Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper

"From the time I was really little -- maybe just a few months old -- words were like sweet, liquid gifts, and I drank them like lemonade. I could almost taste them. They made my jumbled thoughts and feelings have substance. My parents have always blanketed me with conversation. They chattered and babbled...My father sang to me. My mother whispered her strength into my ear...By the time I was two, all my memories had words, and all my words had meanings.
But only in my head.
I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old."

In her novel, Out Of My Mind, Sharon Draper explores the world of disabilities and how people with significant physical and emotional challenges must navigate a world that often makes assumptions about who they are.


Eleven year old Melody Brooks can't walk or talk but she has a brilliant mind trapped in a body that doesn't work. Melody describes herself as "a girl with dark brown eyes that are full of curiosity. But one of them is slightly out of whack....Her head wobbles a little. Sometimes she drools. She's really tiny for a girl who is age ten and three quarters. Her legs are very thin, probably because they've never been used. Her body tends to move on its own agenda..."

Melody remembers absorbing everything around her when she was very young and especially loving music which she associates with colours; Beethoven is bright blue and smells like fresh paint while jazz is brown and smells like wet dirt. Unfortunately, Melody is unable to tell those around her what she likes and how she feels. She can only grunt and make certain sounds.
"Everybody uses words to express themselves. Except me. And I bet most people don't realize the real power of words. But I do."

While her mother sometimes babied her, Melody's father did not - he read books to her and talked to her about things they saw when they were outside. He spoke to her like he knew she could understand him, and she did. More than he knew. Everything Melody encounters she remembers, whether it's a book she's been read, or telephone numbers she's seen on commercials.
"Here's the thing: I'm ridiculously smart, and I"m pretty sure I have a photographic memory. It's like I have a camera in my head, and if I see or hear something, I click it, and it stays."

Life would have been even more difficult for Melody if it were not for her next door neighbour, Mrs. Violet Valencia, a tall woman with an heart to match her towering height. Melody's mother who works as a nurse, used to work with Mrs. V. When her parents brought her over the first time, Mrs. V announced that Melody would learn at her house. Melody first began to stay Mrs. V's home when she was two years old and quickly learned that Mrs. V gave her no sympathy. She taught her to struggle to learn how to make her body move; to roll, to crawl and even how to fall properly.

When Melody's mother took her to see Dr. Hugely at age five for an assessment she was told that Melody was "brain damaged and profoundly retarded." Her mother insisted Melody is very intelligent but the doctor told her to face her daughter's situation realistically and to place her in an institution. Furious at his lack of compassion, Melody's mother refused and enrolled her at Spaulding Street Elementary School when she turned six.

Initially Melody was excited to go to school because she believed school would feed her mind, hungry for new information. But school is hit and miss. In second and third grade, Melody learns more from the Discovery Channel than from school. After school Melody continued to go to Mrs. V's house and after watching a documentary one day about Stephen Hawking she was able to tell Mrs. V that she needed to learn to read and to communicate with others. Since Melody could use her thumbs, Mrs. V filled her talking board with names and questions she might ask, as well as nouns, verbs and adjectives.

In grade five, Melody has Mrs. Shannon who is keen to see her students learn all they can. Mrs. Shannon takes the special ed class to Mrs. Lovelace's music class so the special ed students can be integrated into regular classes. It is in this class that Melody meets Claire and her friend Molly who make fun of the kids with disabilities. All the special ed kids are paired with regular students and Melody is paired with a girl named Rose. For the first time, Melody also gets a "mobility assistant" named Catherine who helps her to eat, put on her headphones and listen to books, take tests and participate in class.

One day when Rose arrives at class with a new computer, Melody manages to convey to Catherine that this is what she wants - a special computer that will enable her to express herself to those around her. The next day they do some research and learn about a device called the Medi-Talker. When Melody shows Mrs. V the information about the device after school that day, Mrs. V shows Melody's parents and they agree to purchase one, even though it is very expensive. The Medi-Talker arrives just before Christmas allowing Melody the chance to practice with it over the holidays. Melody takes her device, which she has named Elvira to class after the holidays and for the first time she is able to communicate with her classmates.

But the new assistive device allows Melody to also participate more in class, so when Mr. Dimming, her history teachers, decides to have a practice quiz for the Whiz Kids competition, Melody is able to take part. Paula, Claire, Rose and Connor all do very well, but Melody gets perfect on the practice quiz. This annoys Claire and Molly who believe Melody cheated. Despite the doubts of Mr. Dimming and many of Melody's classmates, Melody, with the help of Mrs. V who prepares her, makes the Whiz Kids team. But will they accept her or will they continue to find ways to exclude Melody?


