Thursday, May 30, 2013

When Jesus Wept by Bodie and Brock Thoene

Bodie and Brock Thoene are prolific writers of Christian fiction with more than sixty historical fiction books published. The husband and wife couple have just published the first in their Jerusalem Chronicles, When Jesus Wept, which tells the story of Jesus' ministry up until his triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem. The title is a reference to Jesus' reaction to the death of his dear friend, Lazarus, which is recounted in the New Testament.

The novel opens with David ben Lazarus mourning the death of his beloved wife, Eliza, and their new born son, Samuel. David is a Jewish vintner in Roman occupied Israel. David who lives on his estate in Bethany with his sister Martha, exports pomegranates, sycamore figs, and wine to all areas of the known world.

In order to distract David from the grief of his wife's death, his best friend, Judah ben Perez suggests that they go check out a new prophet whom some are saying is the Messiah. Judah is a rich merchant from Jerusalem who is responsible for exporting David's wine. David and Judah travel to Jordan where they witness the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. At the baptism, during a brief thunderstorm, David hears what he believes is the voice of God saying that Jesus is his beloved son. However, learning that Jesus is from Nazareth, they dismiss the claim that he could be the Messiah because he is not from Bethlehem.

Later on Judah invites David to supper at his home in Jerusalem. David is hesitant to go because he knows Judah's sister Jemima will be there. Judah and David's families at one time, had planned to marry the two, but David fell in love with Eliza.However, the visit never happens because a terrible altercation involving a Roman ambassador sees Judah and his family arrested and taken away. David tries to help, but is badly beaten and rescued by a Greek traveler whom David helped only minutes earlier. Although David makes many inquiries, he is unable to find out where Judah has been taken nor what has become of his mother and beautiful sister.

The export of David's wines is taken over by Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a good friend of David's father. When he comes to dine with David they discuss his sister, Mary of Magdala, whom David considers to have sold her soul. However, in one of the novels more poignant moments, Joseph admonishes David for being so harsh towards his sister, whom he sees as a 'lonely woman who has spent her life looking for love'. David recalls how Mary took a lover and how he married her off to an old man to save his family's reputation.

David is gradually drawn into contact with Jesus. When he attends a family wedding at Cana, he witnesses the great miracle of the water being changed to wine, although despite his uncertainty, he is amazed. But then he sees how Jesus treats his sister Mary when she is brought before him, caught in the act of adultery. Mary has been considered dead to David's family, for her shameful lifestyle. She has taken many lovers and is considered a terrible sinner. Her current lover, Marius Longinus, is a Roman soldier. As an onlooker, David watches as Mary is dragged before Jesus by the Pharisees. Seeking to trap Jesus, they ask him what they should do with her. Jesus looks into her heart, sees a woman who seeks the love she never received from her father, does not condemn her but defends her brilliantly before the Pharisees, asking, "The one of you who is without sin, ...let him cast the first stone at her."  At this moment David realizes that he is not without blame with regards to his sister. And Mary is transformed by her meeting with Jesus, opening her estate to women who have been abandoned.

David ben Lazarus meets Jesus many times after this, witnessing many miracles and learning first hand from Jesus about his teachings. David watches as the Pharisees plot to destroy Jesus, attempting to trap him repeatedly by confronting him with difficult questions. The novel's climax of course, is the death of Lazarus, whom Jesus loves so much, that he weeps when he learns of his friend's passing.

This novel is well written, flowing naturally from one event to the next, with the authors neatly tying in events from the gospels with fictional events in David ben Lazarus' life. Although heavily laden with scripture, this does not impede the storytelling. When Jesus Wept is replete with themes of love, forgiveness, mercy, suffering and redemption. One of the best examples of this is David being gradually shown, first by Joseph of Arimathea and then Jesus, that his judgement of his sister's life is wrong.

The Thoene's capture the essence of the brotherly love between David ben Lazarus and Jesus through the numerous conversations between the two men. It is not overt, but more the love between master and pupil. When Jesus asks Lazarus why he weeps, he confesses his pain of loss over the death of his wife and child. This is an interesting passage because Jesus explains to David that he did not lose his family because of some sin (which was common thinking during Jesus' time and still remains so today among many Christians), but rather because suffering is a fact of life here on Earth and that through suffering, God in the end is glorified. Suffering is probably the biggest obstacle to many people's faith and the most difficult for most of us to comprehend, to come to terms with.

If I have one criticism of this novel it is that it lacks a certain passion in the storytelling, sometimes bordering on bland. However,the recounting of the raising of Lazarus is well done and from an unique perspective. According to the gospel account, "Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus." When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha and Mary were still deeply mourning their brother's death.
"When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, 'Where have you laid him?' They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.' Jesus wept. So the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!'..."
We experience Lazurus' resurrection from his point of view rather than from that of Martha or Mary or other bystanders. This allows the authors to relate Lazurus' death experience, and his brief reuniting with his beloved Eliza and his son Samuel. Interesting and unexpected!

Overall this novel was well done and a competent retelling of an interesting event in the gospel of John.

Book Details:
When Jesus Wept by Bodie and Brock Thoene
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan              2013
325 pp.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Unravel Me by Tahereh Mafi

Unravel Me is the second book in Mafi's very popular Shatter Me trilogy.

Juliette Ferrars is now at the rebel underground headquarters, Omega Point, where she shares a room with the healing twins, Sonya and Sara. Omega Point is also a safe haven for people like Juliette, who have special abilities.

At first she was happy to be there, but she is having trouble adjusting to life in the underground compound and is becoming increasingly isolated. She's made no friends, and reaches out to no one. This is of concern to Castle, the leader of Omega Point, who wants Juliette to learn to harness her abilities so they can be used in the war against the Reestablishment. All Juliette knows is that her touch is deadly - that people die. So Castle assigns Kenji to help Juliette learn the extent of and  how to control her abilities and also to assimilate into Omega Point. To help her in her training, Juliette has been given a specially designed suit that protects her and those around her. The suit allows others to touch her and the gloves allow her to touch others.

When Juliette finally sees Adam Kent, she learns that testing has shown that he too has some unusual energy ability which is probably the reason he can touch her. Alone with Adam, Juliette discerns that something isn't quite right, despite the presence of their usual passion for each other. Later on, believing Adam is withholding something from her, Juliette forces Kenji to take her to the research part of the compound where Adam is. Juliette becomes extremely upset at what she discovers there - that Adam is in great distress while he is undergoing tests. In such a state, Juliette strikes the ground causing a fissure to open, nearly destroying the compound and severely injuring herself in the process. Since the healers, Sonya and Sara, cannot touch Juliette they cannot heal her and Juliette must recover on her own.

When she is slightly recovered, Kenji tells Juliette that he doesn't know whether she is trying to destroy them or she just doesn't know the extent of her abilities yet. Although Juliette has been trying so hard to convince others that she is not dangerous, Kenji tells her that she has to face the fact that her unique abilities make her dangerous and that,
" have to learn how to control what you do -- how to contain it. You have to deal with who you are and you have to figure out how to live with it. Just like the rest of us."
Castle tells Juliette that Adam's ability involved using his energy to disable other people's abilities and that he has been using it mostly as a self-defense mechanism. Juliette realizes that Adam is not able to actually touch her but that he has been using his ability to extinguish Juliette's ability so that he can touch her. Juliette, who is deeply attracted to Adam, is devastated. She does not want to be the reason Adam is hurting and weakening himself and she is terrified that she will inadvertently harm him, even kill him. When Adam attempts to prove that he can cope, Juliette does in fact seriously harm him. She then makes the decision, to break off with him, despite Adam's pleas that he will in time learn how to cope.

Several days later, Castle sends a group above ground to try to determine what is going on. Omega Point is located in Sector 45 (which means very little to the reader since we haven't been told what this is or where it is or why it is important) which is overseen by Warner, the boy Juliette shot in order to escape in the first novel, Shatter Me. Warner is chief commander and regent of Sector 45 and he has been seen every day with the patrols, searching for something or someone. Juliette doesn't voice her suspicions but she believes that Warner is looking for her.

Juliette, Adam, Kenji, Winston and Brendan are sent on patrol to gather supplies. During this patrol, Juliette comes face to face with Warner, but Kenji steps in and using his invisibility energy makes her disappear when he touches her. Seeing Warner comfort a stray dog causes Juliette to question what she knows about Warner because she has only seen his cruel side.

