Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Ward by Jordana Frankel

The Ward is another dystopian novel that focuses on the events experienced by one girl, Renata (Ren) Dane, over the period several days in flooded New York City. The story is narrated by Ren beginning at 1:00 AM Saturday and ending on the following Monday at 7:00 AM.

Ren is a champion mobile racer. She lives in the Ward, which is what downtown Manhattan is now known. Years ago sea levels rose due to the creation of global gases resulting from a meteor which collided with a glacier in Antarctic. New York City was flooded.

Post flood the area is part of the United Metro Isles. The Ward is a residential area, shaped like a U. Across the Hudson Strait lies West Isle where the healthy and wealthy reside in shiny skyscrapers.  After the flooding people began to sicken and die from an illness known as the Blight.

Ren is also a mole for the Division Interial a sort of police force that hunts for fresh water and polices the Ward. She became a mole after she was caught escaping the orphanage with a younger girl named Aven. To save herself and Aven, she agrees to work for the Blues to hunt out fresh water sources. The money she makes from this and her racing allow her to support Aven who has become sick with the Blight.

The novel opens with Ren being offered a great deal of money to throw her next race, so as to scout out a potential fresh water source in Quadrant 9. She is offered this by Dr. Justin Cory who tells her he is an agent with the DI.

However, the race goes terribly wrong when her mobile car doesn't function properly causing Ren to crash into the canals of Quadrant Nine in the Ward. Injured and badly cut up, Ren manages to climb into an abandoned building where miraculously she finds a hidden spring in an abandoned subway tunnel beneath the building. She drinks the water while refilling her canteen with a sample and experiences a sort of hot flash which, at the time she doesn't pay much attention to.

Ren is rescued by her bookie, Derek, and another racer, Terrance and returns home to Aven. She allows Aven to drink most of the fresh water she has in her canteen as she seems sicker than usual. At this time her building experiences a raid by the DI chief, Dunn, who tells Ren that there is no one named Justin Cory in DI. Nevertheless, Ren gives the water sample to Dunn, telling him where it is located.

The next day Ren finds her wounds almost healed and unbelievably, Aven recovered enough to have followed Ren to The Tank, a local party spot for racers. Aven's appearance and Ren's miraculous healing do not go unnoticed especially when Aven has a deadly relapse while at the Tank. She is taken to Ward Hope Hospital by Dr. Justin Cory who Ren learns is really a scientist, Callum Pace. Pace was part of the Blue's Young Scientist Curriculum headed up by Governor Voss working on a cure for the HBNC virus. Callum knew that a girl was scouting for a freshwater source, but he also knew that the Governor was hoping one of the moles would rediscover the fountain of youth. From Callum Ren learns that when Voss was a young medical student he claimed to have found a spring that was a fountain of youth. Ren realises that her rapid healing and Aven's remarkable but unstable recovery are due to the water from the hidden spring. With Aven desperately sick in hospital, Ren must return to get more water for Callum to use.

When she and Callum return to the location of the spring, to their horror, it has been covered over and sealed. Ren cannot understand who would do this since only three people know about the spring. Callum escapes with a sample of the water laden mud in the hopes he can extract the water, while Ren is captured by Chief Dunn who tells her that Aven will not be treated until she finds another spring.

When she returns to the hospital, Ren is taken to meet Governor Voss who tells her that the spring is ancient and holds the cure for all of humanity's problems. Voss tells Ren that a group of people, known as the Tetai, guard the spring and that someone Ren knows must belong to the Tetai. Governor Voss shows Ren a letter from an ancestor, Willem Van Kieft, who talks about not being able to defeat the Lenape tribe because they are able to resurrect themselves using water from the "Minetta Brook". The Tetai are identified by a special tattoo. The Governor gives Ren a carved Trojan horse to give to the Tetai and instructs her to report to Chief Dunn in four hours with the Tetai's response to his demand.

What now ensues is a race to save Aven, and the sick of the Ward. Ren must relocate the spring, deal with the Tetai and prevent Governor Voss from unleashing a terrible action on those ill with the Blight under the guise of a cure.

The Ward is a plot driven novel that gradually draws readers into the predicament faced by Ren and Aven and also by the inhabitants of the Ward. Frankel's initial hook is a weak one - Ren is commissioned by an unknown DI agent to find another fresh water source - and readers will find themselves slogging through the first one hundred pages or so. But the story takes off from there as Ren is in a race against time to save her adopted sister Aven, herself and thousands of sick in the Ward.

There's not much character development; we know little about any of the characters except how they fit into the plot. There's the typical love triangle between Ren, Derek and Callum and a sinister villain, Governor Voss, whom all three are working against. Ren is a genuinely strong young woman whose devotion to her adopted sister, Aven, is touching. She is immune to the HBNC virus and seems to have incredible physical stamina.

Frankel based some of her ideas on historical tidbits. For example, the Minetta Brook actually did exist in Manhattan but has since disappeared. Likewise, Lenni Lenape were a real Indian tribe who clashed with the Dutch settlers who settled on their ancestral lands.

Although the amazing cover will lead readers to pick up this novel, they might be disappointed at the slow start and the confusing nature of post-apocalyptic New York. Perhaps a map of the United Metro Isles would help readers not intimately familiar with Manhattan better understand the setting. The condensed time frame also doesn't help because it truly feels like these events are happening over a period of weeks. At any rate, die hard fans of dystopian novels will enjoy this. Otherwise give this lengthy novel a pass.

Book Details:
The Ward by Jordanna Frankel
New York: Katherine Tegen Books
465 pp.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Last Train by Rona Arato

This amazing little book has a back story that is worth relating so readers can understand the events they will read about. In 2001 students at Hudson Valley High School were assigned to interview local residents and family members about World War II as part of a history class run by Mark Rozell. Rozell wanted to make history come alive for his students in a more meaningful way and he also believed that history has some important lessons to teach young people. When the students interviewed American veterans they came across an unbelievable story about the liberation of a train holding 2500 Jewish prisoners, many sick, all starving and filthy.

It was during an interview in July, 2001 with Carrol Walsh, who in April 13, 1945, was a 24 year old American tank commander with the American 30th Infantry Division, that Rozell learned about the American liberation of a large transport train near Magdeburg. Walsh had not thought about the train until his daughter urged him to tell the history teacher about it during the interview. Soldiers had uncovered an incredible situation; boxcars jam-packed with starving Jewish prisoners. The historic liberation was recorded in photographs taken by George C. Gross, a friend and fellow tank commander who, unlike Walsh, stayed with the train overnight and into the next day. Gross' unit went to the local German's and ordered them to provide food and lodgings for the Jewish survivors.

