Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

This novel in  free verse tells the story of two daughters of a glass blower destined to marry the man the other loves. It is set in the 15th century Republic of Venice, on the Island of Murano and is based on a real historical person, Maria Barovier, who was one of the first women to open an enameling furnace .

Maria Barovier is the youngest daughter of Venetian glassblower, Angelo Barovier. Her father's family has molded glass on the Island of Murano since the 13th century when the Republic of Venice required all glassblowers to relocate to the island as a way to prevent fires and to protect the trade secrets of the glassblowers.

Angelo Barovier was preparing to leave Murano to study at the University of Padua when a terrible fire destroyed the family furnaces and killed most of the family. Angelo as well as a surviving brother, Giova, sought out work with other furnaces until they were able to restart their own business. Maria's father worked hard re-establishing his glassblowing business, training his two daughters, Giovanna and Maria. Maria's brothers were also a part of the family business; Paolo blew glass while Marino looked after the business.

The Barovier fornicas (furnaces) were the only ones to produce the cristallo, a clear crystal glass and this made her family renowned. But, someone who worked in the family business stole the secret and soon all the furnaces on Murano were making cristallo. A year later, Maria's father was dead from a heart attack. Now Maria's mother intends to marry her off to a wealthy nobleman to restore the family name and fortune as per her husband's will.

When the family's fortunes continue to fail, and Maria's brother Paolo spends his time pursuing a courtesan rather than blowing glass, they decide to take on a young gaffer (glassblower), Luca, who has no family name but whose work is exceptional.

 As suitors are brought before Maria and her mother, none seem suitable. In the meantime, Maria, who shows considerable talent as an artist begins visiting Luca and mixing batches for him. These visits lead her to see Luca in a different light, as an artist similar to herself and she begins to fall in love with him. But it seems that Luca does not feel the same towards Maria.

Eventually, Maria's mother settles on one man for her to marry, but she doesn't love him. Instead, her heart has turned towards another and towards the art of glassblowing. Complicating things even more, her suitor seems to have fallen for Giovanna. Can Maria find a way to be with the one she loves, or will she be required to sacrifice all for the sake of her family?

Stephanie Hemphill has chosen a little known subject for this short novel geared towards younger readers.The Barovias were renowned for their beautiful glass making in the 1400's. Maria and her brother Giovanni operated a Venetian glasshouse that produced some remarkable pieces. Hemphill takes the basic elements of the Barovier family history to create an interesting storyline while including numerous glassblowing terms throughout her novel that capture the life of the artisans on Murano. The author provides her readers with a glossary at the back so they can understand what all the terms mean.

The two sisters in Sisters of Glass, Giovanna and Maria, are strong women who are torn between following tradition and their hearts. In this novel they find a way to do both, although realistically in 15th century Venice, that would have been unlikely.

Although this novel works well written in verse, because the subject is so unique and interesting, it would have been exceptional if it was done as a full novel in prose. Still as a short historical novel, it is well written, laced with themes of identity, familial duty and responsibility, with a fulfilling conclusion.

Book Details:
Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill
Knopf     2012
170 pp.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Small Town Sinners explores the conflicts one young woman experiences between her faith and living in the modern world.

Lacey Anne Byer is the sixteen year old daughter of Ted and Theresa Byer, who are "pillars of the community" of West River. Lacey's dad is one of the pastors at the House of Enlightenment, an evangelical Christian church in the town. Her best friend, Starla Joy Minter is a free spirit, with a caring, easy going manner. Starla lives with her older sister, Tessa, and their mother, a single woman who has been abandoned by her husband. Lacey's other best friend, is Dean Perkins, a boy who has gained considerable weight in the last year and is being bullied by Geoff Parsons.

Like other girls in her church community, Lacey wears a purity ring, symbolizing her decision to remain chaste until marriage.Lacey's life is characterized by always following the rules, something she's not happy about because she feels that she is missing out on life and excitement. She also feels this makes her boring and unattractive. She longs to step out of her comfort zone and try new things instead of always following the rules.

The novel opens with Lacey taking her drivers test and noticing a cute blond boy at the DMV office. A few days later, that same boy initiates their first meeting when he stops the care in the street to introduce himself. Lacey eventually recognizes him as Ty Davis, a kid she remembers from her first grade class and who left town ten years ago.

Lacey and Ty begin a friendship that sees them meet up at Ulster Hill and sit and talk about life, about their faith and what it means to them. Lacey's parents do not know that she is meeting Ty on a regular basis.

