Sunday, June 30, 2013

The World Above by Cameron Dokey

The World Above is one of the more recent offerings in publisher, Simon Pulse's Once Upon A Time series. In this fractured fairytale, Dokey combines the fairy tale, Jack and The Beanstalk, with the myth of Robin Hood to create a very unusual story.

Gentian and Jack are fraternal twins who live with their mother in the World Below. Their situation was becoming dire so one day their mother sent Jack to town to sell their only cow, Agapanthus (seriously, that is the cow's name!! and it is also the name of a plant known as the African lily). Fearing that he would do something stupid both Gen and Jack's mother urged him to be practical and to drive a hard bargain. Jack returned home after encountering an old woman who gave him seven beans with magical powers in exchange for their cow. Instead of being angry however, their mother shed tears of joy for she recognized the beans as a way back to her home in the World Above.

Jack and Gen have been told a bedtime story by their mother as they were growing up. Now they learn that that story was in fact, not a tale, but the story of their mother's life before she came to the World Below. Their mother, Celine Marchand, married the much older widower, Duke Roland des Jardins who ruled over a small, prosperous kingdom. Duke Roland was very good friends with another nobleman, Horace de Trabant, kingdom was adjacent to Roland's. De Trabant's son, Guy, came to live with Roland upon his father's death. It was the hope that the two dukedoms would be united by the marriage of their children some day. However, that was not to happen. Duke Roland met Celine Marchand at Guy de Trabant's wedding and they were married soon after. However, Guy de Trabant was not happy at his guardian's marriage because should Duke Roland have a heir, Guy would not inherit Roland's land. Guy rose up against Duke Roland, murdering him and seizing his land.

Meanwhile, Celine des Jardins, suspecting she was pregnant, went to visit her nurse, Rowan. When she learned of her husband's murder, Celine realized she must flee. With the help of her nurse, and one magical red bean, Celine climbed  down a beanstalk from the World Above to the World Below. Rowan tells her,

'When the time is right, a messenger will come to the World Below. You and your children will be given the means to return to the World Above. It may be many years before this day comes, but never doubt that it will. Prepare your children well.'

The fact that Jack has returned with seven magical beans means that it is time to return to the World Above to reclaim Duke Roland's kingdom. But Jack must have some way of proving who he is. Celine shows Gen and Jack the Roland family coat of arms which has a sack overflowing with coins, a goose in flight along with a lyre that speaks the truth and a beanstalk. They are symbols of the des Jardins family power and of the covenant between the family and the people they govern. These also represent gifts given to the des Jardins family to help them rule wisely. The wizard prophesied that these gifts would someday help to restore the des Jardin's family power.

If Jack is to restore the Roland seat he must retrieve all of the wizard's gifts from the usurper, Guy de Trabant. They decide to send Jack to the World Above on a reconnaissance mission, to see the state of affairs. Jack returns with a bedraggled goose and a sack filled with a few coins. But he must return to retrieve the lyre which is being held at the de Trabant castle. When Jack does not return after four weeks, Gen knows she must try to find her brother and remove Guy de Trabant from their land. Little does she know, she will receive help from a most unlikely person.

The merging of two storyline was the most surprising aspect of this story. Dokey manages to make everything tie together quite nicely, while adding a hint of romance. This novel, short and sweet, has much potential that sadly was never really developed. The characters are interesting but not fully developed. The villian, Guy de Trabant, is featured only briefly at the very end. The hint of romance is only barely present, but again is left to the reader's imagination at the end of the book. Dokey incorporates a bit of Robin Hood into the storyline that makes for an excellent twist. Overall, The World Above is a good story, that leaves readers wanting so much more!

Nevertheless, this is short novel will be great for those who want something a little different to read.

Book Details:
The World Above by Cameron Dokey
New York: Simon Pulse    2010
175 pp.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Kpop: MBLAQ

MBLAQ or Music Boys Live in Absolute Quality is a Kpop band which debuted in 2009. The group initially consisted of Seungho, G.O, Lee Joon, Cheongdung, and Mir and was formed under the Korean label, J. Tune Entertainment which was founded by Kpop star, Rain.

Although the group has done very well over the past few years, in 2012 they lost two members, Mir and G.O, who left to form an new group. In 2013, the group made a comeback (as all Korean groups do!) with the release of the single "Smoky Girl".

This is one of the few recent Kpop singles that has attracted my attention for several reasons. First of all I love the fact that the video was shot in black and white, colour and also with the use of black lights. Then there's the funky set at the beginning with what look to be chess pieces. The dance break at the beginning of the video is great because it highlights the terrific dance choreography which emphasizes the strong, pulsing beat. One of my favourite things about Kpop music is the ability of viewers to watch and enjoy the dancing, something American music never quite lets you do with its 5 second camera shots. There's a lengthy rap section that leads to just more of the dancing and singing alternating with the catchy refrain of "Smoky Girl".


What I liked about this song was the focus on just the song and the dancing. Nothing crazy but just pure music with a good, strong beat. Even the set was simple. A nice change from the Kpop we've been served up throughout most of the past few months.



Watch the video and see what you think!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Man of Steel

"I have to believe you were sent here for a reason. And even if it takes the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is."
This summer's remake of the Superman movie is absolutely everything fans of the comic hero will love. Man of Steel starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane is really the Superman movie we've all been waiting for years to be made. It takes the original concept of Superman into somewhat new ground by presenting a more "realistic" view of the superhero, one that people can relate to. And because of the amazing special effects that are available today, allows viewers to truly experience the the battles between super aliens very, very realistically. The movie's storyline is based on a story written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan using the Superman characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and published by DC Entertainment.

The movie spends more than an hour and a half developing the backstory of Superman, opening with esteemed Krypton scientist, Jor-El, confronting Krypton's leaders and begging them to evacuate their dying planet. Their planet has been irreparably damaged because its core has been destroyed. They refuse and the meeting is interrupted by the head of Kyrpton's soldiers, General Zod, who attempts to overthrow Krypton's leaders.

Meanwhile, Jor-El's wife, Lara Lor-Von (Ayelet Zurer) has naturally given birth to a son, Kal-El, which is considered a form of treason. All Kryponites are genetically engineered with their duty in life predetermined and are birthed from special pods. Seeing that a civil war has broken out and that his planet is doomed, Jor-El steals the Codex the which contains all the genetic material of every Kryptonite and has it placed into his son's body. He and Lara then launch their son in a spacecraft which travels to Earth. Their hope is that Kal-El will grow up to lead Earth's people.

General Zod and his group, including his wife Faora-Ul, are captured and placed in special capsules and then imprisoned in a black hole. However, when Krypton collapses and explodes, the forces that keep them imprisoned are dissolved and General Zod and company are freed. They spend 33 years searching their colonies and the universe for Kal-El's location until they are led to Earth by a homing beacon.

During those 33 years, Kal-El, rescued from his spaceship by a Kansas couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), is raised as their son. They name him Clarke and hide Kal-El's ship in their barn. As Clarke grows up it becomes evident that he has special abilities and the Lane's are convinced that he has a special purpose on Earth. Clarke get his biology from Jor-El but his character from Jonathan Lane who encourages him and advises Clarke that the person he becomes will influence the world either way. Jonathan Kent tells the young Clarke,
"You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, he's going to change the world"
The movie doesn't begin with Clarke's life as a child, instead we see him as an itinerant worker, moving from job to job, trying to figure out just who he is. But every time a disaster strikes, Clarke is there to save the day, rescuing people in mortal danger. During these times we see flashbacks of Clarke as a child, saving fellow students and being bullied for being quiet but different. During this time he struggles to understand his identity.

During a stint at a job in a restaurant, Clarke overhears army men talking about a top secret investigation by the US military in the Arctic. At the same time at The Daily Planet, Lois Lane is also sent on assignment to the same location to investigate the unusual discovery. Both are there to figure out what is going on. Clarke, investigating on his own, discovers that this is a ship from his home planet, but we don't learn until later on that this was a ship sent thousands of years ago to investigate possible other worlds for the Kryptonites to colonize. Inadvertently, Clarke sets off a homing beacon that will lead General Zod to Earth. It is at this time that he also meets Lois Lane and heals her from a serious wound.

