Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Year of Luminous Love by Lurlene McDaniel

This complex and at times heartwarming novel tells the story of three girls, best friends, who face numerous challenges in the year after high school.

Ciana Beauchamp is heir to the Beauchamp farm which has been in her family for generations. Her father and grandfather died when she was six years old in the crash of their single-engine Cessna. Ciana's grandmother, Olivia, who is now eighty-five years old, had looked after Bellmeade after their deaths. Unfortunately, Olivia's daughter, Alice Faye, is an alcoholic. Now that Olivia is suffering from dementia, running Bellmeade has fallen on Ciana's shoulders.

Artemis Diane Winslow or Arie as she is called by her friends, is in remission from the cancer she has been fighting since she was five years old. Arie plans on attending Middle Tennessee State University in the fall to study art history. As a celebration for being in remission, Arie's family has arranged for her to have her own horse, a private trainer and six months of private boarding, feed, and tack at Bill Pickin's cattle ranch.

Eighteen year old Eden McLauren lives most of the time with her boyfriend, Tony Cicero. Eden met Tony when she was fourteen years old when she was once again abandoned by her mother, Gwen, who suffers from manic-depressive disorder.Unable to cope with the repeated abandonment by her mother, Eden began cutting herself to ease the pain of loneliness. Her relationship with Tony at first is one of friendship but soon becomes sexual. As time passes, Eden realizes that Tony is a drug dealer who is completely obsessed with her. His "love" and control over her life is now suffocating and she wants out.

The three young women planned to celebrate Arie's remission by going to a new dance hall in Nashville. However, a surprise barbecue for Arie by her family means she can't attend, so Ciana and Eden go together. It is at Boot Steppers that Ciana meets a handsome cowboy  who works on the rodeo circuit but who dreams of owning his own horse ranch someday. They hit it off immediately and spend the night together under the stars.  However, Ciana leaves abruptly and without giving the handsome stranger her name and phone number and without knowing his name either.

Weeks later Ciana discovers that the handsome stranger is Jon Peterson, who is Arie's horse trainer. As the weeks pass, Arie falls hard for Jon, unaware that he is only interested in Ciana. Despite Jon's repeated attempts to restart their relationship, Ciana refuses, mainly out of deference to her friend and at great personal cost. Although she loves Jon, she also values her friendship with Arie and doesn't want to see her friend hurt.

Meanwhile Eden struggles in her relationship with Tony and decides that somehow she must find a way out. When Ciana's grandmother, Olivia passes away, Ciana comes into a small fortune which is to be used for her education. Instead, hoping to escape her troubled relationship with Jon, Ciana decides to use the money to travel overseas to Tuscany, Italy. She rents a villa there and invites both Arie and Eden to come with her. For Eden, this is the perfect chance to escape Tony while the trip offers Arie a chance to finally see the beautiful art masterpieces of Europe.

However, for Arie the trip will mean a choice. She has just learned her cancer has returned and against her doctor's advice, Arie decides against treatment and also against telling her two best friends and her family. Arie comes to this decision because she realizes that her entire life has been defined by cancer and she no longer wants to live this way. She does however, confide in Jon who urges her, unsuccessfully, to tell them. Instead Arie travels to Europe, knowing that she will eventually become very sick. What the three young women do not know is that their stay in Tuscany will forever change their lives in ways they cannot imagine.

McDaniel has stated that she wrote The Year of Luminous Love for her teen fans who have grown up reading her novels and I would definitely agree it is for mature teens(18 +) and adults. Each of the characters have a complex set of problems and experience mature situations which overall make the story quite interesting. However there are some aspects to the story which did not appeal to me, one in particular, involving Arie and Jon.

Arie is desperately in love with Jon - it is a first love for her. Jon however, only loves Ciana, who refuses to publicly acknowledge her attraction to him, for fear of hurting Arie. Arie is her best friend who has never had a chance at love and who may never have that chance given her battle with cancer. Arie recognizes soon enough that Jon, although kind and respectful, doesn't reciprocate her feelings. Despite this, Arie cannot get over Jon and she takes the liberty of inviting him to Italy after they have arrived in the country. He accepts, for various reasons outlined in the story, but a main one is to see Ciana again. However once in Italy, Arie begs him to let her stay the night at his hotel. Although Jon has no feelings for her, when she continues to pressure him, he reluctantly agrees. He does this partly because Ciana once again rebuffs him - literally pushing Jon towards Arie, and also in what seems to be a sense of pity for Arie. This results in Jon and Arie spending two nights together. I have to say that this part of the novel bothered me more than any other aspect of the storyline.

Jon is portrayed from the beginning as a very honourable man - he's honest, hard-working and a protector. His role as a protector is demonstrated at the beginning of the novel when he doesn't take advantage of Ciana after she becomes intoxicated at Boot Steppers. When Arie shows obvious interest in him at the horse ranch, he again doesn't take advantage emotionally of her, but tries to keep his distance, knowing that his heart lies elsewhere. Even when she first asks Jon to sleep with her, he initially refuses but then he agrees. This choice is out of character for the person McDaniel has created throughout the first part of the novel. It is a choice that will have serious repercussions for Jon as he attempts to reestablish a relationship with Ciana later on.

By agreeing to sleep with Arie, a woman he doesn't love, Jon loses his honour and his role as a protector. He is lying with his body to Aries, a woman already deeply wounded both physically and emotionally by her lifelong battle with cancer. It is pretend love, something Arie knows deep inside but doesn't acknowledge until later on, when she visibly sees that Jon and Ciana love one another. Despite that fact that Arie maintains to the end of the novel that she doesn't regret her actions with Jon, one wonders why she feels this way, since what they shared was not real. Was it because she finally got to have sex with a man before she becomes too ill - and is she really that superficial? (There are several novels in the young adult canon focusing exactly on this theme -- as if having sex is the be all and end all of one's existence.)

The other aspect that bothered me about this, is Arie's using of Jon in what amounts to her seeking physical comfort for her loneliness and the justification for her behaviour because she is terminally ill. In the end,  Jon and Arie's actions in the end hurt themselves and Ciana. Both Arie and Jon's relationship with Ciana was strained, and created a great deal of conflict between all three characters. If I were Ciana, I would want no part of Jon Peterson after this.

I can see why McDaniel utilized this storyline as it created a great deal of drama and conflict in the novel, although she could have omitted the two-night stand and still have achieved the same level of interest.

Another aspect I wondered about was how realistic it would be for a cowboy on the rodeo circuit to travel over to Europe. These guys live and breathe bronco riding. Would a guy travel to Italy for four days to see three girls? 

In some ways this novel felt like a combination of a Harlequin cowboy romance and Under the Tuscan Sun - a movie about a newly divorced woman who spends time in beautiful Tuscany to try to recover from the loss of her marriage. But overall, The Year of Luminous Love is a good read for adult fans of Lurlene McDaniel  who will undoubtedly enjoy this novel despite some of the cliched dialogue and the few weak areas of the story. Where McDaniel excels is portraying with acute clarity, the suffering and the dignity of those who have serious illnesses and those who care for them. These kinds of characters allow her readers to identify with some of the basic questions about life and death.

The Year of Luminous Love is the first book in the Windemere series, the second of which will be published in 2014 and is titled, The Year of Chasing Dreams.

Book Details:
The Year of Luminious Love by Lurlene Mc Daniel
New York: Delacorte Press      2013
362 pp.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Serendipity and Me by Judith Roth

Serendipity and Me is a sweet, touching novel in verse that tells the story of a young girl and her father trying to cope with an unimaginable loss. Sara who is in Grade 6, lives in Central California with her father who is a college professor. Her mother passed away three years earlier as a result of a car accident. The story opens with Sara rehearsing for a play that her class will put on the following Saturday. She is Wendy and a boy she is crushing on, Garrett, has the role of Peter Pan. However, four days before the performance, Sara becomes very ill. When it becomes apparent that she will not recover in time, the part is given to another classmate. This is devastating to Sara.

While her father works at the college across the street, Sara who is home sick is cared for by a neighbour, Mrs. Whittier,  and also one of her father's students, a young woman named Jocelyn. Despite Sara not knowing her, she tells Jocelyn about losing her part in the play, how much she misses mother and how sad her father has become over the loss of his wife. When Jocelyn sees all the cat pictures in Sara's room, she asks why Sara doesn't have a cat. Sara tells her that her father has repeatedly refused her a cat. But Sara desperately wants a cat. Because a cat will give her something warm and soft to love again.