Meanwhile at the church, efforts are on to prepare for their annual Hell House, which happens just before Halloween. The Youth Leaders meet to plan the Hell House which Lacey describes as follows:
"They're kind of like haunted houses, which is why we do ours over Halloween weekend. Tour guides dressed as demons take the audience through the church, room by room, to view scenes of sin: a drunk driving crash, a suicide, domestic abuse, and an abortion."
The purpose behind Hell House is to show young people the reality of sin and to draw them into committing to Christ. Lacey is fully committed to participating in Hell House and desperately wants to be Abortion Girl, a role usually only given to a senior student. This year's Hell House will include scenes on gay marriage, drunk driving, abortion, and spousal abuse. Lacey decides to audition for the part of Abortion Girl despite her parents reservations.
"In the past, I haven't gone for what I want. I've been safe and good and all those things that were expected of me...."

Against the backdrop of her faith community's preparations for Hell House, Lacey begins to question her faith, what she believes in, and how her community treats those who have made choices similar to the ones portrayed in Hell House. In an effort to resolve her conflicts, Lacey talks to both Ty who urges one approach - a nonjudgmental and more liberal view,  and her father who urges another - faithfulness to Biblical teachings.

Walker uses the scenes in Hell House to explore the way the evangelical Christian community in particular, and Christianity generally,  approach specific situations such as homosexuality, premarital sex and abortion and drunk driving and how it treats those who have fallen. Because these situations are common ones, it's not surprising that there are characters in the novel for whom these scenes are representative.

One such example is Starla Joy's sister, Tessa who is impregnated by her boyfriend, Jeremy. While Jeremy's life goes on, Tessa is sent away to a home for unwed mothers to have her baby. There is the suggestion that Tessa is a slut and that she is "that kind of girl" while no one considers Jeremy to be "that kind of boy". This is further emphasized when Jeremy continues on in Hell House as a demon talking about the dangers of promiscuity while he has sinned precisely in this way. Lacey sees the hypocrisy in this and it troubles her greatly.

Walker's strongest commentary though is about how often in the Christian community actions don't match up with beliefs and charity is often short-changed. A good example of this is when Tessa's pregnancy becomes known, Lacey's parents suggest that she find distance herself from Starla Joy, in effect, encouraging her to abandon her friend in her hour of need. Lacey tells her parents this and refuses to obey their directive. She knows Starla Joy needs her.

My complaint about this book is that Lacey who represents the Christian point of view is often a weak character, seemingly unable to provide answers for why she holds the beliefs she does.   For example, when Lacey and Ty are discussing the abortion scene and its very gory depiction of a late term abortion, Ty states that he's "pretty sure it's quick and clean and safe ninety-nine percent of the time.....And I'm positive that it doesn't involve major blood or anything really violent. Most women walk out the same day."  Lacey really has no response to Ty, instead acknowledging to herself that "I guess I hadn't ever really thought about what an actual abortion might be like."  Seriously? In the United States, with a very vibrant and highly visible prolife movement, the idea that Lacey has no idea what is involved in an abortion is quite unlikely.  Lacey's desire to be Abortion Girl then seems very unrealistic,  because if she wanted to turn girls away from abortion, but she didn't understand what was involved in an abortion, why was she so obsessed with playing Abortion Girl?  The implication here is that Christian teens (and their parents) who hold to the view that abortion and premarital sex are wrong, are misguided, ignorant and not critically thinking in their reasons for opposing such actions.

Asking teens to consider these heavy questions on abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality based on how they are presented within the context of Hell House is unfortunate, as the majority of Christians do not agree with the Hell House tactics nor with its depiction of people and the reasons they chose to do certain things. It's true there are over 3000 churches in the United States that participate in the Hell House movement which was started by Jerry Falwell. However, most mainstream Christian churches including Catholicism do not subscribe to this type of fire and brimstone Christianity. More than ever, the reasons for opposing abortion and premarital sex for example, are highly nuanced and developed, with a view towards compassion and charity. For example, few teens go away to special homes to have their babies, instead they continue their education and receive community and pastoral support.

Walker's dialogue and the information she incorporates into her novel comes from an article she did for ElleGirl in 2006 on Hell Houses. For more on Hell Houses from a true Christian perspective please read Rethinking Youth Ministry.

There's no doubt this is a provocative look at the extreme religious right that in no way represents the majority of those Christians who hold that abortion and premarital sex are wrong.

Book Details:
Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker
New York: Bloomsbury     2011
273 pp.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar

The Art of Wishing is a strange and unique novel about a girl who falls for a cute genie that leads her to make a life altering choice.