Two things result from their meeting. The first is that Lois Lane manages to get someone to publish her story about what has happened in the Arctic. The second is that General Zod arrives on Earth demanding that the humans hand over the Kryptonite who has been masquerading as a human for the past 3 decades. Clarke decides to turn himself into the US Military and assures them that his intentions are not to cause harm to either Earth or it's people. He tells General Swanwick that he suspects Zod is not to be trusted.

However, when he meets General Zod, he learns that his intentions for Earth are not quite so benign and Kal-El now knows he must fight for his adopted race or they will face extinction. What follows is an epic battle on a world level for the future of Earth. With the humans witnessing the first of these battles, it soon becomes apparent that Superman is on their side. But if he is to win, he's going to need every bit of help they can muster.

Unlike previous movies, where the relationship between Clarke Kent/Superman and Lois Lane, intrepid reporter from the Daily Planet was paramount, in this adaptation, the feud between Kal-El and General Zod dominates. This changes the entire dynamic of the movie, turning the focus from Lois and Kent and her incredible naivete about who Kent really is (which now becomes a subplot), into a battle of super-men for the future of Earth. The other most important relationship in the movie is that between Kal-El and his human father, Jonathan Lane. Again and again, Jonathan preaches patience and tries to teach Kal-El how to distinguish between right and wrong. Little does he know his efforts will likely determine whether or not Earth is saved.

The casting for the movie was brilliant. Henry Cavill is a good Superman with his obviously amazing physique. In this version of Superman, Cavill plays him as an intelligent, thoughtful man, leaving behind the bumbling, socially awkward Carke Kent of the mid-20th century. He's still the alien man struggling to figure out his identity and having to make a huge choice whether to side with his fellow Kryptonites or with his adopted, weaker humans.

I wasn't certain about Amy Adams being cast as Lois Lane, as I felt she might be too old for this role, but she was surprisingly good. This Lois Lane is more savvy and realistic as she quickly follows her leads back to learn who and what Kal-El is. She decides not to reveal her source when pushed to do so. She's believable as someone, an intelligent extra-terrestrial like Kal-El, might actually like.

General Zod was well played by Michael Shannon, who captures the intensity and cruelty of the Krypton soldier bred to preserve and protect his people to the very end. He too is a character striving to do what he thinks is the right course of action to save what remains of his race. He doesn't seem to care though that for his race to survive, another must die.

General Zod's wife, Faora-Ul (Antje Trau) is a total badass. Cruel and ruthless to the core, she is a fitting partner for General Zod. She considers Kal-El's compassion to be a form of weakness. "You have a sense of morality and we do not. And that gives us an evolutionary advantage. And if there's one thing that history teaches us it's that evolution always wins."

The devastating battles between Zod and Kal-El are epic and dominate the last half of the show. They are intense and prolonged perhaps overly so. Action junkies will love them, with bone crunching punches and throws that send these supermen through blocks of office towers, into locomotives and into the stratosphere. The devastation to cities is remarkably well portrayed lending a terrible realism to their battles.

Despite the plot holes here and there, the lengthy backstory, and the poor pacing of the movie overall, Man of Steel is a much better effort than any of the other previous movies. (The 1978 movie starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder would have been good except for the ridiculous time altering ending.) With its themes of identity, faith, trust and choosing between right and wrong, Man of Steel offers much more to viewers. The scene where Kal-El goes to see a priest is particularly interesting.

Thankfully, Hans Zimmer, whose beautiful score graced the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, was commissioned to write the music for Man of Steel. He appropriately ditched John Williams' March of Superman and replaced it with his characteristic dynamic, rich scores.

One last thing: more than annoying is the jarring last scene where Superman takes down a US military drone and tells the General that he does not take being monitored lightly. This scene, so obviously a political statement against the recent US drone controversy, was out of place in the movie and completely ridiculous as an ending to a great action film.

Man of Steel will undoubtedly be one of the best movies of 2013.

This short featurette explains some the reasons why this adaptation of the comic book hero, Superman, was made they way it was including details about the designing a new suit for Superman, the evolution of Lois Lane's character, and creating a more realistic, updated movie for this superhero.



Check out these great movie trailers:







Check out The Man of Steel website for more Superman stuff including wallpapers, posters and actor interviews.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Rules by Stacey Kade

Sixteen year old Ariane Tucker knows The Rules.

1. Never trust anyone.
2. Remember they are always searching.
3. Don't get involved.
4. Keep your head down.
5. Don't fall in love.

Cover of the novel I read.
Ariane has followed these rules faithfully for ten years. Until she meets Zane Bradshaw.

Ariane is the creation of GenTex Labs (GTX), home to Project Paper Doll. She is an alien/human hybrid, created from a human mother using DNA taken from the Rozwell aliens. Ariane lived in an observation room for the first six years of her life at GTX until a bomb exploded and she was helped to escape by her "father", Mark Tucker, a security guard at the Labs. Instead of fleeing, the two of them live in Wingate, right under the shadow of GTX Labs which is located only ten miles away. Their strategy has been for Ariane to blend in and take the name of Mark's fully human daughter, Ariane, who died after a serious illness. Ariane enrolls in school and now attends high school where she is a junior.

Ariane has followed The Rules faithfully for ten years. But when her best and only friend, Jenna is bullied by Rachel Jacobs, Ariane knows she cannot stand by and watch her humiliation. Ariane confronts Rachel, thereby earning her wrath and placing her squarely in Rachel's sights for revenge. That revenge involves using tall, handsome Zane Bradshaw, whom, it turns out, Rachel has definitely underestimated.


Another cover.
Zane has his own issues to deal with, specifically his father, Jay Bradshaw, who is Wingate's police chief. Zane has grown up in the shadow of his older brother, Quinn, an all star athlete. Nothing Zane does is comparable to Quinn's accomplishments in his father's eyes and he must cope with his father's bullying. Zane's mother left his dad over a year ago, no longer being able to cope with the abusive home life.

Zane's life at school isn't much better, where he is part of Rachel Jacob's bullying posse. When Rachel devises a plan that involves using Zane to exact revenge on the quiet, unassuming Ariane Tucker, Zane knows he has to accept her request. Zane does so in the hopes of giving Rachel a taste of her own medicine.

But getting Ariane to agree, at first is difficult. When a second, even worse bullying of Jenna occurs, Ariane decides to agree to Zane's request, despite her fear that by breaking one of her adoptive father's cardinal rules, GTX will discover her whereabouts.

Zane has already noticed some things about Ariane that he considers strange. She always does her math in ink and she always gets two or three wrong on tests. Never more nor less. He also notices that there is always a bandage on the back of her neck and that she wears contacts to cover up the real cover of her eyes. For Zane, getting Ariane involved  not only means getting back at Rachel, but also solving the mystery of Ariane.

Of course what Zane doesn't know is that Ariane has more abilities than he is aware of. Ariane can hear people's thoughts and sense their emotions and she has telekinesis - the ability to manipulate objects. Before she was freed from GTX, Ariane was being trained to kill, something she refused to co-operate with, resulting in emotional trauma and the paralyzing of her abilities.

The two of them decide they will pretend to date and instead of Zane dumping Ariane as Rachel planned they will reveal that they are friends thus thwarting her revenge on Ariane. However, things get complicated with both Zane and Ariane developing a genuine love for one another. As the conflict between Jenna, Rachel and Ariane spirals out of control, it becomes increasingly evident that GTX also might be hot on Ariane's trail.

When Ariane's father warns her to drop Zane Bradshaw, telling her that she will place him in the crosshairs of GTX, Ariane does what she things is best. But is she too late to save herself and Zane?

The Rules just might be one of the best young adult novels this year! It's unusual storyline which combines the concepts of Mean Girls with an "alien" Carrie, captures the reader's interest from the very beginning. Thrown in with this mix is a blossoming romance between the two main characters.

Told in the alternating narratives of Ariane and Zane we learn through flashbacks the past of both characters; Zane's abusive homelife and Ariane's lonely terror as an experimental child-subject in the lab at GTX. Both therefore, keenly feel the injustice of Rachel's bullying of Jenna and try to protect her.Both desperately are seeking love and affirmation.