Then on the Saturday of the play, when Sara is at her lowest, knowing the play is going ahead without her, someone rings the doorbell and leaves a little white kitten on her doorstep. Her father is adamant that the kitten will not stay. Sara manages to convince her father to let her keep the kitten until the morning and then for a week, by lying to him about her best friend Taylor's mom considering taking the cat. Sara has one week to try to convince her father that what she really needs and wants is this little soft kitten.
I think --
         No is not a fair word
         when you're a kid
         without a mother
         and you need something soft
         to hold on to.
The following week Sara returns to school and tries to find ways to change her father's mind about the kitten. But Sara also tries to get her father to open up about her mother. Every time she broaches the subject her father retreats. When Sara has to bring a picture of her family into school for an assignment, she cannot find one of her with both her parents.This leads her to hunt for a box of pictures that she knows her father has saved and when she finds it, the pictures in the box  provide some clues about her mother, but also lead to more questions. Sara knows she needs to confront her father about her mother and why she can't keep the lost kitten.

Her father, seeing that Sara is beginning to want to know about her mother and their family,  gives her a book that Sara's mother gave him when they first met years ago. The book is copy of poems by Sara Teasdale which her mother, Aislinn, gave to Sara's father, when they were in college. This combined with a box of pictures that Sara finds and a CD her mother made of her telling Sara a bedtime fairytale, help Sara to learn more about her mother and to begin to deal with her grief. But her father's resolution of his grief seems impossible. And it appears more and more that his unwillingness to have a cat in the house is tied to the loss of Sara's mother. Will Sara ever get her father to confront his grief and allow her to express her own?

Roth's poetry is simple yet expressive, conveying a young girls deep loss of her mother and her father's intense loneliness and grief. Sara's father's grief is so intense that he cannot talk about it. However a little white kitten named Serendipity brings father and daughter together to talk about a person they both loved and lost. The poems are free verse and tell the story from Sara's point of view. Sara discovers that her mother loved poetry and also wrote poems and so this leads Sara to try her hand at poetry too.

While the basic storyline is sad, Roth incorporates a hint of a blossoming crush between Sara and Garrett. She also demonstrates how acts of kindness on the part of neighbours and classmates can go a long way to comforting those who are going through a difficult time in their life. Despite the tragedy Sara and her father have experienced and the difficulties they have faced, the novel ends with a hopeful, positive tone.

This beautiful story makes an excellent choice for a Mother-Daughter book club.

Book Details:
Serendipity and Me by Judith Roth
New York: Viking Press 2013
312 pp.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Thousand Words by Jennifer Brown

In Thousand Words, well known author, Jennifer Brown, takes on the controversial subject of sexting.The novel opens in the present, with seventeen year old Ashleigh Maynard relating her current situation of doing 60 hours of community work, while telling in flashbacks, how she came to send her older boyfriend a picture of herself and what happened after.

The story of how this happened opens with Ashleigh going to her best friend, Vonnie's, annual end-of-summer party. For the past year Ashleigh has been dating a senior, Kaleb Coats. Their relationship has not been a sexual one but has consisted mainly of talking, doing things together with friends. But this summer, Kaleb and his friends last one together, he has been preoccupied with hanging out with his friends, playing baseball. Kaleb tells Ashleigh they will be together forever, but Ashleigh wonders how their relationship can continue once Kaleb is in college. How will Kaleb view Ashleigh after being with college girls?

When Vonnie pressures Ashleigh about Kaylebs in her life, another friend, Rachel suggests she send Kaleb a nude picture of herself. Feeling insecure about her place in their relationship and worried that she will lose Kaleb once he goes to college, Ashleigh decides to do it. At first there appear to be no repercussions. Kaleb goes off to college and becomes involved in life on campus, while Ashleigh returns to high school as an upperclassman. Although Ashleigh accepts Kayleb decision to break up with her, her friends think he's wronged her and set out to even the score. But it doesn't end there because Kaleb decides to share Ashleigh's picture, bringing humiliation, chaos, and a crisis of astronomical proportions into both their lives.

Thousand Words is a very timely novel considering the recent incidents in both the United States and Canada involving teens who sexted, then were bullied and eventually driven to commit suicide. The title takes its name from the adage, "A picture is a thousand words."  Brown deftly creates the situation that leads Ashleigh to sext her boyfriend and then shows her readers the consequences of this act. Ashleigh is suspended, kicked off the cross country team and is charged with creating and sharing child pornography. Her actions not only affect her and Kaleb, but the many students in the school who receive and pass along the image. Even her parents are affected as her father almost loses his job and her mother who works with children at a preschool, see her business affected.

The characters in Thousand Words. are for the most part, believable. Ashleigh is a typical teenager - immature and unaware of the consequences that follow risky behaviour. Infatuated with her first boyfriend, she wants to please him but is insecure in the relationship. As teenagers are apt to not do, she doesn't think through the consequences of sending a nude picture of herself to Kaleb. Of course a big part of the problem is that she is drunk when she makes her decision to take the picture. Ashleigh trusts him to keep the picture private, never dreaming he might someday use it to hurt her. Like many young women who have their first boyfriend in high school, Ashleigh believes that she and Kaleb will be together forever. Naively she believes Kaleb when he tells her this but doesn't pick up on how his actions demonstrate otherwise. She is shocked and deeply hurt when he breaks up with her but humiliated, angered and feeling betrayed when he shares the picture.
"I'd never have us back, not the way we used to be. It wouldn't be possible after everything that had happened. I wanted to have that innocence back -- the kind of innocence where I would never believe that a boy I loved would hurt me."

Ashleigh grows throughout the story. At first she can see only the wrong done to her by Kaleb, but eventually she begins to accept that many people were responsible for what happened including herself. She takes responsibility for what she has done and decides that she will no longer be a victim, but will try to move on in her life.

Kaleb too is quite immature and a very typical teenager, but he seems much different from Ashleigh. He recognizes that his actions have harmed people, but mostly he seems self-centered and concerned about trying to mitigate the consequences, which are more severe for him. In this regard, Ashleigh finds she cannot accept his apology because she feels it was insincere.

Mack is the true hero of the story because even though he has suffered tremendous loss in his young life, he is not wrapped up in himself and he doesn't judge Ashleigh for what she's done. His quiet, steady ways allow Ashleigh to reach out and befriend him. The fact that he didn't look at her picture gives her hope. And allows her to begin to heal.  He listens to her story and helps her realize that no matter how Kaleb apologizes that won't change a thing. Mack is most responsible for Ashleigh taking the long road towards healing.

This was a reasonably good effort at tackling a difficult subject but sometimes the characters lacked the intensity required for certain situations. Ashleigh's experiences in school post-sexting seemed quite tame and her parents response when they learned of her involvement in the sexting incident were surprisingly subdued.

Nevertheless, Jennifer Brown has a knack for taking a difficult issue and showing a bit of both sides. This allows her readers to think critically about the issue. Thousand Words is a well-written novel that does just that. There's a short Author's Note at the back of the novel, along with the transcript of an interview with Jennifer Brown.

Book Details:
Thousand Words by Jennifer Brown
 New York:  Little, Brown and Company     2013
276 pp.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Requiem by Lauren Oliver

In the final installment of the Delirium series, Requiem recounts the fate of the Portland rebels and of several people within the fortified city of Portland, just before a critical confrontation between the resistance and those committed to developing a society devoid of love. The story is told in the alternating narratives of Lena who is traveling with the "Invalids" (those who are not yet cured of amor deliria nervosa) and her childhood friend, Hana Tate, who is living in Portland, Maine, which is controlled by the "cured".

Lena is with approximately two dozen uncureds, who have traveled north from New York city. This group includes Raven, Tack, Julian Fineman, Danie, Gordo, Pike and Alex. They meet up with Hunter, Bram and Lu just south of Poughkeepsie. Alex and Lena are no longer speaking, their relationship having deteriorated for reasons Lena doesn't quite understand. Meanwhile Julian has fallen in love with Lena who is not sure how she feels about him. Lena still loves Alex but he has changed. Alex was a prisoner in the Crypts, left to die, then tortured. Despite her pleas, Alex tells Lena that what they felt for each other before is gone.

After much discussion the group decides to travel to Waterbury "where there are rumors of a successful resistance movement and a large camp of Invalids flourishing in safety." However two things happen before the group reaches Waterbury. First, they take in a new girl named Coral who is exceptionally beautiful whom Alex seems to fall for and second, the group is ambushed by Regulators - troops who have now pushed into the Wilds looking for Invalids and killing them off. Barely escaping with their lives, and having lost all their survival gear, the group arrives at Waterbury and is stunned at what they see.

