Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

The Extra is a historical novel that explores the fate of one young Gypsy woman and her family during the Second World War. Specifically, this novel deals with the mass round up, sterilization and genocide of the Romani people of Eastern Europe by the Nazis by focusing on the select few who were chosen to be extras in a film made by Hitler's favourite filmmaker and Nazi sympathizer, Leni Riefenstahl. This is a novel that ends on a positive note but the reader will be overwhelmed by the deep sense of tragedy over those who lost their lives and over those whose lives were irrevocably changed by the Nazi eugenics program.

The novel opens in 1940 by introducing the reader to Lilian (Lilo) Friwald who lives a comfortable life in Vienna, Austria with her father, Fernand, who is a master clockmaker, and her mother, Bluma, who makes exquisite lace. The Friwalds are Sinti, or gypsies who have just been fingerprinted. They are hopeful that nothing else will happen to them, but one day Lilo and her parents are forcibly removed from their home and sent to Rossauer Lande, a holding camp for gypsies. While at the holding camp, Lilo learns that at Ravensbruck, the Romani women and girls are being forcibly sterilized. Lilo is horrified. "It was as if the future had been erased, any hope for a future obliterated. Being in this barbed-wire cage was nothing compared with the utter darkness of the black wall of sterility, of a childless world, of a family that simply ended forever and ever. The Friwalds would be extinct."

After five days, the Friwalds are separated and Lilo and her mother are sent along with hundreds of other "Ziegeuner" to Buchenwald. At Buchenwald, Lilo learns that the Nazi's are forcibly sterilizing the Romani women, whom they consider to be inferior. Lilo is saved from this fate through the actions of a woman whom she calls the "Good Matron". During this time, Lilo meets a boy who has been in five camps already and who knows how to "organize" food and supplies. Django helps Lilo and her mother survive the brutal conditions and get selected for transport to Maxglan.

It is at Maxglan that Lilo, her mother and Django encounter the famous actress, Leni Riefenstahl, who is looking to recruit gypsies for her Spanish folk opera, Tiefland. All three are selected along with twenty others and are sent to Krun where they are housed in a barn. Conditions are better than at the work camp, and the three settle into working as extras on the film.

From this point on the novel traces Lilo's experiences as a gypsy film slave on through to the end of the war in 1945 as she attempts to ensure she is chosen to work on each stage of the filming in order to avoid being sent east to the death camps. Her life over the next few years is harsh, a mixture of both triumph and tragedy.


Kathryn Lasky based her Lilo character on a real gypsy teenager, Anna Blach, whom Riefenstahl used as a stand-in for her during the riding scenes. Blach was eventually sent to Auschwitz but survived.

Lasky's novel will help readers learn about another group the Nazi's targeted for their "final solution". The Roma and Sinti were considered useless breeders, an inferior race by the Nazi's and as such were targeted for medical experimentation and genocide. It is estimated that 500,000 gypsies were exterminated in the Second World War.

Lilo and the other Romani characters are portrayed realistically, and the author does a grand job showing them as human beings with the same dreams and hopes in life as the rest of us as well as the same weaknesses and fears. Their care and concern for one another while they are in the camps is contrasted to the predatory and sometimes animalistic character of Riefenstahl and some of the camp guards. However, Lasky is careful not to demonize all those caught in the Nazi war machine or those living in Austria and Germany.

Django who is a gypsy boy that Lilo eventually falls in love with is a well developed impact character who helps Lilo grow through most of the novel.

Lasky's ability to effectively capture the time period and to create a series of believable characters make this novel a treat for historical fiction fans.

To learn more about the genocide of the Romani peoples check out this website.

Book Details:
The Extra by Kathryn Lasky
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press     2013
314 pp.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Justice has been flying planes since she was twelve years old, so it's no surprise that she has signed up to be part of the British Air Transport Auxiliary based out of Southampton, England. With the help of her Uncle Roger, Rose has managed to get through the red tape to work as a pilot flying new planes for the Royal Air Force to different bases in England and even overseas. It is 1944 and the Allied Invasion of Normandy has just happened a few months earlier. Rose feels lucky to be a part of the war effort and is glad she has so much flying experience prior to coming to England but she wants to go overseas.

Living in Hamble, Hampshire, Rose like everyone else in England is trying to cope with the V-1 bomb, pilotless planes that are bombs. These flying bombs are called vengeance weapons by the Germans, but the British give them all kinds of strange names including "doodlebugs". The bombs cause terror among the British because they can be heard thirty miles away. There is an eerie silence once the engine stops and then the bomb drops and explodes.

In September, 1944, Rose gets her wish, and arrives in Reims, France. Rose taxiied someone important over to France and is taking a Spitfire back to Southampton when she encounters a flying bomb over Epernay, France. Knowing the terrible destruction these weapons cause, Rose decides to go after the bomb to take it down and while she succeeds, she is intercepted by German Luftwaffe who force her to turn around and fly deep into Germany.

When she lands in Germany, Rose is interrogated and then forced to fly to Neubrandeburg, a satellite camp for the infamous women's concentration camp, Ravensbruck. Conditions at the camp are dehumanizing, and filthy with the women starving.

After surviving the quarantine isolation, Rose is sent to work in the Siemens factory making the electrical relays for the V-1 bomb fuses. When she realizes what she is doing, Rose refuses to work anymore. This act of defiance gets her sent back to Ravensbruck when she is brutally beaten and placed in Block 32.

It is at this point she meets the "rabbits" as they are called - several of the Polish women who have been experimented on and are now crippled. Rose is completely horrified by what she learns; that 74 women have been experimented on and that these women are slated to be executed. Rose forms a friendship with petite, seventeen year old Roza Czajkowska, who was imprisoned when she was fourteen for working in the Polish resistance. When Rose meets these women they tell her that they have managed to get word outside the camp about what is going on. Rose tells the Roza and others that she has heard about them on the BBC, but that everyone assumed this was anti-German propaganda because it was so unbelievable. Rose and several other women she meets, Karolina, Lisette and Irina all work together to help one another survive the brutal roll calls and the death lists. They make Rose promise "to tell the world" if she survives.

Rose Under Fire is a very powerful novel about one girl's experiences as a prisoner of war near the end of World War II. The novel is divided into three sections, Southampton, Ravensbruck, and Nuremburg. Rose narrates her experiences through each of these three phases.