Eighteen year old Margo McKenna hopes to win the lead in her school's production of the musical Sweeney Todd. A gifted singer and songwriter as well as theatrical performer, Margo gives it her all during auditions only to find that inexplicably, Vicki Willoughby has been given the lead. How Vicki got the lead part is a major mystery to Margo but she decides to accept her school drama teacher, Miss Delisio's decision and try to learn her part well.

Vicki proves to be a terrible choice, unable to act, delivering her lines in a monotone - and strangely no one but Margo, her friend Naomi and the pianist, George, seemed to recognize this.  During a bathroom break one day, Margo finds a silver ring which Viki has left behind. When she picks up the ring, almost instantly Oliver Parish shows up outside the bathroom. In the discussion that follows, Oliver explains to Margo that the ring belongs to Viki but is tied to him and that it is a magic ring that has called him there. He asks Margo to give him the ring, but she tells him that she will return it to Viki instead. When Miss Delisio enters the washroom looking for Margo, Oliver vanishes and Margo decides she needs to find out what is going on.

Just as Oliver tells her, she uses the ring to "call" him. Oliver tells Margo that the ring holds a special kind of magic - it is a spirit vessel and that it binds him to whoever holds the ring. When he tells her that she can ask him for three things, Margo realizes that Oliver is a genie or djinni. Oliver also tells Margo that after he grants her three wishes, he must leave because someone is looking for him. That someone is his former master, who made two wishes but not a third. But until Margo makes those three wishes, Oliver cannot leave.

As it turns out, Margo finds herself in a dire situation when the person looking for Oliver shows up. That person is another genie named Xavier and he's bent on destroying Oliver, but to do so he needs the ring so he can make his final wish. Xavier believes that the genies magic has been lost and that they must leave this world forever. Can Margo find a way to save the boy she has fallen for, or will Oliver be lost forever?

Set in Oakvale, a little town in the middle of northern New Jersey, The Art of Wishing give's Margo's account of one week in her life. For the most part this novel was interesting because Ribar gradually reveals the mystery about Oliver and Xavier and fills her readers in on the nature of genies or as they are also known, djinni which is the arabic derivation. As a genie, Oliver is able to travel very fast - appearing and disappearing. He can heal himself and can assume the shapes of other humans. And he can live for thousands of years.

Readers will love the forbidden romance between Oliver and Margo. What could be more unique than a romance between a genie and a girl! However, I found that Margo and Oliver's relationship was bizarre (as one would expect) because he becomes whomever the master of the ring wants him to become which has led to Oliver having numerous identities throughout his time as a genie. He has also had to switch genders which makes him even more strange.  This leaves Margo wondering who the real "Oliver" is and she seeks to find this out.

Oliver is the main attraction of The Art of Wishing. His life is defined entirely by the magic he possesses and he loves it that way.  It's a life that Margo has trouble understanding but soon becomes attracted to.

The novel drags a little in the middle when the pace picks up with the appearance of Xavier. For the most part, the hanging ending was predictable and there are plenty of lose threads which hopefully will be picked up in the next book.

This the first in The Art of Wishing series, with the second book, The Fourth Wish to be published in the summer 2014. Robar is a literary agent with Sanford J. Greenburger.

Book Details:
The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar
New York: Penguin Group    2013
312 pp.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Boy On The Bridge by Natalie Standiford

The Boy On The Bridge tells the unique story of a young American teenager who spends a term studying in the former Soviet Union and falls in love with a Russian boy. The author, Natalie Standiford spent a semester herself studying in the Soviet Union.

It is 1982, and Laura Reid along with group of young American college students are spending the winter semester in Leningrad, studying at the Leningrad State University. At this time the Soviet Union was a totalitarian country under Communist rule. Citizens had few rights within the country; they couldn't own property, industry and agriculture was collectivized and highly inefficent leading to shortages in many basic everyday items including food. The people of the Soviet Union were not free to travel anywhere outside their country. Few visitors were allowed in and those that were, were closely monitored.

Laura shares a room in Dormitory Number Six with fellow student, Karen Morrison and their Soviet chaperone, Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards!!) who is required to report any misconduct to the Soviet authorities. The group have American professor-chaperones, Dr. Stein and her husband, Dr. Durant who are guiding them through a five month term. There are strict rules for the American students; they have an eleven o'clock curfew, cannot skip classes or be late and cannot associate with certain people.

A mere two weeks into her stay, Laura has a run-in with gypsies on the Builders' Bridge. In what seems a chance meeting she is helped by Alexei Mikhailovich Nikolayev, a young dissident artist. Aloysha's charm catches Laura off guard and she allows him to give her his phone number. He warns her to make sure she walks a fair distance from her dormitory to avoid bugged phones. They begin to meet secretly since it illegal for Russians to fraternize with Americans.