Meanwhile Hanna's narrative recounts her preparations as she gets ready to marry her pair, Fred Hargrove. Fred's father was killed in the Incident that saw the Crypts breached and many uncureds and rebels, including Alex and Lena's mother, escape into the Wilds. Fred is quickly installed as Mayor of Portland, a position he plans to use to exert an iron control over the people by denying them electricity if they do not conform.

Hana begins to feel some emotions despite being cured. She is confused about the cure which she initially believes has saved her. The cure was supposed to make everyone similar but Hana discovers that this is not necessarily the case, especially regarding her husband, Fred.
"Fred isn't Fred -- at least, he's not the Fred I thought he was. And I'm not the Hana I was supposed to be; I'm not the Hana anyone told me I would be after my cure."

Hana soon discovers that Fred has a very dark side. Fred threatens Hanna in a veiled manner that is accompanied by physical abuse. Referring to his first wife, Fred tells her that if she doesn't support him and if she asks too many questions there will be trouble. Hana also begins to experience guilt over her actions regarding Lena and Alex. So when she learns of the extreme poverty of Lena's cousin, Grace, Hana begins sneaking food to her family, at great personal risk.

As preparations for her wedding continue, Hanna tries to find out what has happened to Fred's first wife, a beautiful girl named Cassandra O'Donnell who disappeared three years earlier. Cassie and Fred were married for more than seven years. Since divorce is unheard of now, her disappearance is highly suspicious, yet no one seems to know what really happened. Hana discovers that Cassie who also went by her middle name, Melanea, is a prisoner in the Crypts. A surreptitious visit to the Crypts by Hanna confirms what she already suspects.

In Waterbury, Lena and her fellow rebels discover a teeming mass of Invalids, who are disorganized, disheveled and starving. Located just outside the city walls, the camp is run by mob rule. Lena, Raven, Alex,and Julian meet up with one woman, Pippa, who seems to have formed an organized camp within the mob. When the river adjacent to the camp is dammed, effectively cutting off the water supply to the camp, Pippa organizes a small attack on Waterbury with the intention of blowing the dam up. However, this fails miserably due to the fact that one of their group is an infiltrator who tells Lena that the camp will be wiped out in a few days when ten thousand soldiers arrive. Pippa helps Lena, Raven, Julian, Tack, Hunter and Bram to leave and tells them they will meet up later on.

The camp is attacked but some are saved and the two camps join together at Portland where they become part of the larger Resistance. At this point both Hanna and Lena's narratives effectively merge as they describe the same event from two different viewpoints. This event will now change both their lives once again, hopefully allowing both girls to make their own choices, to live their lives as they choose.

Oliver has written a suspenseful, interesting third novel for the Delirium trilogy. She gradually weaves her two storylines, that of Hanna and Lena together. This allows the two young women, on opposites side of the war, but with similar dreams and hopes, to finally confront each other. Hanna requires Lena's forgiveness for turning Lena and Alex into the authorities. But she is also given an second chance to do the right thing and she chooses it. Meanwhile, the means for Lena to get revenge is now possible, but she too chooses another path - that of giving her friend a chance to save herself.

I found Hanna's story  more interesting than Lena's. This is partly because Hanna is beginning to realize some truths about the world she lives in and the people around her. The cure doesn't make everyone the same or perfect and her life isn't going to be what she thought it would be. Oliver has Hanna gradually develop a creeping sense that she is about to marry a very cruel man who cares little about others. This realization is driven home to Hanna when she meets his first wife and even more so when she really notices the painting in his study. The picture titled The Myth of Bluebeard is a reference to the the French fairytale of Bluebeard. In the fairytale, a nobleman is suspected of having murdered his previous wives and the current wife tries to avoid the same fate. Although Hanna doesn't know the fairytale, since most literary works in her world have been altered, she understands the meaning of the painting all too well. She comes to the understanding that Fred is not what she thought he was.

Overall the ending to this novel, and therefore the series, was unsatisfying. It felt like Oliver was asked to produce a book within a 400 page limit and this made her race to the final chapters. There are plenty of loose ends which the reader is left to deal with. Unresolved is the fate of Hanna and Fred, Alex and Lena, and the fate of the cities which are now in full revolution. We learn that there is resistance in many other cities through America which lends an aspect of hope to the finale. It was a shockingly disappointing finish to what was truly a very, very good novel that had plenty of suspense, some romantic tension, and some great redemptive moments. Read it, but expect to be disappointed with the rushed ending.

Book Details:
Requiem by Lauren Oliver
New York: Harper Collins Childrens Books 2013
391 pp.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

This hilarious picture book sees the crayons from Duncan's box write him a batch of letters complaining about how they are used. Red, purple, beige, gray, white, black,green, yellow, orange, blue, pink, and peach crayone all set out a list of grievances about how Duncan either doesn't use them enough, uses them improperly or too much. This of course, sets the stage for Duncan to rethink how he uses his each of his crayon colours!

The Day The Crayons Quit contains the crayon drawings of award-winning illustrator, Oliver Jeffers, whose favourite color is striped. Each drawing is set opposite a letter written by a particular crayon colour, showing how Duncan normally uses the crayon. Jeffers who is from Belfast Northern Ireland is the author of numerous picture books including  The Incredible Book Eating Boy, The Great Paper Caper, and more recently, This Moose Belongs To Me. Author Drew Daywalt is also a writer- indie film director some of whose work fits in the horror genre. So The Day The Crayons Quit is just a little different from what he typically does.

This hilarious little picture book encourages children to think outside the box (no pun intended!) and to try different things - not only in their art but also throughout their lives. Step off the cliff, put out into the deep, be yourself, be innovative, creative and different. 

Book Details:
The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt
Philomel Books: An Imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group    2013

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Program by Suzanne Young

Teen suicide has reached epidemic proportions in America, killing one in three teens, while the suicide rate for adults has remained stable. Psychologists believe that suicide is a behavioural contagion - that one suicide leads to another. To fight the outbreak of suicide and depression, some school districts have implemented a treatment plan called The Program. Students are closely monitored for signs of depression or suicide and flagged if a threat is determined. Once a teen is identified as at risk, handlers are brought in and the person is placed into The Program. Once in The Program, all the "infected memories" are erased and a person is returned to his family without any trace of those memories that made him/her depressed. "Returners" go into aftercare, with special handlers who monitor them for relapse. They usually never return to their old life with so many missing memories. There is a Wellness Center which provides a place for returners and normals to interact and get familiar with each other again.

When seventeen year old Sloane Barstow witnesses her classmate, Kendra Phillips, being removed by a handler during school, she is terrified and barely hanging on to reality. Two years ago, Sloane's brother, Brady committed suicide. And six weeks earlier, her friend Lacey was taken after her father called The Program to tell them she was sick.

In an attempt to cope with the constant monitoring of their reactions to all of this, Sloane and her boyfriend, James Murphy, and their friend, Miller try to cover their emotions and act normal. Sloane and James are dealing with Brady's suicide while Miller is trying to cope with the loss of his girlfriend Lacey to The Program. Lacey's reappearance at the alternative school, Sumpter High, leads Miller to try to determine if Lacey has any memories of him. Despite reassurances from friends that maybe someday, his fears are realized when he approaches Lacey and she does not remember him. Deeply distraught, Miller kills himself.

James and Sloane struggle harder than ever to cope after Miller's suicide. They are unable to express their grief openly and this soon becomes too much for James. He is completely undone by Miller's death. James is taken into The Program and without his support, Sloane struggles on. Until the day James returns and shows up at the Wellness Center. When she gives him her signature wave and James doesn't acknowledge her in any way, Sloane knows she's lost him. Her grief at the loss of the boy she loves and her depression results in Sloane's mother contacting The Program.

Once in The Program, Sloane tries to resist, but gradually all her memories are erased one by one. She undergoes intensive psychotherapy with Dr. Warren, who digs deeply into Sloane's life, especially her relationship with James Murphy. Sloane is given a red pill that makes her talk about her life, and a yellow pill afterwards that erases those memories. Sloane knows the pills are harming her, but when she refuses to cooperate, she is given the drugs by injection.

However, there does seem to be someone who can help her and that is a boy in The Program by the name of Michael Realm. At first Realm seems to be simply interested in Sloane as a friend but it turns out that he is not what he seems to be. Sloane learns that Realm is somehow involved with The Program and that he has been watching out for her. Realm tells Sloane that when she leaves treatment he will be in contact with her. Although Realm cares for Sloane, she feels uneasy, as though it is wrong to return his affections.