The Reestablishment was elected by the people only 3 years ago to bring stability into a troubled world. But soon people realized that they had made a mistake and protests began. Civilians live in compounds and to be caught outside one is dangerous. The supreme commander is Warner's father, Anderson. There are six supreme commanders around the world for each of the continents and each is divided into 555 sectors. Warner's father is in charge of North America and he is one of the founders of the Reestablishment. Anderson is a cruel, psychopathic ruler. He has suddenly appeared in Sector 45 and one of the patrols comprised of Winston and Brendan has gone missing. Anderson has indicated that he wants to meet with Juliette.

A terrified Juliette agrees to meet with Anderson, so Castle sends her with Adam and Kenji, who can make all three of them invisible. She goes to a run down house on 1542 Sycamore Street where she meets Anderson. He tells her that this was a ruse to lure her friends out so that they can be destroyed and to teach his son Warner, a lesson. He orders Warner to kill Juliette, but Warner refuses. When Anderson brutalizes his son, Juliette uses her abilities to save herself and Warner, almost killing Anderson.

When all return to the Omega Point compound, Warner is held as a prisoner. Juliette doesn't tell Castle that Warner can touch her but he soon finds out. Juliette realizes that this means that Warner is like those at Omega Point - he has an ability too. Warner's ability is that he can channel other peoples abilities, he can sense perfectly other's emotions, accurately sensing what they are feeling.

Castle assigns Juliette to learn as much as she can from Warner about what is going on. Warner divulges very little except to say that his father is planning to attack Section 45 and destroy everyone in the area. During her time with Warner,  Juliette begins to fall hard for Warner. He is alternately tender and harsh, vulnerable but uncaring. She learns that he has been treated terribly by his father who tried to groom him to not care about hurting others. More secrets are revealed about Adam and Warner, and Juliette is now faced with an impossible choice; the boy she loves but cannot touch or the boy who can touch her but is her enemy.

Warner decides to leave Omega Point but before he does, he asks Juliette to come with him. Juliette doesn't want to join Warner because unlike him, she doesn't want to harm people.She is uncertain as to who Warner is and how he will use his abilities.

During the battle, Anderson, determined to be avenged for what Juliette has done to him,  re-captures her, deals a shocking lesson in cruelty and terror.

Mafi's novel is essentially a love triangle set in a dystopian scenario. The situation Adam, Aaron and Juliette find themselves placed in takes a back seat to the relationship drama between these three characters. There is very little storyline related to the world they live in, instead the focus is on the struggle between these three characters and their struggle against Anderson, who is an evil force in their lives.

This novel suffers from long drawn out descriptions of make out sessions between Juliette and Adam and especially Warner. Chapter 62 is the pinnacle of such descriptions in the novel and has received much hype from readers. Mafi is a sensual, highly descriptive writer, who explicitly details all the emotions Juliette is experiencing as she struggles to come to terms with her identity and as she struggles to define her relationships with Adam and Warner. Warner is the typical "bad boy", passionate and tender towards Juliette, frequently calling her "love" and who seems to know her better than she knows herself. But Juliette struggles with her attraction to Warner partly because she loves Adam and partly because she has seen Warner's cruel side. But she also begins to realize that she doesn't really know who Warner is.
"I know that he is a tortured soul who, like me, never grew up with the warmth of friendship or love or peaceful coexistence. ...
He's spent his life fighting to fulfill his father's expectations of global domination without questioning why, without considering repercussions, without stopping long enough to weigh the worth of a human life. ..He kills without remorse or regret and he wants me to join him..."
But later on, when Warner reveals a bit of his soul, Juliette discovers that she doesn't "know this Warner. I'd never be able to recognize this Warner." It's the perfect set up for the concluding novel where, presumably, we will learn who wins this epic battle of the heart. Mafi has already tweeted that she hope readers won't hate her after reading the final book!

Essentially all three main characters in this novel are deeply broken people, who have experienced brutal pasts. Juliette was abandoned by her parents and sent to an asylum where she was isolated and not allowed to have any human contact; Adam was abandoned by his father and he and his mother struggled to survive; Warner whose first name is Aaron, knew his father but was emotionally abused and deliberately exposed to cruelty in an attempt to harden him into a commander his psychopathic father could respect. All three, therefore, are looking for the love the never had and attempting to find that affirming love in the context of a sexual relationship. On top of all this, all three have newly discovered special abilities that would have been difficult to come to terms with even if they lived in a society that was relatively stable. I would love to see Mafi move her main characters beyond the realm of increasing sexual attraction and have them develop more mature, person-focused relationships that highlight the personal growth of each character.

Juliette does gradually undergo a change in the second novel. She still struggles with uncertainty and she tries to refocus her negative thoughts about being a deadly person. Kenji in particular, helps her to begin to come to terms with her abilities and encourages Juliette to understand her limits. For example, Juliette discovers that she has incredible strength and she and Kenji begin to work on that ability. Mafi could have developed this thread much more in the second novel especially since Kenji is the only character in the trilogy who provides relief from the intense emotional reactions that encompass the Adam-Juliette-Warner triangle. He is a very likeable, appealing character whom the reader would like to know more about.  By the end of the second novel, there are hints that Juliette is becoming a stronger person who doesn't just let things happen to her but who might begin to be the cause of events.

Those who might want to learn more about Warner, should read Mafi's ebook, Destroy Me, which tells Warner's story. In this novella, Warner continues to obsess about Juliette and becomes determined to find her and get rid of Adam and Kenji.However, when Warner learns of his cruel father's plans for Juliette, he knows he cannot do what he wants. Warner needs to find Juliette.

Readers who enjoy a heavy dose of romance and angst of the heart will find Unravel Me more than satisfying, even though it's drawn out through 461 pages.

Book Details:
Unravel Me by Tahereh Mafi 
New York: HarperCollins    2013

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fever by Mary Beth Keane

Mary Beth Keane presents a riveting fictional account of a young Irish woman known forever to history as "Typhoid Mary". Typhoid Mary was the name (among others) given to thirty-seven year old Mary Mallon who was one of the first people known to modern medical science as a healthy carrier of disease. Mary had never had typhoid herself, but carried in her gallbladder, Salmonella typhi, the strain of bacteria known to cause typhoid. Mary admitted to rarely washing her hands after using the bathroom and when cooking. The bacteria was transmitted to others through any uncooked food Mary Mallon prepared, causing them to become sick with typhoid.

At the time Mary lived, the early 20th century, scientists were just beginning to understand the role of micro-organisms, such as bacteria, in illness. It was not known that a person could be completely healthy yet make others sick by being a carrier of harmful bacteria. This was a relatively new discovery.

Mary's trouble began in 1906 when she worked as a cook for the Warren family at Oyster Bay, a place not known to suffer from typhoid outbreaks. Six people became ill from typhoid. Warren hired Dr. George Soper, a sanitation engineer, to try to find the cause of the outbreak in his home. Soper learned that the family had hired an Irish cook three weeks prior to the outbreak and soon discovered that many other outbreaks followed the employment of this same cook. He discovered the cook was Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant. When Soper approached Mary, asking her to give stool and urine samples, she refused to believe him, was outraged by his request and refused. Eventually, after several attempts to obtain convince Mary that she was spreading illness wherever she went, Mary was arrested and sent to North Brother Island where her stool samples tested positive for the typhoid bacteria.

After several hearings, Mary was allowed to go free if she promised not to seek employment as a cook. She attempted to work as a laundress, but eventually returned to working as a cook and this led to her infecting more people with typhoid. In 1915, a major outbreak of typhoid at Sloane Hospital for Women resulted in Dr. Soper finally catching up with her and she was once again sent to North Brother Island where she remained for the rest of her life.

It's hard for us to understand Mary's behaviour today, but at the time, Soper's theory was very new and many people did not understand how a healthy person with no sign of disease could cause others to become ill. In addition, public health policies had no way yet of dealing with such a situation, so authorities were at a loss as to how to proceed. Mary was also well aware of the prejudices that existed at that time against immigrants, especially those from Ireland. She felt she was being unjustly targeted.