Walsh also related that he received the 30th Division newsletters and one of those newsletters had published a letter from a survivor of a "death train" asking if anyone was there when it was liberated. It turned out that this was the same train near Magdeburg that Walsh, Gross and also Major Benjamin had liberated. Walsh wrote to the editor and advised them that a better contact would be George Gross.

Rozell then contacted tank commander George Gross who was now living in San Deigo, California and working as a professor of English. Gross had a negative of the most famous picture as well as ten other photographs of the liberation of the train. Rozell was then able to hear Gross' account of his time spent at the train near Magdeburg. Rozell then posted the interviews to his oral history website where they sat for four years before being noticed by a survivor from Australia. Since then the website interviews, along with help from 1st Lt. Frank Towers, has been a focal point for reuniting survivors and their liberators in a series of reunions. Many of these survivors had searched for years, in vain, for some information about their liberators and the train. The pictures taken by Prof. Gross and U.S. Army Major Clarence Benjamin can now been seen in slideshow format.

This background sets the stage for this tiny but very informative narrative nonfiction book, The Last Train, which has been written for children, by Rona Arato who is the wife of Paul (Auslander)Arato, who was on the Magdeburg Train when he was just five years old.  These trains were called "the last trains" because they contained the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps who were being shunted around in an attempt by the Nazi's to avoid liberation by Allied troops, before they could be exterminated.

Arato writes that her husband's story only came out after his son, Daniel, found Rozell's website. Although she knew about Paul's past, he had never told their children. It was a haunting memory that she did not press him to divulge.

Paul Arato
The Last Train tells his family's story in a sanitized way that still captures some of the fear and confusion the Auslander's experienced as their native Hungary was invaded by Nazi's in 1944. Prior to this, Hungary was pro-fascist and had been allied with Germany. It had participated in Hitler's invasion of communist Russia. But when Hitler discovered that Hungary was attempting to broker a peace treaty with the Allied Forces, Hitler invaded and almost immediately began rounding up the Jewish population.

The Auslanders were initially sent to work on a farm in Austria but eventually ended up in the infamous Bergen Belsen concentration camp in Germany by December, 1944. During this time, Lenke Auslander became chronically ill. She made it through the work camp and the concentration camp with the help of both her sons, Oscar and Paul. At the end of the war the Auslanders were reunited. Their situation was very unusual because they were likely one of the few families who survived the Holocaust intact.

Arato has included many photographs both of her family before and after the war, the liberation of the transport train near Magdeburg and the reunion of Jewish survivors and American liberators some sixty years later which help young readers understand this important historical event. Although The Last Train is about a real event, Arato has recreated much of the dialogue based on interviews and research. This has resulted in a well-written, concise account of a little known event in the liberation of Europe.

Book Details:
The Last Train by Rona Arato
Toronto: Owlkids Books Inc.     2013
142 pp.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Our Song by Jordanna Fraiberg

Our Song is an interesting account of a young girl who struggles to find her true self after a serious accident and a broken relationship.

High school senior, Olive Bell, has just returned home from the hospital after a two week recovery from a car accident in which she died. Her heart stopped for almost 3 minutes but she was brought back to life by paramedics. Olive had the accident after fleeing his house during a disagreement. Although Olive hasn't heard from her boyfriend, Derek  O'Brien, captain of the Vista Valley Pioneers Debate Club, she still believes that things will be fine between them.
"Love like ours couldn't just vanish into thin air, no matter what happened. And when he saw me at school again tomorrow, I knew he would realize it, too."
But Derek ignores her and soon replaces her with the most popular girl in the school,  Becky Brill, who is a cheerleader. Her best friend Annie tries to offer Olive comfort and encouragement. Annie believes Derek is arrogant and selfish, telling Olive that she can find someone better.

However, Olive is completely distraught and confused. Almost everything in her life both at school and at home brings back memories of her two-year relationship with Derek. As she reflects back on their relationship we learn that Derek never publicly acknowledged their relationship online and that he often went days without contacting her. But Olive believed that their "love" was a permanent thing. What hurts Olive even more is Derek's very public relationship with Becky

As Olive's grades slip and it becomes evident she is struggling in school, she is sent to meet with the school guidance counselor, Dr. Green, who suggests to Olive that she needs to talk to someone about why her accident happened. To get her parents and the school off her back, Olive decides to attend a support group, The Near Death Society, thirty miles away in Los Angeles.

When Olive goes to her first meeting, she meets handsome Nick Wilkins, a British boy she saw previously at her parent's golf and country club.  Although she rebuffs Nick's first attempt to leave the meeting, eventually the two begin a sort of strange friendship where Nick takes her to different places in Los Angeles. He never really reveals what the circumstances were that led him to the near death support group, but he treats Olive with kindness and allows her to be herself.

As Olive continues to crash and burn in school, she gradually begins to confront who she is, what she wants from life, and comes to the realization of who Derek really is. But can she save herself and forge a new beginning?

Our Song focuses on the relationships between a girl and two boys. Olive is a young girl whose entire existence has been defined by her relationship with one boy - Derek. Derek is a manipulative, self-centered boy who uses Olive and who causes a traumatic situation that almost cost Olive her life. Our Song is about Olive's journey to finally discover who she is and to learn to define herself on her own terms.

Throughout this journey, she is aided by a young man, the handsome, gentle Nick, who has also suffered a trauma that he feels defines him. As their friendship grows and they support one another, they gradually come to terms with what has happened in their lives and to begin to heal. In each others company they find the freedom to be who they truly are.

Although Olive's parents seem lost, her mother somewhat disinterested and her father mostly absent, we later learn that both parents had their coming of age moments too and that they do in fact understand what Olive is going through. Olive's father tells her near the end of the novel, that he and her mother recognize that she's "growing up". They allow her the freedom to choose her own path.

Jordanna Fraiberg uses the mystery of what led to Olive's accident as the hook for her readers, as well as the mystery surrounding Nick,  but most will find the middle section of the book somewhat slow. However, those who persevere will be rewarded in the last eight chapters of the novel, where both Nick and Olive's mysteries are revealed and Olive's revelation about her relationship with Derek is related. 

This debut novel will interest fans of contemporary romance. It is a sweet coming of age story that readers of young adult fiction will truly enjoy, with its satisfying ending.

Book Details:
Our Song by Jordanna Fraiberg
Toronto: Razorbill    2013
352 pp.

Friday, August 23, 2013

SYLO by D.J. MacHale

MacHale is both a well known television producer and children's author, having written the Pendragon series as well as the Morpheus Road trilogy. SYLO, a novel about a group of teens trying to uncover the mysterious situation developing on their island, reads like a well written television script. It's smooth, with thrilling pulses of adventure set at exactly the right points to keep the reader moving along.