When Sloane returns from The Program, she is assigned a handler named Kevin who lets her know that he will put her in touch with Realm when she is more settled. Sloane attends Sumpter High but soon begins to feel attracted to a boy named James. Although Sloane has been warned by Kevin and her parents to stay away from James, her attraction to him feels familiar. Will Sloane be able to remember who James is or are those memories lost forever? And if she does remember, will that mean being sent back into The Program again?

One of the strengths of this novel is how the author builds the relationships between her characters. The reader truly gets a sense of the love between Lacey and Miller and also between James and Sloane as well as how they all care for each other. This is done through the narration of Sloane as she remembers events both before she is placed in The Program and also throughout her treatment her memories are erased. This makes the destruction of these friendships all the more poignant. We feel each character's loss  which allows us to understand just how wrong The Program is.

What is interesting about The Program is the way in which it tackles the delicate topic of teen suicide. The novel focuses on certain behaviours that make young people more susceptible to suicide - the inability to grieve in a proper way and the lack of understanding and empathy from adults. For example, instead of helping these young people to express the emotions they are feeling over the deaths of friends or coping with intense stresses and difficult situations, The Program's very existence is pushing these teens to bury their feelings, creating more problems. "There is a pamphlet for The Program sitting next to our phone in the living room --....But to me that paper is like a threat, always reminding me of the next step if I slip up. So I don't slip up. Ever."

When Lacey returns, Sloane is horrified at what Lacey is, "washed out", hollow and empty. Unable to grieve properly for the loss of the girl she once knew, Sloane deliberately burns her arm on their gas stove so that she can cry in her own home, in front of her parents. "...And they fuss, letting me cry as long as I want because they think I was accidentally injured. They have no idea that I'm really crying for Lacey. For Brady. And most of all, for myself."

When James is taken away, Sloane must pretend that everything is normal for her teachers, her classmates and her family. "I wish that there were bloodstains or tears, something to outwardly show how hurt I am. But instead it's just a pair of jeans and a pink T-shirt. Something so painfully average that it makes me hate myself."

In fact this leads to a paradoxical situation where teens would rather die than be admitted to The Program and lose their memories and their identity. One of the strongest themes in this novel is that of identity. Part of who we are is our memories of people, places and experiences. But when we lose our most important memories do we lose who we are?
"But The Program steals our memories. They reset our emotions so that we're brand-new, never having been hurt or heartbroken. But who are we without our pasts?"

Sloane tries to explain this to her mother when she tells Sloane that James admittance to The Program will save him.
"Do you really think Brady would have wanted his memory erased? Nobody wants this, Mom. No one wants to be numb. They're killing us!"

"No!" she yells back. "You're killing yourselves. They're saving you."

"...It's not just James! They'll take out parts of me. Parts of Brady. I won't even know my friends. I won't remember why I love going to the river...It's because that's where James first kissed me. Did you know that? That's where he first told me he loved me. And now they'll take that from him and he won't remember. He won't even know who he is."
The loss of identity is also reflected outwardly with the often complete change in appearance in the returners. Lacey's hair is dyed and James has a buzz cut.

Of course, there are hints here and there that there is a more sinister element at work. There are rebels working against The Program, which we only learn about later in the novel, and the presence of Realm seems to suggest that there is some kind of resistance network working against The Program.

Overall, this was a very well written novel, the first in a trilogy. Told in the voice of Sloane, The Program is divided into three parts, Part I Uncomfortably Numb, Part II The Program and Part III Wish You Weren't Here, telling Sloane's story pre, during, and post Program. Sloane is a credible, strong and intelligent narrator. The next book, The Treatment is due in 2014.

Book Details:
The Program by Suzanne Young
Toronto: Simon Pulse      2013
405 pp.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Of Triton by Anna Banks

The second book in this mermaid fantasy series picks up where Of Poseidon left off. Emma awakens from being drugged to find her and her mother, Nalia, on the run from Galen, Toraf and Rayna. When Emma calls Galen from a motel, he tells her that they have brought Grom to see Nalia. However, when Emma tries to tell her mother that Grom is alive Nalia refuses to believe Emma and insists that Grom died in the mine explosion. Galen, Toraf and Rayna set out after Nalia and Emma, while Rachel, Galen's assistant also sets out to find them. Eventually, they catch up to the runaways, and Nalia is reunited with Grom. However, it appears that there are complications.

Grom who believed Nalia was dead, has been mated to Paca. Their relationship has not yet been consummated and with the re-appearance of Nalia, Grom now wishes to be with her. To do this he must get his mating unsealed (mermaid divorce!!) otherwise, his brother Galen will be next in line to marry Nalia -Emma's mother!  Galen doesn't want to mate with Nalia, as he is in love with Emma.

In order to get his mating unsealed, Grom must appeal to the Archives, a group of wise, elder Syrena. To do this, Grom and Nalia, along with Toraf and Galen return to the Syrena world beneath the oceans, to present Nalia and to make their case. Rayna is left in charge of Emma, who is told to return to school to await the outcome. It's no surprise though that things don't go as planned, both on land and in the sea. While on their way to the deep, Grom and his party of Royals are intercepted by a large number of Syrena led by Yudor, Romul and Jagen. The Trackers accompanying them are armed.

While Nalia is recognized by her father, King Antonius of the Poseidon Royals, Romul and Jagen refuse to acknowledge that Nalia is the long lost Poseidon princess. Jagen insists that a tribunal be held to determine whether the "stranger" is indeed Nalia. However, it soon becomes apparent that the tribunal is more than just about Nalia's identity and is in fact, a play for power on the part of Jagen to change the Syrena way of life and how the Syrena are ruled. Nalia's appearance has now pitted the two kingdoms of Triton and Poseidon against each other.

Jagen's main argument seems to be centred around the "Gifts" of Poseidon and Triton; that since no one has seen the Gift in three generations, perhaps they are no longer needed and a new way of ruling the Syrena is required. The Royals know that his daughter, Paca's "Gift" is not real and that Jagen is attempting to unseat the Royals.

Will the Syrena recognize Nalia as the rightful Poseidon princess and will she and Grom be reunited? Will Galen be able to convince his people to allow him to be mated to a "Half Breed" Syrena, something forbidden by Syrena law? Will Emma obey Galen's request to stay on land or should she risk revealing her "Gift" to save the kingdoms?

Overall, Of Triton was a romantic, engaging read, but perhaps not as well thought out as the first novel. I felt the dispute over Nalia's identity was a significant weakness in the story line. Even though Nalia was suspected of being killed in the minefield explosion years ago, the fact that King Antonius  recognizes his daughter along with several well-respected Trackers makes the accusation seem a bit redundant. After all, since Nalia lived in the sea for eighteen years of her life, wouldn't most of the Syrena recognize her?

Another plot weakness was the capture of Jagen and a Triton Tracker, Musa, by humans. We never learn how they were captured, since this is something that hasn't happened in recent memory. Strangely, they are being held on a little known island with only a few humans. One would think that the discovery and capture of a merman and a mermaid would send shock waves around the world especially since Emma and a young Syrena, Jasa's sighting by two fisherman made world headlines only days before.

Another weak plot point which carried over from the first book, was the element of Paca's "Gift". Syrena frequently break the law by going on land to be with humans. Rayna does it. And Paca has done it. This is where Paca learn to fake her "Gift" and yet this seems to be unrecognized by the Syrena. The author gets around this weakness by indicating that Syrena haven't seen the "Gift" in three generations so they no longer know what it looks like. However, the reader would assume that the Archives has some record of previous "Gifts" and how new ones might be recognized. Surely there would be some kind of rigorous test in place to determine the legitimacy of a "Gift"?

For the most part, Anna Banks builds the novel's climax gradually by drawing her readers into the excitement of the Syrena rebellion and tribunal and what appears to be an apparent betrayal. But after the break up of the tribunal, when Emma is attacked, the rest of the novel seems somewhat anti-climatic.

Emma as a "Half-Breed" experiences some conflict over her mixed heritage of human and Syrena but most of this conflict seems mitigated by the love and affirmation she receives from Galen and the overall acceptance of her by the other Royals. The author could have really developed this theme of identity much more in these two novels but chose instead to focus on the story of the Syrena kingdoms. Developing the identity theme and the forbidden nature of Galen and Emma's love would have made the novel much more riveting. Instead, Emma seems to be quite easily accepted by everyone including old King Antonius.