In Southampton, Rose is an new pilot, fresh from America, young and inexperienced in the realities of war.Despite the bombs and devastation of London, Rose has yet to experience the effects of war on a deeply personal level. That changes in the second section of the novel.

In Ravensbruck, the story jumps ahead to April 17, 1945 and the reader knows that Rose is now in Paris. However, Rose is so traumatized by what happened to her that she cannot speak about it and instead writes everything in her journal. Wein makes use of flashbacks to have Rose tell her story and although not explicit, Wein does not shy away from portraying the details of camp life.

In Nuremberg Rose struggles to recover from her experiences, to live a normal life, to come to terms with the loss of her friends at Ravensbruck, and to see justice done. She wants to find out what happened to her friends, Roza and Irina, whom she became separated from. She is afraid to tell the world, as she promised because she is so traumatized.

By separating Rose's story into these three sections, Wein does an excellent job demonstrating how Rose's experiences changed her forever.Part of how this is expressed in through Rose's poetry which Wein places throughout the story. These poems are in fact the poetry of several poets including most notably,  Edna St. Vincent Millay, a famous American poet.

While the names of the "Rabbits" in this story are fictional, many other characters did exist including Dr. Leo Alexander, Marie Claude Vaillant-Couturier, the four Polish women who testified at the Nuremburg Doctor's Trial as well as the doctors, Fritz Fischer, Karl Gebhardt, and Herta Oberheuser.

Wein effectively captures the brutality and horror of existing in Ravensbruck, while also portraying the humanity of those who suffered there. This is historical fiction at its best. The subject is heavy, but readers will come away with a deeper understanding of the true horror of the Nazi regime, the depths of suffering inflicted on all of Europe,  and the price our parents and grandparents paid to win the war.

Elizabeth Wein has a detailed bibliography at the back of her novel which provides both online and print resources.

For those looking for further information on this historical event, the following websites may be of interest:

The real seventy-four women who were experimental subjects of SS Professor Karl Gebhardt, can be found here. This website provides pictures, putting faces to those who were tortured, maimed and who died.

For more on Ravensbruck you can check out this Canadian website.

The actual presentation by Dr. Leo Alexander can be found here: http://www.ushmm.org/online/film/display/detail.php?file_num=1961
This is a black and white video of this segment of the Nuremberg Doctor's Trial.

The Ravensbruck Memorial Site can be found at http://www.ravensbrueck.de/mgr/neu/english/index.htm

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker

Sixteen year old Clementine Williams has done something unforgivable and she's hoping her family's summer cruise will help her forget the terrible end to her sophomore year.

Clementine along with her parents and her ten year old sister, Olive, are sailing part of what is known as "The Loop" in their new forty-two foot Catalina three-cabin Pullman named The Possibility. This is a sailing route that encompasses the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River down to Gulf, across to Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

Clem's family doesn't know what exactly has happened to her in the last two weeks of school, but they know that Clem is upset and withdrawn. As their sailing voyage begins, her family tries to help Clem by encouraging her to be with her family. On their stop at the marina in Peoria, Clem is sent to get groceries. At the marina shop she collides with a tall, blue-eyed, redhead boy named James Townsend causing him to spill his basket of bananas. They have a brief, humorous conversation but Clem resolves not to get involved with him. She also meets an elderly couple at this marina, named Ruth and George. These three people end up helping Clem work through what has happened to her.

Clem's narrative alternates between describing what is currently happening in her life as her family sails part of The Loop, and flashbacks of what happened between her and her best friend, Amanda during her sophomore year at Bishop Heights High School. Readers will quickly guess that the trouble involves a boy. That boy is Ethan, an cute new guy who arrives at their school.

Clem believes that because of what she has done, she is a bad person and that no one will ever like her. Because of her fear of how others will judge her, at first Clem decides she will not do anything to encourage James. However this doesn't really work because Clem and James' parents form a friendship that results in the two families spending a lot of time together as they both sail the Loop. But both Clem and James are keeping secrets, Clem about what happened between her and Amanda, and James about his family.

As Clem's relationship with James develops, she begins to put into perspective what happened, to evaluate the meaning of friendship, and also to realize that she is not the only one to blame for what happened.

Unbreak My Heart is about one girl's journey to self-forgiveness and about dealing with the mistakes of  youth. Various characters give their perspective on what happened between Clem and Amanda and readers ultimately have to decide how they feel about what happened. Clem also considers the reality of her friendship with Amanda,how it is changing as they approach college and how this might have affected Amanda.

The true strength of this novel is in the characters and their relationships with one another. Young adult literature is often plagued by what is known as the "parent problem" where a young person is left to fend for themselves because mom and/or dad are experiencing serious problems or absent. Walker doesn't take this approach however, instead opting to give her young protagonist a caring family who are willing to support her and show her unconditional love through a troubled period in her life.Clem's parents are willing to give her space and time to work through whatever is bothering her and they don't pry.

Clem's younger sister, Olive is an endearing character, who looks up to Clem and helps her put things in perspective. Clem describes Olive as her "family's little adult", having an attitude and the insight of a much older person. Olive serves to remind Clem of her good points and why she is not a bad person. And in fact the way Clem treats her much younger sister is proof that she is not a bad person. She is kind to her and lets her hang out with her when her friendship with James begins.

The relationship Clem has with James is very different from what she had with Ethan. James is upbeat, kind and more sensitive as to how Clem feels. He recognizes that Clem is deeply saddened by something and it surprises Clem when she discovers that he knows this about her. Ethan, on the other hand, never seemed to clue into how Clem was feeling or if he did, he ignored them.

My only complaint about this novel is the message conveyed through the elderly couple, Ruth and George. Clem assumes that they have been married for years only to learn that George left his wife of 30 years to be with Ruth  because "it was meant to be". Ruth tells Clem and Olive that their relationship is "true love".The implication here is that only true love (whatever that means) matters, that the vows we make to one another can be discarded, making them in effect, pointless. Ruth dishonours George's wife, Linda, by calling her his "girlfriend" rather than acknowledging that Linda was in fact,  his wife of 30 years. At the end of all this, impressionable Olive concludes that none of this matters, as long as they are happy together, a sad dismissal of the value of fidelity and the promise to love even when the desire to do so is no longer easy to come by.