Both Zane and Ariane suffer from a deep loneliness that comes from being misunderstood and not accepted for who they are. Zane is struggling to create his own identity separate from that of his older brother Quinn. Zane wants to be different from both his brother and his father, whom he sees as manipulative people. He's just biding his time until graduation in two years.

Meanwhile, Ariane's struggle is reminiscent of that of the human-Vulcan character,  Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Ariane struggles between her logical alien nature and her emotional human one.
"I gritted my teeth. This was the balancing act I struggled with daily, sometimes hourly. I felt like I was nothing but a bunch of extremes all bound up together. The logical voice in my head pointing out facts and likely scenarios, and the roar of emotions, the rush of want and need, that would drown everything out if I let it."
"But it was important for me to remember that in this particular situation, as with most, giving in to my human side would be dangerous. Satisfying maybe, but dangerous. I wanted, raged, and needed, just like everybody else. But my analytical nonhuman side knew that giving in was risking...."
Zane and Ariane's blossoming romance is delightful, as they discover the unexpected in each other. Zane is impressed by Ariane's courage and self control, while Ariane is touched by Zane's tenderness and concern for her well-being.

My favourite cover because Ariane looks 16!
Readers might pick up on some of the twists in the novel, but generally they will be a surprise, while the climax will likely be somewhat predictable. Nevertheless, this doesn't make The Rules any less of an enjoyable read. I can't wait to read the next installment of this series. And to think that I almost didn't read this novel!!

Here is Stacey Kade's post about how the cover was designed for this novel. Personally I like the cover shown below because the model at least looks sixteen. Although the final cover is well done, the model is too old to represent Ariane Tucker.

Book Details:
The Rules by Stacey Kade
New York: Hyperion      2013
410 pp.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Elite by Kiera Cass

The second installment in the Selection series continues the story of Prince Maxon's attempts to select a wife from the six remaining young women - Celeste Newsome, Kriss Ambers, Marlee Tames, Natalie Luca, Elise Whisks and America Singer, who are known as the Elite. Each of these girls is vying to be the wife and eventual queen of Prince Maxon, next in line for the throne.

The novel primarily focuses on America's struggle to choose between her first love Aspen whom she believed no longer loved her, and Prince Maxon who offers her status, wealth and possibly a chance to change things for the better.

America seems to be the favourite of Prince Maxon who demonstrates his preference for her by sharing a palace secret and spending a significant amount of time with her. But America is beset by jealously over his attentions to the other five girls whom she sees as less than capable and by conflict over her unresolved feelings towards Aspen.

Prince Maxon repeatedly tells America that if she says yes to him - if she tells him that she loves him, the competition will be over. But America cannot commit to him, because she still loves Aspen who is now a guard outside her room in the palace and because she doesn't know if she wants the responsibility being Princess will bring.
"It used to feel like the Selection was one choice: Maxon or Aspen. And as if that was some decision my heart could make simply, it grew into so many more things. Was I a Five or a Three? When this was over, would I be a Two or a One? Would I live my days as an officer's wife or a king's? Would I slide quietly into the background in which I'd always been so comfortable or force myself into the spotlight I'd always feared? Could I happily do either? Could I not hate whoever Maxon ended up with if I chose Aspen? Could I not hate whoever Aspen chose if I stayed with Maxon?"
However, when she witnesses a terrible act of cruelty, condoned by Prince Maxon, America begins to have her doubts. Does she know the real Maxon? Angry at Prince Maxon, America questions whether she truly wants the job of princess. She questions whether she has what it takes to be a part of the royal family.

With only five young women left, they are given a task which will determine the next girl to leave the Elite. This time each of the girls must design a program that will be of benefit to the country and propose how it might be undertaken on the Capital Report. However,  America finds herself unable to come up with anything. Struggling to deal with the recent events and with the fact that one of the girls has begun to seriously attract Prince Maxon's affection, America finds her hold on the Prince slipping. Maxon challenges America to decide whether or not she is serious about wanting the responsibility of becoming the princess and about wanting him. Because if she doesn't want this he does not want to send  home a girl who truly wants to be a part of the Selection.

With the rebels from both the North and the South increasing their attacks on the royal compound, America must make a choice. She has two very different men seeking her heart. Can she find what it is she truly wants for herself and her country?

Although I found the beginning of the novel slow, I was gradually drawn into the story by the increasing tension between Prince Maxon and America, as well as the appearance of a new love interest for Prince Maxon - someone who gradually becomes a serious threat to America's hold on the Prince. This development leads the reader to question whether America will be sent home. The conflict that Maxon and America experience is also mirrored in the increasing conflict between the royal family and the rebels. During the course of this novel there are three rebel attacks, each one more serious in nature with the royal family appearing less able to repel them. It also comes to light that the rebels want the Selection stopped.

Cass doesn't spend much time in this novel filling her readers in on the post-apocalyptic world of The Elite. We learn that the queen was from a lower caste in the South and that her marriage to the king appeased the rebels for a time. But many families in the South have seen their status downgraded to a lower caste if they were suspected of helping the rebels.This has only  furthered the tension between the South and the royal family. We also learn that eighty years ago when Gregory Ilea took control of the United States, he did so through manipulation and deceit, transforming it from a republic into a dictatorship with a royal family at the top. His younger son Damon began the first Selection as a way to unite the country behind the royal family - keeping alive a version of the American dream - any girl could be a princess.

What I didn't like about The Elite was the character of America. Her indecision results in her not treating either Maxon or Aspen honestly. It causes her to lead on both Maxon and Aspen when they each ask her to choose them. Prince Maxon asks America near the end of the novel to be completely honest with him - something America has not done because he doesn't know about her ongoing relationship with Aspen. Prince Maxon's assessment of her character near the end of the novel is quite accurate. America is both impulsive and rash, and quite self-absorbed. This is demonstrated even better when America has a heart-to-heart talk with her major competitor in the Selection and realizes how this girl has been much more thoughtful and supportive of Prince Maxon. If America truly wants to win the Prince's heart she will have to change. But of course the problem has always been, does she want to win?!!

Essentially, The Elite is The Bachelor, Miss Universe and Princess Diaries all rolled into one. Readers who enjoy a novel with plenty of romantic tension will love The Elite. The final installment in the Selection series is due out in 2014 and is tentatively titled,  The One.  This should be a blockbuster final book as we finally learn who wins the Selection!!

Book Details:
The Elite by Kiera Cass
New York: Harper Teen      2013
323 pp.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Reboot by Amy Tintera

Sixteen year old Wren Connolly was killed five years ago after being shot three times in the chest. 178 minutes after dying, Wren rebooted - that is she came back to life again in the Dead Room of the hospital. The less time dead before the Reboot, the more human a Reboot will be.

Rebooting is the result of a reaction to the KDH virus which kills most people but behaves differently in young, healthy people. The virus causes people to come alive again, known as Rebooting, coming back stronger and more powerful. Rebooting occurs after every organ in the body shuts down, and the longer the "rest", the better the Reboot. Reboots with a higher number , like that of Wren, heal quickly, are faster and stronger requiring less food and having the ability to withstand high levels of pain, but are emotionally cold. Reboots also do not get sick and continue to age like normal humans. Reboots are almost entirely comprised of young people.

These characteristics resulted in Reboots being abandoned by their families who considered them monsters. At first they were executed, but the Reboots rebelled and fought back. They lost the war and were enslaved almost twenty years ago.  Each Reboot has their name tattooed along with the number of minutes they were dead on their wrist along with a barcode.

Wren lives with other Reboots in the Human Advancement and Repopulation Corporation, or HARC facility that houses living quarters and a medical facility. Every room in the living quarters has glass walls so that Reboots have no privacy. They are watched constantly and their conversations are monitored. The Reboots are trained to be elite soldiers who capture criminals and remove the sick from the slums of Austin, Texas. With the highest number at the HARC facility at 178 Wren is considered their top soldier, fast, strong and emotionless.