Many of the characters in these two novels are quite interesting and deserve more development; specifically Toraf, Grom, Rachel and Jagen. Banks spends a bit of time demonstrating the conflict Emma experiences over her mother's return to the Syrena kingdom. While this might appear childish, I think it's entirely reasonable. Despite Emma's love for the Syrena, she doesn't seem to envision a life in the sea for herself.

Although this book seemed to finish the Syrena story, look for the third book in the Syrena Legacy series, Of Neptune, in 2014. Here's hoping the third book will reprise the quality of the first novel in the series.

Book Details:
Of Triton by Anna Banks
New York: Feiwel and Friends      2013
240 pp.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Documentary: Banaz: A Love Story (2012)

"I think the fact that honour is a total misnomer. There's no honour in any of this. The law has a word for it - it's murder."

Banaz: A Love Story is a documentary produced and directed by Deeyah about the 2006 honour killing of Banaz Mahmod in Britain. Honour based crimes are not new to many cultures, but have been going on for centuries and span various cultures and religions. This documentary tells the story of one victim of an honour killing in London, England, using some of the police video footage and as such it is Banaz's story in her own words.

Banaz Mahmod was born in 1985 in Iraq. She had one brother and four sisters. Her family immigrated to Great Britain in 1995, as refugees from Saddam Hussein. Banaz was ten years old. They lived in a flat in Mitcham, south London. Banaz's teachers spoke highly of her, saying that she often mothered younger children.

Problems with assimilation soon made themselves evident in the Mahmod family. The family was very isolated and after Banaz's disappearance it became evident to investigators that she had no friends and no social network. They tried appealing for friends to come forward on facebook, but received no response. Diana Nammi, Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organization indicated that in this society, the control of women and of their sexuality is paramount.

Banaz's older sister, Bekhal ran away from home when she was fifteen years old. Bekhal who testified against her family in her sister's murder trial, told how all the older sisters suffered through genital mutilation at the hands of their grandmother while living in Iraq. (Female genital mutilation is done to prevent women from experiencing any sexual pleasure.) For Bekhal, she began to run into serious conflict with her father over small things that teenage girls are interested in; long painted nails, plucked eyebrows and the use of perfume - all of which were banned by her father. She left home several times and suffered through many beatings.

Joanne Payton of the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network explained that for men, coming over from these cultures entails a loss in social status. Bobbie Cheema, Prosecutor explained that because of this the men take refuge in cultural morality which they use to control their women.

Mahmod soon lost control of his daughters and therefore lost face. In 2002 the family tried to restore its lost honour with an attempt on Bekhal's life. Bekhal survived and went into hiding.

Into this background, the tragedy of Banaz played out. She was married at age 17 to an illiterate immigrant from Iraq. After two years of marriage Banaz went to police and told them in a taped interview how her husband, Ali, abused and raped her. In an attempt to document her abuse, Banaz took pictures of her injuries and kept a diary - all of which were destroyed when Ali learned of their existence.

Despite pleading with her family to let her out of the marriage she was sent back time and again to be a "better wife".  Finally Banaz decided to leave the marriage after a severe beating. She returned home.

In 2005, Banaz met Rahmat. What was initially a friendship turned into a romantic relationship where they would text every morning and evening. Banaz felt she was being followed so she went to the police. When she asked police what they would do she received an vague indication that they would act on her case. They never followed up.

Banaz and Rahmat attempted to keep their relationship a secret, however, the two were seen kissing in December 2005. This triggered a family council in which Banaz's uncle, Ali, who was the strong personality in the family, ordered the murder of Banaz.

After a first attempt on New Year's Eve did not succeed, Rahmat reported Banaz missing on January 25, 2006. Not a single person in the Kurdish community helped police, despite, as lead investigator, Caroline Goode indicated, literally hundreds of people knew what had happened to Banaz. Goode indicated that at least fifty people were involved in the murder in some way. All reminders of Banaz's existence were removed from the family home and not one family member showed concern or called police to learn about the status of the investigation.

However, two things helped police in their investigation of Banaz's disappearance; they learned of Bekhal and Banaz sent a letter to police in December of 2005 naming the three men, cousins who were prepared to do the job of murdering her.

Caroline Goode and Andy Craig, a detective with the Metropolitan Police were able to locate Banaz's body. Both her father and uncle were arrested and one cousin, Mohamed Hama were arrested, tried and sentenced to life. However, the other two cousins, Mohamed Ali and Omar Hussein, fled to Iraq. Determined not to let these two men go free, especially after they were seen bragging about raping and murdering Banaz in Iraq, Goode was able to see justice done.

Today Bekhal remains in hiding and Rahmat is under the witness protection program.

Banaz: A Love Story is so titled because of Caroline Goode and her staff's desire to become surrogate parents to Banaz and to love her and honour her memory. "We loved her and we still do." Goode stated in the documentary. Goode was relentless in pursuing Banaz's killers and her work led her to receive the Queen's Police Medal in 2011. Caroline's narrative in the documentary was extremely touching. It was evident that she was profoundly affected by the murder of Banaz Mahmod. At the beginning of the documentary, Caroline Goode expresses how these honour based murders make her feel:
"...I just find that I love these women. I don't know them. But I loved them. And because they haven't been loved by the people that should have loved them, should have cared for them, should have protected them, I feel that I want to take the place of whoever should have done that."
Banaz: A Love Story was produced and directed by Deeyah Thathal, a Norwegian artist/singer/director who has been at the forefront of raising awareness about honour based violence. Deeyah founded Memini, which is Latin for remembrance, a digital remembrance webpage that honours the memory of those who have lost their lives to honour based violence. You can read Banaz's page on Memini here. In 2012, Deeyah cofounded the Honour Based Violence Awareness network with Joanne Payton. "A one of a kind international digital resource centre, HBVA is a learning, information and training tool created for front-line professionals, from teachers, health workers, social services to police, politicians, and others who may encounter individuals at risk. HBV estimates that there are a minimum of 5000 honour based killings worldwide each year. Honour based violence has been going on for centuries and across the world in various cultures and religions.

The entire documentary has been placed online and you can watch it here:

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Fox Forever by Mary E. Pearson

Fox Forever picks up the story of Locke Jenkins who is on his way to Manchester where Gatsboro's labs are located to make sure that there are no other copies of him in the labs. However, he is waylaid by Mr. F, who works for the Resistance and told he needs to come with him to complete the favour that Father Andre mentioned they might request in The Fox Inheritance. Father Andre had told Locke that in return for being freed, the Network might want him to return the favour.

Locke is traveling with a fake ID as Nate Smith courtesy of the Network. He and Mr. "F" travel to Boston where they meet two others, Carver and Livvy. Mr F's name is Xavier. The favour they are asking is no ordinary one; to help a special Non-pact.

Carver, Livvy, and Xavier have learned that the Secretary of Security is holding someone in a special detainment area at an undisclosed location in Boston for the past sixteen years. That someone is believed to be Karden Sanders the leader of the Resistance and Meisha Derring's husband. Karden Sanders was the a leader in the underground Non-pact Resistance sixteen years ago. His group fought for those on the fringes of society and those who had no rights - the Non-pacts. Meisha Derring married him even though it was illegal to marry a Non-pact. They had a daughter named Rebecca. They moved and changed names frequently until one day the authorities caught up with them. While Meisha was out, their house was firebombed, and Karden and Rebecca were killed. Meisha spent 11 years in prison when she was finally released.

Although Meisha believed her husband and daughter were killed when their home was firebombed years ago, it now appears that Karden, at least, may be alive. Karden is thought to have stolen a huge sum of money - $80 billion from government contractors who provided the security systems against Non-pacts. That money was hidden in a secret account, the location of which Karden only partially disclosed. Carver and his team want to save Karden and gain access to the money before the grace period for dormant bank accounts expires. If it does, the money will be lost and Karden will be killed by the government which no longer needs him.

Locke owes Meisha, because in addition to her being Locke's only very distant living relative that he knows, she helped him escape from Gatsboro. But getting involved may mean ending up back in prison. Can Locke take such a risk? Locke has been chosen partly becuase of his physical attributes. Locke's body is eighty percent bioengineered human, twenty percent composites which is illegal. He has the ability to read lips and can also read faces meaning he can determine the emotions a person is feeling. Locke's BioPerfect heals his body quickly and he can see in the dark, although his 260 years spent in a cube have made him afraid of the dark.

