Monday, April 29, 2013

Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson

This novel is the sequel to Hattie Big Sky which was written in 2006. It's hard to write a sequel so many years after the first successful book but Larson does a reasonably good job. The conclusion to the Hattie story will garner Hattie, a new generation of fans.

Hattie Ever After picks up Hattie Inez Brooks' story after she has left her Uncle Chester's homestead. It is now June 1919 and Hattie has been working at Mrs. Brown's boardinghouse as a maid. She has just posted the final cheque payment to Mr. Nefzeger for her uncle's IOU. Hattie doesn't know what's next but she does know that she wants to be a reporter. And then there's the matter of her dear friend, Charlie who's returned safely from the trenches of World War I, and who wants to settle down and marry Hattie. It's not that Hattie doesn't love Charlie, but Hattie's not sure her place in the world is with Charlie.

Hattie's life takes a dramatic turn, when a vaudeville troupe, the Varietals, arrives at the boarding house, and the wardrobe mistress runs off with the magician! Impulsively, Hattie decides to accept an offer to travel to San Francisco with the Varietals, replacing the missing troupe member. At the same time that Hattie makes this decision, Charlie arrives in Great Falls with the news that he has been hired by The Boeing Airplane Company in Seattle, and with the intent of securing her hand in marriage. But Hattie tells him she cannot go with him, that homesteading has changed her and that there's more she needs to do before marrying. Charlie is understandably deeply hurt. Hattie has never told Charlie that she wasn't ready to marry and has led him into thinking that she was like minded. They part ways with Hattie promising to write and Charlie saying he may not be able to return the favour.

Hattie also learns that her Uncle Chester had a girlfriend, Ruby Danvers, who lives in San Francisco. She decides that she will contact Ruby when she gets to San Francisco and let her know about Chester's death.

Maude Kirk who is a member of the Varietals helps Hattie adjust to life with the troupe. Maude introduces Hattie to her brother, Ned who is a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle. It is apparent that Ned is very interested in Hattie but she either doesn't recognize his attentions for what they are or she ignores them.

Hattie has already applied for a job at the Chronicle, as a night time cleaner but she hopes to work her way into a reporter job. Ned gives her a tour of the building and believes she has applied for a job in the steno pool. As with Charlie, once again Hattie is not upfront with Ned, telling him only that she is working at the Chronicle leaving him to assume that she is part of the steno pool.

Ned tells Hattie that if she wants to become a reporter she has to write something that will grab people's interest and have a connection to the San Francisco area. So Hattie sets out to try to achieve her dream, while at the same time searching through the newspaper's back issues to learn more about her Uncle Chester. But what she finds shocks her and changes her view of who he was. When Charlie shows up in San Francisco unexpectedly, Hattie must deal with the conflict her attraction to him, her desire to be a reporter, and her relationship with Ned creates.

If Hattie Brooks was a likeable, strong willed, courageous young woman seeking her own identity in the first book, in this second book I found her at times to be impulsive and thoughtless. She is driven to become a reporter at all costs and leaves three jobs, one after another, to attain her goal (although her employers don't seem to mind much). Her treatment of Charlie and leading on of Ned are not impressive and I felt she was lucky in the end that Charlie was still interested. When she should have said something to these men, both of whom made their intentions known to her, she chose to ignore them and say nothing. It was like Hattie didn't want to lose Charlie but didn't want to lose the prospect of becoming a reporter either. She was trying to figure how to have both but yet was hurting Charlie in the process. Fortunately for Hattie, Charlie was willing to give her the time and space to figure things out on her own. It's possible we can excuse Hattie's behaviour because she was young, and as an orphan, had no mother to guide her on how to deal with men. But for me, this was a flaw in Hattie's character and one which I didn't particularly like. In the end, Hattie realizes that a job does not make a home and that she must take a risk in giving her heart to one person.

Larson definitely captured the flavour of early 20th century San Francisco very well. The inclusion of postcards from the period help make the story very realistic and informative. There are numerous references to the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and in fact, Hattie herself experiences a small quake. It's evident that Larson has done considerable research (which she indicates at the back of the book). Imagine renting a room in a hotel for $2.50! or watching a vaudeville show. The author portrays just how fast society is beginning to change in the early 20th century with Hattie realizing that her skirts are too long, airplanes and cars are the newest fads, and women who were working during the war want to keep their jobs!

I liked the overall message at the end of the book, particularly that espoused by Hattie's fellow reporter Majorie D'Lacorte who tells her that a career isn't everything in life and that finding and keeping a good friend is very important. Majorie intimates to Hattie that her life isn't all glamour. She also tells Hattie to  rethink her idea that she can have either a career or marriage. Hattie's quest this past year has been to find a home and she has found the one person who can help her attain what she wants most in life.

Readers will enjoy the further adventures of Hattie with its satisfying and predictable ending.

Book Details:
Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson
New York: Delacourte Press     2013
230 pp.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Unremembered by Jessica Brody

When Freedom Airlines Flight 121 crashes into the ocean during a flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, there is only one survivor. That survivor is a stunningly beautiful sixteen year old girl who cannot remember her name or any other details of her life. Strangely, she is not listed on the passenger manifest for the flight. Given the name Violet by a nurse because of her purple eyes, she does not remember anything from before the flight. Violet was discovered with a locket which has the Sanskrit symbol, the eternal know on one side and is inscribed with S + Z = 1609 on the back. But Violet has no idea what the inscription means nor who gave her the locket. Doctors believe that Violet is suffering from amnesia and so they post her picture on the news and on the internet in an attempt to try to learn her identity and find her parents.

Even more unsettling to Violet, is the appearance at the hospital of a handsome, brown-haired boy with maple eyes and a crooked smile who causes an intense response in her. He tells Violet that she shouldn't be here and that he has come to take her back. However nothing happens and the boy disappears leaving Violet believing that he was an impostor.

When no one comes to claim Violet, she is placed with a foster family, Heather and Scott Carlson, who have a thirteen year old son, Cody. They take Violet to their home in Wells Creek about three hours outside of Los Angeles. Gradually Violet uncovers small clues to her past. The locket is one clue, but also she finds a small piece of paper with "Trust him" written on it. Violet also discovers she's very good at numbers, after quickly calculating the cost of a grocery bill.