The novel is set on (fictional) idyllic Pemberwick Island off the coast of Maine. The cast of characters includes fourteen year old Tucker Pierce and his best friend, Quinn Carr. Both Tucker and Quinn are transplants to Pemberwick Island. Tucker's family moved from Greenwich, Connecticut after his father who was a civil engineer,  lost his job, while Quinn's parents who are ER doctors moved from Philadephia to enjoy a less stressful work life.

Besides Tucker and Quinn, several other people round out their circle of friends. There's Kent Berringer, a junior who plays middle linebacker on the school football team and whose parents own the nicest hotel, The Blackbird, on Pemberwick Island. Kent is often hostile and bullying towards Tucker who isn't as athletic as the linebacker. Olivia Kinsey is from New York City and has been spending the summer with her mother on Pemberwick Island. She is older than Tucker and attends a prep school in New York. Tucker knows her because she is staying at The Blackbird and he often works on the grounds of the hotel. Tucker also knows cute, but odd, Tori Sleeper, whose father runs a lobster business. Todd is crushing on her but too shy to get to know Tori.

The story opens with a high school football game that turns deadly. Arbortown High freshman, Tucker watches as senior tailback, Marty Wiggins, has the game of his life. But whenever Marty returns to the sidelines, he looks anything but normal. Frenzied and wild might be more apt. Seconds after scoring another touch-down, Marty drops dead. But that is only the beginning of the mysterious happenings on Pemberwick Island.

That same night Tucker and Quinn go for one of their clandestine bike rides around the island and encounter an incredible sight, a strange dark shadow flying near the island's coast accompanied by faint musical notes. But when a brilliant streak of light destroys the shadow in a devastating explosion, Tucker and Quinn, shocked by what they have just seen, report what has happened to the local sheriff. No answers are supplied and inexplicably, the Coast Guard takes over the investigation.

Meanwhile, Tucker knows that there was something strange about Marty's death and he soon learns that Marty took a substance called "Ruby". He finds this out from a stranger, Ken Feit, who was at the football game and who approaches Tucker,  tells him about Ruby and lets him try it. Ruby is a physical performance enhancing drug that works like no other, giving a person the ability to move and react super fast. But Marty took too much and it killed him.

A few days after this, life on Pemberwick Island changes forever. After a second death occurs during the annual Lobster Pot Festival, the island is invaded by a secret branch of the United States Navy called SYLO. Both tourists and residents alike are told that there have been several deaths due to an unknown virus. The soldier in charge of the quarantine and blockade of the island, Colonel Granger, tells people that no one is allowed on or off the island. Not only are troops mobilized on their island, but the entire island is surrounded by warships.

However, Tucker and Quinn begin to wonder if the invasion has something to do with what they saw the night Marty died. Tucker and Tori witness several incidents of SYLO using lethal force against the islanders as well as taking people away. Olivia tells Tucker that she has seen people taken away from the Blackbird Inn. Soon communications with the mainland are cut.  As they begin to search for clues as to what's going on, both Tucker and Quinn struggle to determine who they can trust. It now seems that both their parents have not been forthcoming with them about what they know. And Granger is now after both of them because it seems they know too much.

Yet for Tucker and Quinn, the information they do have only leads to more questions; what is Ruby and is it related to the quarantine? is there really a virus? why are they completely cut off from the outside world? what was the black shadow they saw? why the use of deadly force on anyone trying to escape?

Tucker and Quinn decide that they have to try to escape from Pemberwick Island and let the outside world know what's going on. They formulate a plan to try to escape, and seek the help of Tori Sleeper.

SYLO is a thrilling read that combines adventure, mystery and science fiction. Each revelation in the story leads to more questions, egging the reader to continue onward. The hook pulling readers in is the death of Marty combined with the mysterious UFO sighting by Tucker and Quinn. From there on, there are more questions than answers.

The characters in SYLO, although typical, are well drawn. Tucker is believable as a fourteen year old boy, new to the football team, shy around girls and not certain about his life. He's the opposite of Quinn who is intelligent, outspoken and who seems to know what he wants in life, when he brags to Tucker that he knows he will do something great some day. Quinn was my favourite character. However, Tucker grows during the book, becoming more self-assured and determined.

Tori was intelligent, quick thinking and physically strong. In contrast, Olivia wasn't as practical minded, a softer more typical female character, but strong in her own way.

Colonel Granger, the bad-ass head of the Pemberwick operation, made me think of Colonel Miles Quaritch from Avatar. He's bold, has a short fuse and doesn't tolerate dissent.

This new YA series will have great appeal to teenage boys. It's a rollercoaster ride of suspense, with touches of humour, some tragedy, a heart-pounding climax and a hanging ending that leads nicely into the next installment due out March 2014.

Book Details:
SYLO by D.J. MacHale
Toronto: Razorbill, Penguin Group     2013
407 pp.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Documentary DVD: Orchestra of Exiles

Orchestra of Exiles recounts the efforts of  violin virtuoso, Bronislaw Huberman, to rescue the best Jewish musicians from prewar Germany and Europe to form a new orchestra in Palestine. It is a story most outside both the music world and the Jewish community do not know. The documentary, which is 85 minutes in length, was written and directed by Josh Aronson, who himself is a renowned musician, a concert pianist, married to violinist Maria Bachmann.

The documentary begins by tracing the early musical formation of Bronislaw Huberman who was born into a poor Jewish family in 1882 in Czestochowa, Poland. Bronislaw's father was known for his bad temper but also for his passion for music. When Huberman was eight, his muscial abilities were very much evident so his father took him to Berlin, Germany to find the best teacher and he began his studies the following year with Joseph Joachim.

In 1894, Huberman was invited to perform at Adelina Patti's farewell party and she gave him an outstanding review. His father stopped his lessons to start Huberman's career and Huberman achieved early fame at the age of 13 when he played the Brahm's Violin Concerto in January of 1896. Brahms attended the concert and was so impressed he was moved to tears. Huberman played all over the world including America, Europe and Russia and he was acknowledged as a virtuoso.

The devastation of World War I changed Huberman, rousing his political consciousness and making him an ardent Pan-European, that is someone who believed in uniting all of Europe. He cancelled all his concerts for two years to study at the Sorbonne. During the interwar years, in 1922, the Pan-European movement which called for the unity of European states for peace was growing. In 1929, Huberman toured Palestine. He found the Jewish immigrants passionate for music but there was little culture. However, this was soon to change and that change was to be led by Huberman.

Huberman was stirred to action by the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933, who began implementing his anti-Semitic views by firing Jewish from the cultural institutions in Germany. This meant that thousands of Jewish musicians were out of work. Many with money and foresight left Europe. While others in the Jewish community felt that they could wait the situation out and that the hatred towards them would pass, Huberman understood what was going to happen in Germany and likely all over Europe.