Initially they meet at Dom Knigi, the House of Books. The two manage to circumvent all the rules repeatedly with Laura sneaking Aloysha into a special store for foreigners only - the Berioska while missing classes or arriving at her dorm past curfew. Inevitably, Laura falls hard for Aloysha and he seemingly for her. But their relationship is complicated by the presence of Olga, the wife of Aloysha's friend, Roma, who seems to have a romantic interest in Aloysha.

Dom Knigi
Attracted by the romantic notion of a forbidden love, and the passion and beauty and fire of Russia, Laura finds it increasingly difficult to put her relationship with Aloysha in perspective and accept the reality that they will likely have to part at the end of her term. Her roommate Karen warns her that like most Russians, Aloysha views Laura as his ticket to America and a new life. Laura refuses to believe Karen but in her heart she wonders if she might be right.When Laura goes to Roma's dacha for a weekend the first seeds of doubt are sown and Laura gradually begins to recognize the likely truth of her relationship with Aloysah.

Despite this, and the terrible danger to both herself and more importantly, Aloysha, Laura is unable to resist. Aloysha is risking everything for a chance at a new life. When that danger materializes, all Aloysha and Laura's plans become what might have been.

The Boy On The Bridge is a simply written love story set against the backdrop of the Soviet Union in the early 1980's. that conveys to readers, a realistic picture of what life was like for the average Soviet citizen. There are descriptions of the line-ups outside of shops for food, the fascination with everything Western, rampant alcoholism, the overarching corruption in society, the cynicism and resignation of people in general, and the widespread (but justified) paranoia  in a country where a person's every move is monitored. The breakdown in Russian society is mirrored by the banal concrete buildings, the dilapidated houses with peeling paint and the dirty streets. However,  Standiford also includes many references to old Russia in an attempt to achieve some kind of balance; the fascinating but violent historical figures such as Ivan the Terrible, descriptions of the beautiful museums and subway in Moscow, and the incredible architecture of St. Petersburg (Leningrad).

Sometimes the setting of the novel is an allegory for what is happening between Laura and Aloysha. For example, there are two intriguing descriptions of the romantic Summer Garden at the Palace of Peter the Great. The first occurs at the beginning of the novel when Laura has just met Aloysha and the statues in the Garden are covered with boxes for the winter. They are a mystery to her as is Aloysha.   The second time happens in the spring when the Garden is "an oasis of budding life" and the marble people are unboxed and Laura and Aloysha attempt to avoid their inevitable parting.   Now revealed, Laura can see each of the statues, just as she too is beginning to understand Aloysha, his motives and the culture he lives in.

Aloysha enlightens Laura on how people have learned to live in Soviet society where few help others and everyone is too frightened to stand up against the corruption. Aloysha tells Laura that everyone learns to pretend.
"The hospitals are dirty, the stores are empty, the people are poor while the Party takes everything. The hypocrisy, the secrecy, the lies, the bullshit...I saw it all very clearly. I couldn't pretend to be a part of the system anymore. But that's what's required of you here -- you don't have to believe the lies, but you must pretend you do. That's all that matters: the pretending. That's what keeps the whole system going."
Laura is a realistic character, her voice reflecting her naivety about the Russian people and the motives behind what they say and do in culture very different from her own. At first she takes everything she sees at face value. When she sees a man walking his dog near the phone booth she is certain he is just that.But later on in the novel,  she considers the possibility that he might be more than what he appears to be, that he might actually be watching her. She eventually comes to realize that she doesn't know the rules and all the subtleties for living in Aloysha's world. Laura also comes to realize the same about their relationship - that Aloysha might being viewing their love very differently than she is.

Overall, The Boy On The Bridge will appeal to those who enjoy a bitter-sweet romance set against recent historical events. This novel definitely gives young readers a sense of the time period it is set in. Little wonder since author, Natalie Standiford majored in Russian Language and Literature and studied a semester in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

Book Details:
The Boy On The Bridge by Natalie Standiford
New York: Scholastic Press      2013
248 pp.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

It all begins with an errant email sent one night by an unknown person,GDL824, to sixteen year old Ellie O'Neill. It turns out that person is a seventeen year old boy who lives in California with his pet pig, Wilbur. What follows are a series of emails that continue on through a period of three months in which EONeill and GDL824 establish an online friendship.

Unbeknownst to Ellie, her secret admirer is none other than teen hearthrob, actor Graham Larkin. And what's more, is that Graham has managed to convince his producer to move the location of his next movie to the small town of Henley, Maine where his unknown correspondent lives.