The plan is to embed Locke in a group, a Virtual Collective - a sort of high school group, which contains the Security Secretary's daughter, Raine. Locke is to use Raine to help him locate Karden. At first, Raine is cold and wary of Locke. But Locke's first meeting with the Secretary at a party scores him an invite to the select group. During this party Locke meets, Han, Raine's gold Bot and bodyguard, as well as LeGru, the slimy assistant to the Security Secretary.

One night Locke unexpectedly discovers that Raine frequents the roof of the building she lives in and often leaves her apartment during the night to explore the city. Initially, he uses this to get to know Raine better and as part of his mission to find the missing bank account numbers and the location of Karden. However, their relationship soon develops into much more. Locke makes an astonishing discovery of who Raine is (although reader's probably won't be surprised) and uncovers the events of that fateful night sixteen years ago. With time running out, Locke must deal with betrayal, injury, and conflict to save both Karden and the future of the resistance.

Fox Forever is a fitting conclusion to the Fox Series. Well written, this novel focuses on a new plot that ties together the lose ends of Jenna and Locke. Pearson doesn't really go into much detail about the science behind Locke, nor much about the future world that he lives in. Although the United States is now two countries, we don't really know much about the resistance, except that with the capture of Karden, came its collapse. Likewise when Locke's mission is successful, Pearson doesn't really delve into the consequences of the resistance coming into a huge amount of money. Instead, that is briefly mentioned in a chapter titled Thirty Years Later.

The novel's focus is more on Locke's relationship with Raine as well as his relationship with Jenna Fox. It turns out that both Raine and Locke are quite similar - both have a mysterious past and both are not who they appear to be. As such, this novel deals with the quintessential questions of identity; who am I? and how do I belong? The same questions face Locke with his changing relationship with Jenna. Although initially Locke believed he loved Jenna, he begins to understand that they have both changed, just as Jenna tried to explain to him in The Fox Inheritance. Jenna has lived a life the past 260 years, working for the resistance, marrying and having a child, while Locke has been held captive in a cube. These experiences have changed her. She is no longer the seventeen year old girl Locke remembers.

The ending of the novel is sad but hopeful. The reader is left with the impression that Locke has come to terms  to some degree, with what has happened to him and his existence in the future. There's an interesting theme of religion and sanctuary throughout the series. Jenna and then Locke, and finally Locke and Raine are given sanctuary by Catholic priests. Locke and Raine meet often in a church where they spend time just being together. And Locke remembers his days as an altar boy, when he was fully human, 260 years ago.

Overall Pearson has written a good series that explores what it means to be human, with a bit of action and some romance.

Book Details:
Fox Forever by Mary E. Pearson
New York: Henry Holt and Company   2013
288 pp.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Documentary: Smile Pinki (2008)

In India today, there are 35,000 children born each year with cleft palate. Many of these children never receive any treatment for what is an easily correctable facial defect that is believed to occur sometime between the 4th and 12th week of development. Many children with this defect are from very impoverished families in India and it is thought that poor nutrition may be responsible. But a charity, Smile Train is working to change that.

This documentary follows two children as they journey from a life of shame to one of hope. The documentary opens with its workers traveling throughout India, spreading by posters and personal contact, the information that children who have this facial deformity can be helped. "Do you know anyone who has this?" is the question often asked.

Social worker, Pankaj Kumar Singh, travels rural India, talking in markets and schools to get the word out about cleft palate and to tell people that there is nothing to be ashamed about and that the cleft palate can be repaired for free. Knowledgeable and friendly, Pankaj is direct and persuasive with reluctant parents, carefully explaining the process to families desperate for help. He makes the children he visits in schools promise to spread the word.

While at one school, Pankaj learns of a little girl named Pinki Kumari Sonkar who has cleft palate. They travel to her family's village in Mirapur District and meet with Pinki's father, Rajendra. Pinki's parents believe that she was born with a cleft palate because of an eclipse that happened while Pinki was in her mother's womb. Pankja invites her parents to bring her to G.S. Memorial Plastic Surgery Hospital in Banaras for free treatment. They agree to do so. They will be responsible for transportation to Banaras and will have to pay for their food. Other than that, all medicine and surgery costs will be covered. Pinki will have to stay in the hospital for seven days.

Despite having to walk over three hours to the nearest village, Rajendra agrees to take his daughter. Like parents everywhere, these desperately poor people want the best for their children. Many worry how their sons, but especially their daughters will marry. In some cases, the mother is held responsible for the child's situation and is told to leave the family. In other situations, mother and baby are completely abandoned or the child is killed.

We also meet 11 year old Ghutaru Chauhan, who has a cleft palate and cannot speak properly. Because his speech has been affected, Ghutaru no longer attends school. Although the documentary focuses primarily on Pinki, I was most touched by Ghutaru and another boy's situation. We see both children before and after their operations and the results are staggeringly wonderful. Dr. Subodh Kumar Singh was the surgeon who operated on these children. Ghutaru, who had a gaping upper palate saw this repaired.

Since 2004, CS Memorial has operated on 6000 patients, however, the hospital now sees at least 3,000 patients per year. In India there are over a million children with cleft palate, likely due to poor nutrition and also genetic factors.

Smile Pinki is a touching documentary that educates viewers on what is a relatively rare facial deformity in the developed world by showing us the faces of real children who have cleft palate and allowing us to experience a little of their lives. Isolation, abandonment and even death can be the norm for these children. Our faces are so important to all of us because they are what we use to show ourselves to others, to the world. Directed by Megan Mylan, Smile Pinki won and Oscar in the Documentary - Short category.

Smile Train was brought to the forefront today in Great Britain during the championship match at Wimbleton, between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, when Pinki, now a beautiful eleven year old, did the coin toss.

You can watch the entire documentary on Vimeo at

The documentary's website is Smile Pink.

The documentary is shown below. Please consider donating to this worthwhile charity.You can read about many of the wonderful stories on their blog Amazingly some families have both parents and children who have had this facial problem corrected.

Smile Pinki from asg on Vimeo.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Falling For You by Lisa Schroeder

"All I want is to be wanted by someone. Just as I am.
That may be the only thing I've ever wanted."
This heart-rending novel tells the story of a girl caught between two abusers - a mean stepfather and an obsessed boyfriend.

Seventeen year old Rayanna Lynch tells what happened to her over the course of six months when she begins dating the new boy in town, Nathan Gray. Rae doesn't really want to date Nathan despite the fact that he's very cute, but she's pushed by her best friend, Alix, to do so. Nathan is Rae's first boyfriend, so she's unsure of how things are supposed to progress but it quickly becomes apparent to Rae that Nathan seems very obsessed over her and very self absorbed.

Meanwhile things at home aren't going too well either. Rae lives with her mother Joan and stepfather, Dean, a boorish, mean man who treats her little more than a slave. When Dean loses his job, he forces Rae to give him her paycheck from her job at Full Bloom, a florist shop. Rae is furious but she knows she can't refuse. Losing her paycheck means that she will no longer be able to add to her nest egg that she's been saving so that one day she will be able to leave Crestfield.

Nathan and Rae's relationship quickly escalates physically. When Nathan refuses to listen to Rae's requests to stop, she decides to end the relationship. Nathan becomes angry and disappears, causing both his family and Rae to worry. Nathan refuses to accept that Rae has broken off their relationship. His obsessiveness quickly escalates into stalking. Alix's boyfriend, Santiago, must repeatedly intervene.

With Nathan still attempting to restart their relationship, Rae begins to see her friendship with Leo Martin, a boy who works at his father's coffee shop, Mack's Bean Store, next to the florist shop in a different light. Leo is homeschooled and has a caring, gentle manner about him. They share a similar interest in film and books and Rae enjoys his company. Leo has a "down-to-earth quality" that makes Rae feel like she's known him all her life and makes him trustworthy. His presence offers Rae the only bit of respite in her slowing darkening, crumbling world.

Rae's home life becomes increasingly dismal as Dean who has been gambling gets in over his head. He becomes increasingly violent towards Rae and her mother, stealing Rae's money and taking her truck. Rae tries to convince her mother to leave, but her mother tells Rae they cannot because Dean has threatened to kill them if they do so.

Rae comes to realize that the people she works with. her boss, Nina, and Spencer, her co-worker are more like her family. She also includes Leo as part of that family. When a situation at Nina's shop turns ugly, Rae risks everything to save those who have been there for her all along.

