Medici decline in power in the later 1400's. The Medici family, once beloved by the people of Florence, were despised and hated now by the people who wanted a ruler other than a Medici. It is this time period that Catherin di Medici was born into.

At the beginning of the novel, Catherine is living at Palazzo Medici under the guardianship of Cardinal Guilio. Her Aunt Clarissa visits her frequently, helping her to understand her family background and becoming somewhat of a mother figure to Catherine. At the age of four she comes to know her older cousins, Ippolito and Alessandro. Both boys were much older than Catherine but had very different natures. Ippolito was handsome and kindly, while Alessandro was a brute and loved to taunt Catherine. When Catherine was almost eight years old, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles who was in conflict with Pope Clement, ordered troops to sack Rome as a punishment for the pope's support of the French king, Francois I. Fearing that Florence would be next, and as the hatred towards the Medici grows, Clarissa tries to escape with Catherine to the Medici villa in the country. However, they are discovered and forced to return to Florence where Catherine is placed in a convent for her own protection.

Meyer traces Catherine's difficult childhood as she endured the seige of Florence and was during this time, sent to different convents in Florence, sometimes as a virtual prisoner. When the seige of Florence ended, Catherine by the order of Pope Clement is sent to Rome so that she can be prepared for the day when she will be married off to royalty. Her wishes in whom she marries are of no importance, as she is a political pawn in a world dominated by wealthy and powerful men, including Pope Clement. When she is thirteen years old, Catherine learns she is to be married off to Henri II, King Francois's second eldest son. Catherine, hopes for the same kind of love in her marriage, that her parents had for one another. What will her future hold, living in a strange country, far away from her beloved Florence?

Carolyn Meyer has crafted another rich historical novel that captures the essence of life during the Italian Renaissance, along with all the political skirmishes of the period. She also effectively portrays the role of wealthy women in society during this time and her focus in this novel is on a historical figure many readers might not be familiar with. There is some historical background provided throughout the novel, just enough to provide readers with an understanding of the events Catherine found herself caught up in. Catherine de Medici is a strong female figure, who suffered through the loss of all those close to her, who had little choice in the path her life was to take but who was determined to make the best of every situation. Meyer succeeds in creating a great deal of empathy for the young Catherine as she struggles to cope with situations beyond her control throughout her youth and a disappointing marriage. There is even a tragic loss of love in the novel that adds a sense of misfortune to Catherine's life. The author is able to capture Catherine's human qualities of intelligence, independence and strength of character, and make them very real to her readers.

Catherine eventually became Queen of France, and after the death of Henri II in 1559, she was deeply involved in the political life of France and Europe. She was the mother of ten children, three of whom became monarchs.

Duchessina: A Novel of Catherine de Medici is an excellent fifth book in Carolyn Meyer's acclaimed Young Royals series. There is a Medici family tree at the front of the novel, that is helpful to understanding the relationship between various people in the Medici family and a good Historical Notes at the conclusion of the novel. I just hope Carolyn Meyer continues her trend of  writing impressive historical fiction for young readers!

Book Details:
Duchessina: A Novel of Catherine de' Medici by Carolyn Meyer
Toronto: Harcourt Books       2007