The boy Violet saw in the hospital approaches her again in the supermarket parking lot, where he tells Violet that her real name is Sera, short for Seraphina. He also tells her that they fled after discovering something about her and he entreats her to try to remember and not to trust anyone. He tells her that she knows she was not on the plane that crashed. But Sera still doesn't believe him so she sets out to prove that she was on the plane.
She manages to convince Cody to take her to Los Angeles to see if she can stimulate a memory of her boarding a plane. The travel to LAX where they inadvertently meet the gate attendant, Brittany, who was working the day of Flight 131. She doesn't remember Sera because she's certain that she would have definitely remembered seeing a girl who was as beautiful as Sera.

Then on a shopping trip with Heather, the mysterious boy appears in the dressing room while Heather is paying for their purchases. The clues he reveals, such as his name, Lyzender (Zen), and who Sera really is and the circumstances of her life, leave her reeling. But when Zen quotes the beginning of a Shakespearean sonnet, Sera is able to remember the poem - her first memory. The fact that she can remember something connected to this boy leaves Sera conflicted, confused and in denial. Despite Zen pleading with her to meet him at a certain address, Sera refuses his offer and runs away. With the help of Cody, who has never had a beautiful girl speak to him, Sera begins to unravel a mystery that leads to more and more disturbing revelations.

Not wishing to bring harm to her foster parents and Cody, Sera leaves in the middle of the night. But she soon becomes involved in a cat and mouse game with those tracking her every movement in an effort to capture her. When Sera is captured by Rio, a man who has been following her, she is freed by Zen who takes her to hide in a school that is closed for the summer holidays. There Zen helps Sera regain her memories and to understand what she is. Cody manages to catch up with Sera and Zen and helps by securing a vehicle for them to escape. However, when Sera is seen and recognized by teens at a gas station and her picture is tweeted on the internet, her location is discovered by someone who will stop at nothing to find her and bring her back to the life she had before.

Unremembered is a unique story that involves both time travel and genetic engineering that doesn't quite live up to expectations. Brody succeeds in keeping her readers interested with the mystery surrounding "Violet", the use of action sequences and plenty of plot twists. But this is a novel that doesn't have much in terms of character development. Instead, the focus is on the protagonist who has a major problem (she doesn't remember who she is and she's being hunted ) that needs to be resolved quickly. It therefore, rushes from one scene to the next, giving only cursory effort to the development of characters Sera, Cody, Zen, Rio, and the nasty antagonist, Alixter, who appears at the end of the novel. The focus is on the innocent individual fighting against an evil scientist and his minions who are attempting to reclaim his trillion dollar creation.

Violet/Sera is an interesting character who at first is completely and believably undone by her current circumstances. She can't remember how to open a door or use a computer yet she can solve a major mathematical problem and speak various languages. She has a strange tattoo on her wrist and incredible physical attributes. She's rebellious and strong-willed, capable of feeling deep love and taking risks.

Her true love, Lyzender, is not well developed, except that he is handsome and very loyal to Sera. He's as determined to save her as she is to save him. In contrast, Cody is probably the best developed character in the novel; he's faithful, hopelessly attracted to Sera, intelligent and resourceful. The one characteristic I felt was out of place about Cody in this novel, was his age. I felt that it would have been more appropriate if he was fifteen or sixteen years old.

Those readers who enjoyed Mary Pearson's The Adoration of Jenna Fox will be interested in this novel, but will find Pearson's novel more appealing.

Unremembered poses the question of what makes us human? How much of our physical bodies make us human? Is there something more than just our bodies that make us human? It's not an in-depth exploration - only a superficial mention that could have been explored more in the novel.

The next book in the series is UnForgotten which is expected to be released March, 2014. I am hopeful that Brody will use this second novel to detail more about the characters and give us further facts about the future world to which Sera and Zen belong.

Book Details:
Unremembered by Jessica Brody
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux 2013
304 pp.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Fragments by Dan Wells

Dan Wells second installment in the Partials series is long but well worth the effort. Wells picks up the story of Kira and Samm and the remnants of humanity at East Meadow, Long Island. Kira has left East Meadows on her own and returned to Manhattan in an attempt to find some answers about who she is and why she was created. Part of what prompted Kira to undertake her journey was a picture she found of herself, with her father, Armin Dhurvasula, and Nandita Merchant, the woman who raised her. The picture is disturbing because it was taken before The Break in front of ParaGen in Manhattan. Someone has written "Find the Trust" on the picture.

Kira's mission is to find out what ParaGen was doing with the Partials, with the RM virus and what their plans for her were. She is a Partial, but obviously a different model from the soldier Partials who have destroyed humanity. She also wants to locate The Trust - the Partial leaders.Without the Partials who have the antidote to the RM virus, the humans will die out in a generation. Without the humans who hold the key to the deactivation of the expiration date, the Partials will die out in three years. Both groups need one another and Kira hopes she can find the answers to save both humans and Partials.

Kira treks back into Manhattan and manages to locate the ParaGen building. During her search of their offices, Kira discovers that some of the computers have been removed, specifically those from the office of someone named Afa Demoux, who was in charge of the IT department. Her reconnaissance of nearby electronics stores indicates that someone has been removing generators and ham radio sets. Kira tracks this person and discovers that it is Afa. She befriends Afa and he takes her to his booby trapped building where he now lives. Afa appears to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown, alternating between childlike incoherency and mad genius. Kira learns that Afa has managed to salvage information on how the Partials came to be as well as the history before the Break and the war with the Partials.

Meanwhile in East Meadow, after the trial of the Senators for the death of Shaylon, the humans are undecided about how to obtain more cure for the RM virus. Kira's boyfriend, Marcus Valencio, along with other medics have been attempting, unsuccessfully, to synthesize the RM cure - the Partial pheromone. So the Senate and the Grid want to capture more Partials to study and to learn how to make the cure. However, the point becomes moot because Dr. Morgan has sent the Partials she controls via the link, to invade Long Island. She is looking for Kira whom she wants to study. She believes that Kira's body contains clues to solving the problem of the expiration date of the Partials.