The novel opens with the narrator, eleven year old Melody recounting her life up until the present, providing readers with the necessary back story to events that eventually lead up to the climax of the novel. In fact the story (as we learn at the end of the novel) is her autobiography written for Miss. Gordon's English class. Those events involve Melody's participation in the Whiz Kids tournament and how her classmates, unable to accept her as a teammate, eventually thwart her from participating in the final competition. This crisis which forms part of the climax of the novel and is heartbreaking but is minor in comparison to the accident which leaves Melody's family devastated. Melody's voice is unforgettable, making the reader want to continue to be a part of her life.

Out Of My Mind is a well written piece of realistic fiction that will tug at the heartstrings of readers. Melody is an endearing character: courageous, witty and persistent. Although she is confined to a wheelchair and cannot readily communicate with those around her, Melody is presented as a complex character who has the same desires as her peers; she wants to have friends, share secrets, dress cool and to belong. She gets frustrated at not being able to express all the thoughts she has and angry at the ignorance and insensitivity of some of her teachers and her classmates who judge her based on her appearance. Although Melody's abilities are unusual for someone with cerebral palsy, Draper's portrayal of other special ed characters in the novel is very realistic. Sharon Draper has a daughter with cerebral palsy and her familiarity with the challenges of raising and educating a child with CP definitely comes through in Out Of My Mind.

Her portrayal of the regular students and teachers also feels realistic; there are some well-meaning students while others like Claire and Molly are insensitive and just plain mean. Likewise some teachers like Mrs. Shannon are brilliant, "Watch out, world!" Mrs. Shannon announces when she sees me in the hallway. "Melody is ready to rock, y'all."  Others like Mr. Dimming just don't understand at all. " 'Look at it this way," Mr. Dimming told Connor. 'If Melody Brooks can win the first round, then my questions much not be difficult enough!'..."

Out Of My Mind explores themes of acceptance, the meaning of friendship and of identity. Out Of My Mind is a good novel to help young people understand those who are different from themselves and to not assume anything about another person's abilities based on what they see on the outside.The children on the Whiz Kid team don't understand concept of friendship nor do they understand those who are different from themselves. Even after the deliberate decision to not call Melody and her parents to let them know about the change in flight times, it seems Mr. Dimming and the Whiz Kids team still don't understand how they hurt Melody. Instead, they seem more embarrassed that she figured out what they did, making Connor's attempt to give her the plastic trophy seem shallow.

The title is a reference to Melody's state of mind before she gets her Medi-Talker and her supreme boredom over the ridiculous things she is forced to learn at school. She is literally going crazy at having to practice the alphabet. But it is also a reference to how Melody feels after she gets the Medi-Talker which allows her to get words and feelings out of her mind and into the world around her. The book's front cover is a reference to Melody's pet goldfish, Ollie, who one day throws himself out of his fishbowl. Melody wonders if he went "out of his mind" swimming around and around in tiny circles in his small bowl. Ollie is a metaphor for Melody who is also trapped in the fish bowl of her physical disabilities.

There were a few weaknesses in the novel. I wondered why it took so long for Melody to obtain some kind of digital assistive device, especially after Mrs. V established Melody's ability to learn quickly and to communicate with word cards. Some of the social references Draper uses in this novel will be outdated, for example, young people no longer use MySpace but favour Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter. The fact that technology becomes obsolete so quickly is probably a common difficulty with many novels written in our digital age and should not be a deterrent to a book's relevancy.

Even though Out Of My Mind is written for younger readers, those who enjoy realistic fiction will appreciate the strong heroine in this novel and the positive portrayal of people with physical and mental challenges.

Book Details:
Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Toronto: Simon & Schuster Children's Publ.    2010
295 pp.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Movie Review: The Theory of Everything

However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there's life, there is hope.

The Theory of Everything is the movie adaptation of the memoir, "Travelling To Infinity: My Life with Stephen" by Jane Wilde Hawking directed by James Marsh. The movie is primarily about Jane and Stephen's relationship set amidst his diagnosis of motor neuron disease and his work on the beginning of time, the origins of the universe and black holes. It is important to realize that The Theory of Everything is not a completely accurate portrayal of the Hawking's life together, but that some dramatic liberties were taken with the story to make it appealing to movie audiences.

Stephen Hawking was born in 1942 in Oxford, England. Hawking had three siblings, Mary, Philippa and an adopted brother, Edward. Hawking attended St. Albans School where the family had moved for his father's work. After graduating St Albans he attended University College, Oxford where he obtained a first class honours degree in Natural Science (Physics). Stephen then studied Cosmology at Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy under the supervision of Denis Sciama. He obtained his PhD and became a Research Fellow and then a Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College.From 1979 until 2009, Stephen held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge.