When a new group of Reboots are brought to HARC, they are trained by those already there. The new Reboots with higher numbers are chosen by the veteran Reboots who also have a high number. However, in a break from her normal behaviour, Wren chooses Callum Reyes, who has a very low number of 22 (and therefore considered to be practically human), to train when a group of Reboot newbies arrives at HARC.Callum's low number means that he is still very much like a human, isn't as strong physically and more emotional.

Callum seems attracted to Wren, asking her many questions about being a Reboot. When Wren tells him she doesn't feel, he challenges her view of herself, pointing out that she feels anger, sadness and happiness.

Everything Wren understands about her existence is turned topsy turvy on a solo mission one night when she learns that a group of humans is working to free Reboots from the HARC facility and that there is a Reboot reservation in the northern part of Texas. Wren discovers that one of the kinder humans, Leb, is involved with this covert resistance.

Not only that but her roommate, Ever, seems to be part of an experimental program that turns her into a zombie during the night. She can't sleep, gets the shakes and begins craving meat. Eventually, Ever is unable to control her zombie like craving, frequently attacking Wren and others. She knows something is wrong with her and that the injections she has been given are harmful. Wren begins to realize that Ever is not the only one when she sees Callum attacked by a young boy who tries to eat him.

When Wren and Callum are sent on a mission that involves killing a human and Callum refuses, Wren is told by her superior that if Callum refuses on the next mission she must kill him. After Callum indicates to Wren that under no circumstances will he kill for HARC, Wren decides she must get Callum out of HARC to safety on the Reboot reservation. Can Wren convince Leb to help her save Callum by fleeing to a reboot camp whose existence is doubtful?

Reboot is a novel with a truly strange storyline - a virus that kills people only to make them come back stronger and faster than before, somewhat like zombies, yet not zombies. The world of Reboot is post-apocalyptic; set in Texas, where the cities have all been destroyed. Reboot requires readers to suspend their belief through most of the novel; the Reboots suffer terrible injuries during training but are able to heal in minutes, Reboots are similar to zombies with their pale, cold skin but yet are able to continue to grow and mature into adults.

Nevertheless, the characters in Reboot are well drawn, especially Wren whose narration reflects a growing awareness that she is capable of emotion and the realization that she desires to be free. At the beginning of the novel, Wren is portrayed as a cold, efficient soldier - the best HARC has, and not prone to emotional responses other than hating screamers and experiencing the joy of the chase. But Callum, as the almost human, cute, love-interest, helps to change that as he forces Wren to ask those questions she hasn't considered and brings out her compassion. The tragedy surrounding Ever, Wren's only friend and her roommate, causes Wren to experience a sense of loss and profound grief, showing her to be vulnerable and human. Wren struggles with who she was, what she has become and how others view her. Despite begin stronger and faster than the average human, even though she is petite, Wren also struggles with a body issue, involving the scars from her fatal wounds.

While the storyline is fairly predictable, most readers will enjoy getting to the end as Reboot is equal parts action and romance. Expect a sequel to Reboot sometime in 2014.

Book Details:
Reboot by Amy Tintera
New York: HarperTeen     2013
365 pp.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

I may be the last one, but I am the one still standing. I am the one turning to face the faceless hunter in the woods on an abandoned highway. I am the one not running, not staying, but facing.
Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity.
And if this is humanity's last war, then I am the battlefield.

Cassiopeia Marie Sullivan is one of the last survivors of the human race.

It began with the appearance of a huge green ship in orbit around the Earth. For ten days nothing happened while people speculated, fretted, and wondered why the aliens did not make contact.

The attack came in waves. The first wave was a electromagnetic pulse that knocked out everything - cell phones, electricity, car and airplane engines. Nothing worked. Cars stalled on the roads, planes plummeted to earth. Half a million people died.

The second wave was the creation of an earthquake that caused a massive tsunami. Forty percent of the earth's population lives within sixty miles of a coastline. Three billion people perished.

The third wave was an Ebola -like outbreak, spread by Earth's 300 billion birds.

The fourth wave is the "Silencers" or those who are aliens inhabiting human bodies whose job it is to kill the remaining humans.

Cassie's family had stayed through the first three waves, barricaded in their home. Her father, mother and younger brother, Sammy. But when her mother dies from the Red Tsunami, Cassie's father decides to leave and head for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, over one hundred miles away.

When they arrive at a refugee camp twenty miles from their home, Cassie, Sammy and their father wait to see what happens. Then one day a grey drone appears, followed later by troops who separate the children from older teens and adults. In this way, Cassie loses her brother Sammy. She then witnesses the mass murder of all the adults but manages to escape.

The novel is narrated in several voices; 16 year old Cassie, Sammy, 17 year old Benjamin Parish who is a boy Cassie had a crush on before "The Arrival", and Evan Walker, a mysterious stranger who helps Cassie. The story opens with Cassie's first person narration which describes the waves of the alien invasion and then her hiding in the wilderness. Cassie realizes that she cannot stay hidden forever, that she will eventually be hunted down and that she wants to keep her promise to Sammy to come get him. She decides to make her way to the Wright-Patterson base where she believes Sammy has been taken. However, despite her care in traveling, she is shot and wounded by what suspects is a "Silencer" - an alien who looks like a human who kills those who remain. Seriously wounded, Cassie is surprised that he lets her go. However, further into her journey, she becomes stranded during a snowstorm and is rescued by a stranger.

Meanwhile, although Cassie assumes Ben Parish is dead, he is in fact barely alive, suffering from the Red Plague. Ben narrates his story beginning from his arrival at Wright-Patterson Airbase after the soldiers clean out the tent city next to the base where he has been staying. They save his life and he is encouraged to find the will to fight against the aliens. He learns from the doctor there that the aliens have infected certain people and that these people are now activated into hunters to kill down the remaining humans. All the waves before this were merely to whittle Earth's 4 billion population down to a manageable size for annihilation.

Parish along with many other children are trained to be soldiers and are told that they can help fight back against the invaders. They are tagged with a small capsule that allows them to be tracked and are told that the aliens are inside some humans and that with the use of a special headset they can be detected and will glow green. Those who are not infested will be red. From the very beginning all of their training reinforces this understanding, giving them no reason to question otherwise. Parish who used to be a high school jock and who is deeply depressed over the loss of his sister and his family, is gradually trained into a proficient soldier. His unit includes a young woman named Ringer who is a crack shot, several young boys named Dumbo and Flinstone, a young girl named Teacup and a little boy named Nugget who is in fact, Cassie's brother, Sammy.

** spoiler **
When their training is complete, Parish, who goes by the name, Zombie, along with his unit (excepting Sammy) are sent on a mission into a city. They are given special headsets that glow green indicating a person is infested with an alien and are told to take out anyone who registers as "infested". However, Ringer begins to realize that the situation doesn't make sense and soon figures out that they are being used by the aliens as the 5th Wave - humans who are trained and duped to kill those humans who have survived the previous four waves of attack. Ben and Ringer must decide what to do as Ben knows he needs to return for Nugget whom he promised he would not leave behind.

During the time that Ben and Sammy are at Wright-Patterson Airbase, Cassie awakens to finds herself being cared for at an isolated farmhouse in Ohio. Her caretaker is a handsome young man, Evan Walker, who claims to be the sole survivor of his family. The house is Evan's family's farmhouse, but soon lots of things about Evan just don't add up. Readers will easily figure out who and what Evan is, just as Cassie soon begins to realize the truth of what he is too. Cassie begins to fall for Evan, all the while struggling between attempting to trust him and wanting to kill him for who he is and what she's sure he's done.

Cassie tells him she must go back to get her brother, even if it means her dying in the process. Evan who is in love with her, decides to debrief her on the base so that she will have a reasonable chance of succeeding. How will Cassie sneak into a death camp for humans, that is surrounded by drones and soldiers controlled by advanced alien technology?

Yancey is an adult writer whose previous works have been immensely popular. The 5th Wave which is the first in his new YA series, feels like a mix of original Star Trek (Return to Tomorrow) and the television series V which ran in the 1980's and deals with humans battling malevolent aliens. Of course these storylines - the aliens so advanced they has no physical body and are only a consciousness, and the alien invasion that sees a few good aliens side with their human prey, are quite common in science fiction literature and movies.