During this time, Samm and Heron track Kira to Manhattan and find her hiding with Afa. Kira explains to both what she has learned so far from Afa's files. A hostile China invaded Japan. The NADI attempted to retake Japan in the First Nihon Invasion but were unsuccessful. The government then requested that ParaGen create 250,000 soldiers - the Partials. These soldiers were referred to as "weapons" and never really considered humans. The Partials after winning the war, in the Second Nihon Invasion, wanted equality and to live normal lives. But they were denied this and so began the war.

When the government asked ParaGen to create the "biosynthetic" soldiers, Kara's father Armin Dhurvasula knew that he could not stop their creation. He saw the development of Partials as making humans obselete. So he and a group of other scientists formed the Trust to try to tweak the outcome. The Trust was comprised of Graeme Chamberlain, Kioni Trimble, Jerry Ryssdal, McKenna Morgan, Nandita Merchant, and Armin Dhurvasula.

ParaGen initially did genetic modifications on humans, eliminating diseases or certain undesirable traits. The Trust scientists gave themselves Partial genetic modifications as well as the link and then used it to control the Partials. Because the Trust trusted no one, it appears that they kept secrets from one another and even directly worked against one another. It is the beginning of a world that will be fragmented beyond repair. Kira was a part of that plan and was created at ParaGen. She is a special model of a Partial - one that doesn't have an expiration date and isn't on the link, but also a human that is immune to the RM virus.

Kira learns from Afa that the majority of ParaGen's information was stored on a server in Denver. Initially Kira wants to travel to Denver but Afa suggests that they go to Chicago first since much data was stored on servers there. Heron believes this is a waste of time and tries unsuccessfully to convince both Samm and Kira that they should return to East Meadow. Samm believes Kira and trusts in her motives.

Taking Afa with them, Kira, Samm and Heron embark on a journey across the remnants of the continental United States in search of answers that will hopefully lead them to discover how to develop the RM cure, how to deactivate the expiration date for the Partials and to understand the reason for Kira's creation. Will Kira find the answers to her questions? Will the humans in East Meadows be able to survive long enough for that cure to matter?

Readers may be put off by the whopping 564 pages and the sometimes slow pacing of the novel. There's no doubt that some parts could have been better edited (for example, was it really necessary to have five pages describing how the three manage to free a barge to use in crossing the Mississippi?). Wells has a lot of story to tell in this book and he does so by alternating between Marcus and the humans in East Meadow and Kira and her group as they travel westward. This of course builds suspense throughout the book, as each group faces challenges in their own part of the world.

In Fragments, Wells does a fine job of developing the relationship between Kira and Samm. Although both are Partials, Kira has more human characteristics and is able to display emotion. However, we learn that Samm like other Partial soldiers has been built to care - they have empathy for others. As the two struggle to understand each other, they develop empathy for what it means to be Partial and human, mirroring the struggle and the understanding that must come about by Partials and humans,  if both races are to survive.

Once again I found it hard to piece together the backstory of the Partials and the development of the RM virus. The story is told in bits and pieces and is complex. Below I've summarized what is the remaining story told in Fragments so that when the next book arrives sometime in 2014, I won't have to reread all 564 pages!

I loved the cover and felt it effectively portrayed the post-apocalyptic world of Samm and Kira. Can't wait for the next installment of the Partials series!

Book Details
Fragments by Dan Wells
New York: Balzer & Bray An Imprint of HarperCollins    2013
564 pp.


 When Kira and her group travel to Chicago they find the city largely flooded. Kira is impressed by the technology of the old world that was able to keep the lake out of the city and reverse the flow of a river. In Chicago they manage to power up the server for a short period of time and locate a hand held device to load information. From this they learn that the Failsafe - the safety feature built to be enabled should the Partials go rogue, was the RM virus. The virus was meant to kill the Partials but instead killed the humans. Ironically the only antidote is the pheromone produced by the Partials.

After fighting off an attack by gilled Partials who can swim underwater, Samm, Heron, Kira and Afa set out for Denver. Afa has been badly wounded in the attack and is drugged. Their journey to Denver sees them struggle to cross the poisonous Mississippi and travel through the vast wastelands of the Midwest where acid raid falls. Afa dies before they reach Denver.

On the outskirts of Denver, the group sights the black spire of the ParaGen tower. Heron decides to go on ahead of Kira and Samm and soon disappears. Meanwhile Kira and Samm discover an entire community of  two thousand healthy humans including many children living in the shadow of the ParaGen tower. They are taken to meet Dr. Vale but Kira feels that he is hiding something from them. When her and Samm sneak into the ParaGen building, Samm is incapacitated and Kira makes a shocking discovery. Vale has ten Partials captive and comatose and is using them to manufacture a cure for the human babies that are being born. When Kira questions the ethics of doing this Vale asks her who she would save, the Partials or the humans? He has chosen the humans.

From Vale we learn more about what happened to cause the demise of the human population on Earth and the rise of the Partials who are also dying. Vale it turns out was an unknown member of the Trust.

Dr. Vale explains to Kira that the Trust realized the government and ParaGen would build the army of soldiers and that these engineered soldiers would never be considered what they really were - another form of human life. The government wanted an expiration date but to a group of the scientists, this was wrong. It was wrong to create a whole new species of beings and then engineer them to die.So the Trust tried to find a way to make both humans and Partials need each other.

The Trust had a plan "of mutual annihilation - to force both species to work together or die apart".  They built two FailSafes - one for the Partials which was the RM virus that kills humans. And a second Failsafe that actually does kill Partials. This one was put into new models without the Trust's knowledge. They thought these models were never made but they were and Kira is one of them along with her sister Ariel and Isolde Kessler. This Failsafe has not yet been triggered. These Partials grow, learn and are not sterile. It was the one made to fool ParaGen but the ParaGen board embedded it into the new prototypes without the Trust's knowledge.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Dark by Lemony Snicket

Little Laszlo is terribly afraid of the dark. But the dark is all around him, outside his window and house at night. The dark is even in his house. It lives in his basement!!
One very dark night, Laszlo is forced to confront his fear of the dark and meet it head on. Summoning his courage he goes out to meet the dark in his basement. Instead he discovers that the dark isn't so frightening after all. The dark does its thing and Laszlo does his.

Everyone can relate to little Laszlo's fear. My imagination used to run wild when I was a child. In the early morning hours, I was certain snakes slithered across my bedroom floor and it took enormous courage to jump out of bed and race into my parent's bedroom down the hall!

