Saturday, November 30, 2013

Illegal by Bettina Restrepo

When Nora Mirales' father promises to be home for her fifteenth birthday, her Quinceanera, Nora cannot wait. A period of drought and the diversion of the river by southern Texas, has resulted in crop failure for farmers in Cedula, Mexico. Nora's family are no longer able to make a living selling grapefruit from their orchard at the local market and there are no local jobs. So her father decides to enter the United States illegally to find work to support his family.

At first things go well and he sends money and calls home. He tells the family that there is plenty of work but that they work long days. Nora's mother tells him that the crops are bad, the taxes are late and that she wants to come to America. However, soon the calls stop and so does the money. Unable to pay their taxes on the land, Nora and her mother decide to follow him to Texas in the hope of finding out what has happened.

Nora and her mother arrange to be driven into Texas in the back of a truck carrying crates of mangoes. Stuffed in the back of a stiffling metal container, they travel to Houston. The journey is a long, uncomfortable one full of uncertainty and fear. Nora's mother prays the rosary and tries to comfort her terrified daughter.  When they arrive in Houston, the driver is shocked to see that Nora is in the trailer; Nora's mother had only paid for herself. Also Nora's mother is now ill. Demanding payment for Nora, the driver threatens to turn them into the police, but Nora and her mother manage to escape.

The find their way to a restaurant,a taqueria, where they order breakfast. They are dirty, hungry and thirsty but the waitress is very kind to them. The waitress, Cecilia, warns Nora not to get involved in the local gangs as many of the young girls have done here. Cecilia also directs them to her cousin, Yolanda's home where she has rooms to rent. But when they arrive at the home they find that the room is dirty and smelly. Desperate for a place to live, they decide to take it. They exchange their pesos for American dollars and also arrange to have false work papers done up. Now the struggle to find work begins, but soon Nora and her mother find work with couple, Manuela and her husband, Jorge, who run fruit stands at Quitman Park. Jorge hires Nora who bears an uncanny resemblance to their missing daughter, Tessa. Nora also makes a good friend with a younger girl named Keisha who is black and who is looked down upon by the local Mexicans.

With a place to stay and jobs, Nora and her mother now set out to find out what has happened to their father and husband, Arturo Mirales. They follow a trail of leads that suggests illegal immigrants are treated poorly, working in unsafe conditions and poorly paid. Along the way Nora and her mother must cope with discrimination, fear of discovery that they are illegal immigrants and the gangs that plague the city.

This short novel effectively portrays life for illegal immigrants in America, demonstrating that life is generally not what they thought it would be. Illegal immigrants face loneliness and isolation in a strange culture they do not understand and they are often at risk for abuse by employers and involvement in crime including gangs, prostitution and drug trafficking.

Restrepo also suggests that illegal immigration in America is also partly due to American policies and decisions and inaction by the Mexican government. There are hints that the Morales life was a good one until the river supplying their village with water was dammed on the American side. This combined with drier summers caused crop failure and poverty, resulting in the villagers seeing illegal immigration as the only option available to them.

Nora is a strong character, who believes that with hard work she can succeed - an attitude typical of many immigrants to both America and Canada. Her faith in God and the support of her family, her mother and grandmother help her deal with the predictable outcome of their investigation into the whereabouts of her father and life in America.

Illegal is a strong novel that presents a wide range of issues involved in illegal immigration using believable characters and a strong protagonist.

Book Details:
Illegal by Bettina Restropo
Katherine Tegen Books    2011
251 pp.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Fractured by Teri Terry

Fractured is the second book in the Slated series by Canadian-born author, Teri Terry.

Kyla is confused by bits of memories that begin surfacing after a violent attack by a man named Wayne Best in the woods near her home. Slateds are not supposed to be violent but Kyla is not an ordinary Slated. For one thing her Levo does not work and she doesn't behave like a typical Slated. Kyla begins to have memories of someone named Rain and she starts to realize that she is someone else other than Kyla.

She also begins having memories of a man named Nico. Eventually Kyla remembers and recognizes that her biology teacher, Mr. Hatten, is the enigmatic Nico. Nico finally confronts Kyla and asks her if she remembers who she is. Nico explains to Kyla what happened to her, how he trained her as part of the radical group, Free UK, so that she would survive Slating and recover her memories.

Kyla was born Lucy who was left handed. She joined Free UK when she was thirteen and her left-handedness was changed by Nico (by smashing a brick onto her hand) so that she would be right handed. When she joined Free UK Lucy took the name Rain. Rain taken by the Lorders and was Slated but as a right-handed person. "How Slating is done depends on handedness. Memory access is hemisphere dominated and linked to handedness." So when Rain was Slated, the process did not work because it was done as if she was right-handed when she was really left-handed. This protected her from the procedure.She then returned as a Slated girl named Kyla. Rains memories are intact, just waiting to return which they are now doing gradually.

Kyla continues to meet Nico on and off, but she has mixed feelings about him. She feels alternately repelled and attracted to him but is not certain why. He tells her she is his special one and explains to her, her involvement in the Free UK group. Yet Kyla can't help but feel that Nico is hiding something from Kyla.

Kyla also meets a new guy named Cameron who lives across the street with his aunt and uncle. Cam seems determined to forge a friendship with Kyla, one she's not too interested in developing. At the same time, Tori, Ben's ex-girlfriend reappears, with her Levo removed. Everyone thought that Tori had been terminated but we learn that Tori was spared this fate by a Lorder who "rescued" her and kept her in his home where she was forced to do certain things. Tori murdered this man and escaped and is taken by Kyla to Nico who hides her at a Free UK safehouse.

Nico asks Kyla to learn the layout of the New London Hospital where she continues to go weekly to meet with Dr. Lysander. He also introduces her to an old acquaintance, Katran, who Kyla (as Rain) trained with in Free UK. Because Kyla is experiencing so many difficulties sorting out her identities, Katran warns her to leave Free UK, that Nico has been using her and has had something done to her by a special doctor, Dr. Craig, who has caused her to have two identities. Katran warns her to leave the Free UK group because he suspects Nico's plans for her will place her in danger.

Kyla's situation becomes even more complicated when she is grabbed by the Lorders and taken to see Agent Coulson who tells her they have been monitoring her unusual activities. He knows she is working with AGT (what the Lorders call Free UK) and tells her that if she wants to see Ben again, she will act as a double agent and supply them with intelligence on the terrorist group's activities. Kyla decides not to tell Nico about her meeting with Coulson and to give Coulson only the information he needs while warning Ben.

However, things take a desperate turn when Kyla discovers that Nico and Free UK are planning kidnappings and assassinations, specifically targeting the Armstrong Memorial Day event which her family will attend. This event is in remembrance of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Kyla's current mother's father who was Prime Minister at that time. Nico tells Kyla that she must attend the function because she is the only Free UK agent who can infiltrate such a function. He does not tell her what the purpose of her presence will be.

A series of events now happen to move things forward. Nico makes contact with Kyla's mother and tells her that he will provide her with information on her lost son Robert, who was removed in a school bombing years ago, if she makes a statement against the Lorders and Slating at the Armstrong Memorial Day. In order to impress Nico that she can live up to his expectations for her, Kyla helps Nico and Katran capture Dr. Lysander. She also makes the discovery that Ben is alive and is being trained as a Lorder agent at a special facility. When she sneaks onto the facility to meet him she learns that he does not remember her.

When Kyla is told what her mission will be during the Armstrong Memorial Day she struggles to accept what Nico wants of her. Instead, she begins to think on her own and chooses a different path which has repercussions for all involved including Kyla and her family. These events also result in Kyla remembering more of her past, especially when she was Lucy and before she became Rain.

The beginning of this novel was at times confusing; it took several chapters to get into the story and to begin to understand what was happening with Kyla. Terry complicates her novel by having Kyla have three different identities - Lucy, Rain and Kyla. To some characters she is Rain, to others she is Kyla.

In Fractured, Kyla struggles to uncover the mystery of her three identities and her past. We learn that she has been taken from her family and essentially experimented with so that the Slating process will not fully work and so that she can be used by a terrorist organization. The result is a young girl who has a fractured identity and a fragmented memory which she begins to regain as events trigger their recall. Kyla begins to piece everything together with information provided by Nico and Katran, as well as memories that surface from dreams and situations she experiences. Kyla is very conflicted, wanting to please Nico, but also recognizing that if she does what he wants innocent people who have been trying to help her will be harmed. Kyla has a serious moral dilemma to resolve but she proves she's up to the task, despite having little context to make her decisions. She hardly knows Nico, or Dr. Lysander or her mother or father and she has to decide whom to trust.