Overall, Unbreak My Heart is an engaging read that draws the reader in from the very beginning through the desire to learn what really happened between Clem and Amanda. Well written and evenly paced this is a very good story.

Book Details:
Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker
New York: Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers   2012
231 pp.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Time Traveling Fashionista At the Palace of Marie Antoinette by Bianca Turetsky

Having recovered from her time travel to the doomed Titanic, Louise is ready for another adventure.

Louise, who lives with her mom and lawyer dad in Fairview, Connecticut has just barely recovered from her escapades on the Titanic. This installment of The Time-Traveling Fashionista opens with Louise's father having just been laid off from his law firm in New York City.

How her family will cope remains to be seen. Her mother grew up in England in a wealthy family that had maids and nannies and is used to a privileged life. Louise, an only child,  is also used to a life where money isn't a problem but that is about to change. Her Grade 7 class is planning a school trip to France, but with her father being laid off, this trip is now likely only a dream.

It isn't long before Louise's worst fear is confirmed and her mother and father tell her they can no longer afford to send her to France. While her friends Brooke and Todd are excited about going, Louise is angry about her parent's decision.

Still upset about their decision, Louise decides to attend another Traveling Fashionista vintage sale. At first she is unable to locate the store which has a different location than the first sale. She finds the new store down a mysterious laneway at an address that doesn't show up on her phone. In the store she again meets Marla and Glenda, the two strange shopkeepers who show her dozens of fancy dresses. One dress however, catches Louise's attention. While her friend Brooke has caused the two shopkeepers to be distracted, Louise slips into the dress and time travels to France during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Louise slips into the life of a beautiful palace girl named Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron,  Duchesse de Polignac, who is friends with both Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe. Living in Versailles, the palace of  Louis and Marie Antoinette, Louise experiences all the decadence and frivolity of the French court in late 18th century France. She wears gowns made of rich fabric and priceless jewels, and attends balls and dinner parties where extravagent food is plentiful. When she travels to Paris with Marie Antoinette to visit the couture dress shop of Rose Bertin, Louise has her eyes open to the extreme poverty of the common people. She tries to warn Marie Antoinette to take into consideration the situation of her adopted countrymen. But the young queen doesn't understand and seems oblivious to the plight of the French people.

All of this makes Louise reconsider her own situation at home, with her father now unemployed. She realizes that some problems, liking having enough money to live are timeless and that her situation is not so bad after all.

As time passes, Louise realizes she needs to get home, but first she needs to find the beautiful dress that transported her to 18th century France. Suspecting an older woman in the court, Adelaide, of hiding her dress, Louise confronts her, only to learn an astonishing secret.

This novel is a light easy read that combines fashion with history. The author shows how Marie Antoinette's love of fashion initially led her adopted country to admire and love her and how she initiated the beginnings of  haute couture. However, that love disappeared as the French court's extravagance led to a nationwide financial crisis that impoverished French citizens and eventually led to their revolt and the wholesale murder of the French aristocracy.

Turetsky presents a balanced approach to the topic of Marie Antoinette, a much maligned historical figure. While Louise is deeply disturbed by the contrast between the aristocracy and the common people in France, she also is empathetic towards Marie Antoinette, who was sent to marry and live in a foreign country without any family around her. To help readers learn more about the people Louise meets in 18th century France, Turetsky has Louise research them on the internet to learn more about what happened to them once the country was thrown into revolution.

Once again The Time-Traveling Fashionista is filled with illustrator, Sandra Suy's beautiful fashion drawings, which add to the overall charm of the novel. Readers will be delighted by the revelations Turetsky throws in near the end of her story about the Traveling Fashionista and there's a hint of future romance for Louise.

The third novel in this series,  The Time Traveling Fashionista and Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile is due out later this year. These novels are highly recommended for young teens.

Book Details:
The Time Traveling Fashionista At the Palace of Marie Antoinette by Bianca Turetsky
New York: Little, Brown         2012
258 pp.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Kid Soldier by Jennifer Maruno

Fifteen year old Richard lives with his widowed mother in a dilapidated home in the Stoney Creek area. He's still in school but since they badly need money and Richard covets the bike in the window of Cupola's Bike Shop, he sets out to find work. Eventually his goal is to travel the world but first he wants that bike. It is 1939, and Canada is in the throes of the depression with many men unable to find work.

Richard, whose father died when he was young, is an enterprising young man, who is willing to work hard. Despite his much younger friend, Tommy's reservations about strange Mr. Vogel, Richard goes to work for Vogel helping him harvest peaches on his farm.

From there he finds work helping the town baker, Mr. Black make his deliveries. Richard soon befriends the Black family with his hard work and willingness to help. It turns out that Mr. Black is a veteran of the First World War.  Black worked in the signal corps and he encourages Richard to sign up for the army training camp he will be attending. He peaks Richard's interest by telling him about learning wireless telegraphy, and how this might be his way to getting into the Navy to travel the world.
Richard comes to see the demonstrations and finds himself pushed into attending the camp.

Richard is able to enroll in the camp, despite the fact that he's underaged. And when he complete the camp he become determined to enlist some day. That time comes sooner than later when World War II breaks out. Richard enlists at Camp Niagara and is sent first to Kingston and then onto England via the Empress of Britain where he begins training. From this point on we follow Richard in England and the eventual discovery that he is too young to serve.

This novel is a quiet retelling of a young teen who enlists at the start of World War II so that he can experience travel and adventure. Although Maruno's story is an important one, the bland cover and a narrative that has little action will likely not engage young readers. A book's cover should be an invitation to read, but the cover of Kid Soldier does nothing of the sort.

Richard's experiences are similar to those of my own father who was 19 in 1939 and who enlisted along with his two brothers, was sent to Kingston and spent the next four years training in England. My own father who was old enough, landed on the beaches of Normandy, two weeks after the invasion and was part of both the liberating and occupying army. He also was in the signal corps.

Richard Fuller is a truly honorable character who has a keen sense of duty and is not quick to form an opinion about those he doesn't know. When Tommy speaks badly of Mr. Vogel, suggesting he is strange for crying, Richard decides to put off an opinion. When Vogel offers him a chance to work, despite Tommy's reservations and refusal, Richard accepts, deciding he will see for himself what the farmer is like. Richard eventually learns the reason for Mr. Vogel's tears, suggesting that we can never truly know what burdens another person carries.