As a result, Huberman cancelled all his concerts in Germany. In 1934, Joseph Goebels, Minister of Nazi Propaganda enacted a law allowing musicians to play in orchestras regardless of their race. Wilhelm Furtwangler who was conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic asked Huberman to reconsider but he declined as a way of protesting the Nazi regime. By 1935, every Jewish musician in the philharmonic was gone. Huberman left Germany and moved to Vienna, Austria.
"I am a Jew, a Pole, a Pan-European and by each of these characteristics I am a dead enemy of Nazism."
Although Vienna was now his home, Huberman was stunned by the indifference of the Viennese when the Jews were attacked during anti-Semitic violence. Huberman realized that with many fine musicians being fired from world class orchestras, this would be the opportunity to bring them to Palestine to form a new orchestra that would bring culture to a people who hungered for it.

In 1936, the most famous musician in the world, Arturo Toscanini refused to perform in Germany and adamantly refused even a personal invitation from Adolf Hitler. When Huberman learned of this, he met Toscanini who volunteered to conduct the opening concerts of the new orchestra in Palestine. It would be an orchestra composed of exiles.

Huberman through his remarkable foresight, knew that Nazism would spread throughout Europe and so he set began to select the best musicians from European countries. He held auditions and selected the best. The Warsaw Symphony was forty percent Jewish and Huberman knew most of them so he decided to hold blind auditions.

As it would turn out, Huberman's predictions proved correct and Nazism spread throughout Europe. Those who were recruited and emigrated to Palestine were saved. Those who were not, disappeared into the Holocaust never to be seen again. Huberman was responsible for saving the lives of almost 1000 Jews. Interestingly the documentary reveals two musicians who left Palestine after being recruited and who returned to Europe only to die in concentration camps.

Orchestra of Exiles dramatizes Bronislaw Huberman's life through realistic re-enactments. Aronson also portrays, through interviews with the descendents of some of the orchestra's founding musicians, the difficulties Huberman encountered as he worked to select musicians, obtain visas for them, permits to enter Palestine and transportation to their new home. For many it was to be a life or death situation. The documentary also explores the situation in Palestine in the mid 1930's, as strife between the Arab and Jewish nations escalated. There are many interviews with renowned Jewish musicians including Itzhak Perlman,  Pinchas Zukerman and Zubin Mehta. There is also an interesting story involved Huberman's violin and Joshua Bell.

Orchestra of Exiles came out of the suggestion by a friend of Aronson's, Dorit Grunschlag Straus, whose father, David Grunschlag was chosen by Bronislaw Huberman to travel to Palestine as part of the new orchestra. Grunschlag emigrated along with his parents and two sisters, thus saving them from the horrors of the Holocaust.

This documentary is well worth watching and tells a remarkable story about an incredible musician who put his career on hold to fight for what he believed in and to save an important part of his culture.

You can watch the trailer:

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Light In The Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

The Light in the Ruins is a novel of mystery and murder set in postwar Italy. The novel opens with the brutal and gruesome murder of Francesca Rosati in her apartment house in Florence. Bohjalian tells the story through the use of three narratives at first loosely connected but becoming ever so gradually interwoven into the revealing climax.

The first narrative, set in italics is that of the murderer who the reader first how he killed Francesca. We then learn that he plans to kill every surviving member of the Rosati family and that he has waited years to accomplish this. With each murder, he plans to cut out the heart of his victim and do something significant with it, as a sort of hint to the motive. Clues to the murderers identity seem to lie in the past and also in his? knowledge of art as he references paintings throughout his narrative.

For example, the murderer decides that when he kills Beatrice he will place her heart atop a corner of the Florentine bridge precisely where Henry Holiday has placed Dante's hand in his painting, Beatrice and Dante.

The second narrative is set in 1943 and essentially tells the wartime story of the Rosati family.  It is told from multiple viewpoints, all the characters involved in the Eighteen year old Cristina Rosati lives with her mother and father Beatrice and Antonio, the marchesa and marchese of the Villa Chimera which is set in the Tuscan countryside, southeast of Siena. The family estate, Villa Chimera, is set in Monte Volta among vineyards and olive gardens. Also living in the villa is Cristina's sister-in-law, Francesca who is married to Marco, as well as Francesca's two children, 7 year old Massimo and 5 year old Alessia. Cristina's other older brother, Vittore, is an archeologist who is based in Florence and who is assisting the Nazi's as they plunder art from local museums and towns. He works at the Uffizi Gallery, the famous art museum.

Cristina and her family are visited by an Italian, Major Lorenzetti and a German, Colonel Erhard Decher who wish to see the Etruscan necropolis on their property. The ruins were discovered in 1937 and after an archeological dig, the artifacts of value including urns and sarcophogi were sent to the museum in Arezzo. Lorenzetti and Decher return again, this time bringing with them Decher's adjutant, Frederich Strekker, a young soldier who lost his lower leg and foot in the Ukraine. Cristina and Frederich share a mutual attraction and become romantically involved against the advice of Frederich's superior and Cristina's sister-in-law.

Overtop of both of these narratives is the third, that of Serafina Bettini, set in the present, 1955, the year the murders are occurring. Serafina is the only woman in the homicide unit in Florence. Chief Inspector Paolo Ficino doesn't want to take Serafina to the Rosati crime scene but given her past he decides she can probably handle it. Serafina was a member of the partisans fighting against both the Nazis and the fascists in Italy. Her two brothers were murdered and with their deaths, having no other family, Serafina joined. In a battle between the retreating Nazi's and the partisans in Monte Volta, Serafina was badly injured by an incendiary grenade, her back, neck and arm burned. She remembers nothing of the time immediately afterwards, except that she was cared for a  nearby villa, but she's certain that is was not the Villa Chimera.

As Serafina investigates Francesca's murder, and then Beatrice's murder, it becomes clear that someone is targeting the Rosati family. As she interviews Cristina and the neighbours in Francesca's apartment house, she becomes convinced that the key to the murders lies in the past, in something that happened during the latter part of the war. With her own memories of what happened to her on Monte Volta during the German retreat mostly lost, Seraphina begins to wonder what really happened at the Villa Chimera eleven years ago.

Bohjalian weaves each of the narratives to its inevitable conclusion; the 1943 narrative reveals what really happened in the closing days of the Italian campaign, as the Germans retreated through Italy, pillaging and murdering, sparing neither the Rosati family nor their beloved villa. The 1955 narrative reveals both the connection to the 1943 narrative and the identity of the murderer.

The author effectively captures the horror of war; how most people did what they had to in order to survive, how some fell into a forbidden love sometimes because they could see the good in others, and how not all who were enemies were bad people. Bohjalian masterfully demonstrates many times throughout the novel how an event can appear differently to different people depending upon their perspective. For example, the Rosati's didn't like the German's coming to their villa to view the Etruscan ruins, yet the villagers assumed they were German collaborators.