Stephen Hawking's website best explains the nature of his work in the field of Cosmology:
"Stephen Hawking has worked on the basic laws which govern the universe. With Roger Penrose he showed that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity implied space and time would have a beginning in the Big Bang and an end in black holes. These results indicated that it was necessary to unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory, the other great Scientific development of the first half of the 20th Century. One consequence of such a unification that he discovered was that black holes should not be completely black, but rather should emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear. Another conjecture is that the universe has no edge or boundary in imaginary time. This would imply that the way the universe began was completely determined by the laws of science."
Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 1963 and given two years to live. However, the form of neuron disease Hawking has is one that progresses slowly.  Around this time he met his future wife, Jane Wilde, who was studying Romance languages. They married in 1965 and had three children. The Theory of Everything begins at the point where the two meet at a party and follows their courtship, marriage and family life, all the while, Stephen gradually becomes increasingly disabled as a result of his motor neuron disease. We watch as he progresses from one cane to using two canes, and then from a simple wheelchair to a motorized chair. When a tracheotomy destroys his remaining ability to speak, Hawking must learn to communicate using a special e-Trans board. Through it all, Hawking continues to forge ahead in the area of theoretical physics with his theories of the beginnings of the universe and this is poignantly presented in the film. He is on a quest to find "a single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe."

Hawking is well portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, an English actor and singer. In fact one of the movies greatest strengths is Redmayne's brilliant portrayal of how Hawking was affected by his disease and how he continued on with his life, undaunted. Giving even more authenticity to Redmayne's performance is that Hawking allowed them to use his synthesized voice, which is copyright protected. He did this after viewing the film. Felicity Jones gives a solid performance as  Hawking's wife, Jane Wilde, who cared for Hawking for almost thirty years before the collapse of their marriage.

As expected, the portrayal of Hawking and Wilde is not a faithful one. For example, the Hawkings were married for almost thirty years but at the end of the movie when they had reconciled after their divorce, new marriages and his second divorce, their children are shown as teenagers and not as the adults they would have been. Several scenes in the movie simply never happened, for example,  the croquet game and his choking at a concert of Wagner music. Hawking did not require a tracheotomy at this time but after being on a ventilator for several months.

I sometimes found the movie presented a confusing view as to whether or not Hawking believes in God. His first wife, Jane, was religious and this is portrayed throughout the movie. However, while Hawking in apologetically atheist at the beginning of the movie, later on he seems to gradually come to some sort of belief in a God. This is not his position at present. Hawking recently stated the following:
"We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful."

However, Father Barron writes the following in an excellent blog post on the movie:
"It is always fascinating to go to roots of an argument, that is to say, to the fundamental assumptions that drive a rational quest, for in so doing, we necessarily leave the realm of the purely rational and enter something like the realm of the mystical. Why in the world would a scientist blithely assume that there is or is even likely to be one unifying rational form to all things, unless he assumed that there is a singular, overarching intelligence that has placed it there? Why shouldn’t the world be chaotic, utterly random, meaningless? Why should one presume that something as orderly and rational as an equation would describe the universe’s structure? I would argue that the only finally reasonable ground for that assumption is the belief in an intelligent Creator, who has already thought into the world the very mathematics that the patient scientist discovers. In turning his back on what he calls “a celestial dictator,” Stephen Hawking was indeed purging his mind of an idol, a silly simulacrum of God, but in seeking, with rational discipline for the theory of everything, he was, in point of fact, affirming the true God."

The Theory of Everything is a good start for those who may know very little about this amazing scientist and the fascination areas of cosmology, quantum physics and relativity. It is a dramatized version of his life and his work, but Hawking himself was pleased with the movie, in particular Redmayne's portrayal of which he stated, "At times, I thought he was me."

I recommend reading Stephen Hawking's autobiography, "My Brief History" to get the true story on his life and his research into singularities and black holes. It's very readable, although the science is very abstract.

There is much information about Hawking's personal life and his scientific work at his website, Stephen Hawking.

For those who would like to learn more about Hawking, Errol Morri's documentary A Brief History of Time is also recommended.

The movie trailer can be watched below:

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Get Happy by Mary Amato

Get Happy is about a young girl who receives a surprise birthday gift from the father who abandoned her years ago, leading her to learn more about him and discovering the painful truth about her past.