Terry crafts Nico as a manipulative, cunning man who uses people to achieve his goals of destabilizing the Lorders and ending Slating. Although his intent is a noble one, his means are questionable at best and there is no doubt that he has done considerable harm to Kyla. The way he treats her is creepy and disturbing and Terry effectively relays this to her readers.

There are plenty of other unknowns in the story besides Kyla's past. Who has betrayed Kyla to Agent Coulson? Who is Cam and why is he so intent upon seeing Kyla? What has happened to Ben and what exactly is he involved in now?

Readers will find Fractured takes some time to get going, but Terry does explain what has happened to Kyla fairly early on in the novel. This allows the story to move forward while maintaining Kyla's struggle to understand her past.

The third novel is due out next year and should provide a fitting conclusion to this interesting, unique dystopia.

Book Details:
Fractured by Teri Terry
New York: Nancy Paulsen Books 2013
330 pp.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Never Fade by Alexandra Bracken

The first part of this post will be a detailed summary of the entire novel so that when the third book is published readers will be able to refer back to this post and pick up the story where it left off. A short review will follow. Those who do not wish to read the detailed synopsis can skip down to the end of the spoiler section.

The second installment in the Darkest Minds trilogy picks up where the first novel left off. Ruby has been taken by Cate Conner to the headquarters of the outlaw Children's League headed by John Alban. Alban was part of President Gray's cabinet as an adviser. His own daughter, Alyssa, had died from IAAN. When Alban saw what Gray was doing with the country he left the government and went underground. The first group of children who were found to have special abilities were rounded up and placed in camps because IAAN was thought to be infectious. However as more and more children died, those who survived were tracked down and sent to the camps where their parents were promised they would be cared for and treated. Instead, research and testing was done by Leda Corporation. Gray ordered mandatory conscription for everyone under the age of forty, some serving as security at the camps.

The League was founded to expose the truth about the children's camps - that many children were being murdered and that they were being used in research by Leda. The League also is determined to disband the camps. A secretive organization, the League takes no walk-ins. Everyone is vetted and you must be asked to join. Headquarters is buried two stories beneath a working plastic bottle factory in Los Angeles. The League has more than 300 agents, some are ex-military, some are civilians. There are six special Ops teams consisting of four kids, headed by an agent or "Minder". Cate tells Ruby that she will be team leader to the only group with kids of mixed colors; Vida who is Blue, Jude who is Yellow and Nico who is Green.

Never Fade opens with Ruby, Vida, Nico and Jude on a special Op led by "Minder" Rob Meadows to free a top League agent being held in a bunker. These bunkers were built by President Gray after what he claimed was the destruction of Washington, DC by a group of warped PSI kids. The special Op almost goes bad when a concussion grenade goes off near Vida and Ruby. They are not hurt and in a twist that angers Rob, they manage to rescue Prisoner 27" who turns out to be Cole Stewart, Liam's brother.

Alban wants to see Ruby's ability to read minds and has her go into the mind of a captured woman. Later on Alban also asks her to read the memories of Cole Stewart, who is a deep-cover agent for the League and who looks very much like his brother, Liam. When Ruby enters Cole's memories, she makes a disturbing discovery about Liam. She learns that Cole had a brief encounter with Liam. Cole was embedded in Leda Corp. and was able to steal the results of the research on the PSI children, placing the information on a USB drive. He sewed the drive into his jacket which Liam grabbed by mistake. However, in order to protect Liam from the League, Ruby does not pass this information on to Alban. Instead, she makes up a fictitious informant. Later, in a secret meeting between the two, Cole tells Ruby that he wants her to find Liam and the drive so they can show Alban the research and refocus the Children's League back to its original mandate of exposing the children's camps for what they truly are.

Jude and Ruby are sent to Boston as part of a special Op along with Rob Meadows and Beta Team to retrieve a professor who runs a lab at Harvard and disable his lab. But their real mission to to abandon the special Op and strike out on their own to locate Liam Stewart and more importantly find his jacket and the flash drive that contains the results of Leda Corp's research on the PSI children.


Ruby does not like or trust Rob whom she knows has killed children he was sent to rescue from the camps. Ruby has learned from Cole that Rob wants to use the Green kids as suicide bombers to unleash a terror attack on the children's camps to make Gray give up the conscription. Ruby has no plans to finish this special Op though. Instead, she and Jude escape during the Op so that they can make their way to Liam and Cole's family home in North Carolina where they suspect Liam would have returned. Using Ruby's ability to mind control, they force a woman to drive them to a train station and purchase tickets to Fayette, North Carolina. Beta Team tracks them along with Vida who manages to corner Ruby. Jude and Ruby escape and are driven to Wilmington by a sympathetic bus driver who lost his grandson to the camps.

When they arrive at Liam's home they are shocked to run into Chubs, who is now disguised as a skip-tracer and Vida who has followed them to Wilmington. They learn that Vida was sent by Cole to help Ruby find Liam and the missing flash drive and that Beta Team has been recalled. The four travel in Chubs' Ford Explorer to a camp ground near Ashville, North Carolina.

During the night Ruby, who doesn't trust Vida, discovers that she has a Chatter device and is in contact with Cate. Vida tells Ruby and Chubs that Cate and Cole chose Ruby to try to locate the missing flash drive. They are aware of Rob and Jarvin's intent to use the Children's League for an attack on the camps. Cate has been guiding Vida but cannot provide the locations for sightings of Liam who has a $200,000 bounty for his capture. However Chubs can with his tablet and connection to the skip-tracer network.

From Chubs tablet they learn that Liam was recently sighted outside Nashville, near a hostile Blue tribe. In Chubs truck, Chubs, Vida, Ruby and Jude travel to Nashville, a city that has been closed for some time. Outside of Nashville, the four are captured by the Blue tribe run by a cruel boy named Knox. Knox is posing as Slip Kid, claiming his camp is the fabled East River. However, Chubs, Vida and Ruby know that this is not the case. Conditions in the camp are brutal with many of the kids suffering from exposure and hunger. Knox has an iron grip, ruling by terror. Most of the kids at the camp did not join voluntarily and cannot escape.

At Knox's camp they meet Olivia from the real Slip Kid's East River camp. Olivia has been badly scarred and they notice that many of the other kids also have burn scars. From Olivia they learn that Knox has been trading PSI kids for supplies and food. Olivia tells her that many kids who are sick are being kept in the White Tent. When Ruby goes to the White Tent she makes the shocking discovery of an emaciated, very ill Liam.

In an attempt to get Liam help, Ruby tries to bargain with Knox. This mostly fails and he forces Vida and Ruby to fight a Red named Twitch, who had been captured in Nashville. This fight is brutal and in a desperate attempt to save Vida's life, Ruby makes the discovery that she does not have to be in physical contact with a person to get into their mind. Reading Red's mind allows her to see him as he once was, a young boy, named Mason, who had a mother and loved to ride his bike. When Knox realizes what she is doing he kills Red. But Ruby also manages to attack Knox's mind and makes him walk out of the camp, his memory wiped. This action frees the kids in the Blue camp, although Knox's second, Michael is infuriated. Before they leave the the Blue tribe, Jude is able to locate Liam's jacket and the missing flash drive.

After defeating Knox, Ruby organizes a raid on a nearby warehouse to obtain supplies, especially medicine and food. However, they are attacked by Michael who turns Ruby over to a skip-tracer and ultimately to Rob Meadows who is intent upon bringing her back to the camp in West Virginia. Muzzled and restrained Ruby again uses her ability to get into Rob's head, causing him to crash his vehicle. She is rescued by Vida and Chubs, although she has been badly wounded.

They get the medicine back to the Blue tribe and Liam gradually recuperates. But as he heals, he becomes increasingly confused about who Ruby is and why he has such strong feelings for her. It is gradually revealed that Ruby's wiping of his memory was not what she thought.