Although there are plenty of major characters in the novel, certain ones stand out. Fredrick Strekker is the kind German soldier who although having done his duty on the Eastern Front, doesn't really believe all the Nazi ideology he's been fed. In contrast to Strekker is Colonel Decher who is a brute of a man, both arrogant and impulsive who commits an act of mass murder and covers it up with cowardice. Cristina Rosati is the lonely young woman still trying to cope with the loss of a first (and eternal) love, years after the war. Seraphina, the hardened former partisan turned detective, has a vulnerable side that her gay roommate, Milton tenderly ministers to. Her physical scars reflect the depth of her emotional ones.

Well-written, suspenseful, fans of Chris Bohjalian will enjoy this historical mystery.

Book Details:
The Light In The Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
New York: Doubleday Publishers    2013
320 pp.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Milk of Birds by Sylvia Whitman

"Peace is the milk of birds."

This novel is a truly heartrending fictional account of the terrible situation endured by the people of Darfur, especially its women in 2008.  

Milk of Birds contains two narratives, that of Nawra bint Ibrahim, a fourteen year old girl in a refugee camp in Darfur and Katherine (K.C.) Cannelli a young girl struggling academically in her first year of high school. Their stories are told in a series of letters exchanged between the two girls, which highlight their profoundly different life experiences and culture. Each girl also has her own story which informs the reader of the reality of their lives.

K.C. lives in Richmond, Virginia with her mother and older brother, Todd. Her father and mother are divorced and he has remarried. She is still trying to come to terms with what has happened to their family.

K.C is having difficulty in school. Her marks are poor and she has trouble concentrating. Her mother signs her up to be a part of the Save the Girls nonprofit organization working with refugees from Darfur, Sudan. They send a donation each month, part of which goes to the girl in a refugee camp who then sends letters back to her sponsor. Save the Girls matches a girl refugee with a sister in America so they can correspond. K.C. is matched with Nawra The two girls are to correspond, but K.C. gets four letters from Nawra which go unanswered. K.C. doesn't respond, mainly because she has difficulty writing but also because of a kind of indifference.
"...Life sucks for this Nawra person. 
But what am I supposed to do about it? I can't even pass the practice test in world geography."
K.C. reveals to Nawra that she is the oldest in her class and was held back in school when she was younger. While Nawra isn't able to go to school, K.C. wishes she didn't have to. School is hard for her and it seems to take her a long time to finish assignments. Finally her mother decides to get K.C. tested to see if she has a learning problem.

As K.C. continues to write to Nawra and receives her letters, K.C. begins to understand just how difficult Nawra's life is and she wants to do something. Contact with Nawra expands her world, shows her that people everywhere have problems and helps put her own problems in perspective.

Eventually KC decides that she wants to form a new club at her school, The Darfur Club, to educate people on the situation in Sudan and to raise money to buy fuel-efficient stoves and donkeys. For K.C. it's about making a difference. With Mr. Nguyen as their faculty sponsor, K.C. and her best friend, Emily and her classmate Parker (whom she is crushing on) organize a major project to raise money for the refugees, to buy them things that will make their lives easier and help them get a new start. This project highlights one of K.C.'s strengths - that of thinking outside the box.

In complete contrast to K.C's life of physical ease and comfort, is Nawra's struggle to live with even a bit of dignity in a world torn apart by war, greed and fear. Nawra lives in a camp for displaced refugees (Internally Displaced Persons - IDP) after fleeing from the janjaweeds (outlaws hired by the Sudanese government) who murdered everyone in her village, Umm Jamila. Only Nawra and her mother, who is in such shock she is mute, have escaped. Nawra finds herself pregnant as a result of rape, dishonored and like "spoiled meat". The camp is crowded, dirty and smelly. There is little food and poor sanitation. Still the refugees know that life must go on and a school is formed for the children.  There she meets a young girl, Adeeba  from a well to do family, who is educated, but also now a refugee.
"When a tree leans, it will rest on its sister."
When the Save the Girls representatives show up, Nawra is encouraged to join, so she can have some extra money. Nawra who cannot write, dictates her letters to Adeeba, who acts as a scribe.  As we read the two girls' correspondence, it becomes apparent that despite the cultural divide and the geographic distance, both K.C. and Nawra have some similar problems.

Like K.C., Nawra's family is"broken", but not by choice, but by violence and murder. For K.C. she understands how Nawra feels "spoiled" or as K.C. puts it, "defective"  with her inability to do school work. Like K.C., Nawra also has difficulty writing but it is because she is illiterate. Despite the huge cultural differences as evidenced by what each girl writes about, both girls can find something in their letters that resonates with them. Nawra encourages K.C. to persevere and to respect her mother, while K.C. is deeply touched by Nawra's struggle to simply survive and she encourages her to keep going. Both girls stories end with a measure of hope and both begin to find their own way in their world.

Admittedly this novel was a bit slow at first, but I encourage readers to persevere because there is an important story to be told and it worth reading. Whitman did a great deal of research in order to create Nawra's voice and make it authentic. She also educates her readers through Nawra's narrative but also by using K.C.'s mom, who gives her daughter some background information on how things came to be in Sudan.

There are many issues covered in this novel including rape, female circumcision, AIDS, forced marriage, the concept of honor in Sudanese Muslim families, the role of men and women, identity, education for girls, learning disabilities, environmental destruction, and global social responsibility. While that might seem like far too many, really all these issues at inter-related, especially in the African state of Sudan, and in Nawra's culture. And the this issues are often only obliquely mentioned but yet they are interconnected.

For example, the issue of AIDS and rape are related, not just because a woman can contract AIDS from rape, but also because of the belief by the men in Nawra's culture that sex with a virgin can cure them. Although there is only a mention of this in passing in the novel, this is a prevalent belief that medical field workers must counter. It leads to the violation of very young girls. Rape is also often used as a weapon of war, to destroy a society, weakening family bonds, and demoralizing and marginalizing women.

I highly recommend this book to teens of all ages. There is quite a bit of violence in the novel but it's not done in a graphic way, simply told in Nawra's understated narrative. The beautiful cover only enhances the prospective reader's desire to open the cover and learn more. I would love to see more novels written on recent events.

For those interested in learning more about the situation in Darfur, please see Save Darfur Coalition Another good summary of the conflict maybe found on the World Without Genocide website and the Council on Foreign Relations website.

Book Details:
The Milk of Birds by Sylvia Whitman
Toronto: Atheneum Books for Young Readers    2013
363 pp.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Bruised by Sarah Skilton

Sarah Skilton's debut novel, Bruised is a gritty story about a young girl trying to recover both her identity and her life after a terrifying robbery. Sixteen year old Imogen Malley is in a diner one night at the beginning of her junior year, when the eatery is robbed. The gunman who goes directly for the cashier, doesn't see her sitting in the corner. Quietly Imogen slips underneath a table where she notices a guy also hiding under another table. Paralyzed by fear and completely terrified,  Imogen stares at this boy. The robbery turns violent when police confront the robber who has a handgun and kill him. Imogen is taken from the scene covered in blood and brains and very traumatized.