Keane does a wonderful job telling Mary's story from her perspective providing the reader with an account that is rich in detail and informative. Keane's portrayal of Mary allows us to see how she might have felt, how she might have viewed herself, and those who pursued her within the context of her own time. The novel is divided into five parts beginning with a prologue, Habeas Corpus, Liberty, His Banner Over Me Is Love, and an Epilogue.

The Prologue has Mary remembering working at the Kirkenbauer's in the summer of 1899 - the first time typhoid struck a house while she was employed. This incident is to haunt Mary for the remainder of her life, because of the little boy, Tobias, who dies from typhoid.

In Habeas Corpus tells the story of Mary's incarceration and her attempts to secure a release from quarantine. It is 1907 and Mary tells how she is tracked down and arrested, taken first to Willard Parker Hospital where she is asked to submit to gallbladder surgery. When she refuses, Mary is sent to North Brother Island to be quarantined. Eventually she is given her own little cottage and her meals are provided for her. She must provide samples of her urine and feces.

She writes her lover, Alfred Briehof, and asks him to find a lawyer to help her. However, Alfred isn't much help to her, writing to Mary only nine times in her first year on North Brother. In 1909, Mary does eventually get a lawyer, Francis O'Neill, who manages to get a hearing for Mary. O'Neill tells Mary that she should swear before the judges that she will not cook anymore and that this will allow her to be set free.

Mary and O'Neill prepare for the hearing while life goes on for Mary on North Brother. Interspersed are flashbacks of Mary remembering a time when she purchased the exact same hat as her wealthy employer, Mrs. Bowen, the time when the wealthy tried to organize a food collective, and when little Elizabeth Bowen became ill. Other flashbacks in this part of the book include her early life in Ireland as a poor orphan living with her grandmother, her arrival in New York where she lodges with her Aunt Kate and her husband, Paddy Brown, her first jobs as a laundress, and the first time she meets Alfred. The reader also learns about Mary and Alfred's tumultuous relationship that is further strained by his alcoholism and chronic unemployment.

At the hearing Mary manages to meet with Alfred, who misses her but seems distant. Mary is sent back to North Brother and she almost gives up. Eventually Alfred comes to visit her at North Brother and tells her that he is engaged to marry another woman, Liza Meany who is a widow. This is a very low point for Mary in her life.

Mary gains her freedom when a new Health Commissioner, Lederle is installed. She heads back to New York and finds employment as a laundress.

In Liberty, we learn more about Albert's life and how he tries unsuccessfully to straighten his life out. When he learns that Mary is set free he tries to see her but she won't have anything to do with him. This rejection affects Albert deeply, causing great hardship and suffering in his life.

In His Banner Over Me Is Love, Mary and Albert eventually find one another but the past cannot be rekindled. Their lives have been irreparably altered and yet the more things have changed, the more they are the same, with Mary basically supporting Albert by earning a living as a cook. This of course, has the expected result of her causing more outbreaks of typhoid and her eventual permanent incarceration.

The Epilogue sees Mary in her old age still struggling to deal with her situation and her conscience revisiting the Kirkenbauer incident and perhaps finally recognizing that she did in fact cause a child to die and that maybe she might have known this all along.

That the author did a great deal of research is evident in her writing. Keane provides vivid descriptions of life in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. It was a fetid, stinking mess, city streets full of rotting garbage, decaying horse carcasses, and overwhelmed with horse shit from the thousands of horses working the streets everyday. She also provides significant details about Mary Mallon and her life on North Brother, as well as the hearings to free Mary.

Fever attempts to give to Mary Mallon, what history has not and that is a measure of humanity. Keane encourages her reader to try to understand how Mary might have viewed her unusual situation, what she experienced as her life was turned upside down by something she didn't understand, in a time when prejudices ran strong against immigrants and those who had stepped outside of genteel society's parameters. Mary feels she is being singled out because she is a single working woman who lives with a man to whom she is not married. Mary notes how the wealthy, when looking for domestic help, don't inquire so much about their skills, but rather seem more focused on their religiosity.
"They all say they want a good cook, but what they want even more is a worthy project."
Mary did not want to be a project and was understandably humiliated and angered at such treatment.

Mary's lover, Albert Briehof was a genuinely unlikable character. Albert was a German immigrant who could not hold down a job, was an alcoholic and eventually a drug addict. He was unable to  commit to anything or anyone in life. Mary's attraction to him was both puzzling and annoying.  Her forced incarceration on North Brother ultimately destroyed their relationship, although Keane implies that it was already failing by the time she was sent to the island.

Fever will definitely appeal to fans of historical fiction and would make an excellent choice for a book club selection. There are plenty of themes and issues to explore for group discussion including the rights of patients with communicable diseases, the prejudice against Irish immigrants, the treatment of Mary Mallon, and social class distinctions in early 20th century America.

Nova ran a program called The Most Dangerous Woman in America in 2004 which was based on the book, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health by Judith Walzer Leavitt. It provides excellent background into the unusual case of Mary Mallon.

Book Details:
Fever by Mary Beth Keane
New York: Scribner 2012
306 pp.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Movie: Star Trek Into Darkness

"There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that's not who we are... When Christopher Pike first gave me his ship, he had me recite the Captain's Oath. Words I didn't appreciate at the time. But now I see them as a call for us to remember who we once were and who we must be again."
The second installment in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise is thrilling, fast paced, and absolutely terrific if you don't mind the fact that the movie tries to do too much in too little time. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban return as James T. Kirk, Spock, and Bones McCoy respectively and they've got a big problem on their hands.

The movie opens with the crew on a mission to the Class M planet, Nibiru, where Kirk and the Enterprise discover a bronze-age civilization on the verge of annihilation due to an imminent volcanic eruption. The Enterprise has been hidden underwater in one of the planet's oceans and Spock, Uhura and Sulu are sent via space shuttle to detonate a cold fusion bomb. However, the mission goes wrong and Spock is trapped within the erupting volcano. Instead of leaving Spock to die, Kirk takes the spaceship out of the ocean in front of  the astonished and frightened Nibiruans, as he goes to rescue Spock, thus breaking the prime directive.

When they return to Earth, Starfleet Command learns of the violation through First Officer Spock's report and Kirk sees his captaincy suspended and he is demoted back to the Academy. Admiral Pike, who is Kirk's mentor takes over command of the Enterprise. Meanwhile something sinister is developing in London, England. The Starfleet archives are destroyed by a massive explosion and all of Starfleet's high ranking commanders are ordered to a special meeting. This meeting includes Pike, Kirk, Spock, and Admiral Marcus.

While Kirk is questioning the logic of a terrorist attack on the Starfleet archives, the meeting is attacked by a gunship and Pike is killed. Kirk takes down the gunship, but the unknown attacker escapes.  Admiral Marcus takes Kirk into his confidence and tells him the complex bombed in London,was not an archive, but rather a secret installation, called Area 31. The terrorist who masterminded the attack is a rogue Starfleet agent, John Harrison. They learn that Harrison has beamed himself to the Klingon planet of Qo'nos, a place Starfleet cannot go without risking war with the high-strung, war-mongering Klingons.

Marcus gives Kirk permission to go to the edge of the neutral zone, locate Harrison on Qo'nos, and fire seventy-two long range, newly designed missiles at Harrison. Kirk is reinstated as captain of the Enterprise, with Spock as his first officer, along with a newly arrived second Science Officer, Carol Marcus. When the new torpedoes are loaded on board the Enterprise,Chief Engineer Scotty refuses to sign off on them, believing they could be dangerous to the crew since he can't detect what is inside them. After reluctantly accepting his resignation, Kirk assigns Pavel Chekov to engineering.

Meanwhile Spock expresses his doubts to Kirk about killing Harrison, believing that he has at the very least, the right to a trial. Shortly after arriving at the edge of the neutral zone, the Enterprise's warp core is mysteriously disabled. Kirk also comes to the conclusion that it is wrong to kill Harrison and decides instead that they will take a captured Klingon shuttle, land on Qo'nos, and take Harrison and return him to Starfleet to be tried. However, they are quickly detected on the supposedly abandoned sector of Qo'nos and forced to land. Uhura, who speaks Klingon unsuccessfully attempts to negotiate with the Klingons.  As the Klingons prepare to kill them, the Klingon's come under attack and are wiped out almost entirely by John Harrison. He agrees to surrender after he is sent a message by Sulu that unless he submits, they will fire their entire payload of advanced long-range torpedos at his location. When Harrison learns that there are 72 torpedos, he immediately surrenders.