Although Richard doesn't seem to have a good relationship with his mother, Maruno's narrative suggests that she too is like Vogel with many burdens. Since the death of his father, Richard's mother has struggled to survive; her life is filled with endless work. Richard's dream of the bike in the store window is soon forgotten as he signs over some of his army to go back home. This is yet another example of his caring and responsible attitude towards others, but especially his mother.

This novel will likely appeal to boys who enjoy war stories told in a slow paced narrative style. Kid Soldier provides an glimpse into the life of young Canadian men just before the start of the second World War that is both informative and detailed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Gravity tells the terrifying story of Dr. Ryan Stone as she struggles to survive and return to Earth after disaster strikes her space mission. Stone, a medical engineer, is on her first mission led by veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalsky. The two of them along with Engineer Shariff are on a space walk outside the space shuttle, Explorer. While Kowalsky is on a space walk using an astronaut propulsion unit (MMU), Stone works on a part of the Hubble Space Telescope despite feeling nauseous and Shariff is tethered to the shuttle.

They learn from Mission Control that space debris from a Russian missile test on a satellite will not be a problem for them. What starts as a routine work assignment outside the shuttle soon turns into a disaster of unparallelled proportions as the three astronauts are told they must abort their mission and return as quickly as possible to the shuttle. The debris from the satellite has now crossed into their orbit and is destroying, one after another, the satellites orbiting Earth. The astronauts do not make it to safety and contact is lost with Mission Control.

As the shuttle is pounded by the satellite debris, Shariff is killed as are the crew inside, and Stone is sent spinning into orbit around Earth, untethered to anything. Panicked and breathing rapidly, Dr. Stone is eventually retrieved by Kowalsky who tethers her to him and tells her that they will use his MMU to travel to the International Space Station which is about 100 km away. As they approach the ISS, the two discover that one of the Soyuz capsules is gone while the remaining one has had its parachute deployed and is entangled with the station. Kowalsky tells Stone that the remaining Soyuz can be used to travel to the Chinese station where they can use the module from that station to return to Earth.

Stone and Kowalsky working on Hubble.
Running out of propulsion and oxygen, the two make it to the ISS, but are unable to grab onto the any part of the station. Instead, Stone's foot becomes snagged in the lines of the Soyuz parachute, while Kowalsky misses the station entirely. But because he is tethered to Stone, Kowalsky is prevented from spinning off into space. Realizing that his momentum will eventually pull Stone free of the station, Kowalsky untethers himself from Stone, who begs him not to do this. Instead, Kowalsky encourages Stone to save herself telling her that she can find a way back home. What follows is Stone's struggle to save herself as she encounters one obstacle after another, including at one point losing the will to fight on, only to be encouraged by what appears to be a dream or hallucination of Kowalsky.

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who also wrote the screenplay with his son Jose, Gravity is filled with gorgeous cinematography that captures the stark and deadly beauty of space. Known as a two-hander because it stars only two main characters, the first forty minutes of Gravity morphs from the beauty of a tranquil space walk into unparalleled terror as Dr. Stone catapults through space, unable to right herself due to the lack of gravity. The suspense continues throughout the film as one problem after another appears, and as Stone must face down her deepest fear of dying alone.

Despite some obvious (and not so obvious) errors in the science of space, the movie quite effectively gives viewers a real sense of what it is like to be orbiting around the Earth and working in space with minimal effects of gravity. For the most part, movie-goers will get the general understanding that this is truly an alien environment which requires significant training on the part of the astronauts in order to function at a high level. For example, certain actions when done in space have unexpected consequences. This was shown by Stone attempting to put out a fire in the space station only to knock herself almost senseless by the push of the exhalant from the fire extinguisher.

In order to recreate the weightlessness of space actress Sandra Bullock who plays the part of Dr. Ryan Stone had to endure filming in what is called a Light Box which is a 6 meter high box outfitted with over 4000 LED bulbs. The lights were used to project images of Earth and space. At other times, Bullock was filmed as she moved underwater or was held suspended by a set of 12 wires which were then manipulated by puppeteers.

Stone struggling to leave the space station.
But Gravity, for all its cinematic beauty and suspense is really a movie about what's going on in the mind of the main character Dr. Ryan Stone. Stone while talking to Kowalski admits that she does nothing in her life except work and drive. She confesses that her life lost its meaning when her young daughter died in a playground accident.  Unable to come to terms with this loss, unable to let go, she has become a woman totally focused on her work. In an apparition when Stone has given up and decides to die,  Kowalski tells her the precise way for her to survive this current disaster and to come to terms with her daughter's death, is for her to let go. Let go of her fear and let go of the past and decide to live again.

Throughout the movie the overarching theme is one of rebirth, beginning again after a terrible time of trial. When Stone barely manages to make it into the International Space Station after running out of oxygen, we see her curled into a fetal position against the backdrop of the sun shining through the the airlock portal.  The scenes of Stone tethered to several of the different modules reminds us of the fragile nature of existence in space, much like the unborn baby in its mother's womb. At the end of the movie, Stone endures a fiery re-entry only to have to fight for her life, on Earth this time,  struggling out of her heavy space suit and crawling in a primal way out of the lake she has crash landed into. After all this, Ryan Stone rediscovers the beauty of living.

Gravity is only 90 minutes in length but that is more than enough time for viewers to become fully invested emotionally in the story this movie tells. Sandra Bullock deserves another Oscar for her brilliant performance as Ryan Stone and George Clooney with his Buzz Lightyear looks, is perfect in his supporting role as Matt Kowalsky. Gravity may just be the cinematic surprise in a year that sees the second installments of what are sure to be mega-hits, Thor, Hunger Games and The Hobbit.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Language Inside by Holly Thompson

Emma Karas has traveled with her family from Kamakura, Japan to America with her family so her mother can receive cancer treatment. Emma, her younger brother Toby and her parents left shortly after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Although Emma was born in the United States, she has lived most of her life in Japan and considers herself Japanese. When she was in grade 9, Emma transferred from a Japanese school to an international school. It was during this year that the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck northern Japan. Although her family was fine, some of her friends lost relatives. Emma and her father helped her best friend, Madoka and her dad clean up Madoka's grandparent's home in Miyagi. During the cleanup, Emma learns her mother is sick and that they must leave for America. Emma's plans to play varsity volleyball, attend a Model UN conference in the Philippines and to visit her friend Madoka were put on hold as their lives undergo a drastic change.