Graham and his costars are booked into the Henley Inn and with his arrival come the hordes of paparazzi. Meanwhile, Ellie and her best friend Quinn try to go about their jobs at Sprinkles, while Ellie also works at her mother's gift shop.

In a chance meeting, Graham enters Sprinkles after Ellie leaves and sees Quinn wearing Ellie's shirt with her name on it. He assumes Quinn is Ellie and asks her out to dinner. Graham quickly learns during his date with Quinn the truth about Ellie and sets off to meet her at her house. However, when Graham shows up at Ellie's house and identifies himself as the person she was corresponding, with Ellie is stunned and embarrassed. Ellie is reluctant at first to become involved with Graham because she is struggling to come to terms with the fact that she has been corresponding with such a famous person.
"Most girls, she knew, would be delighted to find out they'd been corresponding with a movie star. But to Ellie, it just seemed unfair. She wanted nothing more than to spend time with GDL824 this afternoon. It was Graham Larkin she wasn't so sure about."
Ellie is also reluctant to get involved with such a high profile person because of her past - or more specifically her mother's past. Ellie is the illegitimate daughter of a well known senator Paul Whitman, who is considering a run for the United States presidency. When her mother found herself pregnant and abandoned years ago, she fled to the small town of Henley, Maine to live a reclusive life. Ellie's potential involvement with Graham Larkin and being pursued by paparazzi is sure to uncover her family's secret.

Despite Ellie's fears, the following day Graham manages to convince her to meet him at a cove. Gradually Ellie's attraction to Graham returns and they begin to meet secretly, their attraction as real as it was online. But Ellie wonders how can two people with such different lives ever be together? And how can she still see Graham and protect her mother's privacy too?

This novel started out wonderfully with a prologue featuring the emails sent between Graham and Ellie. They are sweet and witty, drawing the reader quickly into the story. A young woman who is unknowingly corresponding with teen heartthrob and movie star makes for a great romantic beginning. However, the way Graham and Ellie actually meet is rather creepy when he simply shows up at her house. It also seemed somewhat unrealistic that a major movie star (as Graham Larkin is described in the novel) would spill all the details of his secret correspondence with an unknown girl he is trying to find (Ellie) to her friend (Quinn), a person he also doesn't really know. One would think that "discretion being the better part of valour", Graham would have kept his surprise to himself, having already discovered the identity of his online friend and then discreetly learned what he needed to know from Quinn.

From this point on, the novel seemed to drag. Quinn's behaviour towards Ellie was irritating and immature - amazingly she expected her friend to tell her everything about her life and when she didnt' she dumps her. Yet later on when more important information about Ellie is revealed, Quinn seems incredibly ambivalent. The lengthy episode involving Ellie and Graham stealing a boat used in the filming did little to further the storyline or the relationship between Graham and Ellie. While most readers will be happy with the ending of the novel, it was for the most part, predictable and somewhat flat - a sweet uncomplicated finale.

This Is What Happy Looks Like did have some interesting characters that readers will enjoy. Ellie is a good student who hopes to attend Harvard and who reads poetry. She wasn't star-struck by Graham because she was able to develop a friendship with him first and saw past his public persona. Though Ellie is a likable character, she wasn't a strong one. She wanted to date Graham but under certain conditions that weren't very realistic (no cameras, no publicity) although Graham tries his best. She had to know that her secret would be discovered eventually and in this regard she was naive. When her mother learns of her relationship with Graham she coerces Ellie into breaking off with him. This could have been a source of major conflict between Ellie and her mother, yet it wasn't developed as much as it could have been. Instead, Ellie seems to accept her mother's views of what will happen and her mother's cynicism towards famous men, in her decision to break up with Graham. There's no real struggle by Ellie to make a case for her own life and her own choices and that things might work out differently for her.

Graham is a sweet, charming guy who hasn't yet been corrupted by stardom. It's obvious his sudden rise to fame has been hard on him and his family but again that source of conflict was only briefly touched on. Graham's wit makes for interesting dialogue at times making him a quite genuine and romantic character. Smith does a good job of portraying what it must be like to be hounded by paparazzi on a daily basis with Graham's run-in with a photographer.

Ellie's mother Margaret seemed to have given up everything for a bit of privacy that in the end didn't last. As a person who wanted to change the world, she ends up running a dumpy gift shop in a small town. No wonder she is cynical and over-protective of Ellie. Ellie's mother shows us that sometimes life doesn't always work out the way we planned.

Overall, what could have been a very good novel became just a sweet story about two nice people who managed to spend some weeks in the summer together in a nice little town. This Is What Happy Looks Like was disappointing, overly long and without much substance. A promising novel that just quite never delivers.