In the Enterprise brig, Harrison tells Kirk that his real name is Khan Noonien Singh and that he was awakened from a 300 year cyrogenic freeze to be used by Admiral Marcus to develop advanced weaponry in a war against the Klingons. He gives Kirk a set of space co-ordinates and tells him to investigate the location. Khan also tells him to open one of the torpedos. Kirk contacts Scotty and convinces him to check out the co-ordinates while McCoy and Dr. Marcus investigate the torpedos.

When they open one of the shielded torpedos on an abandoned planetoid, they discover that it contains a frozen person. Khan tells Kirk that these are his people - genetically altered to be superior in every way to humans and that they left Earth 300 years ago to find a planet to colonize. (Khan of course is referring to the Botany Bay which was supposed to have left Earth in 1996.) Kirk then comes to the realization that the warp core was sabotaged and that the Enterprise is a pawn in a much larger game. The Enterprise's foray into Klingon space was to be the way to draw the Klingons into war by Admiral Marcus.

Meanwhile Scotty has discovered an secret military installation at the co-ordinates provided by Khan. Admiral Marcus suddenly appears at the edge of the neutral zone in the massive USS Vengeance, a ship with advanced weaponry. He demands that Kirk turn over Khan, but Kirk refuses and in an attempt to outrun the larger ship,  the Enterprise manages to jump into warp drive. However, Kirk is unaware that the USS Vengeance has the capability to fire while warping and the Enterprise is now severely disabled only a short distance from Earth.

Kirk must now deal with two villains; the traitorous Admiral Marcus who is attempting to turn Starfleet away from its mission of exploration and into a military entity, and the ruthless Khan whom he knows will murder anyone who stands in his way including all those whom he considers inferior to him and his seventy-two genetically altered super-humans.

From the moment the movie opens, Star Trek launches into warp drive action with the events on Nibiru. Viewers barely have time to recover when there are two terrorist attacks, thus setting the stage for what is a high intensity, heart pounding action movie. Although the acting is superb, the action sequences amazing, and the special effects believable and interesting, the plot was difficult to follow if you didn't know much background about Khan and his gang and their history in another universe with Kirk and Spock. And for me that was the main flaw that left me feeling that something was lacking - we weren't treated to enough of a backstory. The movie skipped over this, giving viewers just enough to follow along, fed on a diet of high-octane action scenes and special effects. The story is a great one, having it's genesis in an episode from the original TV show, entitled "Space Seed". We don't learn how Admiral Marcus came to find Khan, only that he is using him for his war plans. We know little about Khan and his group of super-humans.  We aren't given much background on Marcus and why he wants to turn Starfleet from an organization that focuses on exploration, to one that is militarized nor why he gave up the Starfleet ideals he lived by. We aren't told why there are seventy-two cyrogenic pods (for those who don't remember, there were originally eighty-four). If this is an alternate reality, we need to know this back story. And maybe Abrams might have made two movies out of the Khan story rather than cramming so much into one movie.

Into Darkness reverses the climax of the Wrath of Khan, with Kirk making the ultimate sacrifice instead of Spock. And like the Wrath of Khan, this sacrifice works in Into Darkness because in both movies, friendship, loyalty and sacrifice are truly what matter. The James Kirk of Into Darkness is much different that the Kirk of the first movie.

In this alternate reality of Star Trek, Kirk finally begins to grow as a person. Yes, he's still a lothario; he works hard and plays harder. But Kirk starts to change. At the beginning he is removed from his command because Admiral Pike tells him that he doesn't respect the captain's chair. He's gotten to the position of captain because he's a risk taker and he's been lucky. But he doesn't deserve to command.
"Do you know what a pain you are? You think the rules don't apply to you. There's greatness in you, but there's not an ounce of humility. You think that you can't make mistakes, but there's going to come a moment when you realize you're wrong about that, and you're going to get yourself and everyone under your command killed"
However, gradually Kirk comes to understand that Pike was right and that he's not God's gift to the Starfleet. He is no longer the reckless daredevil without a conscience we saw at the beginning of the first movie; instead he's thoughtfully and apologetically a risk-taker - when he needs to be. "I have no idea what I'm supposed to do! I only know what I CAN do!"

Spock too, grows in this alternate reality. He chooses to feel anger, pain, fear and loss, something the Spock Prime (in the first movie) suggested he try. The chemistry between Spock and Uhura isn't quite there yet. This is unexplored territory since there never was a relationship between the two in the original series. Instead the first series was replete with instances of Christine Chapel's (who was McCoy's assistant) unrequited love for Mr. Spock. (I suspect Christine Chapel might make an appearance in the next movie since a reference was made to her in this movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives a phenomenal performance as Khan Noonien Singh, a super human whose body contains remarkable regenerative abilities - something suggested at the beginning of the movie and utilized at the end. Cumberbatch plays Khan with deadly intensity and a calculating coldness that dominates the entire movie and is in stark contrast to Kirk's human warmth and bravado. But Khan suggests to Kirk that he's no different than Kirk asking him, "My crew is my family, Kirk. Is there anything you would not do for your family?"

There are plenty of themes and references in this movie but the dominant reference is to the US military response to terrorism. The scenes showing the crashing of the USS Vengeance into San Francisco are a reference to the 9/11 tragedy and the Starfleet bombing in London to the London subway terrorist bombing of 2005.

There were plenty of puzzling things in the movie; a tribble when they haven't yet met them, a long distance call across to galaxy to Montgomery Scott in a bar on Earth, the Enterprise able to submerge, the fact that NO other starships come to the aid of the Enterprise, and the use of Khan to save Kirk when there are seventy-two frozen bodies on board that can do the same  - are just a few. I am left wondering if there will lasting effects on Kirk, after he is treated with Khan's blood.

I'm not sure whether Gene Rodenberry would be happy with J.J. Abrams approach to Star Trek - somehow I think not. I'd like to see a more coherent plot for the next Star Trek. All the other ingredients are there to make a really great movie, because Star Trek is really great concept. And Space Seed was one of the best stories from the original television series.

The original Khan Noonien Singh was played by actor Ricardo Montalban.

Enjoy the trailer for the movie and definitely go see it, even if you're not a trekkie:

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Fair Coin by E.C Meyers

When I read E.C. Meyers' bio on the back flap of his novel, Fair Coin, there was no doubt I would read this book. Creative and humourous, Meyers carries his flair from jacket cover into his novel. Fair Coin, the first book in (yet another) trilogy is about chance, fate, parallel universes, and the choices we make in life.

Sixteen year old Ephraim Scott lives with his alcoholic, chain-smoking mother. One day after arriving home from high school, Ephraim finds his mother passed out at the kitchen table, having overdosed on pills and alcohol. He learns that she saw his body in the morgue after having been told that he had been killed by a bus.

While his mother is recovering in hospital, Ephraim discovers a plastic bag in his mother's purse containing his doppelganger's personal effects including his wallet, keys, and a mysterious coin.The coin is a  strange quarter with "Puerto Rico 1998" inscribed on the back of it and minted in 2008.

Ephraim has a crush on smart, cute Jena Kim but he can't seem to figure out how to get her to notice him, much less like him. His best friend, Nathan, who is a camera buff, likes twins Mary and Shelley. On the last day of school, Ephraim discovers a note in his locker telling him to make a wish and flip the coin to make it come true. So Ephraim tries this, wishing that his mother wasn't in hospital. When he does so, the coin becomes hot and after flipping it Ephraim gets sick to his stomach. Strange things begin happening almost immediately. Nathan doesn't remember a conversation that occurred almost minutes earlier about Ephraim's mother being in hospital. And when Ephraim returns to the hospital to see how his mother is doing, she is no longer there. Instead, he finds her at home, napping on the couch and once again late for her job.

So Ephraim tries another wish -that his mother wasn't so messed up and that she had a better job.  Sure enough, this wish comes true too, with Ephraim awaking to his mother making breakfast and an empty laundry basket. A third wish, that Jena would like him, also brings about positive results for Ephraim, but has not so happy results for others. As Ephraim makes more wishes he comes to understand that while there might be positive results for him, the effects on other's lives can be devastating.