Now Emma finds herself, her mother and Toby living in a small town outside Lowell, Massachusetts,with her father's mother, YiaYia, while her father works in his firm's office in New York. She is enrolled in grade 10 at the local high school. Emma misses her father and her friends, Madoka, Kako, Kenji, Shin in Japan. In addition to coping with her mother's illness, Emma feels like she has abandoned her Japanese friends when their need was greatest. The stress of all these changes and her mother's illness leads her to suffer from severe migraines.

Hoping to help her granddaughter adjust to life in America, YiaYia arranges for Emma to volunteer at the Newall Center for Long Term Care as a poetry helper. Emma's first time at the center is marred by a migraine which causes her to collapse. A fellow student Sam Nang, whom she was supposed to meet there, arranges for her to be taken to back to her aunt's home. Samnang's kindness to her is that start of a friendship that will blossom into a romance.

At the Newall Center, Emma is paired with a 46 year old woman who has "locked in syndrome" and who can only communicate using her eyes. To communicate with Zena, Emma must use a special letter board.  Samnang  is paired with  two men Leap Sok and Chea Pen who are Cambodian and who escaped the Pol Pot regime years ago.

Emma learns that Samnang is Cambodian and that there is a large Cambodian refugee population in Lowell, Massachusetts. He is part of a Khmer dance troupe and as Emma and Samnang's friendship develops she also learns that his life hasn't been an easy one. Emma can relate to some of Samnang's struggles to find his place in America. Although she is white, she feels Japanese. But in America, she doesn't look like she's out of place.

it's not just losing
Japanese words
and phrases

it's as if I've lost
half of myself here
but no one knows
because I'm a white girl

I don't look like I belong in Japan
I don't look out of place
everyone thinks I must be glad
to be "back" in Massachusetts

as if this were home
            but it's not 

As she tells Samnang, the language inside her is different from the language outside.

Emma's work with Zena makes her realize how much her mother will need her in the coming weeks and months as she recovers from breast cancer. She wants to go back to Japan, but she doesn't want to be like Zena's daughter who "swam off with her sister" leaving her alone in the rehabilitation center. She begins to recognize that maybe she has a duty to help her mother as she struggles to heal from her illness.

In addition to this Emma begins to realize that  she has many good things in her new life in America, not the least of which is her friendship with Samnang and her growing relationship with the Cambodian community. When her parents give her the option of returning to Japan with her father, Emma must make a difficult decision, one that will affect her life for years to come.

The Language Inside is a beautifully crafted novel that tackles many different issues and does so very ably. There is the overarching theme of identity with Emma who is American but who feels Japanese inside and Samnang who is American but feels Cambodian. This struggle is reflected in the book's title about the language inside (that is how we feel and who we are) being different than what appears to be on the outside. Through dance both Samnang and eventually Emma begin to reconcile their two worlds.

This theme of identity is also expressed in the character of Zena who has "locked-in syndrome". On the outside Zena appears to be a person who can't communicate, appearing to have a life that is very limited. But Zena has a remarkable inner life that is trapped within her. Because she cannot readily communicate, her thoughts or "language" remains trapped inside her. Emma helps Zena to bring this "language inside" to those around her, through the creation of her poetry.

Zena was modeled after Julia Tavalaro, who was a 31 year old mother who suffered a debilitating stroke that left her paralyzed and apparently unconscious. Many years later it was discovered that Julia was fully aware of the world around her and she was able to communicate using the motions of her eyes and head. You can read about Julia's story here.

Holly Thompson's rich free verse captures equally well the fear and hurt of a young girl struggling to cope with a new life and a family crisis, as well as the blossoming of a first love. Well written, evocative and fascinating, this lovely novel is for fans of poetry and also for those who wish to sample this genre.

Thompson who was born in America, lives in Japan. This is her second verse novel and is even better than her debut, Orchards.

Book Details:
The Language Inside by Holly Thompson
New York: Delacourte Press     2013
521 pp.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Distance Between Us by Kasie West

The Distance Between Us is a delightful romance novel in which a young woman must overcome her prejudice towards a guy to give their relationship a chance - much like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

Caymen Meyers is a seventeen year old senior whose mother, Susan, owns a doll shop. Caymen and her mother aren't well off and her mother has taught Caymen to have a healthy disdain for wealthy men. This is based on her mother's experience of falling in love with a wealthy lawyer, getting pregnant and then being abandoned by the man. As a result, her mother who was disowned by her parents settled in an obscure town to live a quiet life. She has raised Caymen not to trust men with money and she has encouraged Caymen not to seek out her father.

However, Caymen's own prejudice against the rich is tested one day when a handsome, wealthy boy, Alexander (Xander) Spence,  arrives at the doll shop to pick up a doll for his grandmother. He's well dressed but although his initial manner appears to be condescending, he's friendly and charming to Caymen. Because  Xander appears to be wealthy, Caymen has no intention of getting involved with him.
"The first thing I learned about the rich is that they find the common folk an amusing distraction but would never, ever want anything real."
Soon Caymen discovers that Xander is the grandson of a regular patron, Mrs. Dalton. Xander appreciates Caymen's sarcasm and genuinely likes her. So he keeps coming around to the doll shop, bringing her hot chocolate and driving her to school. All this despite Caymen's best efforts to turn him off her.

Meanwhile Caymen's best friend, Skye, sets her up with a guy named Mason from her boyfriend's band. Mason is cute, but very different from Xander. For one thing, he's not rich, and he has a lip ring. Caymen goes to Mason's concerts but she's unsure about her relationship with him.

Caymen learns that Xander is from a family that owns a hotel chain and that he is being groomed to take over the family business one day. This shocking revelation causes Caymen to wonder why he is so interested in her and leads her to believe that she is simply a distraction for him. However, the two seem to develop a bond that is based not only on physical attraction but also because they are struggling with their parent's expectations for their lives. Xander does not want to run the family business and Caymen wants to go to college to study science.