Lemony Snicket is the pen name of author Daniel Handler who wrote A Series of Unfortunate Events. As most younger readers know, Snicket is both author and narrator in the series.

The Dark is filled with Jon Klassen's gouache illustrations bearing his typically expressive, appealing touch. The illustrator of a picture book is so important because their drawings must portray a part of the story visually. Klassen always succeeds remarkably in this way.

As usual there's a delightful trailer that captures the tone of the picture book:

Book Details:
The Dark by Lemony Snicket
Toronto: HarperCollins 2013

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Hanging By A Thread by Sophie Littlefield

Sixteen year old Clare Knight and her mother have recently returned to their old home in Winston, California. Clare left Winston when she was ten years old, after the break up of her parent's marriage and moved to San Francisco with her mom. But when Clare's father encountered financial problems, Clare's mother was able to take possession of the family home once again. Their old home was once the family dress shop, several generations ago. It was where Clare's great-great-grandmother, Alma, was murdered along with a young woman for whom she was sewing a wedding dress. That night Alma died, but her unborn child, Josie, was saved and since that day, people in Winston claim that the house is haunted.

But something unusual also happened that night. The women in Clare's family were given a special gift that has passed from Josie to Clare's eccentric Nana and now to her. Clare's gift is that she experiences visions of a person's past life when touching their clothing.

When the novel opens, the town of Winston is making preparations for the July 4 celebrations in an attempt to move on from the tragedies experienced the previous two years; the murder of a 10 year old boy, Dillon Grange and last year the unsolved disappearance of Amanda Stavros.

When Clare moved back to Winston, she reconnected with her best friend from middle school, Rachel. Clare, with the help of Rachel, has started a vintage clothing business. Clare is the brains and the force behind the business. She spends her time scouring vintage shops, garage sales and even garbage bins for discarded clothing that she remakes into wearable fashions.

One evening after returning home from a party, Clare opens a box of donated clothing to see what she can use for her business. When she touches a torn, Ripley Couture jean jacket she experiences a powerful vision involving a violent incident.At first Clare believes this is just another vision, but when she goes to a party that night, she has a second vision when she touches a friend of missing girl, Amanda. In this vision Clare sees Amanda wearing the Ripley Couture jacket. Clare comes to the realization that the jacket she has hidden in a box in her closet at home holds clues to Amanda's disappearance.

While Clare struggles to come to terms with the visions she has experienced, she also begins to realize that other people in Winston are also keeping secrets. She discovers that Rachel has lied to her and not been upfront about her life in Winston. Clare meets Jack, a handsome boy with a troubled past, whom she is attracted to. But one touch leads her to realize that he too has secrets. Jack dated Amanda just before her death and was considered a prime suspect by the Winston police.

When Clare seeks advice from her Nana, who has the same "gift" of seeing other people's past, she is told to leave things alone. Clare has been told by her Nana that if she ignores the visions and doesn't act on them, they will go away. But can Clare risk that, when she might possibly learn who is responsible for Amanda's disappearance and the death of Dillon?

Overall this was a novel with an interesting premise but a rather predicable and somewhat disappointing ending. I was puzzled as to how the inhabitants of Winston could possibly link together two seemingly unrelated events - the death of Dillon with the disappearance of Amanda, other than the fact that they occurred, a year apart, on the same holiday. The author however, does tie the two events together in a believable manner. Readers will easily guess where the storyline is going, the climax of the novel is definitely exciting and revealing, but the resolution is weak and not at all believable.

There are plenty of descriptions of vintage clothing and the art of sewing, which young readers who sew and fans of vintage will certainly appreciate, but which for most might read as too much detail. What will keep readers going is Clare's hunt for more clues as she tries to piece together what has happened in Winston over the previous two years. As she learns more about the people of Winston, the number of potential suspects begins to grow.

I enjoyed the well developed characters in this novel. Clare is a strong character who, unlike her Nana, chooses to use her "gift". She decides to forge her own path, not only with the use of her special ability but also in her choice of a career. Clare also must decide if she will run with Rachel's crowd who party and engage in casual sex or be true to herself.

Jack is also a likable character, having learned some hard lessons after the death of his father. Despite his cynicism and sometimes open hostility, he gradually develops into a reliable confidant for Clare. Their relationship is typically strange, with Clare falling for the bad boy, despite experiencing visions that resonate with anger and violence. One would think that would be more than enough to make her at least hesitate. In the end, with no one to turn to, Clare decides to trust Jack with her secret, which unbelievably, he takes in stride.

The beautiful cover will draw readers to read this novel, but many might find the ending somewhat disappointing.

Book Details:
Hanging By A Thread by Sophie Littlefield
New York: Delacorte Press                   2013
270 pp.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Look by Sophia Bennett

Seventeen year old Ava and fifteen year old Ted (Edwina) Trout are sisters. One Saturday as Ava and Ted are busking on Carnaby Street in the heart of London's West End, Ted is approached by Simon, a modelling agency scout. Simon shocks Ted by telling her that she is "amazing" and she should consider modelling. Ted is stunned because Ava is the looker, and she is only tall and skinny.

Ava and Ted dismiss Simon as a scammer and think nothing more of it. Meanwhile, in the weeks following this incident, Ava is diagnosed with Stage 2B Hodgkins disease. When Ted, Ava, and their parents attend a consultants meeting at the hospital regarding Ava's treatment, Ted finds an article about the agency, Model City, that Simon worked for,  indicating that they are legitimate. Ted doesn't want to be a model and doesn't think she has "the look" but her sister Ava convinces her to at least check out the agency.

So one day after a trip to the hospital, Ava pushes Ted to go to Model City where she learns that their interest in her is legit. Model City is run by Cassandra Spoke. During her initial visit to Model City, Ted meets Cassandra's son, Nick, whom she dubs, "Nightmare Boy". After a photo shoot, Ted is signed on with the agency and is sent to go-sees where she attempts to get "optioned" for modelling work. During this time, Ted meets Nick several times, and her opinion of him changes drastically. Although he seems cynical and disinterested, Ted learns that he is a gifted photographer who has been jilted by one of his mother's beautiful models. Ted's first stint into the modelling business doesn't really work out and she decides to give it up and focus on the beginning of school and on her sister getting well.