Eventually Ephraim decides to take both Nathan and later on Jena into his confidence, explaining to them what is going on. Although Ephraim doesn't really understand it, he knows Nathan who sometimes calls himself Nate,  has been affected; he is larger, violent and seems bent on using the coin for himself, regardless of how it affects others. This leads Ephraim to decide to wish the coin back to where it came from. He tosses it into the fountain at the park, thinking it is gone. But he couldn't be more wrong. When something terrible happens, Ephraim and Jena realize they need to get the coin back.

While Ephraim and Jena frantically search for the coin that he flipped into the fountain at Greystone Park, Nate shows up. He is armed and he orders them to find the coin. While Ephraim is struggling to find it, Nate shoots and kills Jena. When Ephraim does find the coin, he and Nate land in another universe. In this universe, Summerside is under curfew, with the United States at war with the Middle East.

This universe has a Nathan too - it is Nate (the one who forced Ephraim and Jena to serach for the lost coin) and another Ephraim. Jena Kim is Zoe Kim, whose parents are divorced and Ephraim's parents have been murdered. At Greystone Park Ephraim meets an older Nathan - who is called Nathaniel, who it turns out is trapped in this universe. Nathaniel explains to Ephraim what has been happening and how the coin works.

Nathaniel explains that he was part of a two person team exploring parallel universes with a new technology based on quantum physics. However, Nathaniel lost his partner - an older Ephraim and it takes the two of them to work the coin which is part of a portable coheron drive, nicknamed the Charon device. The coin is both the engine and the navigational device that is paired with a controller. It is a gyrocompass that uses quantum co-ordinates to navigate to another universe while the controller sets and records the co-ordinates. Without the controller, the co-ordinates become random and a person is swapped with his analog in another universe, while his analog is sent to Ephraim's universe. So Ephraim has been randomly swapping into other universes.

Nathaniel asked this universe's Ephraim and Nate to help him, but instead they abandoned him. They traveled to the first Ephraim's universe where Ephraim was hit by a bus, and the first Ephraim came into possession of the coin. But Nate needed the coin to get back to his universe. So he set about tricking the first Ephraim into using the coin and then began spying on him, killing his friend Nathan and setting him up to grab the coin.

Ephraim agrees to help Nathaniel get back to his universe if he is able to get the controller from the violent, unstable Nate. Ephraim now realizes that Nate will do anything to get control of the device and he must formulate a plan to get the controller, send Nathaniel back to his universe, and get back to his own universe.

Fair Coin has a fantastically interesting premise and it works, although it can be confusing to keep track of all the iterations of the main characters. Meyer's draws his readers in with the concept of making wishes that are granted and then letting us see the effect. And then just as we are getting used to what it happening and Ephraim decides to make one last wish, everything we know is upended and we learn that in fact, Ephraim is swapping places with himself in other universes, of which there are infinite numbers.

To create an element of suspense, one of the iterations of his best friend Nathan, is Nate, a sociopath who enjoys killing and hurting people and who is bent upon gaining control of the Charon device. Meyers creates believable characters, managing to change each one just a little in each new universe. But it is Ephraim who is best drawn; his sensitive conscience makes him realize the impact his choices are having on others, and the possible harm that Nate can do throughout the universe. This creates intense conflict and a difficult problem for this likable protagonist to solve.

Those readers who love their science fiction with a good dose of quantum physics will very much enjoy the well written Fair Coin. It is the first in the trilogy and the second book, Quantum Coin is now also available. You can learn more about E.C. Meyers from his website, and watch the book trailer here:

I'll be reviewing Quantum Coin in a few weeks.

Book Details:
Fair Coin by E.C. Meyers
Amherst New York: Pyr an imprint of Prometheus Books 2012
285 pp.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Holding on to Zoe by George Ella Lyon

This bizarre little book tells the strange story of sixteen year old Juliet McCauley, who becomes pregnant by her boyfriend Damon. It is one year after the Challenger accident - 1987 - and Jules lives with her mother in an apartment. Jules father left when she was five years old, abandoning her mother and moving out of state to remarry. Her mother, who works full time as a social worker, has little time for Jules, and they rarely have much to say to one another. Jules' mother is not happy, burdened with the care of a daughter, and trying to make ends meet. She constantly puts down Jules father, whom Jules remembers as the happy parent. But her mother is also distant and unemotional, considering expressing sorrow a sign of weakness.

When Jules becomes pregnant she typically has trouble telling her mother. So first she goes to see her school counselor who advises her to tell her mom but when Jules does tell her mother she refuses to believe her. So Jules, knowing that she is pregnant, decides to go see their family doctor, Dr. Brennan, who does a pregnancy test and orders an ultrasound when he suspects the Jules has an ectopic pregnancy. An ultrasound confirms this but Jules refuses to accept the loss of her baby. She tells the ultrasound specialist, Dr. Demato, that her baby is just waiting to make sure she is wanted.
'She had to be sure I was ready and she was welcome, that's all. She couldn't settle in because Mom didn't believe I was pregnant.'
It is at this point in the novel that the reader realizes what he/she suspected is in fact true; Jules is not mentally well.  When Demato explains how an ectopic pregnancy develops, Jules becomes violent and tries to run away. After having the pregnancy removed she is sent to Meadowview, a mental hospital. However Jules believes that she is working at a Toyota plant and that she has had her baby, who is now with her and staying in the company nursery. However, when their insurance runs out, Jules is removed from Meadowview and taken home by her mother who believes her to be "dramatic" and only interested in causing trouble.

An altercation with her mother leads Jule to be taken to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, where she wants her "baby" to be checked out. There recognize Jules problem and schedule her to meet with a specialist, Dr. Emma Douglas. In her talks, Jules discovers that she has kept Zoe in order to protect her, to keep her safe. But Jules doesn't feel safe because bad people are not allowed to feel safe. Zoe makes Jules feel safe. Jules has also been told that she can never cry, because tears are a sign of weakness.

Only as Emma leads Jules to uncover a secret past trauma,can Jules begin moving forward and heal. Jules situation is very tragic because she did the right thing when she was a child - she told an adult - her mother. But her mother refused to believe her just as later on, she refused to believe that Jules was pregnant.

This novel doesn't quite work. There is very little character development, something a story of this nature requires and Lyon has some interesting characters that she could have fleshed out more if she chose too. Reba was a wonderful friend who was supportive and caring, as was her mother. Even Dr. Douglas was someone the reader wanted to know more about. And Lyon's could have used Douglas to explain more about the problem Jules had and how it developed.

The resolution of Jules problem seems to come quite quickly in the last few chapters and the ending leaves us wondering how she will work through her problems. It seemed to me that her mother needs counseling as much as Jules does.

There are plenty of other well written books dealing with sexual abuse and its psychological effects on children. Holding on to Zoe is not one of them.

Book Details:
Holding On To Zoe by George Ella Lyon
New York: Margaret Ferguson Books      2012
166 pp.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Movie: The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is visual treat that effectively captures the excesses of post-war America, during a time commonly known as the Roaring 1920's.

The Great Gatsby is based on the book of the same name which tells the story of wealthy but mysterious Jay Gatsby who owns a palatial mansion in the fictional town of West Egg, on Long Island. The story is set in 1922 and as in the novel, the movie is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man from the Midwest America, a World War I veteran who has come to work in New York as a bond salesman. During the summer of 1922, he rents a small house on Long Island, which turns out be next door to enigmatic Gatsby, whom Carraway never sees.

Nick goes to visit his cousin, Daisy, who is married to wealthy Tom Buchanan, at their mansion across the bay in East Egg. There he meets Jordan Baker, a promising young golfer who tells him that Tom has a mistress named Myrtle Wilson. Tom, Jordan, and Nick travel to New York, picking up Myrtle who lives with her gas-station attendant husband, George, in an industrial area between East Egg and New York City. They party hard and Tom and Myrtle fight.

One night, out of the blue, Nick receives an invitation to one of Gatsby's parties which he accepts. At the party, Nick manages to meet the elusive Gatsby. Nick is amazed by the elaborate and decadent all-night parties that Gatsby throws at his mansion where booze flows freely, food of every type covers the tables along with dancing girls, bands and fireworks. Nick mentions that he knows Daisy Buchanan and Gatsby later approaches Nick and asks him to ask Daisy to tea at his house so that he can meet her.