As their relationship develops Caymen visits Xander's home, meets his mother, and they both spend time on what they call "career days" where they consider possible future jobs. Despite their growing relationship and the fact that Caymen really cares for Xander, she waffles on committing to their relationship and she refuses to have Xander meet her mother because she knows she won't approve.When she discovers a significant piece of information about her mother's family, Caymen doubts Xander's motive for dating her.
Can Caymen get past her prejudice towards rich guys, and let herself be open to Xander?

This novel was a pleasant surprise, combining a sweet romance with witty dialogue and a cast of interesting characters. The greatest strength of The Distance Between Us was the relationship between Caymen and Xander - their first meeting which happens at the beginning of the novel captures the reader's interest.

West incorporates a number of themes into her novel; identity, acceptance, forming preconceived notions about others and discovering one's own path in life are several that are dominate.

Caymen is an intelligent, strong character who grows through the novel. At first she's certain her mother's view of rich guys is the correct one. But Xander treats her generously and kindly and despite the fact that she walks out on him many times, remains faithful to their relationship, suggesting that he's not one to be easily distracted. This goes against everything that Caymen knows and forces her to reconsider her prejudice against wealth. This change of heart is in part fueled by a discovery of prejudices held by her mother's parents.

Overall, The Distance Between Us is a well paced story that will appeal to readers who like light romance with a touch of suspense. A second novel about Caymen and Xander would be wonderful!

Book Details:
The Distance Between Us by Kasie West
New York: HarperTeen    2013
312 pp.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

The term, "La Belle Epoque" refers to a social period in western history that is also sometimes called the Gay Nineties or the Guilded Age. Stretching from the late 1800's - possibly as early as 1870, to just prior to the start of World War I in 1914, this was an age of peace, prosperity and wealth. The wealthy lived a life of unparalleled luxury without much regard to the social conditions of the time.

The wealthy lived without consideration for the poor and the lower classes. They wanted to maintain the status quo and were obsessed with marrying into wealth. However, things in society were beginning to change rapidly. Instead of status being conferred by aristocratic birth and inheritance, the nouveau riche earned it by hard work. These new wealthy were looked down upon by the aristocratic elite as "vulgar".

This period saw a second wave of industrialization, with the advent of the combustion engine, bigger and more efficient machinery, and advances in medicine.  This was a time of peace in Europe, set between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. Workers began to organize into trade unions, the long march towards women's emancipation began, work was more plentiful, and art and music experienced many different movements. The overall era was characterized by an attitude of optimism and frivolity.

In each country La Belle Epoque was experienced in a different way. In the United States, the focus was on gaining wealth. In France, the wealthy were preoccupied with beauty, excessive refinement, couture fashion, excellent cuisine and the overall pursuit of extravagance. The construction of the Effiel Tower for the World's Fair of 1889 was undertaken in 1887. Initially the tower was considered ugly by Parisians but soon it came to represent their city.  For readers wishing to learn more about the Belle Epoque you can visit this webpage.

Eiffel Tower in 1888-89
Into this setting we have the story of  sixteen year old Maude Pichon, a poor farm girl who runs away from her home in Brittany because her father has decided to marry her off to the village butcher, Monsieur Thierry.  She has stolen some money from her father to get herself settled in Paris but everything is very expensive. Hungry and out of work, she applies to an ad looking for women to work thinking that it will be light work as a maid. Maude soon learns however that she will be working as a "repoussoir" - a term given to a plain or unattractive woman who is hired by a wealthy woman to make herself or a family member look more attractive. The repoussoir is in effect working as a beauty foil to draw more attention to the wealthy woman.

Maude is horrified that women are used in this manner and abruptly leaves the Durandeau Agency. Later she is forced to return after a brief stint in a Paris laundry does not work out well. Maude has a difficult time reconciling herself for the work of a repoussoir and is not ready to be considered as "one of life's castoffs, some rich girl's social advantage."

Taken under the wing of a seasoned repoussoir, Marie-Josee, Maude begins her training at the agency. She learns dancing, manners and customs for being in high society. Almost immediately, Maude is chosen to be a repoussoir for the Countess Dubern's daughter, Isabelle. Unlike many of the other clients, the Countess demands that Maude's purpose is  kept secret from Isabelle. Maude will be passed off as a distant relation of Count Dubern who will be spending time in Paris at the start of "the season". The Countess is looking to arrange a suitable marriage for Isabelle to another member of the Parisian aristocracy.

Maude has been warned that many of the young, wealthy clients treat the repoussoirs viciously and at first it seems Isabelle will be the same. However, as Maude spends more time with Isabelle attending balls and other social functions, she realizes that Isabelle is indifferent to the prospect of meeting rich men. Despite warnings from Marie-Josee to keep their relationship professional, Maude begins to form a friendship with Isabelle.

Maude soon discovers that Isabelle has a secret of her own, one that is in direct opposition to the wishes of her mother. This sets Isabelle in conflict with her mother but also creates a serious problem for Maude.  If she helps Isabelle, Maude will lose her job, yet if she tells the Countess, she will prevent Isabelle from achieving what she really wants in her life -- a goal Maude herself can relate to.

Maude begins to realize that she is living a double life on two fronts; as a repoussoir she appears to be a debutante taking in her first "season" but she's really a young woman without title or fortune and secondly as a friend to Isabelle but  really an employee to Isabelle's mother. Can Maude save her job while being true to her new friend, Isabelle? And can she be true to herself in the end?

Belle Epoque tells an interesting story about a period at the turn of the last century that many young readers likely know little about.  Ross doesn't create a strong picture of what the age was like, but she does give her readers a general overall impression. The wealthy live lives of extreme opulence and extravagance where title and fortune still matter. Life revolves around money and keeping it within the aristocracy. Meanwhile, in the cafes and theatres, all the classes mingle, their love of art and music drawing them together.

Ross' novel is somewhat slow at the beginning but if readers persist the dilemma she creates for her main character, Maude is interesting and draws on a number of themes. In particular, Maude and Isabelle consider the concept of feminine beauty and also the role of women in society.