From this point on, Imogen's life begins a slow spiral downwards. She is unable to cope with the fact that she did nothing to save the robber from being shot by police or to stop the robbery when it began. Imogen feels responsible because she has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She has spent the past six years working towards her black belt, and is Grandmaster Huan's star pupil. But to Imogen, all her black belt training was useless when the robbery went down. All she did was hide. She froze.

This leads Imogen to question the purpose of her martial arts training and to question who she is; it's an identity crisis of colossal proportions. In martial arts demos she has been controlled and confident - the very opposite of how she felt during the robbery. When she reflects back on a successful demo she did at her high school, Imogen wonders,
"And now a month later, I'm not even sure who that girl was -- that girl who stood up in front of her classmates and pretended to know how to fight."
Imogen returns to school, but doesn't go back to her Tae Kwon Do Club because she feels ashamed of freezing during the robbery and because she doubts what she has been taught there. She is taunted at school and begins to suffer from nightmares. Imogen experiences many symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder; she is unable to feel anything, goes through the motions of her daily life and deliberately pushes away those who care about her. Imogen wants to find the boy who was in the diner with her because she feels he will be the one person who understands what she is experiencing. Fortunately, ten days after the robbery, Imogen is called to talk to the school counselor along with Ricky Alvarez, who turns out to be the boy from the diner. However, the two get off to a bad start when Imogen misunderstands Ricky's nervous laugh over her black belt status and punches him in the face.

As a result, Imogen is suspended from her Tae Kwon Do Club for breaking the honor code as well as from school. Surprisingly Ricky forgives Imogen and asks her to teach him how to fight. They meet in her garage every day after school so that Imogen can teach him the basics of Tae Kwon Do. Imogen's motive for teaching Ricky is that she hopes to fight him to prove that her martial arts training was real. Gradually their friendship begins to blossom into more and they try to date. However, their relationship is complicated by the fact that both are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, although each is processing what happened to them very differently.

At the same time Imogen is trying to deal with other personal problems, one involving her brother, Hunter, who is causing her to lose all her girlfriends by his sleeping with them and then dumping them and her father who has become wheelchair-bound due to diabetes. She hates Hunter for what he has done and she has lost respect for her father whom she always admired for his strength and perseverance.

Will Imogen ever be able to break free of that fateful night at the diner? Will she be able to come to terms with what happened that night and pick up her life again?

Bruised is well written novel that touches on many different issues. The author who herself has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, knows her subject and therefore has been able to craft a story that is both authentic and meaningful. Many issues are touched on in this novel including the meaning of friendship, forgiveness and redemption, personal responsibility and accountability, bullying and arrogance vs humility.

Skilton has created an realistic protagonist in Imogen,who struggles throughout most of the novel, but in the end begins to grow and mature. Imogen comes to understand that the martial arts skills she developed made her arrogant and cocky and that sometimes, as at her school marital arts demo, she did not have the "proper Tae Kwon Do spirit". She recognizes that she needs to learn humility. To that end, Imogen makes several decisions near the end of the novel to help her work towards this. Most importantly, Imogen also comes to understand who was responsible for what happened that night in the diner.

Ricky is also a believable well-developed character who cares about Imogen and wants her to feel safe. Ricky's PTSD symptoms are different than Imogen's highlighting how traumatic events affect everyone differently. Hunter is a very disagreeable character who manages to redeem himself in the end.

Even the families of Ricky and Imogen, although very different, are well cast, allowing the reader to get a real sense of the families and the dynamics the two main characters must live within.

Overall, Bruised is a very good novel, with a great hook to draw readers in quickly, a likeable protagonist and lots of well paced action to keep the story moving along.

Book Details:
Bruised by Sarah Skilton
New York: Amulet Books    2013
274 pp.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Originals by Cat Patrick

Elizabeth, Ella and Betsey are clones of an "Original", a baby who died and whose parents wanted their child cloned. However, when the parents revealed that they wanted only the most "perfect" of the babies, they were told that the embryos died. Instead, the three babies were carried to term by their mother and raised as triplets until the doctor who created them and who was arrested for undertaking the cloning procedure suggested that they might be alive.

 As a result, their mother moved them to San Diego, California, where the three sixteen year olds now live life as one person; Elizabeth Best, a student at Woodbury. They split their day up with Elizabeth (Lizzie) doing morning classes, while Ella does the afternoon and Betsey is homeschooled during the day and does the evening college class and holds a job. Their mother, Sonya Bauer, works at night in the local hospital as an ER physician.

Although they are genetic copies of one person, each girl has begun to show personality differences and strengths in different subjects at school. For example, while Elizabeth excels at creative writing and Spanish, Ella excels at maths and sciences. So when Elizabeth fails a trigonometry test, their mother switches their schedules around.

However, things become complicated when Elizabeth falls for a boy, Sean Kelly, in her creative writing class, while Ella meets and falls for a different guy by the name of Dave Chandler. Both girls want to date the guys they like but can't because the world knows only one Elizabeth Best. Their mother decides that only one boy will be chosen and that all three will have to date him. Of course this leads to the inevitable hard feelings and confusion when Ella's Dave is chosen.

Determined that Elizabeth not lose Sean, Ella and Betsey arrange for Elizabeth to go out on a date with him at night. But for Elizabeth this is bittersweet because this is her one and only chance with Sean. After Ella injures her ankle and Elizabeth is forced to go out on a date with Dave,  the three girls decide that things must change. They need to take back their lives from their controlling mother.  The situation is further complicated by the fact that Elizabeth discovers that her mother is not actually working as a doctor and that she is being paid large amounts of money by someone. The girls begin to question all that their mother has told them and the circumstances behind their lives.

Elizabeth who realizes more than the others that their lives are untenable,  makes the decision to tell Sean about her situation. Remarkably, Sean takes this pretty much in stride and agrees to help Elizabeth. This marks the beginning of the three girls gradually reclaiming their lives. However, it takes a serious outside threat to make their mother see things their way and for all to make the journey towards a more normal existence.

The Originals has an interesting and unique premise which the author manages to make work in a general way but it's not without its problems.  Although Patrick ties together all the loose ends and weaves a story that mostly fits together at times events seem contrived with conflicts and dangerous situations too easily resolved (for example, the three girls have absolutely no problems finding a mysterious man who is able to make fake identities for all three girls so they can live life as three individuals). Another weak aspect of the novel was the character of Betsey, of whom the reader learns very little. Part of this is due to the fact that the novel was written in Lizzie's voice and the conflict was between Lizzie and Ella over boys, and between Lizzie and her mother over Lizzie's increasing independence and their absurd life. Betsey at times seemed irrelevant. She was a good sport to not mind staying home all day, every day, to be homeschooled while her sisters split time at high school, were dating and participating in sports.