Although Nick is reluctant to get involved, he does arrange for the two to meet and Daisy and Gatsby soon begin an affair. Nick learns that Jay Gatsby knew Daisy before she married and that they were both in love with one another but upon his return from the war, she had wed Tom.Gatsby tells Nick that everything he has done, the beautiful house, the lavish parties are all for Daisy. He wants to show her that he now has the money that he lacked five years earlier when he returned from overseas.

Tom eventually begins to suspect that his wife is involved with Gatsby and he is furious despite the fact that he too is having an extra-marital affair. The five of them, Gatsby, Tom, Daisy, Jordan and Nick take a trip into New York on a hot humid night where Tom confronts Daisy and Gatsby and tells them that he knows about them. Gatsby tries to get Daisy to tell Tom that she is in love with him and that she is leaving him, but Daisy is unable to. She discovers that she loves both Tom and Gatsby but that her loyalty lies with her husband.

After a heated argument, Tom drives home in Gatsby's blue car with Jordan and Nick, while Gatsby takes Tom's car and is accompanied by Daisy. In a race to return to the Buchanan's home, Myrtle, Tom's lover who doesn't want to leave Long Island with her husband, runs out to try to stop Tom's car but is run over. When Nick and Tom arrive at the accident scene they are sickened by the fact that Gatsby did not stop.

Worried that the police will blame him for the accident, Tom tells Myrtle's husband, George, that he was not driving his car but that Gatsby was. This piece of information will have significant repercussions for all involved.  Gatsby still believes that Daisy will call him and tell him that she is leaving her husband but that call never comes. Things do not go as planned for Gatsby and in the end Nick leaves New York, disillusioned and disgusted.

The movie closely follows Fitzgerald's novel and brilliantly portrays the 1920s flapper culture and rapid cultural and moral changes that permeated the decade following the horrors of the First World War. Luhrmann captures the dark side of the American dream of the self made man which is corrupted by the excesses of wealth and the immorality of using others. Gatsby was a self made man but one who made his money from illegal activities. He believed that if he just had enough wealth, he could get whatever he wanted and what he wanted was Daisy Buchanan. He used everyone around him to that end, including Nick Carraway.

None of the cast particularly stands out in the movie, but each plays their part well to weave together Gatsby's story. Leonardo DiCaprio is adequate as Jay Gatsby, mainly because he plays a refined gentlemen, part of the nouveau riche, and therefore is in a role that doesn't require much depth. The character doesn't really stretch DiCaprio's limited acting abilities. Toby Maquire is well cast as Nick Carraway, the narrator who hails from the midwest and newly arrived on Long Island. Maguire manages to portray Nick as someone amazed by Gatsby, but uncomfortable and in the end completely disgusted and disillusioned with their lifestyle. Daisy Buchanan is played by Carey Mulligan who does a wonderful job capturing the essence of a woman who married for money and not love.

Much was made of hip hop artist Jay-Z composing songs for the movie with many of us wondering what the director was thinking. However, the mixture of hip-hop and George Gershwin mostly works, giving a very unique soundtrack to the movie, and partnering well with the overwhelming visuals. The sound track adds considerably to the movie experience. Songs include Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Bryan Ferry's Love is the Drug, St. Louis Blues, Fat's Waller's Ain't Misbehavin, Jay-Z's No Church in the Wild, 100$ Bill, and Who Gon Stop Me and Over the Love by Florence and the Machine.

I was disappointed this movie was offered in 3D, of which I'm not much of a fan, partly because watching a 3D movie means I have to wear two pairs of glasses. The other major issue I have with 3D is that I am forced to focus on what the director deems important. If I want to look at the set behind Leonardo DiCaprio, I can't because he stands out and everything behind him is a blur. That's an important part of the cinematic experience that is lost.

Nevertheless, The Great Gatsby is wonderful movie. Enjoy the trailer here and go see the movie. It is worth it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd

The Madman's Daughter continues the trend in young adult literature of using a classic novel, in this case, H.G. Well's, The Island of Dr. Moreau, as the backstory for a new novel. In this novel, the story is a retelling of the H. G. Wells novel but includes the fictitious daughter of Dr. Moreau.

Since the scandal and disappearance that beset her father, Dr. Moreau, life has not been good to sixteen year old Juliet Moreau. Initially Juliet and her mother were left penniless until her mother became a wealthy man's mistress. When her mother died of consumption and no relatives would take her in,  Juliet was hired on by King's College of Medical Research in London, working as a maid.

One night Juliet discovers a group of medical students using a drawing of her father's while performing a vivisection (the dissection of live animals). She traces the drawing to the Blue Boar Inn where she believes her father to be hiding. Instead, she finds her father's young former assistant, Montgomery, and a deformed animal-like man named Balthazar, sharing a room. Montgomery is no longer a thin boy of sixteen, but has grown into a handsome, well built man. Juliet learns that her father is alive and living on an island near Australia.

After an altercation with a doctor at King's College results in the London police searching for her, Juliet is forced  to accompany Montgomery and his assistant, Balthazar on their return voyage to her father's mysterious island in the South Pacific. They arrange passage on a ship and take several months to arrive at their destination. The voyage is, for the most part a typical one, except for the discovery of a man, Edward Prince, who is the sole survivor of a ship wreck. Given the choice of staying on board or accompanying Juliet and Montgomery to the island, Edward choices the island.

Dr. Moreau is surprised but happy to see his daughter. He is not so welcoming of Edward. Juliet is disturbed to see that many of the islanders are similar, if not more deformed than Balthazar. Not only that but her father and Montgomery appear to live in fear of something outside of their research compound. She is determined to discover the truth about her father; is he a genius or a madman? The scandal which broke in London and led him to flee involved some kind of  butchery and Juliet means to uncover the truth.

It isn't long before Juliet learns the secrets of her father's research and the horrors that lie hidden in the humid jungles of the island. As Juliet discovers the exact nature of his "research" in a lab, nicknamed "The Blood House" by the island inhabitants, she struggles to overcome her sense of horror and revulsion and come to terms with the scientific curiosity that wells up within her. His use of vivisection to create humans out of animals is diabolical and cruel to Juliet. Even worse is Montgomery's apparent willingness to defend Moreau, help the bizarre creatures and even participate in Moreau's research.

As Juliet struggles to settle into life on the island she discovers an island full of her father's creatures, some of whom are living in a village. The entire island is wrapped in fear as something is those creatures living outside the research compound.  As her father and Montgomery struggle to find and kill the monster murdering the inhabitants, Juliet struggles to understand who she really is and if her father is truly mad.

When there is evidence that the killing is continuing, Dr. Moreau decides to stop the treatment of all his creatures on the island. Without this treatment, the creatures he has created regress back to their animal forms, but retaining some of their human character. As the creatures regress, they begin to revolt against Moreau and Edward, Montgomery, and Juliet realize that they must leave the island as soon as possible.

As if this isn't enough to cope with, Juliet becomes part of a love triangle that includes Montgomery and Edward. Juliet's ties to Montgomery go back to her childhood in London and she is desperately attracted to him as he is overwhelmingly handsome. But Juliet is revolted by Montgomery's part in her father's research. She also becomes aware that Alice, one of her father's creatures is in love with Montgomery.

In contrast, Edward is seemingly refined, wealthy and made the choice to come to the island because he knew about the scandal surrounding Dr. Moreau and he chivalrously wants to protect Juliet. However, Juliet suspects he has a dark secret in his past that he is none to eager to share with her.

Juliet is also struggling with her identity both as the daughter of a scandalous, cruel researcher and as a person receiving a mysterious treatment for an undisclosed glycogen deficiency. Her injections look very similar to those the creatures receive and Juliet begins to worry that she might be one of her father's morbid creations.

Eventually, the island descends into chaotic horror pitting men against beasts, secrets are revealed, and loyalty and love are tested to the very limit.

Shepherd has done a wonderful job creating a compelling read that combines sensual romance, with heart-pounding suspense and a dash of gothic darkness.Unlike Kenneth Oppel's novels about Dr. Frankenstein, which create a new story that imagines Victor Frankenstein's life before he creates his monster, Shepherd has chosen to  rewrite Well's Dr. Moreau story with some significant changes. Instead of being told through the voice of Edward Prendick, the shipwrecked protagonist of Wells' novel, Shepherd's story is narrated by his daughter Juliet who was not a part of Well's classic. Balthazar is a M'Ling-like character from the original novel, a creature created by Moreau out of a dog, bear and horse.