Ruby tells Liam that she is part of the Children's League which angers him. The group now begins to head back to Los Angeles. On the way Liam and Ruby find time alone to discuss the confusion Liam feels over her. Liam tells her that he knows something about her and tells Ruby that he loves her. "I love you every second of every day, and I don't understand why, or how to make it stop --" Liam begins to realize what Ruby did to him that day in the safe house and he's angry because she did not give him a choice. She tries to explain that she did not want to see him suffer and to lose himself.

Meanwhile, Vida has been trying to get a message through to Cate and eventually she does. Strangely, she is told that they are to meet Cate in Pueblo, Colorado. Ruby and Vida are worried but decide that something must have happened to make it unsafe to enter California.

When they arrive in Pueblo, it is not Cate waiting for them, but Clancy Gray. Clancy has underestimated Ruby's abilities and he can no longer control her mind. He is overpowered by Ruby and they ask him what is going on. Clancy tells them that he has been answering as Cate with the help of Nico and that the rogue agents in the League are going ahead with using the Green kids to make a terror strike. Clancy also reveals that Alban was murdered two days ago and that several rogue agents have now taken control of the Children's League. The plan is to move the Green kids out of Los Angeles by 6 am Christmas morning - tomorrow.

The group uses the charter jet that Clancy took to Colorado, to fly back to Los Angeles to try to stop the agents going through with their attack. The sneak into the League headquarters through a tunnel and find twenty children hidden and waiting in one of the sleeping rooms. Nico tells them that they were not supposed to come until tomorrow.

Quizzing Nico, Ruby learns that Clancy was after information about an agent called Professor who was doing research at the Georgia base. Ruby begins to realize that Clancy used her to get him into the League headquarters. She tracks Clancy down to Alban's office where she finds him destroying a file. Clancy tries to flee and Ruby tries to take him down, but before she can she is incapacitated by Jarvin, who realizes that something is now going down.

Ruby is saved by Cole who reveals himself as a Red. He places her back in Alban's office to recover and it is there that she reads the files and pieces together Clancy's involvement and purpose. Clancy's mother, Lillian Gray was a Harvard educated neurologist. When she realized her son's ability to manipulate people's minds, she fled to the Children's League base in Georgia to work on a cure. She wanted to fix her son first, as proof of a cure. But she knew he would never give up his powers.

When the fighting is over, Ruby meets up with Cate and Cole. Cole wants to leave and reorganize the League near Sacramento. However, when a PSI kid attempts to kill President Gray at the Unity Summit talks between the Government and the Federal Coalition based in California, new events are unleashed - the bombing of Los Angeles by the American Government. The Children's League headquarters is destroyed and Ruby, Cole, Vida, and Liam along with others barely make it out alive. Eventually Clancy Gray also emerges from the rubble and reveals that his mother found a cure for the IAAN. Alban knew of the cure but was waiting to present it to Gray. Clancy found his mother and erased her memory of the research and then he was able to get into Alban's office and destroy the only other evidence of the cure - the files in the office. Or did he?

**end of novel summary**

Never Fade is much darker and more brutal than the first novel in the series, with many violent bloody scenes of mayhem and destruction. Bracken weaves a complicated storyline effectively, creating tension between characters, adding witty dialogue, maintaining suspense with endless plot twists and reviving an old romance. Told from Ruby's perspective, we see that she spends some time in this novel coming to terms with her developing PSI abilities and how they are to be used.

There are plenty of villains to hate in Never Fade, among them the murderous agent Rob Meadows, the cruel Wes Truman known as Knox, and of course, the silky smooth Clancy Gray who will do anything to protect the ability that allows him to control those around him.

Despite all the heart-pounding action in this novel, some of the best and most enjoyable part of the novel are the dialogue sequences between Vida and many of the other characters, especially between her, Chubs and Ruby. All three characters grow substantially in this novel; Chubs has matured and found his place in this brave new world, Ruby is beginning to develop her abilities more fully but is still trying to come to terms with the consequences of that development, and Vida is beginning to be a team player. Bracken makes her characters realistic, each with their own unique dialogue (Vida is a perfect example with her sarcasm and f-bombs), behaviours and issues.

Bracken introduces a new character, Jude, a fourteen year old Yellow whose naivety concerns Ruby so much that she decides to take him out of the League for fear that he will be murdered by Rob Meadows. What follows is a older sister-younger brother type of relationship between the two that is endearing and much different from all the other relationships in the novel. He affectionately refers to her as "Roo" and is constantly seeking her reassurance and affirmation. Ruby gradually becomes a mentor and is very protective towards him.

The novel's title is a reference to the memories Ruby tried to remove from Liam's mind. Those memories of  what he felt for Ruby never fade. At 507 pages, this novel is a hefty read but most won't mind because Bracken keeps her readers fully engaged. Never Fade is a thrilling, gripping, very strong second installment in what has proven to be a surprisingly good dystopian series.

Book Details:
Never Fade by Alexandra Bracken
New York: Disney Hyperion      2013
507 pp.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Anthem For Jackson Dawes by Celia Bryce

Anthem For Jackson Dawes is a deeply touching novel about two teens who experience the first stirrings of love while facing down treatment for cancer.

Thirteen year old Megan has a brain tumour. Three rounds of chemotherapy and surgery are in her future. On her first day in the oncology ward, Megan is shocked to see that there are mostly children. Except for Jackson Dawes, a tall sixteen year old who is a force of nature in the ward. He is known to all the younger children and is famous with the staff for going on walks throughout the hospital.

" 'That boy,' Mum said, 'is just beautiful. He's like an ebony statue. And that just never stops. Isn't he lovely...' "

As Megan goes through her first treatment Jackson is there to comfort and encourage her with his positive attitude. Jackson has a cancer that is so rare, the doctors do not have a name for it. This tidbit of information foreshadows what will happen in the story.

At first Megan doesn't want to have anything to do with Jackson, since he seems to be a person who knows "everything about anything." Jackson tells her that her friends won't bother coming around or calling because they won't understand and they will be afraid of catching her illness. Megan defends them at first but soon realizes that Jackson is right. Gradually their friendship grows as Jackson helps Megan adjust to chemo and life in the hospital. They share a kiss and the beginnings of a blossoming love.

When Jackson and Megan meet up again during Megan's third chemo treatment, Megan notices that something is off about Jackson, he seems withdrawn, tired and thin. However, he does help her when side effects of the chemo begin to appear. It is only after Megan's operation and her struggle to recover that the pieces begin to fit together.

This was a very moving novel, that captured the tragedy and suffering of young people who have cancer and also the toll it takes on those who love and support them. Bryce manages this in a way that is not overwhelming to her readers, but gradually unfolds as the story does. Megan's perspective is somewhat subdued but the reader will soon realize that Megan is having a difficult time accepting her situation ("It didn't feel like anything to boast about, having cancer.") or what is happening to the others on the cancer ward.

Anthem For Jackson Dawes has some wonderful characters who develop believable relationships with one another. While the relationship between Jackson and Megan is the prominent one, it is the relationship that Megan has with her father that illuminates this novel. Although he is mostly absent due to his work overseas, and Megan tells him not to come home when she has her chemo and her surgery, it's obvious that her relationship with her dad is very special. It is ultimately her father who helps her cope with Jackson's situation and he helps her to gain some perspective on what has happened. In fact the conversation between Megan and her father is the highlight of this novel, poignant and tender, a father trying to help his daughter learn to live again in the face of incomprehensible tragedy.

Other important relationships in the novel include the one between Megan and a young girl named Kipper who has cancer and also that between Megan and her grandfather who is ninety-five years old. Kipper helps draw Megan out of her own world of uncertainty, while Granddad tries to cheer her up.

Written in third person, Anthem For Jackson Dawes is a good novel for those aged 9 to 12 who are interested in realistic fiction and is good precursor to reading something like John Green's The Fault In Our Stars. Anthem For Jackson Dawes is Celia Bryce's debut novel. This promising writer from the United Kingdom, teaches creative writing and writes for radio and stage.

Book Details:

Anthem For Jackson Dawes by Celia Bryce
New York: Bloomsbury 2013
230 pp.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Imposter by Susanne Winnacker

Tessa is a "Variant", a human with special abilities and hers is that she can absorb another person's DNA and can shape shift to look exactly like that person. Tessa's ability to do this first surfaced when she was 5 years old. Her mother, unable to cope with Tessa's bizarre ability, abandoned her two years ago, Tessa has spent the past two years living at a compound run by the Forces with Extraordinary Abilities, (FEA) a branch of the FBI, training to take on special missions.