The first part of the novel, narrated by Cassie is excellent, capturing the reader's interest with the fascinating backstory of the appearance of the aliens and their gradual assault on Earth. However, the novel slows considerably when Yancey goes into great detail regarding Ben Parish's training at Wright-Patterson. Readers will find this part of the novel slow, but the detail here is important, because the author is setting up the events that lead to the climax of the novel.

All of this is used to create a twist in the plot which leads to a heart-pounding climax and sets the stage for the next novel. It's like a game of chess now; with the aliens in check and the humans awaiting their next move. And the odds are stacked against the humans.

Cassie is the strong-willed, courageous heroine in this novel. Her relationship with Evan is the dominant one is this first novel. It creates a great deal of suspense because the reader knows who Evan is but doesn't yet know his motive for helping Cassie and because Cassie isn't completely certain who he is. The end of the novel sees Cassie meet up with her crush, Ben Parish, who has changed considerably since their high school days, only months ago. He is now a hardened soldier bent on revenge. Yancey has set up the possibility of a love triangle between Ben, Cassie and Evan in the next installment.

My only complaint about this book was when Yancey first switches his narrator. The novel is broken into different sections separated by black title pages. The second section, titled Wonderland initially left me confused until I realized I was reading a different character's narration.

For the most part, I truly enjoyed this novel. Like many recent young adult novels, The 5th Wave is long, a whopping 457 pages. But those pages are filled with a mixture of horror, suspense, romance, grit and action that keeps the reader engaged throughout. We want the humans to win, but the odds seem so against them, that readers will be left desperate to read the next installment in the series.

Book Details:
The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
Toronto: G.P. Putnam's Sons   2013
457 pp.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone


It's 1995 and Anna Greene lives in Evanston, Illinois with her mother who is a nurse and father who owns a bookstore. Anna would love to travel but her family doesn't have the money.

The novel opens in March, 1995 with  16 year old Anna running on the track at Northwestern University where she first sees Bennett Cooper sitting in the bleachers. When he suddenly disappears, Anna goes to investigate and discovers that there are no footprints in the snow.  But when mysteriously Bennett shows up the same day in her Spanish class, Anna is shocked. However, strangely enough, Bennett doesn't seem to recognize her, even though he smiled at Anna when she was running. At lunch Anna tells her best friends, Emma Atkins and Danielle, about her strange experience at the track. They decide to bring Bennett to their table where he expresses disbelief and recognition at her name, but claims not to have been at the university track that morning.

Then Anna meets Bennett again in the park across from her house, in pain and struggling to breathe. When she leaves him to go get water at a nearby coffeehouse, she finds him gone upon her return.

When he doesn't show that week for classes, Anna's friend Emma manages to get his address. He lives with his grandmother, Maggie, not far from Anna's family's store. Anna's visit to Bennett's home only creates more questions about who he is and what is wrong with him.

Everything changes however, the night Anna's family's bookstore gets robbed. Bennett who is with Anna when the robbery takes place, intervenes and time travels with her in order to save her, thus revealing to her something of his secret. When Anna asks him for an explanation, Bennett tells her that there are three parts to his secret which he will reveal to her in time.

*spoilers***

Bennett gradually fills Anna in on his abilities. He can travel from one location to another in the same time, and he can also travel within in his own lifetime, meaning he can't go back in time before he was born nor can he travel to the future outside of 2012.  Anna soon pieces together more of Bennett's secret: in her year, 1995,  he is a baby living in San Francisco. Bennett is from her future, 2012 where he is seventeen and she is thirty. This means that in April of 1995, there are two Bennetts; one in San Francisco and one who is 17 years old with Anna in Evanston, Illinois. This leads Anna to question how there can be two Bennetts in 1995. He tells her that if he is in the same place at the same time, the younger version disappears

At first Anna is very accepting of this partly because she has already begun to crush on Bennett, but also because Anna has a deep desire to travel. She has a map up in her father's store which she plans to mark all the places in the world she visits.Her desire to leave Evanston and experience the wider world lead her to be a part of Bennett's strange existence. However, when Bennett begins to reveal more about his abilities, Anna struggles. Bennett tells her "I don't ever stay."

However, Bennett's third secret is much more serious. While Bennett and his sister Brooke travel back to a concert in 1994, which was before Bennett was born, he gets kicked back to his correct time, leaving Brooke stranded in 1994. This is the reason for Bennett returning to Evanston - to find Brooke and return with her.

As Bennett and Anna spend more time together their relationship blossoms into a full blown romance. But in the middle of their romance is the strange reality that Anna is sixteen years older than Bennett and that he doesn't really belong in this time. Bennett explains to Anna that he is careful not to cause many changes in the time he visits because even small changes can have a "butterfly effect".  However, when a major crisis strikes, both Anna and Bennett must decide just how much effect they are willing to have on their own lives and on others to stay together in this time.

Stone has written a lovely time-travel romance that effectively draws her readers into the novel from the very beginning. The hook is two-pronged; a puzzling prologue dated October 2011 and the mysterious appearance of Bennett Cooper at the track sixteen years earlier in March 1995.The mystery surrounding Bennett's abilities are gradually revealed as are the implications of his actions with regard to Anna and those around her.

To the author's credit, the details surrounding Bennett's ability to time travel were reasonably simple and therefore, did not overwhelm the storyline. The main plot is the love story between Bennett and Anna, with the twist that they exist in two different times. The subplot of Bennett's sister, Brooke, was never really developed but was used by the author to create the climax of the novel. It would have been interesting though to have found out how Brooke made it back home and what had happened to her.

There isn't a great deal of character development in the novel. Anna and Bennett are the two major characters who are for the most part believable and well drawn. Their relationship with one another is touching. Anna values honesty and so does Bennett but when Anna finds out that Bennett has been hiding something from her to protect her, she calls him out on it. She tells him that she doesn't want to be protected, that she needs to make her own choices in her life. 

What I didn't like about this novel was the ending - the reappearance of Bennett Cooper. This is a novel about choosing your own path in life and I feel that Anna at the end was doing that. She decided that Bennett leaving was sad but that there were other options and that she needed to grab onto to those instead of waiting and hoping that he would someday return. That was the positive message reinforced by her decision to do things differently the second time around. She chooses this because she learns from Bennett that the choice she made the first time didn't work out for her. Bennett knew what his appearance in Anna's life in 1995 did to her - he knew the positive effects but he also knew that overall he had a negative effect on her life. Yet he still returns because he believes he make this work. I felt that regardless of the outcome, his was a very selfish choice. His presence in a time he is not supposed to be in will still have the potential of unimaginable repercussions for everyone. For example, it's obvious that Justin loves Anna, yet with Bennett in the picture, will Anna ever give him that chance? Left alone in their own time, Anna and Justin might have become a couple.

The ending leaves us with many questions such as how did Bennett manage to come back, and how can he stay in 1995? Hopefully,  these will be answered in the sequel, Time After Time, which will be published in October, 2013. I like most readers, can't wait to see where Stone takes her story of Anna and Bennett.

Book Details:
Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone
New York: Hyperion Books    2012
368 pp.





Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

"She looked down at her hands on the keys, and they weren't hers anymore. What she did at the piano didn't belong to her. It hadn't for a long time. It didn't make her feel connected to herself or her family or the audience or the universe..."
Sixteen year old Lucy Beck-Moreau was a promising piano prodigy. Was. Until last year when she unexpectedly quit in the middle of an international piano competition in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

The Lucy Variations opens eight months later with the sudden death of the family's piano teacher, Madame Temnikova, in the family living room. Her death occurred in the middle of Lucy's brother, Gus' lesson, while he was playing a Chopin nocturne. Temnikova's death means that Lucy's parents and her Grandpa Beck, will have to find a new teacher. That new teacher turns out to be a young married man, Will R. Devi. Will has been brought in to help Gus who is to play in a "showcase" and then the prestigious (and fictional) Swanner competition in February.

In flashbacks, we learn that Lucy walked off the stage at the Prague competition after learning that her beloved Grandma Beck lay dying back in San Francisco and that her Grandpa was going to let her compete without telling her what was going on. Lucy never wanted to come to Prague while her grandmother was so sick. His concern for things over people, his iron control over Lucy and her music career finally pushed her to the brink. She chose to walk away, a decision, Grandpa Beck told her, that was final.