Book Details:
This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith
New York: Little, Brown & Company     2013
404 pp.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielson

This deeply moving novel deals with the hot topic of bullying through the fictional story of a young boy whose entire world has been undone by the ripple effects of violence triggered by bullying.  Written by Susin Nielson, author of Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, Nielson is also a script writer for the television series Heartland, Arctic Air and Robson Arms.

Thirteen year-old Henry Kaspar Larsen is trying to deal with the aftermath of his older brother Jesse's suicide - a tragedy which Henry refers to as "IT" . When Henry begins speaking "robot" after Jesse's death, his father takes him to psychologist, Dr. Cecil Levine.  Henry refuses to talk during his first sessions, so Cecil encourages him to keep a journal of his thoughts and experiences. Henry is at first dismissive of the idea and tosses the journal Cecil gave him, but then retrieves it and begins writing. What follows are entries that are at times tragic but humorous, while revealing Henry's innermost feelings and his deep turmoil over what has happened.

Henry and his father have just recently moved from Port Salish on Vancouver Island to Vancouver where he attends Trafalgar Secondary School. His mother is not living with them because she has had a nervous breakdown and is in a mental health facility in Kingston, Ontario near her parents. Henry and his dad live in a run down apartment complex eating take out most nights. Their obsession with wrestling and the Saturday Night Smash-Up is what keeps both of them going. Henry doesn't much like their neighbours, a widower, Mr. Atapattu who is from Sri Lanka and pushy Karen Vargas, a single woman who seems to be wheedling her way into his dad's life.

Coming into grade nine in January is a difficult for any student but especially so for Henry considering what he's just been through in the past eight months. Everyone has managed to find their group of friends and so does Henry when he meets Farley Wong, who is smart and friendly. Farley welcomes Henry but Henry is not sure he wants Farley as a friend. This is because Farley is bullied by Trafalgar's resident bully, Troy Vasic, due to his appearance; he wears thick glasses, dresses oddly and carries a briefcase. Farley invites Henry to join the school's Reach For The Top team which not surprisingly, includes a few other school misfits including a sassy girl named Alberta who is in Henry's Home Ec class. Alberta doesn't mince words,  has spiky hair, several piercings, dresses eccentrically and wears purple Doc Martens.

Henry too becomes a target of Troy Vasic mainly because he is now overweight, has red hair and of course he hangs out with Farley. He wishes he could get an "upgrade" in the friend department. However, as time passes, Henry discovers that Farley is a true friend and when Farley experiences the same sort of bullying that his brother Jesse did, Henry finds his courage and acts.

In Henry Larsen, Nielson has created a character that everyone can identify with because there's a bit of Henry in all of us. He's stubborn, loyal, witty, intelligent and a very typical 13 year old boy. But he's also experiencing great pain over the suicide of his brother.

We see Henry grow throughout the story in many areas of his life. At first he doesn't like Farley, or Alberta or Mr. Atapattu. But as Henry comes to know them better, he realizes that Farley cares for him, that Alberta likes him for just how he is, and that Mr. Atapattu with his kindly understanding gives Henry what he needs most in the moment. Even Karen, whom Henry suspects is after his father's affections, becomes a good friend because she has suffered a similar loss. Karen, perhaps more than anyone else, helps Henry to understand his feelings by being honest with him. She helps him identify and acknowledge his grief over the loss of his brother, his pain at seeing his happy family unravel and his mother hospitalized, and his anger towards his brother for what he has done.

Through the use of the diary format, Henry is gradually able to write about the incident that led to his brother Jesse arriving at school one day with his father's gun, even though Henry can't bring himself to speak about "IT".  In his journal, Henry reminisces about his family's life before "IT" enabling the reader to see how his family has been affected.

To avoid overwhelming her readers with the tragedy of Henry's family, Nielson has created a narrator with a great sense of humour that is sometimes dark. These funny bits create laugh-out-loud moments and ease the tension. They make Henry, as well as many of the other characters in the novel, very realistic. For example, the battles between Karen and Mr. Atapattu over various apartment building rules are quite comical. But anyone who has lived in an apartment, including many inner-city children, will easily relate to them.

Nielson's novel highlights the wide-reaching effects that unresolved bullying can have on a individual's life. Initally Jesse was impacted but as the bullying intensified, it affected Henry and his view of his brother, and eventually Henry's family, the bully's family and the community at large.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is a well written, thoughtful novel about bullying. Populated by wonderful, realistic characters, with a great storyline, and a satisfying ending, this novel is a great choice for readers over the age of 9.