Patrick doesn't get too involved in the science behind human cloning but instead focuses more on the relationships between the three girls, especially that of Elizabeth and Ella and how they work together to make function what is becoming an increasingly unworkable lifestyle.  Each of the girls recognize one another's abilities, support their individual choices, and do their best to help each other.

The author also does a great job creating a creepy factor in having Lizzie date a boy she doesn't like just so that her sister can still have a chance with him. It's interesting to see Lizzie try to understand what Ella likes in Dave. Because she's not attracted to him, she sees Dave's flaws more readily while concluding she can be friends with him but nothing more.

The blossoming romance between Lizzie and Sean, and the growing mystery behind their mother's past will keep readers engaged to the whirlwind ending that will be satisfying. I'm a big fan of Cat Patrick's writing, but I didn't like this novel quite as much as her previous titles, Forgotten and Revived.

Those who are interested in cloning might note that the first human stem cells were just recently created by cloning

Book Details:
The Originals by Cat Patrick
New York: Little, Brown Books for Young People    2013
305 pp.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Soldier's Secret by Marissa Moss

Marissa Moss has written a captivating account of the true story of Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Canadian girl who served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Moss's account is well researched

Sarah Edmonds fled her home in New Brunswick, Canada when her father, an abusive man, arranged the forced marriage of Sarah to a much older farmer. Sarah did much of the work on her father's farm, as her brother was weak and sickly, with the expectation that someday she would take over the farm. However, when she saw the life she as being sold into, Sarah fled. The circumstances that led to her running away are told in a flashback later on in the novel.

At first she did odd jobs but when she arrived in Hartford, Connecticut she was able to get work as a Bible salesman for a book seller by the name of Mr. Hurlbut. When the war starts, Sarah who now goes by the name of Frank Thompson enlists and becomes Private Frank Thompson in Company F, Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry of the Army of the Potomac.

Frank is assigned a tent with Damon Stewart and together the two of them train in city of Washington. Sarah has lived as a man for three years prior to enlisting but being in the army proves to be more challenging because she will be living with men in close quarters. However, Frank manages to hide her feminine attributes by binding her breasts and making sure she is not seen relieving herself or changing her clothing. She makes sure she belches and passes wind, scratches her crotch and tells ribald jokes, all to make herself appear more masculine.

Frank and Damon, as part of the Army of the Potomac march to Centreville, Va to meet the Confederate Army in what will be the first battle of the Civil War. They join General Samuel P. Heintzelman's Third Division and fight in the first Battle of Bull Run which turns out to be a rout by the Confederates. For Frank Thompson it is a terrible initiation into war, as thousands of Union soldiers are killed or wounded. Frank works as a nurse, assisting doctors in the hundreds of amputations, treating patients with dysentery and comforting the dying.
Sarah Edmonds as Frank Thompson

In a field hospital at Washington, Frank meets Jerome Robbins from Matherton, Michigan. They soon form a friendship that for Frank develops into a blossoming friendship and then unrequited love. But when Jerome asks his sweetheart in a letter to marry him, Frank confesses to Jerome her secret identity and her love for him. Jerome is horrified and disbelieving. Frank expects him to turn her in, but Jerome doesn't and keeps Frank's secret. Through the next few years, Sarah in her role as Frank Thompson struggles with her love for Jerome, knowing he will never love her and that he is not attracted to her in any way. She is careful not to touch him or to share her feelings with him again.

Frank has many adventures while a soldier, working as a nurse, a mail carrier, an orderly carrying messages during battles and also as a spy. As Frank Thompson, she also takes part in battles and carries out her duties with great courage. During the Virginia Peninsula campaigns in the Virginia swamps, Frank contracts "swamp fever" or malaria which eventually grows worse over time causes her to desert the army to get treated.

Sarah Edmonds as a woman.
It was amazing to read how resourceful and intelligent Sarah was as she remained undiscovered as a woman soldier for several years. It was only when she fell desperately ill with malaria that she had to relinquish her identity as a man and live again as a woman. Her love of horses and skill as a horseman, her master of disguises, and her quick thinking make her an endearing hero(ine). What was interesting was Sarah's view of being a woman in 19th century America. She found everything about the role of women in society to be stifling. She wanted adventure and the freedom to choose her life, the man she would marry, and even what to wear. To live the way she wanted,  cost her dearly as it meant giving up her family and sometimes led to her feeling very lonely. She saw the men of the army as her true brothers and her family and she resolved to help them after the war was over.

Moss has written a very informative account from the perspective of  Frank Thompson that gives the reader a great sense of what it was like as a soldier during the Civil War. Moss portrays the horror of the battles, how the soldiers viewed the war and why they were fighting, how battles were fought, and the roles of men and women in 19th century America.

The back of the novel contains a section entitled The Story behind The Story which  tells about Sarah Emma Edmonds and what happened to Sarah after she left the army. Moss used Jerome Robbin's diary as well as letters and journals of other soldiers who served with Frank Thompson to recreate this incredible story.  Unbelievably, there were over 400 women who dressed as men to fight in the Civil War. Most of these were following relatives or husbands into the war. Sarah Emma Edmonds also published her own memoir in 1864 titled, Unsexed, or the Female Soldier.

There is also a section on Union Army Officer Biographies and a Civil War Timeline, and a Selected Bibliography.

Fans of historical fiction will truly enjoy this well written and researched novel.

You can read a good summary of Sarah Edmonston's life here at the Civil War Trust website.

Book Details:
A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, A Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss
New York: Amulet Books     2012
387 pp.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Reason To Breathe by Rebecca Donovan

Reason To Breathe is the first novel in the very dark Breathe series by author Rebecca Donovan. The main character, Emily (Emma) Thomas tells her story of abuse at the hands of a relative while at the same time discovering the beauty of a love that gives her a reason to breathe.

Emma lives with her Aunt Carol and Uncle George and their two children, Leyla and Jack in Weslyn, Connecticut. She was dropped off at their home four years ago by her alcoholic mother who no longer wanted her. But life with her relatives is a brutal existence, with Emma suffering both emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her deranged aunt, while her uncle does little to protect her. The only thing that keeps Emma from reporting the abuse is that it will destroy the family for her two sweet cousins. Instead she intends to suffer through it seeking solace in the knowledge that in two years time she will be free of them when she attends college. And with that goal in mind, Emma works hard to maintain a perfect GPA as well as being an outstanding soccer athlete.