During this time Ava begins her grueling regimen of six chemo treatments for lymphoma. As Ava's chemo treatment progresses, she begins to experience the expected side effects of nausea and fatigue. When she begins to lose her hair, Ted takes Ava to the salon that did her makeover for the modelling agency and they get their heads shaved. As Ava's treatment has not been entirely successful she is now scheduled for a round of radiation treatment.

Nick has inspired Ted to try her hand at photography and when she tells him that modelling didn't work out, he seems very supportive of her decision to get out of modelling. However, Ted's life takes an abrupt turnabout when the eccentric, hyper Tina di Gabbia "discovers" her on the street one day. Tina has the ability to make things happen for Ted whom she claims she will make into the next supermodel. After a brief photography session with Tina, Ted lands a shoot for a perfume ad that will jump start her career. Ted must travel to Manhattan for the shoot. But when she discovers what is expected of her, Ted comes to realize that things are not as they appear and she learns about what she truly values in life.

The Look is a thoughtful novel that asks the reader to consider some rather important questions about friendship and about what really matters in life. Although the world of modelling is explored, and there is some discussion of cancer, really The Look is about one girl's journey of self-discovery and about learning what really matters to her. Readers may find the pacing in the middle of the novel when Ted leaves modelling and nothing much is happening with Ava, to be a bit slow. However, their patience will be rewarded later on as the story lines converge.

At the beginning of the novel, Ted is rather insecure about who she is and how she looks. She's 5 feet 11 inches, which is tall for a girl and she is known as "Freaky Friday" by a boy she crushes on but has no chance of getting. For Ted, modelling becomes her chance to show her schoolmates that she is beautiful and accepted. But if she's seeking affirmation from the modelling world, Ted finds everything but that when she overhears a designer describing her as being "very nothing". Ted soon discovers that in the world of modelling where "the look" is everything, appearances can be very deceiving. Despite this, as she models, Ted begins to uncover a hidden strength she didn't know she had.

The juxtaposition of the world of cancer treatment with the world of high fashion in the end helps Ted discover what really matters in her life. Bennett effectively contrasts Ted's superficial world of gold tinted hair and spa-treated skin and hands, with Ava's world where hair falls out in clumps and hands and arms are bruised from IV lines. This contrast is very well demonstrated by the character, Nick Spoke, who falls for a incredibly beautiful model, Scheherazade, who treats Nick badly. Outward beauty is not always a sign of inner goodness. Bennett is careful not to demonize all the characters in the modelling world. Both Frankie and Cassandra help Ted and demonstrate that they truly care about her.

The author does a great job of developing the relationship between the two sisters, Ted and Ava, who aren't very close at the beginning of the novel. Ava is very beautiful and has a boyfriend whom she adores. She's always been the older sister giving advice to Ted. But her cancer diagnoses causes her to doubt that her boyfriend Jesse, will remain in the relationship. Now the tables are turned as Ava seeks comfort and support more and more from Ted. Ava reaches out to Ted more as the novel progresses, first sharing her clothing and make-up, and eventually her innermost feelings too. Bennett's novel is filled with some truly touching moments, such as when Ava and Ted get their heads shaved. So that the novel doesn't become too bogged down with its heavy subjects, Bennett writes with a touch of humour and manages to weave two lovely romantic threads into the storyline that end happily.

The characters in The Look are all very different and quite interesting, with the author doing an excellent job of developing each through the use of dialogue. From the brooding, cynical Nick Spoke, to the manipulative Tina di Gaggia, to Ted and Ava's mechanically inept, caring and patient father, Stephen Trout, all the characters are well drawn.

Bennett touches on a few other issues in the novel including, the notion that beauty is defined by tall thin girls and that a growing teen girl needs to watch every bite she eats for fear of becoming obese. Nothing is ever handled in a heavy manner, just presented in a way that makes the reader stop and think.

Readers wanting something fresh and different from the dystopian trilogies dominating YA fiction these days, will enjoy The Look.

Book Details:
The Look by Sophia Bennett
New York: Chicken House        2013
327 pp.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Looking For Me by Betsy R. Rosenthal

Looking For Me is a delightful novel in verse written for young readers by picture book author, Betsy R. Rosenthal. Rosenthal brings to life the story of her mother, Edith Paul, using both free and rhyming verse, as she tries to understand her place in the world.

The novel opens in 1936, when Edith is eleven years old, the fourth child in a Jewish family with twelve children who live in Baltimore. There are six boys and six girls in Edith's family. Edith's six grade teacher, Miss Connelly asks her students to write a poem about their families. Edith writes her poem, which is quite long due to the large number of family members including everyone but herself. When Miss Connelly questions Edith as to why she left herself out of the poem, Edith states, "Because,... I don't know who I am in my big family." Miss Connelly asks Edith to go home and think about who she is. Edith spends the next year attempting to answer that very important question.

We follow her on her journey through the year as Edith tries to understand the many things that happen to her and her family. She discovers that she's a "good little mother" to her younger siblings, but not a dancer. Just as her grandmother experienced discrimination when she lived in Russia, so too does Edith even in America.

Edith takes us through Rosh Hashanah, a school spelling bee, her 12th birthday, Christmas, and the death of a younger brother. With twelve children  in the family, there's bound to be plenty of drama and disaster. From peanut butter bombs to BB pellet holes in the walls, Edith's family life is anything but boring. There are good family times, and some very sad times too. And Edith, typical of most young adolescents, struggles to understand her parents. She thinks her father doesn't like children, and watches her mother grieve over the death of her brother.

At the end of the novel, with a little bit of encouragement from her teacher, Miss Connelly, Edith has decided who she is and what she wants for her life.


This lovely short novel was very touching. I could relate to the stories Edith told because my parents grew up during the same era and like Edith's family, both my mother and father's families also suffered the loss of a child. The poem, I Wonder What It Would Be Like, is about sleeping in a bed with two other children, something very common during the early part of the last century. The poem, Always One More, talks about how Edith's large family is like the wooden nesting dolls where there's always one more inside!

The back of the book has a short Author's Note about the author's mother, Edith Paul, as well as some family pictures. This would make a great book for a Mother-Daughter book club.