Although she does a remarkable job, I can't help but wonder if her version will ruin the original classic for these readers. Shepherd's story has more melodrama and has a strong romantic element that will appeal to teen readers. She has left the ending open because this part of a trilogy, with the second book incorporating the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde novel.

The book trailer is tame and bland, hinting at the conflict Juliet Moreau experiences as she discovers the true nature of her father's work but failing to capture the gothic darkness of Shepherd's novel:

I didn't like the cover and felt that is was somewhat inaccurate. I think the cover could have been improved by placing the dishevelled figure of Juliet in a tropical setting rather than by a lake in what looks to be a temperate location. Nevertheless this book will garner much interest by those who love gothic novels.

Book Details:
The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd
New York: Balzer & Bray an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers 2013
420 pp.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The novel opens with eighteen year old Korobi Roy's engagement to Rajat Bose. Korobi has been raised by her grandmother, Sarojini and her grandfather, Bimal Prasad Roy, of whom Korobi is very fond. Korobi's grandparents raised her after her mother Anu died during childbirth. Her father had died only months earlier in a car accident.

Korobi has always secretly desired that her mother would appear to her. Such apparitions are considered an omen of impending disaster. The night before her big engagement party, Korobi has a dream in which her mother appears to her. She cannot speak but insistently points to the ocean with the setting sun. Korobi understands that her mother wishes her to travel across the ocean to find something and when she awakes, she knows she must find out what the dream means.

Korobi has only known Rajat for a mere three months, after meeting him at a party. Rajat had just broken up with Sonia, a girl who is rich and well connected. Korobi is quite different from Sonia who leads the life of a wealthy party girl. She comes from a traditional family and has led a protected life, having been sent to a boarding school.

After the engagement ceremony, Korobi is stunned to hear her grandfather ask the Boses to agree to have Rajat and Korobi marry in three months. The Boses agree to this, but Korobi is furious with her beloved grandfather for not asking her first. They quarrel with both of them saying things they regret and Korobi leaves for the big engagement dinner. Later on that evening,  her grandfather has a heart attack and dies.

The death of Bimal causes great grief to both Sarojini and Korobi. When Korobi accuses her grandmother of not having loved Bimal, Sarojini tells her that she has never been forced to keep family secrets as she has done. She then reveals to Korobi the truth about her mother and father.

This unexpected revelation turns Korobi's world upside down because she now believes that she must go to America to find her father. She feels this is the message her mother was attempting to impart to her in her dream. But going to America will have real personal repercussions for Korobi, Rajat and his family, as well as for Sarojini.

It turns out that both families are doing poorly financially. For the Bose family, they are counting on the financial backing of an important Indian politican, Mr. Bhattacharya, for their failing art gallery in New York. When Korobi visits Rajat's mother  to explain to her why she must go to America, her future mother-in-law explains just how important Mr. Bhattacharya is to her family's failing gallery business. His constituents are very traditional, frowning on those who marry outside the Hindu faith as Korobi's mother did and now as Rajat will be doing, since Korobi is half American. Rajat's mother, Maman advises Korobi against going to America to find her father,  to marry her son quickly and then everything will blow over. They will still have the financial backing they so desperately need.

But Korobi cannot do this. This would dishonor her mother, who was so terribly wronged by her own family. She offers to break off her engagment to Rajat, which infuriates both Mrs. Bose and Rajat. However, Rajat who is struggling to establish himself in his family's business and to cope with his ex-girfriend's obsessive behaviour recognizes that this is important to Korobi. So as a compromise, he offers her one month overseas to search for her missing father, which Korobi accepts.

Korobi, with little knowledge of America and limited funds, flies to New York to begin a month long search for her long lost father. It is a search that will forever change her life. With the help of an American man of Indian descent, Vic, who is working with the private detective Korobi hired, she is is encouraged to continue when the situation is bleak. During this time both Rajat and Korobi will see their  blossoming love tested to the limit,  ties between family and friends strengthened and more family secrets uncovered.

Dvakaruni has written a coming of age novel to relish. It is rich in characters, has an interesting storyline that is filled with conflict, intrigue and romance. Korobi's search for her father is woven in a tapestry of narratives told by Korobi, Rajat, Sarojini, Mrs. Bose, and various other characters. These narratives all come together for a very satisfying ending.

Korobi is an endearing, strong character who despite many obstacles perseveres to the end. Korobi must cope with a new culture and the newly resurrected prejudices in post-9/11 America. As she learns more about her heritage, Korobi must come to terms with how this will affect her life back in India and her relationship with her friends and family. Her steadfast loyalty to Rajat, despite his secretive nature about Sonia,  helps him change his life for the better.

Rajat is an interesting character, extremely conflicted and struggling to develop his own identity within his family and their business. His inexperience leads him to make bad choices, but within himself is the desire to be a better person for Korobi and to do right by both his parents and their employees. His journey is one of maturity and self knowledge. He quickly comes to realize that he is not worthy of Korobi and seeks to become a better person.

Oleander Girl touches on the racial tensions in both American and India in the early 21st century. As mentioned, there is the prejudice against Muslims in America after the terrorist attacks of 2011 which spill over into the Indian community. Dvakaruni also mentions the riots in India between Muslims and Hindus and the racial tension in the Bose's warehouse. One can appreciate just how hard it must be to navigate between two races with such in-grained hatred towards one another.

Another strong theme in the novel is the conflict between old India with its strict caste system and customs surrounding marriage and honor and the new India struggling to modernize. This clash is seen between the Bose and Roy families and is mirrored also between Vic and Korobi in America.

Oleander Girl is a captivating read that will appeal to those who enjoy novels exploring culture and identity, with a bit of romance and suspense thrown in.

Book Details:
Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
New York: Simon & Schuster  2012
289 pp.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Stealing Heaven by Elizabeth Scott

The story of my life can be told in silver: in chocolate mills, serving spoons, and services for twelve. The story of my life has nothing to do with me. The story of my life is in things. Things that aren't mine, that won't ever be mine. It's all I've ever known.
I wish it wasn't.
Stealing Heaven is one of Elizabeth Scott's earlier novels, having been published in 2008. It's an unusual story about a mother-daughter burglar team told in the voice of the daughter, eighteen year old Danielle. All Dani can ever remember is a life of stealing. She's never had a permanent home, she's never had real friends, and she's never been to school. Danielle and her mother specialize in stealing silverware from the homes of the wealthy. They move from town to town, try to blend in, research the wealthy homes, rob them and then move on. Dani's father went to jail years ago and then never returned after he was released.

Dani's mother decides their next job will be in the small vacation community of Heaven. They find a cheap place to rent and Dani who uses the pseudonym "Sydney", is sent to the beach to learn what she can about the community and particularly the wealthy who own homes in the area. Meanwhile her mother spends time at the local bar picking up men and sorting through tidbits of gossip.

But as she moves around in the little community of Heaven, Dani begins to form real relationships, something her mother has never allowed her to do due to the nature of their lives. At the beach she meets the chatty Allison Donaldson, whose family is wealthy. Allison, who wants to be friends with Danielle,  has a crush on Brad whose family is not wealthy. Dani also meets good looking James who is Allison's brother, and who tries to get Dani's attention. But Danielle doesn't like James, whom she instantly recognizes as being similar to her mother.

The relationship that has the most effect on Danielle however,  is the one she has with a local cop, Greg Tollver. Danielle first meets Greg several times at the supermarket and then later on when he is on duty at a yacht club party. The last thing Danielle should be doing is attracting the interest of the local cop. But Greg is kind, funny, and Danielle finds she can talk to him. She tries her best to push Greg away, not telling him her name, and constantly answering his questions with her own questions. But Greg's persistence finally pays off and Danielle agrees to go to Edge Island with him for a date.

After meeting Allison and James at the beach, Danielle learns that her mother is interested in robbing a house owned by the Donaldsons and soon discovers that this is Allison's home.Her mother begins planning the robbery of the home and sends Danielle to work as a maid. They decide that the next time Danielle goes into the Donaldson house to clean she will steal their 200 piece 1840 silverware set and leave Heaven.