Since leaving the world of competitive classical music, Lucy has enrolled in Speare Academy where she excels in English and hangs out with her friends, Reyna Bauman, whose parents are going through a divorce, and Carson Lin, a Taiwanese-American who has a crush on Lucy. Lucy has been trying to fill her need for attention by spending extra time with her young English teacher, Mr. Charles, but when he begins to discipline her for being late for his class, Lucy also begins to realize this need she has will not be met by Mr. Charles.

Will's unorthodox methods of teaching Lucy's ten year old brother, Gus, begin to attract Lucy's attention. Will reaches out to Lucy encouraging her to remember what it is that she loves in an attempt to mentor her. Gradually Lucy comes to realize that she still loves music but that she didn't like not having control over her career or her life. Her grandfather's controlling behaviour stifled Lucy taking all the joy out of music. And her walking out of the Prague competition was never her decision to quit for good. That belonged to her grandfather.

Lucy finds her relationship with Will becomes complicated by her increasing infatuation with him. She struggles to keep her relationship within the correct boundaries, but Will appears to show that he understands the pressures she has faced, since he was once a music prodigy himself.  Lucy's best friend, Reyna, begins to recognize the dangerous ground Lucy is straying into and temporarily breaks off their friendship. Meanwhile her brother Gus believes she will steal Will away and their relationship also deteriorates.

If Lucy wants to return to her music career, she must find the strength to face down her grandfather and mend her relationship with her mother. She must also recognize her need for attention and what her relationship with Will truly means. Can Lucy discover what it is that she truly loves on her own terms?

Zarr has written a novel that will likely appeal to a limited audience - those teens who are involved in the world of music and therefore can appreciate the various issues and conflicts that are part of this world. However, the issues tackled in this novel will hopefully attract a wider readership. It's well known the pressures athletes and dancers experience, but less well known is the immense pressure many high level teen musicians must face as they struggle to please parents, teachers, and adjudicators, to cope with the stress of learning demanding repertoire and of performing in front of critical audiences. Lucy's crisis is not one that most teens will easily identify with as the question Lucy must struggle with deals with her life and what she wants out of it. Many young people probably don't face this question until they are older - in their twenties at least. But Lucy has to answer this question now, because she has a wonderful talent that she either chooses to continue to develop or leaves behind for something else.

Written in the third person, The Lucy Variations asks readers to consider the issue of quitting which is generally seen by most people to be an act of failure. This theme particularly resonated with me because as I've gotten older and hopefully wiser, I've come to realize that quitting is not necessarily equal to failure. Sometimes, the right choice is TO quit. To stop and choose to do something else. It is also an issue many music students and their parents face; are they good enough to continue on to university or a conservatory where the stakes are higher? But tied in with this question are many others that musicians must ask themselves; why do we play music? does a person have to play perfectly to be appreciated?  At the crux of Lucy's dilemma is the question: Is this what I want for my life or is this what my parents want for me? It's a dilemma many gifted children, not just musicians, must eventually answer, early in their teens.

Lucy's Grandpa Beck embodies some of the traditional views to these questions. When Lucy and  her grandparents attend a concert by Leon Fleisher, who was a child prodigy,  her grandfather's reaction to the concert is very typical of many involved in the world of classical music. Fleisher lost the use of his right hand in the 1960's and instead of retiring (as many thought he should) found ways to integrate his disability into his career, developing a repertoire that used only his left hand. (Fleisher regained the use of his right hand in the early 21st century and continues to perform and conduct.) The concert they attend sees Fleisher perform with both hands, with Grandpa Beck listening for missing or wrong notes. The result of course, is that Grandpa Beck misses the beauty of the music and what Fleisher is trying to communicate to his audience. Yet the fact that he does have an emotional response to Fleisher's performance, suggests that Fleisher did in fact communicate something to him despite the missed note!

Another theme in this novel is the role of family in the lives of teens. Supportive families that allow young people the opportunity to have some input into decisions that affect them, lead to personal fulfillment and maturity. However, in Lucy's situation, the adults making all the decisions leads to her feeling resentment and losing her love of music and what it means to her. In fact, it is my experience that many children who show great promise as musicians end up quitting once they reach their teens because their love of music has been quite literally destroyed by overbearing adults.

The only aspect of this novel that I didn't quite like was Lucy's infatuation with Will. I'm glad Zarr did not develop this further, that she had Lucy realize what Will's motivations were. Zarr uses Will to bring out the realization in Lucy that she is seeking affirmation and attention and that music provides this for her. Will, who wasn't able to make it as a concert pianist (and therefore is considered a failure by Lucy's grandfather) but is a successful teacher, appears to act as a mentor, something Grandpa Beck perhaps once was but no longer is. Will hopes to draw Lucy back to performing, however, his own unresolved issues end up influencing his actions and Lucy sees the same old patterns of control beginning again. In this way, Will is a somewhat disappointing character.

Lucy was a well drawn character whose internal conflict we are allowed to share through the third person point of view. Usually third person narrative is difficult because we aren't privy to how other characters in a novel view situations. Zarr attempts a work-around by having Lucy "parrot" the views of her grandfather with whom she has a deep-rooted conflict. She also must demonstrate how others feel through their actions, such as Gus' anger with Lucy being demonstrated by his ignoring her.

Overall, The Lucy Variations is a well written novel that provides an interesting and enlightening look into the world of competitive classical music. The themes of family conflict and personal crisis make this a novel that may also attract the interest of those who don't have a connection to the world of music.

Book Details:
The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr
New York: Little, Brown & Company     2013
304 pp.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Wild Orchid by Cameron Dokey

Don't let this unpretentious little novel fool you; it's a well written, fascinating recounting of the Chinese legend of Mulan by well known author, Cameron Dokey. Like many of her other books in the Simon Pulse "Once Upon A Time" series, Dokey's poetic prose is well suited to the telling of such wonderful legends and fairytales as Mulan and Scheherazade.

Born in the year of the monkey, Mulan lives on her father's estate in rural China. Mulan did not know her father, Hua Wei, while growing up because he was a great soldier who lived at court with the Emperor. She knew he was very courageous but did not know personally what her father looked like or who he really was. Her father had been fighting against the Huns, a fierce tribe determined to over run northern China. The Chinese emperor, known as Son of Heaven, saw his beloved son, Prince Jian, captured by the Huns and Hua Wei had rescued him. Son of Heaven granted Hua Wei permission to marry for love. He did so but while away with the emperor, his wife gave birth to Mulan and died. Hua Wei's grief was so great that he has not returned home in thirteen years. He also forbade anyone to speak the name of his beloved wife, so that Mulan does not know her mother's name.

In the years Hua Wei is absent, Mulan grows into an intelligent, courageous young girl who wants to learn more than just what women where normally taught; she wants to learn how to read and write. When she is seven years old, Mulan meets Li Po who shows her how to write and read, teaches her how to use a sword and most importantly to excel at archery. Everything Li Po learns from his tutor he passes on to Mulan, including how to become disciplined. Mulan also learns everything that she needs to at home, how to cook, sew and do embroidery, although she greatly hates the latter. Li Po and Mulan become close friends, promising to remain so for life.

One day, Mulan's father returns home unexpectedly. The Huns have been defeated for the time being, although Hua Wei has told the Emperor that the son of the dead leader will return to avenge his father's death. Hua Wei has been seriously injured and because of his views about another impending Hun attack, has been ordered home by the Emperor. He arrives home with a friend, General Yuwen Huaji.

At first, Mulan's relationship with her father is not good. Mulan has felt all these years, that if she were a boy, her father would have returned home sooner and more often. She feels he is not proud of her and does not love her. His seeming indifference to her when he arrives home, wounds her deeply.

However, as time passes, it becomes evident that Mulan's father, Hua Wei not only has a serious leg wound but also has still not come to terms with his grief over the loss of his wife many years ago. When Mulan repairs her father's leg wound, he thanks her and their relationship begins to develop from that point on. Mulan's father comes to realize that his daughter is very special and takes over teaching her once General Yuwen leaves, taking Li Po with him.