Book Details:
Looking For Me ... in this great big family.  by Betsy R. Rosenthal
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company      2012
172 pp.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Slated by Teri Terry

Terri Terry's debut novel, Slated, is set in 2054, in London which is ruled by the Central Coalition. The Coalition government came into power after  a devastating economic collapse in the 2020's and demonstrations and terrorist acts committed by students. The Coalition is the product of  the merging of two sides; the Law and Order movement which became the Lorders and the Freedom UK which wanted to rehabilitate young criminals. When the ability to erase memories was discovered, the two groups merged, resulting in a country ruled by the Lorders.

Sixteen year old Kyla has been "Slated" - that is, her memory wiped clean. Like every Slated person, Kyla is forced to wear a Levo device on her wrist. The Levo interacts with a chip implanted in the Slated teen's brain, detecting their mood. When mood levels are either extremely low or high, the wearer receives a zap that causes them to black out or have seizures. Any attempts to remove the Levo result in death. Slated teens can only have the Levo removed when they turn twenty-one.

After being Slated, teens are kept in hospital for six months where they are re-educated before being released to live with a brand new family. Kyla's new mom is Sandra Armstrong-Davis, whose father William Adam M. Armstrong eliminated the gangs threatening British society in the 2020's. Sandra's parents were killed in an act of terrorism. Kyla's new dad, David Davis, seems very kindly at first but Kyla soon grows suspicious of him. Her new older sister is nineteen year old Amy, who has a boyfriend, Jazz.

Kyla attends Lord William's School with her sister Amy who is behind a grade after being Slated. Kyla is tested and is put at grade level, something that is also very unusual. During this time Kyla is being watched over by several people called "Watchers" including Mrs. Ali who follows Kyla around at school.

Kyla has no idea why she was Slated. Although she's been told that all her memories and her personality have been wiped clean, Kyla knows that she is different. She's has been experiencing nightmares, which kept her hospitalized an extra three months, post-Slating. These nightmares seem to contain information from her life prior to Slating, although Kyla can't be certain. Kyla also discovers that she can draw using her left hand, and that she remembers how to drive. She also notices that when she gets angry, her Levo does not seem to work. Kyla wants to know why she was Slated and she wants to know who her family was before. Did they not want her? Do they know what has happened to her. The story that Slated tells is of Kyla's journey of self-discovery and truth.

Shortly after arriving home, Kyla meets Ben Nix at a group therapy meeting for Slateds. Ben also attends the same high school with Kyla, where he is in some of her classes. Ben encourages her to come running with him and Kyla discovers that running counters the affect of the Levo, allowing both of them to be more like their real selves. Kyla finds herself attracted to tall, handsome Ben but thinks that maybe another Slated girl, Tori is his girlfriend. Kyla like all Slateds has been told to stay away from boys until she is twenty-one.

When Tori goes missing, Ben learns, to Kyla's horror, that she was "returned" like an old pair of shoes. Soon Ben and Kyla discover that not only are Slated teens disappearing, but also Naturals too. Then Kyla witnesses Phoebe, a Natural who has been bullying Kyla,  being removed from school by the Lorders. Shortly after this, her beloved art teacher, Mr. Gianelli is also taken away by Lorders in front of the entire school.

Kyla is taken by Jazz to meet Mac, a twenty-something who has access to a computer. He tells Kyla about the many websites which parents and family are using in an attempt to locate missing children. From Mac's search, Kyla discovers the truth about her identity, but few clues to her past. Who was she? Why was she Slated?

Later Kyla takes Ben to meet Mac who introduces them to Aiden. Aiden works for MIA = Missing In Action, trying to locate people who were taken illegally by the government. They want to identify these missing people so they can expose the government and stop it. Some missing people are taken to be Slated. Some are taken by AGT (Anti-Government Terrorists) to try to disable or remove their Levos. This latter idea becomes very attractive to Ben. After an incident in which his Levo prevents him from protecting Kayla, he becomes obsessed with removing it - an act that could result in his death.

As more of her past reveals itself to Kyla and as she is confronted by someone from her past, Kyla must make the decision to either stay in the present and live her life as it is, or confront who she was in the past and perhaps return to that life. Kyla doesn't want to go back to her past but will she have a choice?

Slated is a good novel with a well developed storyline that holds the reader's interest to the very end. Kyla and Ben live in what is essentially a totalitarian society, where any resistance to authority is now useless. What was initially a technique developed to rehabilitate criminals, is now one used to control anyone who resists the authority of the state. When Mr. Gianelli protests, in a very mild way, the disappearance of Phoebe by drawing her portrait in art class, he finds himself carted off by the Lorders. Kyla finds herself watched constantly and repeatedly warned by Mrs. Ali that she is in danger of being "returned" when she asks questions. How better to put down opposition than by wiping your opponent's memory clean. How easy to prevent any sort of rebellion against what is happening by forcing these "rehabilitated" young people to wear a device that shocks them should they experience depression or anger? Terry has created a future world that is entirely believable and possible - a police state based on events which are all too common today - economic collapse and widespread anger.

As Kyla learns more about her new world, she realizes that she will need to learn how to live according to the Lorders rules. Even with her doctor, Dr. Lysander, who invented Slating, Kayla knows Lysander will recognize when she is lying so she must be careful to tell only part of the truth and never reveal all of it. It a psychological game of cat and mouse even though Lysander seems to suggest to Kyla that she is on her side.

Terry does a great job of portraying how Kyla's relationship with her new mother blossoms and how the initial impression of her new parents and of  Dr. Lysander gradually change thoughout the novel. At first her dad seems kind and warm, while her mother earns the nickname "dragon lady". However, it is her mother who saves her life when things go terribly wrong with Ben  while her father threatens her if she doesn't conform.

There's a touch of romance between Ben and Kyla that is sweet and filled with many tender moments. Kyla is still haunted by what she thinks is Ben's love for Tori. For the most part Ben is a rather boring character until the very end of the novel,  when he chooses a drastic course of action. His plainness is explained by the Levo toning him down so that we don't see the real Ben until he starts taking medication that counters the effect of the Levo.

The cliff-hanger at the end means we have to wait until the next book, Fractured, is published in  September, 2013!