Book Details:
The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielson
Tundra Books      2012
241 pp.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Golden by Jessi Kirby

"None of them look at me, but I'm nervous all of a sudden because right now it feels like I'm holding in my hands something I shouldn't be. Like I've just brushed my fingers over a ghost. And by all accounts and definitions, I have."

Seventeen year old Parker Frost hopefully has her ticket out of Summit Lakes with her placement as a finalist in the Cruz-Farnetti Scholarship. Her dream of attending premed at Stanford is now that much closer. All she has to do now, is write a winning speech and the scholarship will be hers.

Parker is a TA for Mr. Kinney's freshman English class. One of her final chores is to take the journals written by students ten years earlier and mail them out to them. Every year Kinney gives his students a journal after spring break and the task of writing in for the remainder of the school year. On the board at school, Mr. Kinney writes a quote from a Mary Oliver poem, "Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"  Students then spend the last few weeks of their senior year answering this question in the journal Kinney has given them. On graduation day, student hand in their sealed journals and ten years later they are mailed back to the students using their updated addresses from the school's alumni database.

As Parker is locating addresses to mail out the diaries, she comes across the sealed journal of Julianna Franetti. Julianna and her boyfriend, Shane Cruz were the town's golden couple destined for a golden life, together forever. They had been together for four years and it was expected they would marry and stay in Summit Lakes to be a part of Shane's family's business.

But a freak storm and a terrible accident changed that forever. First responders never found their bodies in Shane's jeep half-submerged in the river at the bottom of the gorge. The official statement was that their bodies were swept downriver and into Summit Lake. The golden couple are immortalized on the town's bulletin board; their portraits a reminder of what was lost.

Julianna's journal was written before her accident and Parker, in a moment of weakness, descides to take the journal home. Parker wonders why no one thought to ask about Julianna's journal and why Mr. Kinney never read it. At first Parker doesn't think she will read it but then changes her mind. Partly she does this because her best friend Kat has been encouraging Parker to take a chance in life, to try the road less traveled; to "do something unexpected that would leave me with something I could keep and remember. An experience instead of a goal." Parker also decides to read the journal because she wants to know the real Julianna, "who she was and what she wanted".

However, the journal reveals that all was not entirely golden in the life of Julianna, that she was struggling with the choices she had made and was filled with self-doubt. The revelations of the journal lead Parker to try to discover what happened that fateful night. When Parker makes several astonishing discoveries about Julianna's life, she decides to take a chance in the hopes of solving a mystery and giving love a second chance. And through her journey investigating they mystery of  the deaths of Julianna and Shane, Parker finds the courage to apply the lessons she learns to her own life.

I enjoyed this book because it combined mystery and romance. Jessi Kirby has crafted a brilliant novel that uses a unique storyline to explore themes of identity, forgiveness and redemption, love, and the importance of being true to oneself. These are things that young people find very relevant in their lives. The hook, the discovery of the forgotten journal of crash victim, Julianna Franetti is perfect for drawing readers into this well paced novel. Although the storyline is predictable, there are twists along the way that make it interesting. Not only is the story of Parker's attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of Julianna and Shane riveting but so is her journey of self-discovery.

Parker Frost, who is related to the famous poet, Robert Frost, identifies with Julianna Franetti's struggle to find meaning hin her life. Julianna's life was mostly planned out for her by the choices she made. Like Julianna, Parker realizes that her life is all but planned out for her but not by her choices, instead by her mother whose life is focused on practicality and stability. But Parker is like her poet father and his relative Robert Frost - she has a need to find meaning in life, to be creative, to express herself. Like Julianna, she wants a life that's more expansive and more open to chance and change, something Parker begins to understand is a part of life.

The major characters in the novel are well developed and unique. Parker is a likable heroine, intelligent, caring and romantic. She believes in love, despite her parents divorce. Her best friend Kat, is confident, flirty, and very self aware. Kat's favourite motto is carpe diem ("seize the day") and she's the driving force behind getting Parker to seize her life and make it her own. Trevor Collins, the boy Parker is crushing on but too afraid to acknowledge her feelings for, is both humorous and sweet. At first it seems like he might be superficial, but it soon becomes evident that he truly cares for Parker.

I truly enjoyed how Kirby made the main character, Parker Frost, a distant relative of famous poet, Robert Frost. This allowed her to incorporate many quotations from Frost's wonderful poems into her novel, adding to the overall beauty of the storytelling. The novel's title, Golden, is also a reference to Frost's poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay. Julianna and Shane are the "golden" couple, perfect in love with the perfect life awaiting them. But it didn't happen. Because in life, nothing is assured and nothing lasts forever. Change is part of life and that is expressed in Frost's poem:

Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day,
Nothing gold can stay.