Schroeder has written another novel that engages her readers throughout. The author has structured her novel in such a way that a sense of mystery and suspense are created from the very beginning. The novel works its way back in one month increments from six months to one month before the present and then focuses one day earlier and finally two months later. Before each of these sections is a page titled "the hospital" with a time stamp. The novel opens with "the hospital -- 4:05pm" indicating from the very beginning that something terrible has happened to Rae creating the hook that effectively draws readers into the novel. Each chapter contains pages of  Rae's poetry - her way to express the pain and anger she feels towards Dean and her mother and towards Nathan.

Rayanna Lynch is a strong protagonist doing the best she can in a very difficult circumstances. She realizes that she doesn't want the life her mother has and has set goals for herself.  Her determination to follow a different path from that of her mother is evident in how she deals with Nathan. Once she becomes aware of Nathan's problems, despite her deeply held desire to be loved and despite the pressure from friends to continue dating Nathan because they "are so cute together", Rae has the inner strength to leave the relationship.And of course this leads to the novel's lesson to young women to have the courage to leave an abusive relationship and to trust their instincts when something tells them that a situation is wrong for them.

Rae grows throughout the novel. Initially she is a person with a deep dark secret that she doesn't share with anyone, especially her best friends, Leo and Alix. Rae is humiliated and ashamed about her difficult home life. This is demonstrated by her submitting her poetry anonymously to the student newspaper. As the number of anonymous poems grows, Rae comes to realize that if people admitted to their troubles, they could help one another. When Rae finally takes the big step towards trusting Leo and shares her troubles with him she realizes that the poetry submissions also need to change.

Despite living  a home life profoundly lacking in love, Rae has held onto the wisdom her grandmother gave her, "Where light shines, darkness disappears." No matter how horribly her stepfather treats her or how inadequate her mother is in protecting her, Rae often responds with love. And it is that love, that leads her to (almost) make the ultimate sacrifice.

Another character who changes in the novel is Alix. At first I didn't like the way Alix disregarded Rae every time she suggested that there might be something wrong with Nathan. Rae's concerns about Nathan were never validated by Alix, something I found very annoying. When Nathan disappears, Alix does very little to comfort her friend or tell her that she is not to blame for Nathan's behaviour. However, once Alix becomes aware of Nathan's true nature, she is afraid for Rae and she encourages her to stand up to him.

As for Nathan, Schroeder leads her readers to believe that Rae and Nathan's relationship problems will dominate the novel. However, it is Rae's problems with her stepfather that lead to the climax of the novel and in this regard, I'm not sure the novel was aptly titled. Nevertheless, Nathan has just as many family problems as Rae, but he can't cope because he doesn't have a  supportive circle of friends. This leads Rae to try to help and encourage Nathan, rather than ostracize him.

I believe that Lisa Schroeder has written a book that many teenagers will be able to relate to. Teens who live in difficult circumstances, have a parent in an abusive relationship or themselves are involved in an abusive relationship will relate to this novel. With loving support from best friends and those who truly care, a new start can be made.

Overall, Falling For You is very well written, with a heart-wrenching climax and a satisfying resolution. There is a touch of true romance and a happy ending for a lovable heroine who deserves every bit of it!

Book Details:
Falling For You by Lisa Schroeder
New York: Simon Pulse 2013
355 pp.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Documentary: Detropia

No one needs to be told the devastating effect the loss of manufacturing overseas has had on American (and Canadian) industry, workers and ultimately North American society. In Detropia, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady film local residents to profile the economic decline of the city of Detroit, demonstrating how Detroit is representative of the effects the shifting global economy has had and continues to have on North Americans.

Ewing and Grady focus on three citizens in particular, George McGregor who is President of the UAW Local 22, Tommy Stephens owner of the Raven a blues nightclub, and Crystal Starr a video blogger.

McGregor's insights focus on the automobile industry which made Detroit a prime manufacturing city in the early half of the 20th century.As he drives by the abandoned Cadillac assembly plant, McGregor reminisces about how large the plant was and how now it is being used to store dumpsters. After the plant was relocated to Mexico, with the workers unemployed, the neighbourhood left too.

Similarly, American Axle has now outsourced 2000 jobs to Mexico. It offered its employees the option of wage reductions to make the American plant "viable". They refused and American Axle closed the Detroit plant.

In the past ten years, the state of Michigan has lost 50% of its manufacturing jobs - 50,000 factories have closed and 6 million workers have lost their jobs. Of course this trend is not restricted to Michigan or the United States, as Canada has seen similar closures and job losses.

With the loss of its manufacturing base, the population of Detroit has moved on and away. In 1930, the city of Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world. Today it is the fastest shrinking city. The 2010 census shows Detroit's population dropped to 713,000 - the lowest in 100 years. The population loss means large areas of the city are under-inhabited.

Because of the shrinking population, the city of Detroit can no longer afford to service these largely abandoned areas. The city is 139 square miles with 40 square miles of potential vacant land. This has led Detroit Mayor, David Bing, to bring in urban planners to help the city decide how best to restructure land use.  This means rethinking the way a city normally uses its land. Bing proposes that residents in neighbourhoods that are dying, be relocated and the empty areas be used for urban farming. However, this plan did not sit well with residents who accused the mayor of  "downsizing" the city. Detropia captures their reactions at meetings and individually.

One of the most engaging parts of this documentary is Tommy Stephen's visit to the Detroit Auto Show. At the show he views many of GM and Chrysler's newest products. The big three automakers are finally on the rebound, after a US government bailout and new employee wage cuts. Stephens goes over to investigate the BYD (Build Your Dream) booth, a Chinese automaker at the show marketing its competition to the Volt. The BYD retails for $28K while the Volt sells for $40K. When Stephens confronts the Chevrolet showmen, they don't have an answer as to why there is such a price difference. A year later, Chevrolet announces it is moving its Volt factory to China, in exchange for sharing its intellectual property.

Of course the answer to this question which is never openly expressed in the film but only hinted at by George McGregor, is that American industry throughout the first 80 years of the 20th century, following the business models set out by Henry Ford, paid its workers a "living wage" - creating a middle class who brought the products made by other manufacturers and who were able to buy a home, educate their children and so forth. China, with its huge human capital, has no need to invest in such policies. Instead, workers are poorly paid, live in company dorms, eating in company cafeterias. The pertinent question then becomes, "Should we lower our standard of living to compete with the Chinese?"

As this documentary demonstrates, the city of Detroit is an example of what many opposed to the NAFTA agreement in the 1980's maintained all along - that free trade would not only lower worker's wages and cause the serious job losses as companies flee to areas with lower labour costs, but  would also eventually lower the standard of living in North America. Detroit, along with many other cities in North America, has seen exactly this happen with the development of the global economy. Instead of bringing poorer countries up to our standards of employment, workers are gradually seeing hard fought rights being whittled away in the name of profit-taking. Meanwhile, abuses are rife in countries like China, Bangladesh and India.

The two most compelling voices in this documentary are Tommy Stephens and Crystal Starr. Stephens is eloquent and gets that the problem is complex with no easy solutions. Starr takes viewers on a journey through some of the abandoned places in Detroit, speculating on their past glory and on the people who might have lived there or passed through. The absence of a narrator leads the viewer to extrapolate and make his/her own conclusions.

The documentary got its title from the merging of the words Detroit and Utopia, the later word was graffiti on an abandoned auto parts building in which the Auto Parts sign was changed to utopia on the basis of missing letters and painted in letters.

The poster image for the documentary shows two artists, who make their home in Detroit, wearing gold painted gloves and gas masks in front of an abandoned mansion. It is a allusion to the fact that people can survive and adapt to life in Detroit. The people who seem to be doing so are young people who see the city as providing the freedom to experiment.

The documentary's trailer effectively captures the essence of this 2012 film:

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Boy Nobody - I Am The Weapon by Allen Zadoff

"My life is one continual assignment. I move from world to world as I've been trained to do, leaving nothing but bodies behind me. With each assignment comes new challenges, new complications, new excitement."
Taken from his family at twelve, "Boy Nobody" is trained to become an efficient killing machine, sent in to take out specific targets. The usual method of operation sees him befriend the mark, usually the child of his intended target, which allows him access to the family. Once in the family, he kills the target which is the parent of the child. Efficient and deadly.

Zadoff starts this thriller off with Boy completing his recent "assignment", the killing of a Chinese CEO of a high-tech firm. Boy is friends with Jack Wu and on a visit to his home, while alone with Jack's father, he stabs him in the forearm with a pen. This pen is really a syringe that injects Mr. Wu with a powerful drug that stops his heart in seconds. And then he waits while the police and EMS arrive and simply walks away and onto his next assignment.