Emma's strategy for high school is to fly under the radar. She keeps to herself and doesn't really have any friends except for the most popular girl in Weslyn High, Sara McKinley. And that works for the most part until one day in class she has an encounter with Evan Mathews, who it turns out, has noticed her. In fact, Evan has noticed Emma far more than she's realized.

Gradually Evan manages, with the help of Sara, to draw Emma into a friendship. Emma is reluctant to open herself to Evan for several reasons. Emma's main focus in her life is that of gaining admission to a good college and escaping from her abusive aunt and uncle. But her second reason is her fear of having to share her secret of abuse with Evan. So they manage to meet at the library and Sara often sets up sleepovers that morph into time out with her and her boyfriend Jason, and Evan and Emma. It's interesting to see how Emma runs her life similarly to how Carol controls her. Just as Carol sets numerous rules for Emma in her home, about what she can eat, her chores and bedtime, Emma also has rules for Evan. The rules revolve around what they can talk about and their behaviour with each other.

With Evan, Emma finally finds a measure of happiness and hope. Evan introduces Emma to different experiences, taking her rock climbing and dirt biking. But when Evan begins to come to an understanding of what is going on in Emma's life, she pushes him away, even though she recognizes that she loves Emma and that he feels the same way about her.

The abuse seems to diminish after a particularly horrible attack that results in Emma being hospitalized. After this attack, arrangements are made for Emma to spend the weekends at Sara's home. Despite this Emma's life is slowly unraveling because Evan has left to return to his family in San Francisco, while Emma dates another guy, Drew, only to discover some unsavory aspects about him.

But just when Drew and Emma break up, Evan reappears in Emma's life. Will they be able to pick up where things left off? And can Emma manage to survive much longer living with her brutal aunt?

Reason To Breathe is a 450 page-turner that keeps the reader captivated until the stunning ending. There are basically two storylines interwoven that will grab readers; the blossoming romance between Evan and Emma that gives her a "reason to breathe" and the gradual, brutal escalation of abuse by Carol that threatens to destroy Emma. This novel is well written and well paced, with lots of engaging interaction between the characters to space out the sequences of abuse, giving the reader time to absorb what is happening. Many readers may not fancy Donovan's ending, but it is a fitting conclusion to a good novel.

The only major contention I have with this novel revolves around the actions of adult characters peripheral to the story and how they dealt with the suspected abuse. This is best exemplified by the situation where Emma is hospitalized after an attack by Carol. She is brutally attacked by her aunt who injures Emma's back. Emma manages to play in her basketball game despite being in a great deal of pain. But during the game, while scoring a final game-winning point, she falls and hits her head resulting in her hospitalization. However, when the attending physician sees Emma's many bruises, he confronts her privately, asking what has happened and how she got her injuries. He tells her that her bruising and a healing contusion are not consistent with her explanations. Despite his reservations, unbelievably Emma is released from hospital back into her aunt and uncle's care. Credibility is further stretched when she shows up at the hospital with an even more serious injury months later and also when her teachers stage an intervention and they also do not report their suspicions to authorities. Emma was failed by those adults who came into contact with her and were in a position to help her.

In Connecticut, like other jurisdictions, anyone who works in a profession in which they have contact with children is mandated by law to report suspected abuse. This is pretty much standard protocol in both the United States and Canada. To fail to do so, is negligence, as a young person's life might very well be at stake. Having many characters suspect something was going on with Emma and not report, was a bit of dramatic license that allowed Donovan to push the story to its searing climax and to make a point about abuse.

Donovan has an interesting cast of characters in her novel, although the main protagonist. Emma Thomas seems a bit too perfect. Despite suffering from both physical and emotional abuse, Emma manages to maintain a 4.0 GPA,  is an all-star athlete who is being courted by major Ivy League colleges, editor of the school newspaper AND a talented artist. Despite her overachieving tendencies, Donovan has created a character who is likeable and strong. Emma is a character who elicits strong emotions from the reader; we want to protect and save her.

Emma's strategy for dealing with her abuse is to be in the background, in the shadows both at school and at home. Despite her best efforts to be a shadow, there is one person who won't allow her to do this.
"That's what was bothering me so much about Evan Mathews. He knew I existed. He was determined to pull me out from the shadows, and I couldn't get away from him. He wasn't deterred by my one-word answers or abrupt responses. He wasn't supposed to be paying attention to me, and I was trying, without success, to ignore him. But he was getting to me, and I think he knew it..."
Through out the story, Emma continually refuses to report her Aunt Carol's abuse, despite her friend Sara's many protestations. Her reasoning is that she will destroy the lives of her young cousins whom she loves dearly. It is clear Emma is deeply in denial, believing she is strong enough to cope with the abuse. However, as Donovan demonstrates, like most abuse situations, the person being affected often cannot see the reality of their situation. Abuse has a way of distorting perception. In Emma's case, she doesn't seem to realize just how bad the abuse has become and she believes that the consequences of reporting her abuser will outweigh the actual abuse. She doesn't recognize that no matter how hard she tries to fly under Carol's radar, she's unable to protect herself. It is finally Evan who makes her realize this, too late.

Sara McKinley is her faithful, stalwart friend who enables Emma again and again, putting her back together after abusive episodes, dressing and re-making her, but refusing to do what is right and tell her parents or teachers because of a misguided idea of friendship. Sara is the one person who saw Emma's injuries, yet still did not report her abuse likely because she couldn't get past her fear. It's a pretty big situation for a 16 year old to have to deal with. Sara also encourages Emma to develop a relationship with Evan and to try to find happiness within the boundaries that she's set for herself.She also works with Emma to try to get her away from her aunt's home as much as possible.

Evan is a wonderful character who brings much hope to this dark novel. He respects and loves Emma, and is willing to forge a relationship on her terms. It is his love for her that gives Emma the strength to carry on. Eventually he does come to know what is happening to Emma and he is finally able to gain her trust to the point that she has the courage to act.

Reason To Breathe is a novel for older teens 16+ with its dark theme of cruel physical and emotional abuse and the situations of teen hook-ups, parties and pregnancy. There's plenty of drama, a blossoming romance and a gut-wrenching cliff-hanger of an ending.
The second and third books in this series, Barely Breathing and Out of Breath are already published. I will be reviewing both when we receive our copies.

The message is clear though: if you are abused, tell a best friend, a teacher, a minister or priest, a police officer, or a coach and ask for help. Once you tell, you will be helped and protected. If you are the friend of a person you suspect is being abused, support your friend and tell an adult. You can also call the number below anonymously and confidentally (this means they will not ask your name).

The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is 1-800-422-4453. This number is good in both the United States and Canada.

Book Details:
Reason To Breathe by Rebecca Donovan
Las Vegas: Amazon Children's Publishing    2013
456 pp.