That time has finally arrived and Tessa's first mission will be to impersonate a girl, Madison Chambers who was attacked and left for dead. Madison is the fourth victim of a serial killer stalking the town of Livingston, Oregon. Madison was strangled and thrown into the lake where she was discovered by a jogger. She is now severely brain damaged and expected to die. Once she dies, Tessa will take Madison's place and her parents will be told that she has made a miraculous recovery. Tessa will then be embedded into the Chambers family with the hope of attracting the attention of the killer and provoking him or her into striking again. In the meantime, Tessa will try to learn all she can about Madison's life and to uncover the serial killer

While waiting for Madison to pass away, Tessa continues her training at the FEA compound. Tessa has a major crush on Alec, a man with incredible strength, but Alec is currently dating Kate, another variant who can read the minds of females. Alec seems to like Tessa too, but seems conflicted over his feelings for her. The person in charge of the variants is Major, a tough, badass man who takes no prisoners and no back talk.

When Madison dies, Tessa assumes her identity at the hospital with the help of several staff who tell Madison's parents and her twin brother, Devon, that she is gradually awakening from the induced coma. Tessa now living as Madison tells Madison's family that she does not remember what happened to her and not much about her family. This gives Tessa a chance to settle into her role as Madison. Everything seems to go well, with Tessa adjusting to life in the Chambers home. The FEA has also placed Alec in Livingston, where he will attend high school with Tessa so that he can provide back-up if required.

Because she has been diagnosed with amnesia, this provides Tessa with the perfect opportunity to ask Madison's brother Devon, and her best friend Ana about Madison's life before the attempted murder. As Tessa begins to uncover some very unsavoury facts about Madison's life, she also begins to wonder if another student is also a Variant. Tessa is continually hounded by Madison's former boyfriend, Ryan who seems intent upon renewing their relationship and won't seem to take no for an answer. Adding to the mystery is Tessa's discovery that her bedroom is being watched at night by an unknown person.

The situation comes to a climax at a party when the killer strikes again and Tessa as Madison finds herself drawn into a confrontation with the person she least expects but which the reader will find mostly predictable.

The premise behind Imposter is a good one, an X-Men type theme combined with mystery and some romance. Tessa is a strong character who is still struggling to master her variant and who also is a highly conflicted person. Because of her family background, the break-up of her family and the eventual abandonment by her mother, when Tessa embeds into the Chambers family she is overwhelmed by the kindness and love that they shower on her as Madison. It is something she has never experienced before and it makes her want to live her life as Madison. She faces additional conflict as a result of her relationship with Alec, whom she is attracted to and who continues to send Tessa mixed messages as he struggles to sort out his own personal issues. Tessa was very believable as a sixteen year old girl with special abilities; she was impulsive, desperate for affirmation and acceptance, and wishes for the life of a normal teenager.

She is helped along throughout the story by the impact character of Alec, who like Tessa was abandoned by his father. Alec's belief in Tessa's abilities help her to move forward with her mission. But while he helps Tessa on one level, Alec also proves to be a considerable distraction to her. Alec, who is two years older than Tessa, can't seem to get his act together when it comes to relationships, and this causes considerable tension between the three characters of Tessa, Kate and Alec, almost having disastrous consequences.

Imposter is the first in a series of books by Susanne Winnacker. It would be great to see Winnacker develop the characters of Tessa, Alec, Devon, Holly and Major more fully as this will help readers identify better with them. Imposter is mostly action-driven, and fleshing out the characters will make for a more appealing story. The set-up for the next novel suggests that Tessa will be the main focus of the storyline as she learns a rogue group of Variants may be after her.

Overall, Winnacker does a great job of attempting to keep her readers guessing the obvious - she gives multiple and conflicting hints throughout the novel, but readers will probably not be surprised by the ending. Nevertheless, the final confrontation sees numerous twists that ultimately make for a satisfying conclusion. Readers who like science fiction combined with mystery will enjoy this quick read.

Book Details:
Imposter by Susanne Winnacker
Toronto: Razorbill, An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Movie: Thor, The Dark World 2013

Thor, The Dark World picks up where the first movie left off. But first movie goers are given the backstory to this installment in the Thor franchise. Long ago there was a mighty battle between Odin's father, Bor, and the dark elf, Malekith, who wished to unleash a terrible weapon called the Aether, on the world in order to return it to darkness. Bor defeated Malekith who escapes and the Aether is buried deep, hopefully forever.

It is a year later and because Thor and his men had to deal with the Bifrost and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, they have spent the last year cleaning up rebellion and evil in the other Nine Realms. Against the advice of his father, Odin, Thor continues to pine for the Earth woman, astrophysicist, Dr. Jane Foster. Odin tells Thor he must accept his responsibilities as heir to the throne and look to Sif as a companion.

Meanwhile in London, Jane who is out on a date has her evening interrupted by her intern, Darcy Lewis, who tells her that something strange is going on. Darcy takes Jane, along with her intern, Ian, to an abandoned factory where the laws of physics do not seem to be functioning properly. Children who discovered the anomaly demonstrate to Jane and Darcy how items seem to disappear. After wandering off on her own in the warehouse, Jane disappears for five hours and finds herself in some strange world (possibly the home of the Dark Elves) which contains the buried Aether. There she is infected with the Aether which causes her to black out and then she is transported back to Earth.

Back on Asgard, Odin and Thor learn that a rare event known as the Convergence will soon take place in which all Nine Realms will align. At this time, Heimdall, the gatekeeper to Asgard tells Thor that he can no longer see Jane. Deeply concerned, Thor goes to Earth where he discovers that she has some kind of power contained within her. Thor takes Jane to Asgard, but the Asgardians do not know what the energy is that infects her. Odin, however does, as he recognizes the Aether that his father fought against so long ago.

Thor must work together with his brother Loki.
Jane's absorption of the Aether has caused Malekith to awaken and he sets out for Asgard to reclaim it. After causing tremendous destruction in Asgard, Malekith flees injured but without attaining the Aether.

Thor realizes that he must rid Jane of the Aether and at the same time lure Malekith and destroy both him and the Aether. He concocts a plan but in order to make it work, he needs the help of his brother, Loki, who is currently banished to the underground prison for life. With the Convergence due anytime, Thor must prevent Malekith from obtaining the Aether and subsequently using it to turn all Nine Realms - including Earth - to darkness.

As usual Thor, The Dark World is filled with heart-pounding action right from the beginning starting with the battles between Bor and Malekith, to those on Vanaheim, to the surprise attack on Asgard and onwards to the final confrontation between Malekith and Thor in London. But scattered throughout the action sequences are moments of comic relief that are well done and well placed, making this movie one that doesn't take itself too seriously.

This film which was directed by Alan Taylor, is well cast, with Chris Hemsworth as a muscular, imposing Thor, Christopher Eccelston as the evil dark elf, Malekith, bent on revenge, and Tom Hiddleston as the mischievous Loki. In fact, Hiddleston completely steals the spotlight in this movie. He has mastered the character of Loki, always a trickster with a twist up his sleeve. The audience is in the same situation as Loki's brother, Thor - we don't know what to believe when it comes to Loki!

The dark elves are suitably creepy with their eyeless masks, and Algrim, Malekith's right hand man and monster, is pure evil. Natalie Portman's performance is adequate, as she tries to help Thor defeat his powerful adversary and save Earth and the other realms. However, there is very little chemistry between Portman and Hemsworth, which leaves viewers wondering if the Jane Foster character is just a vehicle to incorporate Earth into the storyline.

Recommended for anyone who enjoys comic book heroes and plenty of action! Enjoy the trailer if you haven't yet seen it and then go see the movie!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher

Five years ago, Jamie's sister, Rose, was killed in a terrorist attack in London. Rose's twin sister, Jasmine (Jaz) survived as did the rest of the family but the tragedy has utterly devastated all of them. His parents fought over the remaining ten body parts of Rose, with his mother burying part of Rose in a cemetery while Jamie's father placed the ashes from Rose's body parts in an urn. Eventually, Jamie's mother left his dad for another man, Nigel, from the support group his mom was attending. His father now drinks and doesn't work. Jaz, tired of being dressed like her sister Rose for the past five years, arrived home on her fifteenth birthday with pink hair and a nose ring. She also has developed an eating disorder as a result of the family stress.  And Jamie hasn't cried at all for Rose, a sister he barely remembers.