Boy is part of something called The Program. He was taken from his family when he was twelve by an older boy named Mike and given the option of either dying like his father and mother, or being part of The Program. He asked to be killed but instead was trained into a operative of The Program. The Program is about finding and removing enemies of the United States. Boy was trained by The Program who gave him a "Father" and a "Mother". His "Father coordinated and his "Mother" appeared often to check up on him. Boy did all of his high school in two years plus he completed special training in weapons and tactics, psychology and strategy. His "Mother" oversees each assignment and is in charge while his "Father" sends him the next assignment. Everything - clothing, fake ID, where he will live, money is pre-arranged for the next assignment and any contact with Father and Mother is encoded.

Boy soon learns that his next assignment is to kill the Mayor of New York, Jonathan Goldberg. This assignment however is unusual for a number of reasons. First he must complete his assignment within five days. Boy is disturbed because he has never been given so little time to enter and integrate before completing an assignment. His mark is Samara (Sam) Goldberg, the mayor's daughter. Boy doesn't like to deal with girls whom he finds complicated and who bring emotion into play.

He is inserted into a famous (unnamed) private school, which Sam attends, on the Upper West Side. Boy immediately attracts the attention of Sam who invites him to a party she is having at her father's apartment where Sam lives. Her mother was killed in an accident several years ago while visiting her home country of Israel. During the party, Boy manages to wander into the mayor's private area providing him with the perfect opportunity to fulfill his mission. However, Boy is caught off guard by the mayor's personable character and the resemblance to his father which brings back memories of his childhood. Because of this, Boy does not take the opportunity to kill Goldberg.

From the beginning there are complications leading Boy to begin questioning his mission. He suspects he is being followed, which is soon confirmed and results in a deadly confrontation. It soon becomes evident that some of the people around Sam are not whom they seem either. Boy begins to have strong feelings for Sam and they become romantically involved, just when the parameters of the mission begin to change. And Boy is left struggling whom to trust, his "Mother" or Sam and her father?

There's no doubt Zadoff has written a chilling novel about a boy turned into an special operative who takes out American enemies and traitors. He's a sixteen year old killing machine who assassinates without conscience. Boy is trained to not to ask questions and not to think about the effect the murder has on the family of the target. There's no way to describe the sanitized murder at the end of the book except as brutal, despite Boy assuring his "target" that dying won't hurt. It's a tragic end that seems wrong on so many levels.

It's evident that Boy is extremely intelligent. He completed all of his high schooling by the age of sixteen. Mature beyond his years, Boy is situationally aware, calculating and emotionally distant. Despite being pulled from society and subjected to rigorous training, Boy is extremely socially intelligent, something I found perhaps incongruous with his past.

But Boy, who finally has a name at the end of the novel, is changing. He has been challenged from his first encounter with Sam to consider who he is
Do you ever wonder where you belong?" she says. "Like maybe life made a mistake and put you someplace you weren't supposed to be?"
and what he believes in.
"...'You're the boy who doesn't believe in anything. We're different that way. I not only believe, I'm willing to back it up with action.' "
When the mission changes, Boy is conflicted as to what to do and about what he has been told. For the first time, he seeks to find out and he chooses Howard, the techie weirdo from school to help him. He's not so willing to simply accept what Mother tells him. He needs proof and Howard helps him get that proof.

Also for the first time after a mission, Boy feels intense grief - "a deep chasm of grief" as he describes it, which he finds unbearable and buries deep within himself. And while he originally thought he was one of a few operatives, he's now beginning to suspect that there are many others just like him who maybe have different jobs within The Program. Armed with a new piece of information about his family from what was supposed to be a deadly encounter with Mike, and with Howard secretly working with him, Boy intends to find out.

Zadoff has done a very good job of creating his characters - they are both realistic and multi-dimensional. Sam is a complex character - as Boy predicted- whose suffering after her mother's death was largely ignored by her father. Sam's father never allowed her the time or space to grieve, resulting in Sam's alienation from her father and resulting in her being able to be recruited by her Israeli soldier and lover, Gideon, into a terrorist cell.

Howard, the techie geek/weirdo is a brilliantly crafted character who is very disturbing. The classic bullied boy, intelligent and different, who can't seem to find his niche in society, pushed further into its fringes.

There are several murders, a great deal of physical violence and some sexual content in this novel but none is described in detail or graphically. Readers will be left with a ton of questions which leaves this novel leading nicely into a second book.

Update: Please note that the author has retitled this first novel to I Am The Weapon, the first in The Unknown Assassin series.

Book Details:
Boy Nobody by Allen Zadoff
New York: Little, Brown and Company     2013
337 pp.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Canadian authors

Seeing that today is Canada Day I thought it might be interesting to check out some very famous Canadian authors as we celebrate the birthday of Canada. Not many people realize that Canada has a rich history in literature.

In recent years there have been numerous Canadian authors who have enjoyed considerable success in the world of literature. Among them include, Lawrence Hill who wrote The Book of Negroes which won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 2009 Canada Reads award, Yann Martel's The Life of Pi which was made into a feature film, Terry Fallis's The High Road, and Ru by Kim Thuy.

When I was a teenager, one of my favourite types of novels to read were animal stories similar Sheila Burnford's Incredible Journey, which tells the story of a group of animals who journey home. I still enjoy books similar to these especially the American writer, Jack London's White Fang and The Call of the Wild. R.D. Lawrence (not to be confused with D.H. Lawrence who wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover!!) was an British born author who came to Canada and became a well known naturalist and writer and who wrote The North Runner, a fascinating book about his rescue and rehabilitation of a wolf-dog who had been abused.

In the world of young adult literature the classic Canadian novel, Anne of Green Gables is known and beloved around the world. Not many people know that Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables is in fact the first book of eight she wrote about the red-haired heroine, Anne Shirley. In a plate (left) from the original Anne of Green Gables novel, the Anne Shirley in this illustration looks remarkably like actress/director Megan Follows who played Anne in Kevin Sullivan's 1985 adaptation of the novel.

Montgomery was a prolific writer and most of her other novels, including Emily of New Moon, The Blue Castle, Pat of Silverbush, The Story Girl, Jane of Lantern Hill, and the Avonlea Chronicles have now been published in many editions. This wonderful Canadian writer also wrote well over one hundred short stories, some of which are among her best works of fiction. If you'd like to delve into Lucy Maud Montgomery's works in a critical way, you can check out the L. M. Montgomery Institute of UPEI as well as the L.M. Montgomery Research Institute at the University of Guelph.

There are currently many wonderful Canadian authors who write books for teens including Megan Crewe who is working her way through her Fallen World trilogy (The Way We Fall and The Lives We Lost), Cathy Ostlere who wrote a wonderful novel in verse titled Karma, Nora McClintock, and Marthe Jocelyn.

I would be entirely remiss not to include Gordon Korman who wrote the hilarious MacDonald Hall series. Korman was born in Montreal and wrote his first book when he was in Grade 7 as part of an English assignment! That book, This Can't Be Happening At Macdonald Hall was published when he was fourteen years old. This was the beginning of the Bruno and Boots series which relates the antics of two boys, Bruno Walton and Melvin "Boots" O'Neal who attend an all boys boarding school, Macdonald Hall. My children consider these books his best and funniest.

Another well known favourite author is Kenneth Oppel who wrote the fabulous Silverwing trilogy and Airborn. Born in Port Alberni, Oppel is currently writing his way through a dark, intense trilogy about Victor Frankenstein, with the first two books in the trilogy, This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent already published. 

Some of the best Canadian picture books are by American born writers who moved to Canada. Robert Munsch and Pheobe Gillman are two such people who were born in the United States but moved to Canada as adults and began writing here in Canada.

Robert Munsch is another beloved Canadian writer, whose books many children throughout the world have grown up with. Although born in the United States, Munsch moved to Canada in 1975 to work at a preschool lab at the University of Guelph. He began publishing the stories he told to the daycare children he supervised and among his most popular are The Paper Bag Princess and Love You Forever.

Pheobe Gillman was born in the Bronx but moved to Toronto where she met her husband and taught at the Ontario College of Art. Gillman is best known for her books, The Balloon Tree and Jillian Jiggs. Her books incorporated delightful poetry with her rich, colourful illustrations. Pheobe Gillman died in 2002 of leukemia.

Many libraries in Canada highlight books written by Canadian authors. Check out some of the ones I've mentioned here if you haven't read them.