Mulan's father eventually remarries and his new wife is expecting a baby. As he predicted, the Hun's are raising an army to attack China leading the Emperor to send notice that every family must send a man to fight. This means that Mulan's father will have to serve as a foot soldier and will likely not survive the battle. Mulan makes the decision to disguise herself and go in her father's place.

When Mulan arrives at the valley where the battle is expected to take place using the name Hua Gongshi, she is taken to serve with Prince Jian, the Emperor's youngest son. Prince Jian does not know Hua Gonshi is a girl but is impressed with his skill with the bow and arrow. Mulan/Hua Gonshi volunteers for a critical mission that will determine the outcome of the battle. 

Unexpectedly, Mulan finds herself falling in love with Prince Jian who is so much like herself. Facing the Huns in battle will take all her courage, but will Mulan have the courage to tell Prince Jian her true identity and her feelings for him?

Told simply in Cameron Dokey's beautifully expressive style, Wild Orchid, is beautifully written, capturing the very essence of this legend through the well drawn voice of Hua Mulan. We easily identify with Mulan's struggle to measure up in her father's eyes, experiencing her hurt at being abandoned and ignored. Readers will especially identify with Mulan who attempts to forge her own path outside of her culture's expectations for women. Women were expected to dress and behave a certain way, to marry by the age of fifteen. But Mulan wants none of this, instead recognizing where her talents are and attempting to remain true to herself.

Dokey draws each of the central characters equally well through the use of dialogue and action. Hua Wei is a crusty, battle-hardened warrior who is a romantic at heart. Li Po is Mulan's best friend, who remains supportive and helps Mulan develop her talents. Prince Jian is portrayed as a warrior with integrity and courage, who must forgive Mulan for the breach of trust between them.

Wild Orchid combines a great storytelling with interesting characters to make this one of the best novels of the Once Upon A Time series.


Book Details:
Wild Orchid by Cameron Dokey
New York: Simon Pulse     2009
199 pp.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

In My Enemy's House by Carol Matas

In My Enemy's House is a well written piece of historical fiction by Canadian author Carol Matas. This novel tells the fictitious story of a young Jewish girl during the occupation of Poland by the Nazis in World War II.

Marisa Gingrich is a 15 year old Jewish girl living in Zloczow, a city in Poland that had been initially occupied by the Russians for two years until they were driven out by the German push into Russia. Marisa, who is the oldest child, lives with her Mama and Papa and her younger siblings, Fanny, Sarah, Yehuda, and Moishe. Unlike her siblings who have dark hair and brown eyes, Marisa has blonde hair and blue eyes - features common to the Ayran ideal, which will help her survive in these deadly times.

Initially, it seems all the Germans want is to use the Jews for slave labour, for cleaning and working in the factories. However, the local Ukrainians have formed a police service and are beginning to round up Jews.

Prior to all this, Marisa was leading a normal life as a young teenager, going to school, and even developing a crush on her "cousin", Shmuel, who is the sixteen year old step-son of her Uncle Avraham. When she and Shmuel are seen holding hands, her father tells her that she mustn't do this. The next day when Marisa's Papa goes to speak with his brother, Avraham, about this situation, they are both taken by the Ukrainian police. Shmuel tells Marisa's family that he followed their fathers and saw them loaded onto a freight train. Marisa feels terribly guilty over her father being taken, because she knows he would not have been there that day, if she and Shmuel hadn't touched and also because her last words to her father were defiant. She directs her anger towards Shmuel, who tells her to recognize that it is the Nazi's who are at fault.

Meanwhile the Nazis begin separating the Jews from the Poles, whom they consider useless and stupid. Himmler closes all the schools, Jews are forced to wear a white armband with a blue star of David, and they begin conducting "actions" in which large numbers of Jews are arrested and removed from the city. Some Jews are simply taken outside their homes and shot in the streets. Marisa's family is saved again and again by the kind actions of their Polish neighbour, Mr. Kraszewski, who was in the Polish military. When the Russians attacked Zloczow, Marisa's family hid him. Now he has been returning the favour by hiding her family in his attic whenever the Nazis come rounding up Jews.

Because of her looks, Marisa is able to pass herself off as Polish and therefore, get into line with the Poles for food. As the food situation becomes more dire and the Germans decide to round up all the Jews and place them in a ghetto, Marisa's mother and Shmuel tell Marisa that someone from their families must survive and that she can use her looks to pass herself off as Polish and go to Germany to work.Once again Mr. Kraszewski steps in and offers Marisa the chance to use a friend's daughter's papers to get into Germany. The irony of her situation is not lost on Marisa; she must go to Germany to survive the Nazi mass murder of her people.

As the situation worsens and Marisa's indecision about what to do deepens, she struggles with thoughts of suicide and despair as well as struggling with her belief in God. Eventually Marisa goes to Lvov and then on to Berlin in the hopes that she will survive the war. Will she ever see her family again? Will she and Shmuel ever meet again in this life?

Carol Matas has crafted a well written short novel that explores the meaning of forgiveness and faith when the world around is succumbing to hate and chaos. When Fanny, Yehuda, Marisa and Shmuelare the only ones left, they are struggling to decide what to do. Fanny announces that she hates God, but Marisa tells her that faith is important to fight evil.

The best and most interesting parts of this novel though revolve around Marisa's stay with a Berlin family whose father is a highly placed Nazi officer. Marisa manages to get hired on by Herr Reymann who owns a large farm and has three children ages ten, twelve, and fourteen. Unlike other German families, the Polish workers are invited to eat around the dinner table with the Reymann family, and when Marisa becomes seriously ill, Frau Reymann tends to her in a caring manner, genuinely concerned for Marisa's health. Yet the family plays a game called Jews Out and show Marisa a picture of their uncle doing his "important work" which shows German soldiers murdering naked Polish men, women and children in front of an open pit. Marisa struggles to understand what she is experiencing,
"I couldn't understand the world I lived in. It felt like a type of dream where nothing made sense. The children seemed so nice. Their parents, too. They were the kind of people who would probably never cheat or lie or steal. They were "good" people. And yet they could murder, with no problem. I had to conclude then that they saw Jews as not even human. They had to believe in that lie so deeply that murder was no long murder; torture and cruelty no long held the same meaning."

Matas uses the Reymann children to demonstrate how an entire population of a country could be brainwashed to believe that one race is superior to all others. In a turnabout, Marisa creates a lie about how her family has Aryan blood resulting in Frau Reymann allowing her daughter, Carolyn, to take Marisa to some of the Nazi functions. At these functions she sees the practical Germans doing volunteer work mending clothes taken from murdered Jews and occupied countries to help those in Germany.

Both the Reynmann's and Marisa have to deal with falsehoods about each other. The Reymann childre for example, are taught that all Jews have slimy voices, ugly gestures, huge hooked noses and small beady eyes all the while unknowingly having taken in a beautiful Jewish girl. And Marisa must come to terms with her understanding of all Nazi's being evil as she struggles to comprehend Frau Reymann's motherly touches even though she is an evil Nazi. In a dream her father tells her that she must find the presence of God even in her enemies, echoing Shmuel's admonition to keep love in her heart rather than hate.

In My Enemy's House is to be highly recommend for its short treatment of a terror filled episode in 20th century history, incorporating the themes of the nature of evil, identity, forgiveness and redemption. As with many historical novels, maps of Poland and Germany would have been helpful to help young readers understand the geography of the story.

Book Details:
In My Enemy's House by Carol Tatas
Toronto: Scholastics Canada Ltd.     1999
158 pp.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Nobody's Secret by Michaela MacColl

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Nobody's Secret is a well-crafted historical mystery novel with a touch of romance. Set in 1846, in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, the novel's main character is American poet, Emily Dickinson.

One day while lying in a meadow, hoping for a bee to land on her nose, fifteen year old Emily meets a handsome, utterly charming stranger. The stranger refuses to tell her his name, instead referring to himself as Mr. Nobody. Reluctant to have the stranger know that she was the eldest daughter of one of the town fathers, Emily tells him that she too is a nobody and he decides to address her as Miss Nobody. Emily learns that the stranger has been to Amherst before but that he ran away from home "to be free from what was expected of me." He tells her that he is on his way to California but first has to take care of some family business in Amherst. Before leaving her, he offers her a dab of some special honey to try to attract a bee to her nose!