Jamie's father, unable to cope with the death of Rose and the break up of his marriage moves the family to the Lake District where he believes there are no Muslims and the English way of life rules. They live in a ramshackle cottage in Ambleside where Jamie attends the Ambleside Church of England Primary School.

But things are no better for Jamie and Jaz at Ambleside as their father spirals downwards, often drunk and unable to care for them.  The urn holding Rose's ashes is sacred and Rose literally "lives" on the mantlepiece as their dad talks to the ashes and even puts a piece of Jamie's birthday cake next to it.

At his new school Jamie is tormented by Daniel, the teacher's pet and class bully. There is however one redeeming aspect of his life in Ambleside Primary School and that is the friendship he develops with Sunya, a Muslim girl who wears a hajib. Like Jamie, Sunya is an outsider who is also taunted by Daniel and the other children. Sunya encourages Jamie to be strong and when he wears his Spiderman T-shirt to school she tells him she is also a superhero, Girl M. Unlike Jamie though, who tends to cower when confronted, Sunya gets revenge on Daniel, in her own time and on her own terms, often in very humorous ways.

Jamie is extremely conflicted over his friendship with Sunya who acts as a foil to Jamie's racist father. While Jamie's father talks about Muslims making bombs and killing people, Jamie knows that few Muslims behave like this and certainly not ten year old Muslim girls. Despite this Jamie struggles because he feels that he is betraying his father and so sometimes he is not a good friend to Sunya. But it is Sunya to whom Jamie opens up, telling her about his family and how his sister was killed by in an Islamic terrorist bombing.

Jamie also struggles with his father's expectations of how he should grieve over Rose. Jamie was very young when Rose died and he doesn't really remember his sister. As a result he hasn't cried at all over her death, something his father finds strange. Instead, Jamie is more concerned about fitting in at school, being strong and confident like a superhero and his cat Roger. Sunya is the first person who Jamie tells about not missing Rose.

Eventually things become so dysfunctional in their family that Jamie and Jaz decide to enter a talent contest in the hopes of bringing their parents back together. Missing their mother who has completely abandoned them, they hope that their mother will understand their predicament.It is this trip plus a second tragedy that helps set the family on the path to healing.

My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece is a brilliant piece of writing, that engages the reader fully, capturing the sense of loss, hurt and confusion of a young boy. These feelings never totally overwhelm the reader however, because of the wonderful comic relief that Pitcher places in her novel. Despite the terribly sad circumstances of Jamie's family, many parts of the novel are quite funny. Jamie struggles to come to terms with many losses in his young life; the loss of a sister he doesn't really remember, the total abandonment of his mother, and the loss of care by his father. But his narration is witty and believable, allowing the reader to identify with him.

The great strength in this novel is the incredible relationships between several characters; Jamie and Sunya, and Jamie and Jaz. Abandoned by both of their parents emotionally and their mother physically, Jamie and Jaz work together, supporting each other to cope with an almost impossible situation.

My only complaint about this novel is that virtually every adult in the story is nasty. Jamie's parents are irresponsible and self absorbed, Mrs. Farmer and the headmaster are clueless and even the talent show hosts are ignorant and rude. The only parent who is nice is Sunya's mother.

Overall, My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece is one of the best books I have read this year and I highly recommend it. This is author Annabel Pitcher's debut novel and was first published in the UK in 2011.

Book Details:
My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher
New York: Little, Brown & Company     2012
214 pp.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Bang by Lisa McMann

The second installment in Lisa McMann's Visions series sees Sawyer Angiotti now experiencing a vision. Sawyer and Jules are now secretly seeing one another. Because of the feud between their families, only Trey and Rowan know about this. Jules is still recovering from the crash that saved Angotti's restaurant and Sawyer's life . She has her arm in a cast but has returned to school.

Sawyer tells Jules that his vision is about a shooting and that eleven people will die. He hears the gunshots but only sees a very small portion of what will happen. So Jules begins to work with him to try to determine where and when the shooting will occur. Eventually both Trey and Rowan are drawn into helping.

In order to meet Sawyer and help him, Jules resorts to lying to her parents, particularly her depressed, hoarder father. At the same time, younger sister Rowan is planning a trip to New York to meet her secret boyfriend, Charlie and his mom, without the knowledge of their parents.

When Jules dad uncovers her deception with Sawyer he attempts to ground her. But Jules works around him to try to help Sawyer uncover the details of the vision before it is too late.

Unfortunately, this second novel does not live up to the quality of its predecessor, Crash. Bang is beset by cheesy lines describing Sawyer and Jules' growing infatuation with one another, the constant use of the phrase "oh my dog" and dot com jokes,  and a brief discussion about the weirdness of a certain part of the male anatomy, all of which add nothing of merit to the storyline and were mostly annoying. (Another beef: Mass which is a religious service for Catholics should be capitalized.)

Because the story is told from Jules point of view rather than Sawyer's, much of the drama is lost in the telling. In Crash, the reader could sense in a palpable way, the intensity, the fear and the exhaustion that Jules was experiencing as she struggled to figure out her vision. That sense of urgency is greatly diminished through the narration of Jules and perhaps this story would have been better told by Sawyer.  McMann does manage to create a suspenseful climax though, with an unexpected twist in the story.

McMann takes the school shooting scenario and makes it (predictably) into a hate crime that has significant relevance to Jules family because her brother Trey is gay. Trey figures significantly in this novel which is a bonus because he is an interesting, likeable character. He longs for a relationship like what his sisters have and McMann conveniently provides him with a potential love interest near the end of the novel. Trey's involvement in the resolution of Sawyer's vision suggests that the third novel will see him figure prominently.

Despite the fascinating cover, Bang was mostly a disappointment.

Book Details:
Bang by Lisa McMann
New York: Simon Pulse         2013
241 pp.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The War Within These Walls by Aline Sax/Illustrated by Caryl Strzelecki

Written by Flemish author, Aline Sax, this short illustrated novel tells about the Warsaw ghetto uprising during the Second World War. All of Aline Sax's novels are historical fiction which is not surprising since she has a doctorate in history and works at the University of Ghent's Institute for Public History.You can find the author's website here.

This beautifully crafted short novel with its stark Chinese ink and conte pencil drawings by illustrator Caryl Strzelecki tells the ugly story of the massacre of Jewish men, women and children, who decided to resist the German soldiers sent to "liquidate" the ghetto - a Nazi euphemism for mass murder.

The story is told in the voice of Misha, opens with the invasion of Poland in 1939 by the Nazis who quickly begin harassing and humiliating the Jewish population. Eventually the area where the Jewish population of Warsaw lived was sealed off, dividing the city into two sectors, the Jewish ghetto and the Aryan section. Jews from Warsaw and the surrounding countryside are forced into the ghetto.

Misha, his younger sister Janina, and their parents are forced to live in cramped rooms, filled with strangers. The Germans do not allow food to be brought into the ghetto and it isn't long before everyone is starving. Misha watches as his mother slowly starves, and his sister becomes listless and quiet. Inside him, anger grows but he knows he must find a way to get for his mother and sister. When tragedy strikes Misha's family, he becomes despondent.

But then he is recruited by Mordecai Anielewicz, the leader of the Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa), a resistance group formed to fight the Germans in self-defense.

The prose in The War Within These Walls is sparse but effective. Accompanied by the stark ink drawings, Sax captures the entire range of emotions from horror and terror, to fear, despair and hopelessness that accompanied the annihilation of tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children. 

Misha is an realistic voice for all those who suffered and died in this terrible tragedy, remembering for young generations today. He is a fictional character, but Mordecai Anielewicz was a real person, a very courageous man who believed that the Jewish people should resist the Germans, fight honorably in what inevitably would be to the death,  and let the outside world know what was going on. He was only twenty-three years old when he organized the ZOB.