Despite her mother's plans, Danielle experiences tremendous guilt and conflict because doing the Donaldson job means she will be stealing from a girl who has been kind and befriended her and it also means that she will have to leave behind both Allison and especially Greg. Danielle doesn't want to leave Heaven. She wants to have a home and friends. But she also feels that she owes her mother everything since she has always been there for her and cared for her. Danielle must decide where he loyalties lie with her mother or with those who care for her in Heaven?

Stealing Heaven is one of the best young adult novels I have read. The title is reference to several things; first of course the fact that Danielle and her mother are in Heaven to steal and secondly it is a reference to a sculpture of the same name which Danielle sees at a museum near the end of the book.

There are two outstanding features of this novel. The first is that Scott is brilliant at creating realistic, witty dialogue. The dialogue between Greg and Dani is especially well done, often quite funny but sometimes very touching. The author is able to provide her readers with an understanding of the relationship between the two main characters through the use of dialogue - how Greg truly cares for Dani and how Dani is attracted to him but can't comprehend his feelings for her. This is in contrast to her relationship with her mother who uses Danielle and is very controlling and manipulative. Their relationship is defined by what is left unsaid. Danielle wants to tell her mother how she feels about the life they are leading but she can't.

Danielle's mother "Miranda" is a genuinely unlikeable character throughout much of the book. Although she claims she loves her daughter, she has chosen her way of life for Danielle without much thought as to what this will mean for Danielle as an adult. She assumes her daughter will make the same choices as she has. Danielle's mother uses people, including her own daughter, something Danielle is keenly aware of and tries to avoid doing. We get a sense that Danielle doesn't want to be like her mother.
"I remember how much she (Allison) likes Brad, a regular guy, a guy who doesn't even have connections to money. Mom would call Brad -- she wouldn't call him anything. He'd have nothing she could use, and so she'd never notice him."

The second outstanding feature of Stealing Heaven is the conflict the main character feels. Danielle is struggling because she doesn't identify with her mother's life as a petty criminal. When they arrive in Heaven, Danielle knows that she is supposed to maintain her distance and not get close to anyone. But both Allison and Greg are not like other people Danielle has met in her life. Allison doesn't judge people by how much money they have and Greg is the first man who has respected her boundaries and who has shown genuine concern for her. This leads Danielle to the understanding that she wants more from life; she wants to have a home, to have friends and a real job. Unlike her mother, Danielle wants to make connections with people that last. Her mother has lost her ability to trust and form lasting relationships because of what happened between her and Dani's father and also due to the nature of the life she lives. Danielle isn't quite so jaded yet - she knows only what her mother has told her. Consequently, she is able to take the risk to trust when challenged by Greg and as she discovers, she is not let down.

Greg's shortening of Danielle's name to Dani signifies the beginning of the change of her identity from Danielle a thief, to Dani who can be anything and who makes her own life decisions. Greg encourages her to simply stop stealing and to create a new life for herself. It is because of Greg's support that Dani is able to make the decisions she does when her mother becomes ill. She now has the opportunity to actively change her life for the better.

Stealing Heaven is wonderful story of redemption, hope and coming of age. This book was a 2009 Best Books for Young Adults choice.  You can learn about Elizabeth Scott and her other books at

Book Details:
Stealing Heaven by Elizabeth Scott
New York: HarperTeen  2008
307 pp.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Lives We Lost by Megan Crewe

The Lives We Lost is the second book in the post-apocalyptic Fallen Worlds trilogy by Canadian author, Megan Crewe. Kaelyn's friend, Leo, arrives unexpectedly on the island ferry with news about the mainland. To the shock of everyone, Leo tells those on the island that the virus had infected nearly everyone in both Canada, the United States, and most likely the world. Everyone is just as badly off as those on the island and help will not be forthcoming.

As the pandemic continues to rage, Kaelyn is now sharing a house with her boyfriend, Gav, her cousin Meredith, and Tessa and the recently returned Leo. When Kaelyn finds the keys to her father's research center, she decides to investigate to see if he had made any progress in developing a treatment for the virus. She finds the lab intact, her father's notes on his research into a cure, and several vials of vaccine. Apparently her father injected himself with vaccine three weeks before he was murdered, so Kaelyn feels certain that he must have found an antidote for the illness.

Kaelyn approaches Nell at the hospital, telling her about the find and asking her if she can make more. But Nell tells Kaelyn that she doesn't have the expertise. So Kaelyn decides that she must travel to the mainland to find someone who can replicate her father's work and produce more vaccine.

Initially Kaelyn and Gav decide they will make the journey to Ottawa in the hopes of locating scientists. But when the island is attacked by a military helicopter, they along with Leo, Meredith, and Tessa flee, with the help of a mainlander who came to warn them. This man, Tobias Rawls, is a young soldier from a nearby, secret military base on mainland Nova Scotia. Tobias has an armoured vehicle and he is asked to join them on their trek to Ottawa. After scavenging supplies from nearby stores, the group sets out.

As expected, things do not go as planned. Just as they enter New Brunswick, they run out of gas. When the group goes to look for fuel, their truck is vandalized and they must now walk on foot to Ottawa. Packing as much supplies as possible onto sleds they continue their journey on foot by following a major highway. However, those who vandalized them are not so eager to see them leave. Kaelyn's group narrowly escapes these people who are armed and driving a green van, by hiding in the forest by the highway. They continue onward traveling in the woods adjacent to the highway until they arrive at a hidden colony run by Hilary Cloutier. The colony was once an artist's colony for painters, writers, and composers to spend some time working on their craft. At the colony they meet a woman from Ottawa who tells them that traveling to the capital will be pointless because the government and scientists have abandoned the city.

So Kaelyn and her friends, Gav, Leo, and Tobias decide to travel to Toronto because of its numerous hospitals and the higher probability of locating researchers who might be able to make vaccine. Kaelyn decides to leave Meredith with Tessa who has opted to stay behind at the colony. But before they can set out, the unknown people in the van search the colony. Everyone hides, the vigilantes leave and the group manages to flee safely, although they have now unwittingly picked up Hilary's son, Justin, an unpredictable teenager who doesn't fully understand the dangers involved.

Kaelyn's goal now is to try to arrive safely in Toronto with the vaccine. But Kaelyn has an unknown group pursuing her and they seem to know that she has a vaccine. When they arrive in Toronto, Gav falls ill with the virus. Leo and Kaelyn learn that a man from British Columbia, Michael, has risen to take control of every area he passes through by offering food and medicine to those who will side with him. Known as Michael's Wardens, they are now in pursuit of Kaelyn. Can she outwit her pursuers and keep the vaccine from falling into the wrong hands?Can Kaelyn save both Gav and Tobias?

Crewe's novel is a decent second installment in the Fallen World series. Kaelyn and her group must deal with the winter weather, a lack of food, the ever present danger of contracting the virus, and the knowledge that they are being pursued by hostile survivors. However, for the most part, any hardships the group encounters seem to be easily remedied and any suspense created by their pursuers is not sustained. Instead the focus is on the main characters having to accept the fact that the lives they once had are gone forever - a point Kaelyn returns to again and again. They are hopeful that a vaccine might make their lives what they once were.
" 'I don't want our lives to stay like this, ' he said. 'I don't know if this vaccine is going to make a difference, but it could. It's the best chance we've got. I want to fight for that....' "
Kaelyn is presented as a strong female character who, although having doubts, generally seems completely determined to find someone who can replicate her father's vaccine even though she's not certain that the vaccine works. (There is a hint that it does because both Gav and Tobias were not innoculated and by the end of the novel, they are now sick. Tessa and Leo were and remain healthy.) Even when she witnesses the unintended murder of the three people tailing them, she seems to quickly recover. Even when Gav becomes desperately ill, Kaelyn still remains focused on her goal - to get the vaccines to someone who can make more of the same.

The basic storyline is somewhat predictable - we knew that both Gav and Tobias would likely sicken after Gav refuses the vaccine and Kaelyn doesn't offer Tobias an inoculation. And we know it's predictable that they would be pursued by someone wanting what they have. Having an army man who just happens to be a crack shot,  along for the adventure turns out to come in quite handy too. There's the hint of a love triangle, with Kaelyn loving Gav, but unable to admit to herself that she is attracted to her best friend, Leo who is put out when his girlfriend, Tessa, seems more interested in gardening than being with him. But it all makes for an enjoyable read and a suspenseful but hanging ending to the second novel.

Book Details:
The Lives We Lost by Megan Crewe
New York: Hyperion    2013
276 pp.