What defines beauty and is physical beauty in a woman all that matters are two questions to be considered. When Isabelle and Maude are discussing the Eiffel Tower, which at this time was only half constructed, Isabelle tells Maude that many Parisians hate the tower because they think it is ugly. Maude wonders, "Perhaps something unrefined can still be beautiful," - a direct reference to herself who society considers unattractive and therefore unmarriageable. Later on Isabelle questions society's view of beauty and what constitutes beauty when Maude tries to explain to her the thinking behind the use of repoussoirs to highlight another woman's beauty.
...There is no empirical scale for beauty. Humans are more complex. ....there are other attributes to measure, aside from physical appearance, that can render one person more or less attractive than another."

..."Such as what?" I ask, getting irritated. "In this city, physical beauty rules supreme."

"Intelligence, wit, kindness -- in short, the quality of person you are. Then there's the other factor you haven't mentioned: the beholder of the gaze, yet another human complexity."
Ross also has her characters consider the changing role of women in society. Isabelle is interested in making her own life and exploring the world around her. Times are changing and she doesn't accept that her only path in life is to marry a rich man. Her aspirations are set against family and social obligations and expectations. This is also reflected in Maude who wants to make something of her life, but who is constricted by the norms of her time when family connection and fortune mean everything.

Maude and Isabelle are both strong female characters, who in the end band together to help each other achieve their dreams. With a beautiful cover and an unusual hook to draw in her readers, Ross has written a good novel that will generate plenty of discussion for those who are interested.

Ross was inspired to write this novel after reading Emile Zola's Les Repoussoirs. Those who wish to can read Zola's short story here at google books. The title in the collection of Zola's short stories, The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories, is Rentafoil. The story begins on page 13.

Book Details:
Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
New York: Delacourte Press     2013
323 pp.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Sasha Zaichik lives with his father in a one room apartment in a komunalka, a communal apartment. They share a kitchen and toilet with forty-eight Soviet citizens. His father works in the State Security on Lubyanka Square. The State Security is the secret police working to expose and eliminate enemies of the Communist state. Considered one the best, Sasha's father has been given the order of the Red Banner by Stalin. Convinced of the superiority of the Communist state, Sasha wants to join the Young Pioneers, his first step towards following his father. He will finally become a Young Pioneer at a rally to be held the next day. His father has been invited to the ceremony as a guest of honor to tie the scarves of the Young Pioneers.

However, things do not go as planned when one of the residents of their komunalka, Stukachov, reports Sasha's father to the Secret Police and he is taken away in the middle of the night. Sasha is put out into the cold October night after Stukachov and his family immediately take over Sasha and his father's room. Determined not to miss school and his Young Pioneer ceremony, Sasha shows up the next day convinced that his father will be set free to attend the ceremony. Despite his father's arrest, Sasha remains firmly devoted to the Communist ideals and to his beloved Stalin. But things go from bad to worse when Sasha breaks the nose off of Stalin's statue in the school. This is a serious offense - the damaging of Communist property that is punishable by death.

Terrified, Sasha hides in the washroom only to learn that a fellow classmate has seen him commit the offense. It turns out this classmate, Vovka  Sobakin, whose father was executed as a traitor. When Sasha and Vovka return to their class, the teacher attempts to learn who committed the offense by ordering the students to write who they think might be implicated. This of course terrifies the students who have no idea who broke the statue. The teacher warns them that if they do not implicate someone, they themselves will be implicated, setting before them an impossible situation. Sasha watches as students are forced to choose between self preservation and doing what it right. Within the span of two days, he goes from being unquestionably devoted to the Communist ideals to realizing that they are non-existent. He no longer wants to be a Young Pioneer.

Yelchin portrays the paranoia of 1950's Soviet Union and the Great Terror that comprised Joseph Stalin's dictatorship through the eyes of a ten year old boy. His pencil drawings help portray some of the main themes this short novel touches on.

Breaking Stalin's Nose provides young readers some idea of what it is like to live under a totalitarian government, where individual freedoms do not matter and devotion to the state is paramount, but that even that might not be enough. Sasha lives in a country in which even children can be killed for the most innocent mistakes, where people are too afraid to speak the truth because it will lead to imprisonment or death, and where paranoia and fear rule every aspect of life. Readers, through Sasha, will be asked to consider the use of propaganda, the role of social responsibility and the functioning of a justice system which uses guilt by association as a means of controlling people.

The author, Eugene Yelchin grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1960's. His father survived the Great Terror and was a devoted Communist Party member. Yelchin left his homeland and now resides in the United States.

Book Details:
Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin
New York: Henry Holt and Company        2011
151 pp.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

"I must stop remembering. I must keep them in a faraway place. The more I remember, the greater my agony. These thoughts stuttered in my mind. So I stopped talking about them, I wouldn't mouth my boys' names, I shoved away stories of them. Let them, let our life, become as unreal as that wave."

On December 26, 2004 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia at 7:58 AM local time. It was one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded and had a long period of thrust faulting - between 8 and 10 minutes, as a result of the Indian Plate subducting beneath the Burma Plate. This earthquake resulted in the elevation of the sea floor over the thrust fault  - over several meters which caused the displacement of large volumes of sea water. This displaced sea water resulted in a massive region wide tsunami that killed over 230,000 people in the areas around the Indian Ocean. It was known as the 2004 tsunami.

Steve, Vik and Malli
In 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala along with her husband, economist Stephen Lissenburgh their seven year old son, Vikram, and five year old son, Nikhil, (or Malli which means "little brother" in Sinhala, a nickname given by Vik) had journeyed to her native Sri Lanka for Christmas holidays. There they met her parents and together stayed for four days at the Yala National Park. They stayed at the Yala Safari Beach Hotel. The Park was in the direct path of the tsuanmi which arrived 90 minutes after the earthquake.

Caught in the tsuanmi, Sonali and her family tried to escape in a jeep but were overcome by the 30 foot wall of water. Sonali was separated from her family and washed up in a nearby lagoon. Her husband and children were nowhere to be found, as are thousands of others along the coast.

Sonali was taken to her aunt's home in Colombo where she was treated for her injuries and a serious sinus infection as a result of the heavily contaminated water. In a state of complete shock she was unable to talk and tell her family what she had experienced.

Several days later her parents bodies were found, as well as Vikram's body. Meanwhile her brother, Rajiv organized a search for Malli's body. Four months after the tsunami, Steve and Malli's bodies were found in a mass grave several miles down the coast.

In an instant, Sonali's life changed forever, her past, present and future gone. 