Each chapter has a short quote from one of Frost's poems, that are relevant to what will happen in the chapter. Readers may be familiar with some of the quotes, especially those from Robert Frost's Fire and Ice and also his well known poem, The Road Not Taken. It is truly wonderful, the interweaving of many of the ideas about life, Frost expressed in his poetry with the novels overarching themes of choices made in life, of love and meaning.

Golden is by far the best young adult novel I have read this year. Well written, well paced, with a great storyline, I especially recommend this novel for book clubs, book talks and just for a great read overall! The lovely book jacket has gold detailing which entices the reader to pick up this very good novel. Not to be missed!

Maybe we'll get to see what happens to Parker in ten years time??

Book Details:
Golden by Jessi Kirby
Toronto: Simon & Schuster BFYR    2013
277 pp.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Rules for Disappearing by Ashley Elston

This young adult novel has a very unique plot involving a family in the Witness Protection Program and a young girl trying to get her life back.

Seventeen year old senior "Sissy" and her eleven year old sister "Teeny" along with their parents have been in the Witness Protection Program for the past eight months. In that time they have had to move six times after their new identities were compromised.

This time her family is moved to Natchitoches, Louisiana where they are placed in a small cottage. They are now known as Megan (Meg) Rose Jones and Mary Jones. Meg's father is given a manufacturing job and her mother is made to stay at home as she is a completely non-functioning alcoholic at this point.

Meg is determined that this will be her last move. She's lost her identity, her home, her friends, and a boy she liked. Her parents marriage is failing, while her younger sister is becoming increasingly withdrawn and unresponsive.

Seeing her family in chaos and completely dysfunctional, Meg draws up a list of rules for disappearing:
1. I will not join any clubs.
2. I will not try out for cheerleading or any other sport/team.
3. I will not make any friends.
4. I will discover the truth no matter what.

For Meg, number 4 is the most important. She is determined to learn why her family was placed in the program and why they are being moved so much. She does not want to move again.

Meg attends Natchitoches High School where, almost immediately, she attracts the attention of handsome Ethan Landry who works on his family's farm. Meg manages to get a job working at a nearby pizza place owned by Ethan's Aunt Pearl. This job gives Meg an escape from the almost insurmountable problems at home and helps her cope with the stress. She is suffering from terrible nightmares as well as a loss of memory of the events leading up to their placement into the Witness Protection Program.

Although Meg tries her best to scare off Ethan, he continues to pursue her, convincing her to let him drive her to and from school. He frequents his Aunt's pizza place where he forms a rapport with Meg's younger sister Mary, teaching her how to make pizza. This gradually begins to heal Mary and brings her out of her shell.

Although Meg tries to suppress her feelings for Ethan and to push him away emotionally, she finds him irresistible and they soon become a couple. Ethan has suspected early on that Meg is not from Arkansas and he confronts her over her identity. But Meg refuses to answer Ethan's questions, even when he confronts her later on with evidence that she is someone else. Her motive is to try to protect Ethan.

Meg attempts to find out from both her parents about what caused their placement in protection, but she is refused at every attempt. Meanwhile one of the FBI agents or "suits" approaches Meg expressing concern for her family. When Meg asks Agent Thomas to tell her what happened he tells her that if she just thinks about it she will "figure it out". This leads Meg to try to focus on what she remembers from the night of the party, even though it's obvious what she experienced was very traumatic.

When Meg's mother inadvertently reveals a clue, this leads Meg to regain most of her memory over what happened that night. She confronts her father who fills in some of the details. Meg decides she needs to take action in an attempt to free her family from the witness protection program. With Ethan by her side and some help from a few friends, Meg travels across the country to retrieve something she hopes will free herself and her family.

The Rules for Disappearing is an interesting novel with a unique storyline. It is part mystery, part suspense and part romance. Elston immediately grabs her readers interest with Meg and her family being assigned new identities and shuttled into a new life in Louisiana. The mystery of what caused her family to be placed in protection is gradually revealed through several twists in the plot. Eventually readers learn about Meg's past and the events that led to her family's current predicament.  But Elston leaves a few loose ends that will lead to a second installment in this new series.

Meg is a strong heroine who fights for her freedom and to regain her life. This is in contrast to her parents who seem unable to cope with what has happened. Her boyfriend Ethan is probably the most attractive character in this novel as he's witty, understanding and courageous. His tenacity matches that of Meg, whom he finds himself very attracted to. Elston highlights the renowned southern hospitality as evidenced by the actions of Ethan Landry and his family.

Those readers looking for something a little different will enjoy this well paced novel.

Book Details:
The Rules for Disappearing by Ashley Elston
New York: Hyperion    2013
312 pp.