You can view photographs from the Warsaw Ghetto at

The Holocaust Encyclopedia is also a good resource that provides detailed information about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Book Details:
The War Within These Walls by Aline Sax; illustrations by Caryl Strzelecki; translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers        2013
173 pp.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Auslander by Paul Dowswell

This novel tells the fictional story of a young boy, Piotr Bruck, who is taken by the Nazis to Berlin to become a reclaimed German. While Piotr may have the ideal Aryan features, he soon learns his heart and mind do not subscribe to the Aryan ideals of race.

The novel opens with Piotr undergoing a terrifying physical exam in Warsaw where he is singled out because of his ideal Aryan features of blonde hair and blue eyes. In flashback, the reader learns that thirteen year old Piotr lived with his mother and father on their farm outside of Warsaw. For a time after the Germans invaded Poland, they believed they were safe, even though their farm was situated between the Russians and Germans. But when Russian and Germany begin to carve up Poland, his parents were killed and Piotr was driven from his home by German troops. Homeless and hungry, Piotr ends up in an orphanage in Warsaw.

Returning to the present, Piotr is taken from the orphanage along with many other boys and after a physical exam in which his features are measured and examined, he is grouped together boys who are to be sent back to Germany. His blonde hair and blue eyes and his near perfect German mark him as being of German blood -volksdeutsche. He along with others judged to be volkdsdeutsche are taken by Doctor Fischer of the Race and Settlement Office who runs this eugenics program, to be Germanized.

Piotr is sent to the Lebensborn hostel in Landsberg to await adoption by a German family. Meanwhile, Doctor Fischer contacts Professor Franz Kaltenbach who lives in Berlin with his wife, Liese, and their three daughters, twenty year old Elsbeth, thirteen year old Traudl and eight year old Charlotte. He encourages the Kaltenbachs to take Piotr into their home to raise him as a German citizen despite Kaltenbach's reservations about Piotr's Polish ancestry. Kaltenbach's reluctance is based on his work for the Nazi party.

Kaltenbach works at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Dahlem-Dorft, Berlin where he has been nvolved in a number of tasks that dealt with eugenics and racial purity. He had to determine the racial purity of the children from the Ostarbeiters (Eastern workers from Poland) as well as confirm the authenticity of the Ancestral Passports of candidates for the SS. Kaltenbach achieved his post at the Institute after the ethnic cleansing of all Jewish academics.

When Piotr returns home to Berlin with the Kaltenbachs, he is renamed Peter and is expected to hold the same views as his foster family regarding Jews and Slavs as well as politically support the Nazis.Peter is uncertain as to what to believe because his parents were divided on supporting the Nazis.  At first it seems that Peter and the Professor will have as good relationship as they share an interest in aircraft. Excited to finally have a safe place to live, Peter joins the Hitler-Jugend, attends school and even begins to see a girl in his neighbourhood, Anna Reiter. Peter even dreams of one day becoming a Luftwaffe pilot.

But Peter's comfort zone is challenged by the reality of life in Berlin when he sees Polish boys, the Ostarbeiters,  being overworked and starved, when he finds he cannot accept the German's blind faith in Hitler and when the Nazis ban anything different from what the party deems acceptable. Torn between his disgust at what the Nazis are doing and his fear of working against, Peter must decide make a choice - one that could cost ultimately cost him his life.

Told from the third person omniscient point of view, Auslander provides a unique look a life in Berlin during the Second World War. Although most of the narration is from Peter's point of view, Dowswell also includes the perspectives of many other characters in the novel including Anna, Ula and Otto Reiter, Gerhart Segur and Franz Kaltenbach. It is precisely the use of different narrators that gives this novel its balanced approach. There are German characters who are "one hundred percenters" - those who completely believe in the Nazi propaganda such as Professor Kaltenbach and his wife. The Reiters represent those Germans who did not agree with the Nazi racial policies and who worked to mitigate the suffering of the Jews and those who were part of the resistance. Also portrayed are those such as Elsbeth who originally supported the Nazis but when the learned the truth of what they were doing, tried desperately to extricate themselves. And then of course there were many German citizens such as Segur who were terrorized by the Nazis into betraying neighbours and friends.

The fanaticism of the Nazis is well portrayed in the novel and Dowswell includes parts of speeches and texts used by the Nazis to foment hatred against Jews and other ethnic groups deemed undesirable and to promote war. Dowswell captures the time period brilliantly, showing how beautiful and sophisticated Berlin was in 1941 and yet how poisoned its people were with the rabid ideology of genetics and race. This was initially deceiving to someone like Peter who did not yet recognize the iron grip the Nazis had on life in Germany. As the tide in the war begins to turn, the rationalization of German citizens and their reluctance to doubt the Nazis is demonstrated. Even the bombing of Berlin doesn't seem to sway them.

One of the major themes in the novel is that of identity. Because Peter has lost his parents, he dearly wants to fit into German society. It is a classic search for identity but one which is even more poignant because of his circumstances. Peter is not allowed to be himself, nor to express his own views about what is happening. Instead, whether he agrees or not with Nazi policy, he must conform to the Nazi way of thinking or risk being sent to a work camp or perhaps worse. Gradually, as Peter's eyes are opened to what the Nazis are doing to ordinary people simply because they are different, Peter comes to understand the price of conformity both personally and for the country. Despite being very conflicted he begins to resist in subtle secret ways that lead to him becoming part of the resistance and risking everything.

This novel is well written and thrilling from beginning to end with a likable male protagonist - something not found in many historical fiction novels. The author based the character of Ula Reiter on two German women who heroically defied the Nazi regime in Berlin during the war. He also explains the origins of some of the ideas, speeches and events portrayed in the novel in a note at the back of the novel. This is historical fiction at it's very best - effectively providing readers with a sense of what life was like during this terrible conflict.
Highly recommended.

Book Details:
Auslander by Paul Dowswell
London: Bloomsbury            2009
295 pp.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

"To them, the people in our city are just containers of genetic material --just GD's valuable for the corrected genes they pass on, and not for the brains in their heads or the hearts in their chests."
The final novel in the Divergent trilogy picks up right where Insurgent left off. Tris, Christina and Cara are prisoners inside the Erudite headquarters from where Evelyn now rules the city. Tobias (Four) Eaton is not a prisoner but his mother (Evelyn) suspects him of being a traitor. After questioning under the truth serum (which doesn't affect her) Tris is set free by Evelyn.

Evelyn tells Tobias that they have learned that there is a rebel organization within the factionless that wants to leave the city. This rebel faction is called Allegiant because they believe that people should live in factions.The factions are now dismantled, citizens are encouraged to mix the clothing of all the factions, no more than four members of a faction may live together, and the boundaries of the city are patrolled by the factionless to ensure no one leaves.

Tobias is uncertain as to his mother's motives for telling him about the Allegiant but he knows that he needs to warn them that Evelyn is determined to control them. Tris is asked to meet with the Allegiant at the abandoned headquarters of Candor. There she learns that Cara and Johanna are the leaders of the rebel Allegiant which also includes Susan, Robert, Peter, Uriah, Zeke, Tori, and Christina.

Cara and Johanna believe in the factions and the Divergent mission directive of Edith Prior to send people outside the city once there is a large Divergent population. They want to overthrow Evelyn and the factionless to re-establish the factions and they also want to investigate outside the city. It is decided that Johanna will attempt to overthrow Evelyn, while Cara will lead a group that includes Christina, Tris, Tobias, Tori, Peter and Uriah to explore beyond the city limits.

What Tris, Tobias, Cara, Christina and the others, who are part of the Allegiant team that leaves the city, discover is a government organization involved in a series of wide-spread sinister experiments which are supposed to repair the genetic damage of the population as a whole. The level of manipulation and deception is so great that the Allegiant who have left the city - which they now know is called Chicago, realize they must act quickly to stop the next step. Will they succeed and what will be the cost?

Fans of the Divergent series will love this novel but will likely have mixed feelings about Roth's controversial ending. The first novel in the series, Divergent introduced readers to a bizarre world where people were organized into groups or "factions" based on a specific virtue. They grew up in these factions and then on their "Choosing Day" chose the faction that they would live their lives out as an adult. Little back story was provided and readers had to hope this would come in the second novel. However, the second novel was a hot mess of battles between the factions, with many new characters added to the storyline, making the novel difficult to follow. It developed the relationship between some of the main characters as well as the love interest between Tris and Tobias. The third novel however, spends most of its time filling in the backstory of the world which Tris, Tobias and their friends inhabit, explaining what they were a part of and how it came to be, as well as setting up the final confrontation between the society Tris and Tobias came from and those on the outside. The final novel concludes the storyline with a somewhat shocking ending, although Roth does foreshadow the events to come.