Wave is a brave and brutally honest retelling of what happened to Sonali and her family that fateful morning and how in the immediate months and past nine years she has struggled to cope with her family's tragedy.

Sonali's shock at what happened became numbness and an all out effort to avoid bringing up any memories of her husband and children. Her inability to cope with the magnitude of the loss she had suffered led her to abuse alcohol and prescription drugs in an effort to numb her pain. She was obsessed with finding pictures of the wave and searched the internet for ways to kill herself.

Bewildered by the loss of her immediate family, Sonali had not had much time to deal with the loss of her father and mother. Their family home in Colombo was cleaned up by her brother Rajiv who rented it to a Dutch couple. Unable to cope with the loss of this home, Sonali terrorized the couple for a month before slipping back into deep depression.

So great is her grief, and so deep is her inability to cope with what has happened to her, Sonali does not return to the home she shared with her husband and children for over three and half years!

Sonali feels that she abandoned her children because she did not look for them immediately after the tsuanmi. She loathes herself for not shrieking and crying in her deep grief over their deaths.

Everyday life is a reminder of her missing children, of their lives stopped, their potential, lost. Unable to cope with the absence they have left in her life, Sonali lives mostly in the past, small everyday things bringing back memories that at first were too painful to recall but which she seems to able to revisit a little more each year.

This account ends on only a slightly positive tone, with Sonali still struggling to find her identity and to cope with her loss. There is no closure, no redemption, no acceptance in Sonali Deraniyagala's memoir.  Readers will find this a tough book to finish (I did not - I skimmed the last 50 pages) as it is relentless in its portrayal of grief, guilt and an struggle to come to some kind of acceptance over what has happened.
"I suspect that I can only stay steady as I traverse this world that's empty of my family when I admit the reality of them, and me."

Book Details:
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagla
New York: Alfred A. Knopf       2013
228 pp.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau is a Hunger Games read-alike, which will definitely appeal to fans of Suzanne Collins' famous trilogy. As with Hunger Games, this novel is about a group of teens selected to undergo a series of tests, some of which are deadly, in order to select those most qualified to lead in the reconstruction of a devastated country. Set in post-apocalyptic America, The Testing deals with themes of trust, loyalty and self-survival.

The novel opens with Malencia (Cia) Vale and her classmates preparing for their graduation. Cia lives in Five Lakes Colony, one of the smaller colonies containing only about one thousand inhabitants. Cia lives with her father, mother and four brothers, Zeen, Hart, Win and Hamin. Her father's job it to genetically alter plants so they can thrive in the devastated areas of the Five Lakes Colony.

Their colony is one of eighteen spread throughout the continental United States, now known as the United Commonwealth. A world war, known as the Seven Stages War has completely destroyed society.

Cia hopes to be chosen for The Testing which if she passes will allow her to study at the United Commonwealth's University. Cia's father is a University graduate who was chosen and passed The Testing. So when no Tosu City official shows up at the graduation, Cia is very disappointed.

However, the next day Cia and four other young learn from Tosu City official, Michal Gallen, that they indeed will be part of this year's Testing. Included are fellow colonists, Tomas Endress, Malachi Rourke, and Zandri Hicks.

Before she leaves for Tosu City, however, Cia's father warns her that The Testing is not what she thinks it is. She learns that her father has no memories of The Testing - that somehow his memory was wiped clean. He found University challenging and when he was assigned to a new colony he began to have nightmares. He never knew what happened to the people who did not pass the Testing, nor his roommate. Cia's father warns her to question everything she sees and to trust no one.

Each candidate is given a bracelet which has a unique symbol on it. Cia's symbol is an eight-pointed star with a lightning bolt in the center. The first test is a series of written exams which test for knowledge of science, mathematics, history, and reading. The second set of tests is a series of hands-on problems which prove to have brutal consequences for some of the candidates. The third test involves a series of problems to be worked out within the framework of a team. This too is not as innocuous as it appears. Through each level, Cia comes to the realization that a wrong choice could mean death.

After passing the first three levels of the testing, Cia and the remaining candidates are told about the fourth and final test; they are to be dropped off in the poisoned wilderness and must make their way back to Tosu City. Those who do so will have passed the test. Cia and her close friend, Tomas make a pact to find each other and do the final test together. Cia has known Tomas from childhood and she is gradually falling for him. But can Cia trust Tomas in what will likely be the most deadly test yet?

The Testing is a fast paced novel that bears many similarities to Hunger Games; a group of teens facing a deadly test, a love triangle hinted at in the first novel, a government with sinister motives, and a group of rebels willing to help one special candidate outwit the authorities.

The novel's protagonist, Cia Vale is a resourceful, strong character, in fact, sometimes overly so. She seems to be incredibly adept at detecting traps and outwitting the challenges of The Testing, so much so that it sometimes stretches the credibility of the character. Cia discovers almost immediately just how sinister the Testing will be with the discovery of cameras in the skimmer. Like Katniss in Hunger Games, Cia works with a boy from her own colony/district to survive against enormous odds, buries a dead candidate, and manages not to kill anyone, preserving her moral integrity in the story. Like Katniss, Cia doesn't think about the horrors of what is happening to her, nor the ethics of her choices; she is too busy simply trying to survive. That will come for later.

This novel works because Charbonneau is able to create and maintain suspense through much of the second half of the book which tells the story of the fourth test- Cia and Tomas's journey though the wilderness back to Tosu City. What at first seems to simply be a race to return to Tosu City evolves into brutal contest of survival in which candidates are permitted to injure or kill fellow candidates in order to prevent them from getting a passing grade. Not only does Cia struggle with how she will deal with the other candidates as she meets them but she also remains uncertain about Tomas, especially after she leaves him and another candidate, Will, alone for a day and returns to find them unwilling to explain what has happened during her absence.

Overall, The Testing is a great start to this new dystopian series. It's unfortunate that it is so similar to Hunger Games; the lack of originality and the many similarities are quite obvious. Nevertheless, it is an exciting novel with a heroine we can all root for.

Author Joelle Charbonneau studied vocal performance and was involved in opera before becoming a writer. The Testing Series will see two more books, Independent Study and Graduation published in 2014.

The trailer below touches on some of the scenes in the novel.

Book Details:
The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau
New York: Houghton Mifflin 2013
325 pp.