Emily meets Mr. Nobody again and during the course of their conversation, he asks her where the law offices of Mr. Dickinson are located. Emily is taken by surprise and realizes that if he is one of her father's clients he will come to know her name anyways, so she tells him who she is. She asks Mr. Nobody not to let her father know of their acquaintance, because in Amherst, everyone knows everyone else's business. However, when she asks Mr. Nobody to reveal his identity, he refuses but asks her to meet him at a church to show him around town.

The next morning before Emily can arrange to meet Mr. Nobody, one of her family's hired help discovers a man's body in the pond on their property. Emily's father who is a lawyer, is away on business in Boston, so they notify Reverend Colton, who comes with some men to remove the body. They decide to lay out the man in the vestry of the Meeting House, in the hopes that someone in Amherst will be able to identify him.

Emily is determined to have a look at the mysterious dead man and manages to slip unnoticed into the vestry of the First Congregational Church. Emily is shocked to discover that the missing man is her Mr. Nobody and she is determined to discover his true identity and how he died. She writes her observations about his clothing and his body down in a little notebook that she carries about with her. Emily also visits the pond, making a few important observations.

While the town constable and the doctor are convinced the death was accidental, Emily is certain that Mr. Nobody's death is murder. So she begins to carry out a clandestine investigation, beginning with the odd clothing that was found on Mr. Nobody, the blue tinge under his nails, and an unknown flower caught in his clothing. Eventually, with the help of her sister, Lavinia, the two uncover clues that begin to suggest Mr. Nobody's death was not accidental. Can Emily discover the truth behind the mysterious death of her beloved Mr. Nobody and see justice done for him?

MacColl manages to capture her readers' interest from the very beginning of this delightful short novel, with the blossoming attraction between young Emily Dickinson and the gentlemanly Mr. Nobody who enjoys and respects Emily's inquisitive mind. It's truly a shame that this great character was eliminated from the story so early on. Just when readers are being drawn into this romance, Mr Nobody is found floating in the Dickinson's pond and the novel switches gears into a murder mystery. Emily becomes determined to learn the true identity of Mr. Nobody, so that he will not be buried in an unmarked grave in the potter's field. But she is also certain that his death was not an accident, and learning his identity will help her to discover the truth about his untimely death. MacColl drops a ton of hints throughout the novel, which makes the reading both fun and challenging. Readers should be able to discover on their own who is responsible for the death of Mr. Nobody, but if they do not, all is revealed in the end.

Nobody's Secret has a great cast of characters, from the enigmatic Mr. Nobody, to the quirky, persistent Emily Dickinson. Emily is shown as an intelligent young girl who sees it as her duty to learn the name of the unknown dead man. While everyone else seems eager to write him off as just a tramp who met with an accidental death, Emily knows that this is not so. Vinnie is an equally strong character; when she learns of Emily's investigations she decides to support her sister and even covers for her several times. All characters in the novel are well drawn and reflect attitudes and actions consistent with this time in American history and are therefore, convincing.

Emily Dickinson
MacColl has also taken a well known American historical figure and crafted a great story around her. Her storytelling is simple, yet effective. It's evident that the author has done her research about Emily Dickinson and the time period she lived in, because these facts are seamlessly integrated into the story. The various ways people lived, from the frugal Dickinson's who churned their own butter and made their own clothes to the more stylist and cosmopolitan Wentworth's who had dressmakers and cooks are all effortlessly incorporated into the story.

It's possible that MacColl's novel may lead young readers to investigate more about Emily Dickinson and perhaps read some of her beautiful poetry. MacColl has included a lengthy Author's Note about the life of Emily Dickinson and also provides some suggestions for further reading. Those interested can check out the Emily Dickinson Museum online at www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org and those who would like to read her poetry can do so here.

Nobody's Secret is a good short novel that I highly recommend to fans of historical fiction and mystery.

Book Details:
Nobody's Secret by Michaela MacColl
San Francisco: Chronicle Books 2013
240 pp.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Rise by Anna Carey

This novel is the third and final installment in the Eve series, picking up where Once left off. Caleb is dead and Genevieve has been married off to Charles, her father's right hand man. Genevieve's (Eve) father continues his draconian control of the City. Moss, a rebel who goes by the name of Reginald in the City, seeks out Eve as the plans for the attack by the rebels on the City move forward. He brings her a substance to poison and kill her father, so rebels can gain control of the City. They were unable to procure ricin, a deadly poison and instead Eve is given oleander extract to use. Moss instructs Eve to place the poison in her father's medication and that this will signal the start of the attack on the City. Once the attack begins, Eve is to leave and remain in a safe place for several months until order is restored.

Shortly after, Eve learns that she is pregnant. Her father believes this is Charles baby, however he is unaware of the true nature of Eve and Charles' "marriage". When Charles is told of the pregnancy, he does not reveal the truth that the baby is not his but tells the King that he is very happy.

Eve manages to place the poison in her father's medication and he becomes ill immediately afterwards. At this time the attack on the City by the Outlander rebels commences but does not appear to be succeeding. When Eve witnesses the execution of several rebel leaders and her father begins to suspect that she has played a part in both the attack and his illness, Eve knows she is in great danger and must leave. She barely manages to escape the City, taking with her Clara and many girls from the hospital. Originally, Eve had wanted to take Charles and his mother with her when she left, but that was not possible.

The group led by Eve travel west, hoping to reach Califia and safety. When they finally reach the colony of Califia, Eve is told by Quinn what has been happening in the City since her escape. Her father, in an attempt to discover her whereabouts, continues to arrest and interrogate Palace staff. Those who are interrogated do not return. The bodies of those executed remain hanging in front of the Palace. Eve realizes that unless she kills her father, she will never be safe, that he will continue to hunt her. She also knows that young girls will continue to be abused under her father's government. With this in mind, and despite being more than 3 months pregnant, Eve decides to travel back to the City with the expressed intent of confronting her father. Can Eve save what is left of her life and prevent other young women from meeting the same fate as Ruby and Pip?

Rise was a somewhat disappointing anti-climatic ending to the Eve trilogy. Readers will find themselves somewhat disappointed with the ending of the novel which is somewhat subdued, despite Carey tying up some of the lose ends. Readers are left with many questions; what happens in the City after its collapse, what happens to Eve, who were the fathers of all the babies, and is New America reunited? And what about Eve's a heart-stopping discovery? What comes of that?

Rise focuses more on action rather than the relationships between the characters, mainly because most of the important characters are absent in this third novel. Caleb is already dead, Moss is killed, and Charles and Eve's father remain in the city when Eve escapes. Carey removes all of these important characters from her story, thus taking away most of the emotional impact, the suspense and more importantly, the conflict and the romance. Eve spends most of her time traveling in Rise, as the novel focuses on her attempt to get nine girls to the safety of Califia. Focusing on the main character traveling from point A to point B and back to point A slows the pace of the novel, weakening the interest of the reader. There's almost no conflict and very little danger as a group of nine girls, one seriously injured and one pregnant, traipse through the wilds of post-apocalyptic America.

The death of Caleb in Once, turns out to be the emotional climax of the series, and yet is treated only superficially in that book. But Eve's discovery at the end of Rise should have been the emotional climax of the trilogy. Instead, it got a few bland paragraphs at the very end of the novel, leaving the reader disappointed. The same thing happens with Moss' death and also the death of another significant character in the novel. They are treated superficially, with almost no emotional investment by the main character, Eve. Overall, Carey had a good story but didn't take full advantage of opportunities to make her story really crunch.

Rise is not a bad effort, but it is a disappointment to those who truly enjoyed and were pleasantly surprised by the first two books of the trilogy.

Anna Carey is working on another set of books to be published in 2014 and 2015 called Blackbirds. You can learn more at her website, Anna Carey Books.

Book Details:
Rise by Anna Carey
New York: HarperCollins Children's Books 2013
310 pp.