The story in Allegiant is told by both Tris and Tobias. This dual narrative unfortunately was the main weakness of the novel, because they hardly differ. Their voices are so similar that the reader will find themselves losing track of who is narrating.

Roth devotes a great deal of the novel to explaining the history of the city and the new society that Tris and Tobias encounter in order to set up the shocking climax of the novel. While many readers will not like what happens at the end, the dystopian genre is about a dangerous world where all does not necessarily end well.  I think Roth has reminded her readers of that with her ending.

There is no doubt that many readers deeply identified with Tris, which indicates that the author was able to create a realistic, engaging main character for the series. Tris is a strong character who struggles throughout most of the novels, trying to understand who she is, trying to comprehend her place in her world, even as it begins to unravel. It is a theme common to many young adult novels. She grows throughout the three novels, gradually maturing through her mistakes and in her relationships with others. Like most of the characters in the novel, Tris is struggling with her identity. She doesn't fit into any faction any more than Tobias, Caleb, Cara or Christina do. Human beings are much more complex than what the factions want them to be.
"I don't belong to Abnegation, or Dauntless, or even the Divergent....I belong to the people I love, and they belong to me -- they, and the love and loyalty I give them, form my identity far more than any word or group ever would."
Ultimately the most important lesson Tris learns is the meaning of sacrificial love. It is a lesson she learns from her parents, but one which takes her some time to understand and apply to her own life.

At 526 pages, Allegiant is a monster of a novel to wade through, but definitely an easier read than its predecessor, Insurgent. The more linear story line, the filling in of the back story and the addition of only a few new characters make Allegiant a mostly enjoyable read with a heart-breaking ending.

Book Details:
Allegiant by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books    2013
526 pp.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Chan Jan Wai lost his wife when she gave birth to their only surviving child, a daughter named Jade Moon. Jade Moon was born during the Year of the Fire Horse - a bad omen for her family. Girls born during such a year were said to be dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families and Jade did just that, for her mother died giving birth to her.

Now seventeen years old, Jade lives with her father and grandfather and their servant, Nushi,  in the small village of Jinjiu on their family's ancestral lands. Because she was born in the year of the Fire Horse Jade has been told that she is cursed, that she brings bad luck to everyone she meets by her strong will. As a result, she has a reputation for being wild and headstrong. She cannot be what others want her to be - quiet, soft spoken and agreeable. Instead, she is outspoken and challenging. Jade finds her life in China like a prison with no future and a fiery reputation that she seems to live up to. Jade's father had intended to marry off Jade but no one will marry a Fire Horse girl.

Jade's future is about to change though, when a stranger, Sterling Promise, arrives in Jinjiu, claiming to be the adopted son of her father's brother, Chan Jan Keung - an uncle she did not know. Sterling has come to convince Jade's father to travel with him to America to start a business. When Jade learns of Sterling's plans to travel to America, she is resentful because she knows she will never be allowed such an opportunity.  Jade dreams of a life bigger than that found in her village. Living in America would present her with the chance to finally be who she truly is without the judgement of others.

At first Chan Jan Wai is reluctant to accompany Sterling, but he changes his mind and also announces that Jade will travel with them to America. They travel to Hong Kong to board a ship that will take them to America. But first they meet Master Yue, for whom Sterling worked when he was younger. This is when Jade learns about Sterling's past and begins to distrust his motives for traveling to America.

When Jade, her father and Sterling board the steamer to take them to America, Jade is sent to bunk with Mrs. Ying and several other women passengers. Mrs. Ying tells Jade about America and how the Chinese are poorly treated there and how Americans do not want the Chinese in their country. She also warns Jade to learn what plans her Father has for her as most Chinese women who travel to America are either married off or forced into prostitution.

Jade learns from Sterling Promise that she must study and learn her "story" in order to get into America. After the 1906 fire in San Francisco, the list of American citizens was lost. The list needed to be remade so when the Chinese were asked if they were born in America, they all answered yes, meaning even those not born in America became American citizens since there was no way to disprove their claims. When they were asked if they had children, the Chinese increased the number of children they had in their families saying that some sons were born in America but sent back to China. These sons became known as paper sons because the American Chinese sell their identities to those back in China trying to come to America. They do not exist except on paper. This is how Jade's uncle was able to go to America for Mr. Yue.

Jade also discovers that her father plans to marry her off to Sterling Promise. When the three reach America, they are sent to Angel Island, an immigration station to process immigrants from Asia. Jade is separated from her father and Sterling and eventually interviewed. When Jade and her father are refused entry, but Sterling is allowed to do so, Jade uncovers the terrible truth about what the two men had planned for her.

Jade's father had no intention of staying in America and deliberately thwarted their entry by giving incorrect information to immigration officers. The plan was to have Jade marry Sterling Promise in America and return to China with her father. She was brought to America to ensure that this would happen - that Sterling would keep his promise and that Jade would actually marry him. To get her back to China, the father would have suggested they return for a visit and then Jade would not have been allowed to return to America. She would have provided son so that the Chan family line could continue. However since Jade and her father must now return to China, things must change. Jade's father tells Sterling Promise that he expects him to return to China in a year to marry Jade.

When Sterling and Jade discuss their future, Jade tells Sterling that she only wishes to be allowed into America. She refuses his offer of marriage and furious that he has abandoned her and her father, devises a brilliant plan to escape from Angel Island. Stealing Sterling's immigration papers and disguising herself as a young man, Jade makes it to San Francisco only to be caught up in a war between two tongs who are fighting for control of Chinatown. She is taken in by the leader of one of the tongs, Mr.Hon and is trained to be a fighter. Hon runs many gambling houses but is looking to expand his business into prostitution. As tensions escalate, Jade must use all of  her characteristic wit and fiery determination as a Fire Horse to save herself, a friend and possibly many others too.

The Fire Horse is a wonderful novel about a young woman's struggle to find her identity, to accept who she is and to have others accept her as well. This struggle is set against the backdrop of China and America in the early 20th century. China is a place where tradition and family duty still take precedence in contrast to America where new ways quickly replace tradition. In China Jade cannot be true to herself, and she hopes that in America it will be different. However, once in America, circumstances quickly force Jade to outwardly change who she is in order to survive while staying true to her Fire Horse qualities. This is the reverse of what her existence in China was;outwardly she was Jade Moon but inside she had to pretend to be someone else. This double identity is reflected in the cover of the novel which gives readers hint of what is to happen in the novel.

Woven into all of this is the background historical setting of life in Chinatown in San Francisco in 1923. The Chinese immigrants have not integrated into American society but have their own area of the city and it is rife with gambling and the trafficking of women for prostitution. Making this setting more believable is the inclusion of the character Miss Donaldson, who is a stand in for the real life Miss Donaldina Cameron, an activist who helped trafficked Asian women. Readers can learn more about Miss Cameron here.

The author accurately portrays how difficult it was for Chinese immigrants to come to America during this time. As a result of deeply rooted racial prejudice, they were not welcome in the country and it took weeks, even years to be processed at Angel Island, often leading them to commit suicide. They were grilled over the most minute details, in contrast to white European immigrants who were processed on the other side of the continent, at Ellis Island, in a matter of hours.

Honeyman does an excellent job of developing her characters. Jade Moon is a terrific protagonist, strong, full of life, and fiery. She grows throughout the novel, coming to believe in herself, recognizing and accepting her weaknesses and her strengths. Sterling Promise helps Jade in her journey, while also developing himself. He comes to see Jade's temperament not as a curse but as a gift that has helped him learn about himself.

With its upbeat conclusion and unusual subject, The Fire Horse Girl is an intriguing, well written novel that will appeal to many historical fiction fans.

Book Details:
The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman
Arthur A. Levine Books: An imprint of Scholastic Books    2013
321 pp.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury

A Moment Comes is set in Jalandhar, in the Punjab region of India, in 1947, when the country is afire with religious violence as it is undergoing the partitioning into two new countries. Britain is relinquishing control of India, the crown jewel of its vast empire. After over 200 years of British rule which had set Hindu and Muslim against one another so as to conquer this vast country, it has been decided India will become two countries, India and the newly formed Pakistan - the new Muslim homeland.