Book Details:
Slated by Teri Terry
New York: Nancy Paulsen Books       2012
346 pp.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

DVD Movie: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Part 1

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of three film adaptations by New Zealand producer, Peter Jackson, of J.R. Tolkien's novel, The Hobbit . Tolkien's novel is about a young  hobbit who undertakes a journey with dwarves to help them reclaim their lost kingdom. The novel, The Hobbit or There And Back Again, is considered a classic children's novel and it was so successful that Tolkien's publisher requested a sequel.

The story centers around a reserved, quiet-loving hobbit named Bilbo Baggins who goes on an epic quest with thirteen dwarves to help them reclaim their lost kingdom beneath Erebor,  the Lonely Mountain. The movie opens when Bilbo is tricked by Gandalf the Grey into hosting a dinner for thirteen dwarves, who include Thorin Oakenshield and his company. Thorin is set upon reclaiming his lost kingdom under the Lonely Mountain, which was destroyed during his grandfather, Thror's, reign. Thorin wants to reclaim Erebor from Smaug the Golden,  the great dragon who drove the dwarves from their city long ago. Smaug lies sleeping in The Great Hall beneath the Lonely Mountain, guarding a magnificent dwarve treasure of gold.

Gandalf, the Grey decides to help Thorin in his epic quest by organizing a sort of dinner party at the home of Bilbo and by suggesting that they use Bilbo as a burglar. The plan is to sneak into the Lonely Mountain through a secret door for which Gandalf has the secret key.

At first Bilbo doesn't want to participate, but eventually he joins the dwarves. The first part of their journey sees them encounter man-eating trolls who try to steal their ponies and fighting orcs and wargs. Inevitably, the group is led by Gandalf to Rivendell where they meet with the Elven master, Elrond and tell him of their quest. Also summoned is Sarumon the White, leader of the Wizards who is skeptical of Gandalf's warning about a rise of evil in Mirkwood, and Galadriel who listens carefully to Gandalf. Elrond   counsels against the dwarves journey but Gandalf is worried that if Smaug is not destroyed he will be used by Sauron to great harm.

Elrond takes the map that Gandalf gave Thorin and by the crescent moon tells them that the ancient runes on the map reveal that they will only find the door to the mountains on a certain night -Durin's Day when the setting sun and the last moon of autumn are both seen in the sky. The light on that day will reveal the key hole to open the door.

Against the advice of Elrond not to continue their journey, the dwarves set out once again, meeting the boulder-throwing stone giants, and eventually being captured by the orcs and taken deep into the mountains. Bilbo becomes separated from his comrades and meets Gollum who wants to eat him. But in a fight with an orc, Gollum loses a beautiful golden ring which Bilbo finds.  He tries to keep it a secret from Gollum but Gollum soon suspects that the hobbit has his precious magical ring and becomes enraged. While Gandalf helps the dwarves to escape the goblin king, Bilbo outwits Gollum and using the ring manages to barely escape the mountains and the orcs. The movie ends with the dwaves, Bilbo, and Gandalf being brought to safety by the eagles.

The Hobbit, like the Lord of the Rings series, is beautifully filmed, with an eye to detail, excellent casting, lots of special effects, and some revisions that make the overall story more cinematically workable. Filmed on location in New Zealand, there are the usual panoramic shots similar to those Jackson used to such great effect in Lord of the Rings. Martin Freeman makes an excellent, believable younger Bilbo Baggins. Richard Armitage of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South fame, manages to look sexy in his role as the fierce, prickly, Dwarf prince Thorin. Ian McKellan returns as Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Elijah Wood as Frodo.

There's been alot of buzz about Jackson "stretching" The Hobbit into three films, but making the novel into three movies is possible because because Jackson has worked information from the appendices of the Lord of the Rings into the film. These appendices fill the reader in on the entire history of Middle Earth through the different ages, relate the history of the kings and rulers of  Middle Earth, as well as  the re-emergence of Sauron. So Peter Jackson uses this extra information to develop the backstory of the rise of Sauron which occurs at the same time as the Hobbit. This will make the entire Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films more understandable to the viewer who might not have read the books and more complete to those who have.

Many sequences in the movie are brilliantly done. When Bilbo meets Gollum, the ensuing riddle contest by the underground pool is typically conniving and traitorous since we know Gollum has no intention of showing Bilbo the way out. But when he discovers his precious ring missing, and Bilbo discovers the secret of the ring, forces are set in motion that affect the whole of Middle Earth.

The scenes with flighty, scatterbrained Radagast the Brown are predictably hilarious, providing necessary comic relief as we learn that something dark has awakened in Mirkwood. The necromancer, who is later revealed to be Sauron, has established himself in the ruins of Dol Guldur. In the film, Radagast, reading the signs of an evil presence, travels to Dol Guldur and flees in terror to warn Gandalf about the evil presence there.

Although this adaptation is generally faithful to the novel so far, Jackson has taken some artistic license with the storyline. The Great White Orc, Azog, was actually slain by the dwarve, Dain Ironfoot, Nain's son during the final battle in the War of the Dwarves and Orcs.  However, including Azog here adds considerable dramatic tension and conflict in what would otherwise be a rather bland tale. He's a fearsome, disgusting fellow with a penchant for mayhem, death and destruction and there's a great scene that sees him face off against Thorin.

Jackson filmed the movie in 3D using Red Epic cameras at 48 frames per second (the usual is 24 frames per second). Unlike his Lord of the Rings movies, The Hobbit was filmed using digital cameras. Many of the orcs will have computer generated faces instead of wearing make-up and prosthetics. The props were created by Weta Workshop.

Fans of J.R. Tolkien may or may not love the movie, but Lord of the Rings movie fans will love it. I hope someday, Jackson will do some of the events from the Silmarillion too. If anything, hopefully the movies willbring more people to read these wonderful novels.

Below are some of the character posters for the film:

The next movie, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is due out December 13, 2013.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist

Veronika lives with three other girls on an isolated island, along with Irene and Robbert who take care of them. Veronika, Caroline, Isobel, and Eleanor are all very different looking girls but are also very much the same. Veronika's hair is red, while Caroline has brown hair, Isobel is blond, and Eleanor's hair is black. All four have been on the island as long as they can remember. They have been told by Irene and Robbert that they are orphans and that their parents died in the same plane accident on a nearby island.