In 1947, British India is home to 255 million Hindus, 92 million Muslims who live in the northeast and northwest part of the country and 6 million Sikhs who live in the diverse Punjab region. Lord Mountbatten, Viceroy of India has been charged with overseeing the creation of the new country and the drawing up of the boundary between Pakistan and India.

The time of the partition is one filled with violence and confusion. Over 10 million people in India must relocate; Muslims in India must relocate to Pakistan, while Hindus/Sikhs from the area of India that will become Pakistan must migrate to India. The partitioning and the inevitable disputes over the boundary only serve to highlight the religious divide, resulting in murder, rape and kidnapping by both Muslims and Hindus and over one million people will die as a result.

Into this turmoil, the lives of three young people intersect. Seventeen year old Margaret Darnsley is the daughter of a British cartographer sent to India to help map the new boundary between India and Pakistan. Employed by the Darnsley family is Tariq an eighteen year old Muslim whose family will be leaving for Pakistan and seventeen year old Anupreet, a beautiful Sikh girl who has already experienced one violent attack resulting in the scarring of her face. 

Margaret is bored by her closeted existence within the family compound and her mother's all-consuming concern with improving the family's social status. Tariq desperately wants to study in England, so that he may return to Pakistan to lead his country. He sees his employment with the British cartographer as a step towards this goal. Meanwhile, Anupreet's family has managed to obtain employment for their daughter with the Darnsley's with whom they believe she will be safe from further attacks.

This sets up an unusual dynamic in the Darnsley household; Tariq is attracted to Anupreet but it is an attraction that can never be fulfilled because such a relationship is forbidden due to their different religions. Tariq is also attracted to Margaret who is so different from Anupreet - in fact exotic to him with her blonde hair and strange ways. But she is British and so their relationship too would be forbidden. Margaret is attracted to Tariq but keeps her attraction hidden from him and her parents. Instead she begins to form a friendship with Anudeep who likewise hopes to be friends with Margaret but realizes that true friendship involves the complete sharing of ideas and secrets - something both girls cannot do.

Underlying the story of Margaret, Tariq and Anupreet in the Darnsley household is the story of Tariq and his childhood friend, Sameer. Sameer, also a Muslim, has turned to a life of crime, participating in the riots against the Sikhs and Hindus, and also blackmailing them for protection money. He attempts to draw Tariq into this life on several occasions, challenging Tariq to be on the "right side" when the time comes. It is this relationship that ultimately will draw all three teens together, forcing Tariq to choose one of two paths.

Most teens unless they are staunch historical fiction fans might find A Moment Comes somewhat slow paced, but Bradbury manages to hold her reader's interest with the interesting dynamics between the three main characters. This is the novel's strength; its exploration of the relationships between three young people and how they struggle to relate to one another within the conventions of Indian (and British) society at this time.The reader is eager to see how the relationship between Tariq and Margaret develops, and whether Anupreet and Margaret can forge a friendship given their cultural and class differences.

Each teen struggles to live with their families expectations for them. This is clearly shown by Tariq who wants to study in England and who hopes that Mr. Darnsley will help him achieve this dream. However, his family does not support him as they want him to travel with them to Pakistan where he can study at Lahore. For Tariq, the prestige of a British education is paramount since he believes this will make his countrymen listen to him.

Likewise, Margaret Darnsley, is also expected to behave according to British etiquette, although she already has an indiscretion to her credit back in England. Margaret loves the beautiful saris and the salwar kameez that Anupreet helps her purchase at the market across from their compound and she finds the traditional Indian clothing to be comfortable and practical in the hot, humid climate of Jalandhar. But her mother is horrified by her daughter's foray into Indian culture.
"Mrs. Darnsley turns away from the window, starts to answer her husband, but when she catches sight of Margaret, her face pales.

"What on earth are you wearing?" she asks he daughter. She doesn't sound pleased.
Margaret backs away from the window. "I picked it out from the market -- it just arrived, its so much cooler --"

"Go and change at once," her mother orders. "You look ridiculous. ..."

The last half of the novel picks up the pace as Tariq, Margaret and Anupreet's lives are thrown together by the violence in India. The twist in the plot sees the three teens come together to help one another as the day of partition arrives.

Bradbury tells her story in the alternating narratives of Tariq, Margaret and Anupreet. Their voices are authentic and unique and capture the fears and uncertainty that would have been felt during this time. A Moment Comes is an interesting novel about a very fascinating historical event that many young people may not know much about, nor study in school.

For more information check out the BBC History webpage as well as the video The Day India Burned: The Partition below:

Book Details:
A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury
New York: Anetheum Books for Young Readers 2013
278 pp.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

With the movie due out in a matter of a few weeks, a quick read Catching Fire was in order. As the second novel in the Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire picks up the story of Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Malark post-Hunger Games, as they prepare for life following their stunning victory in the games.

But things are not well, as Katniss discovers when President Snow unexpectedly visits her at her new home in the Victor's Village in District 12. President Snow indicates to Katniss that she has become a symbol of defiance against the Capitol leading to uprisings in other districts. This comes as a complete surprise to Katniss who has no way of knowing what is happening outside of District 12. Snow also tells Katniss that he knows she does not love Peeta but instead perfers her "cousin" Gale. President Snow warns Katniss that the upcoming victory tour is the only opportunity she will have to turn things around by demonstrating her love for Peeta thereby averting further uprisings. Snow tells Katniss that she must convince him, a task, the reader knows will be impossible.

On the victory tour several important things happen. When Katniss confides in Haymitch about what happened between her and President Snow he makes her realize that she will never have a future with Gale and that she will have to marry Peeta. This is something Katniss had not realized. When their tour arrives at District Eleven, Katniss and Peeta announce that one month of their winnings will go to the families of the two tributes from that district (Rue and Thresh). As well when Katniss apologizes and thanks the District for their support she is honored by Rue's mockingjay whistle and the three-fingered salute, considered by the Capitol to be an act of dissent. At this point, Katniss and Haymitch tell Peeta about President Snow's threats.

As the tour continues, Katniss recognizes the defiance of the people in Districts 8, 4 and 3, who see her as a symbol of resistance. When it ends in the Capitol, knowing they have not succeeded in quelling the defiance, Peeta and Katniss attempt a public marriage proposal. This does nothing to remove the threat from President Snow.

As a result, when Katniss returns to District 12 she considers escaping into the woods with Gale, Peeta, and their families as well as Haymitch.  However, several things happen to cause her to abandon this plan.  First off,  the district's Head Peacekeeper has been replaced by a brutal man who enforces all of the Capitol's laws causing Gale to be whipped. Secondly, on a trip outside District 12, Katniss meets two survivors, Bonnie and Twill,  from District 8 who are intent on journeying to an unknown District 13. This district, they claim, has survived independent of the Capitol's influence because they have nuclear power.

And thirdly, President Snow announces that for the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, the tributes will come from the existing pool of victors from previous games. This means that two of Haymitch, Peeta and Katniss will have to compete again in the arena. Katniss cannot bear to face the horrors of the arena once again, but she decides that since she will likely take Haymitch's place, she will work to save Peeta. But unknown to Katniss, this time the games will have a very different ending, if those who wish it so, have their way.

Catching Fire is an unusually good second novel in this trilogy. It is well paced, with twists that continue to engage the reader at each step of the story. Suzanne Collins grabs her reader's interest by filling in the details of life after the Hunger Games for Gale, Peeta, Katniss and Haymitch. In particular, readers want to know how the love triangle between Gale, Katniss and Peeta plays out after the experience of the games. But this turns out to be a breather for the fast paced last half of the novel. Collins spends a good portion of the book setting the stage for the second round of the games which Katniss during which Katniss expects to die, but the effort is worth it.

One of my favourite characters is the novel is Haymitch, who seems to be a lost cause, yet in his moments of lucidness, shows his brilliant side. Peeta continues to be his steadfast, reliable self, while Katniss displays her typical intelligence and resourcefulness.

The ending is the perfect setup for the final novel, Mockingjay. This trilogy is likely to become a classic in the canon of young adult literature and unlike many book to film endeavours, appears to have a decent movie adaptation as well.

Book Details:
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Scholastic Inc.     2009
391 pp.