The girls are woken every morning by Irene from a dreamless sleep and after breakfast go for walks around the island. At first, all would go on the same walk but gradually Irene would teach them to go for walks by themselves and explore their surroundings.

One evening after a severe storm, Irene and the four girls go for a walk along the beach. Veronika discovers a girl face down in the grass near the bush. It is immediately apparent to the four girls that this girl is not like them. Seriously injured, the girl is taken to their classroom and is treated for her injuries. Veronika and the rest of the girls are told to stay away from this girl but eventually the girl, whose name is May and the four island girls meet. May is horrified by what they are and is angry and mean to them.

As Veronika tells her story, we learn what the four girls are, and that they are basically hiding from the world on this island. This makes May's leaving the island and impossibility because Irene and Robbert are fearful that she will tell others what she saw on the island. However, they may be too late to save their precious experiment on a hidden island, regardless of what they decide about May.

Gordon Dahlquist is a playwright and novelist and has indicated that this book began as a libretto for an opera many years ago! Told in Veronika's simple, direct voice, Dahlquist effectively captures the isolated and strange life of these unique four girls. Very quickly, the reader understands just what the four girls are and how they are experiencing the world around them.

However, using Veronika as a narrator is also the main difficulty with this novel. We are see the world through Veronika's eyes and therefore, we have a very limited understanding of what is going on, since Veronika's existence is so narrow. This means the reader knows only what Veronika knows. Initially, this sets up the mystery of who or what Veronika and the girls are but this is quickly resolved by the end of the first chapter (and unfortunately, is given away by the cover of the novel). This then leads into a second problem of how everyone will react to the appearance of May and how the problem of May will be resolved. However, the appearance and resolution of a third problem, that of the appearance of more people to their secret island,  is a muted experience for the reader because we experience it through Veronika who is in hiding. This all makes for a disappointing ending.

Dahlquist gives us hints at what the outside world is like when May tells the girls that people hate them and that they are destroyed.
"'I didn't know anything,' said May. 'I'd only heard, but hearing isn't real -- and everyone knows not to trust it. and nothing like that -- like you -- is tolerated, not any more,not in any towns. ...."
This leads us to understand that Irene and Robbert came to the island to escape harm and to continue their experiment unmolested.

May is a disappointing character as she is never truly developed - again likely because we are viewing her through the eyes of Veronika. The same applies to Robbert who just seems to be a filler character.

The cover will lead many readers to pick up the novel, but most will be disappointed with the storyline, the lack of character development and the hanging ending.

Book Details:
The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist
Toronto: Dutton Books    2013
230 pp.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Lindsey Lost by Suzanne Marie Phillips

"Nothing.  I know nothing. It's like yesterday never was."

Lindsey Lost is a suspenseful, murder mystery novel that keeps readers guessing right to the very end. The story is told over 12 days, beginning January 11, 2011 and running to January 23, 2011. The story revolves around a brother and sister, both of whom are high-performing athletes.

Micah Hamilton throws a fastball in excess of ninety miles per hour, earning him the nickname, "Comet". He is hoping to get into a good school and make the major league. Micah's girlfriend, Vivian Nguyen, is the "real deal". She keeps him anchored and they are very close. Vivian's mom died two years ago.

His older sister, Lindsey Michelle Hamilton is an outstanding track athlete who has run the mile in 4:18 and who has her sights set on the London Olympics. Lindsay placed at Nationals last year with a great time that threatens other top runners. Her dream is to place at Nationals and make the Olympic team for the 2012 London Olympics. Because Lindsey has been so focused on her athletics, she only started dating last year. Her first boyfriend was Jonas, a football player, on whom Lindsey had a big crush.But the relationship didn't last and now she's dating Micah's friend, Reed, who is obsessed with her.

Lindsey's longtime coach, Kelly, can help her achieve that dream. Kelly herself was an Olympian who placed fourth in the mile at Athens and she's hoping to follow Lindsey into a top track school. But, it turns out that Kelly and Lindsey have a major conflict over just how that dream will be achieved. Kelly wants Lindsey to attend UCLA, Kelly's alma mater, but Lindsey has other dreams too. After her track career, she wants to be a marine biologist studying sea turtles and she therefore, wants to go to USC which has an underwater lab.

Lindsey is in her senior year and this time of the year is her off-season. But things haven't been going well for Lindsey lately. For one thing, during the past two weeks, Lindsey finds that she has been slowing down and that she seems to be in a slump in her training. She doesn't know why, but she figures it's better to have the slump now than sometime in the next year when she can't afford to perform poorly. In addition to this stress, Micah notices that Lindsey is not getting along with Kelly. They argue

When Micah wakes up on January 13, on the living room couch, he learns that Lindsey has gone missing. He remembers that the previous night, January 12, his parents went looking for Lindsey when she did not return home from school. Micah does not remember anything that happened on January 12. He doesn't remember being with Lindsey and he doesn't remember what happened to her. His father, a doctor, tells him that this can be quite common in people who have experienced a terrible trauma and that his memory might return. Or it might not.

A search through the orchard that Micah and Lindsey often passed through on their way home from school results in the discovery of Lindsey's body. A missing person's investigation has now become one for murder. As Micah struggles to piece together the missing day, the list of suspects grows. But only Micah has the pieces to the puzzle that will solve Lindsey's murder.

Phillips builds suspense throughout novel using Micah as an unreliable narrator and what he reveals about Lindsey's relationships with each of the main characters. This is done sometimes by how they react to Lindsey's death and at other times by what is revealed about their relationship with her. For example, Micah's father becomes a suspect by the way he suggests that Micah might never get his memory back. He urges Micah not to talk to anyone else about his memories and to come to him first. This leads the reader to question whether he is trying to protect Micah or whether he is hiding something.

Likewise, Lindsey's conflicts with both Kelly and Reed also indicate a possible motive for murder. Even Micah is a suspect, based on what he can remember from that day and the evidence that the detectives collect from the murder scene.

This short novel will appeal to reluctant readers who enjoy mystery novels. The beautiful cover is a wonderful incentive to pick up the novel and check it out!

Book Details:
Lindsey Lost by Suzanne Marie Phillips
New York: Viking     2012
208 pp.