Minerva (Minny) Watson lives with her mother, Pat in Evanston, Illinois. On her sixteenth birthday Minny's mother gives her a sweater but what Minny really wants is a ukelele. She also receives an unexpected gift from her father whom she hasn't seen since she was two years old. The packaged addressed to her and her mother is from a K.C. at Shedd Aquarium. Her father's name is Kenneth Chip so Minny assumes this package is from him, but she's puzzled about the address. Minny doesn't tell her mom about the package, instead opens it to find a note to each of them and a beautiful seahorse necklace. The note to her mother asks that she let Minerva finally meet her dad, while the one addressed to her asks to meet her and tells her that he is always thinking about her.

Minny knows very little about her dad; her parents met when he had a temporary job in Chicago, he has "Pacific island" genes and he left Minny and her mother never paying child support.

Minny and her best friend, Finnegan O'Connor, are on their way to audition for jobs as children's party entertainers for the store, Get Happy. On their way they meet Hayes Martinelli, who is also applying. They audition with another person, tall, gorgeous Cassie Lott who is there because Fin encouraged her to audition.

After the auditions, Minny sneaks downstairs one night to search on the computer and discovers a Keanu Choy on the Shedd Aquarium website. She learns that Dr. Choy is from Hawaii and specializes in the study of seahorses. Keanu Choy worked as an intern for the Shedd Aquarium seventeen years ago before moving away. His initials, the seahorses and his facial features lead Minny to believe that Keanu Choy is likely her father. This information leaves Minny puzzled; has her father changed his name to avoid paying child support or has her mother lied to her to keep her from finding him? Minny feels deeply conflicted because the kind letter her father sent her does not match with the person her mother has described to her as horrible and selfish. Fin encourages Minny to confront her mother but she's unable to do so. Instead she first tries to snoop through her mother's closet to find photo albums from when she was very young. When that doesn't work, Minny decides to forget about it and delve into her new job at Get Happy.

At Get Happy, the four are given their costumes that they will wear to birthday parties; Minny dresses as a Mermaid, Fin as a pirate, Hayes as a cowboy and Cassie as a princess. Their first parties are not raving successes except for Cassie whom the children adore. Jealous, Minny begins stalking Cassie online after she remembers that she writes a diving blog. It turns out that Cassie is an avid scuba diver who posts pictures of diving off Costa Rica or Cozumel. At this point most readers will clue into who Cassie is, especially after Minny discovers that Keanu Choy is leaving comments on Cassie's blog. This all leads Minny to start leaving nasty comments on Cassie's blog.

In biology, Ms. Feinstein tells Minny's class about the free lecture series offered by the Shedd Aquarium and the special lecture to be given by Keanu Choy on April 15.  Minny knows she needs to find out if Keanu is her father but she cannot bring herself to ask her mother so when her mother calls her sister, Minny's Aunt Joan, Minny decides to ask her about her father. The talk with Aunt Joan reveals some shocking information; that her father is Keanu and that he was from Hawaii but left for California when a job offer came through. She also learns that her father now has a new wife and stepdaughter, and that he failed to meet Minny and her mother when they went to Disneyland when she was three years old.  This information convinces Minny that she needs to quit Get Happy because Cassie reminds her of her father and move on with her life.

HOwever two things push Minny to do a rash thing that forces her mother to face up to what she's done to Minny. First her mother gives away the seahorse necklace that her father sent her for her birthday and secondly Minny inadvertently learns who Cassie really  is. This pushes Minny into confronting her father in an embarrassing and very public manner, one that changes her life forever.


Amato tackles the subject of divorce and absent fathers in Get Happy very effectively and realistically. The National Fatherhood Initiative estimates that one in three children in the United States do not live with their fathers, leading them to be at risk for poverty, crime, obesity, teen pregnancy, incarceration and abuse. Although many fathers simply "check out" of their child(ren)'s life, many other fathers are prevented by mothers from having access to their children. This is what happened to Miranda in Get Happy. Miranda's mother not only set things up so that it was very difficult for Miranda's father to remain in contact but she also lies in order to prevent Minny from being able to find him and she hides every gift he sent. She deliberately thwarts any possible relationship and actively works to distort her daughter's view of the father she can only vaguely remember.

Especially well portrayed in Get Happy is the conflict between Minny's parents. The confrontation between Pat and Keanu as they argue through the door of Minny's house defines their conflict for readers who experience the intensity of their anger for each other through great use of dialogue. Minerva's mother, who claims to have Minny's best interests at heart, is shown to be selfish and uncompromising, while her father appears to have given up his right to see his daughter a little too easily. 

It's obvious that Miranda has suffered greatly from the absence of her father and this too is well portrayed. At one point she states,  
"I'd gone through a phase, when I was eight, when I ripped a page out of an L.L. Bean catalogue, picturing a fatherly looking, black-haired guy sitting by a fireplace, and tried to convince myself it was him. I'd kept it under my pillow until, one day, I came home to find clean sheets and no trace of Mr. Bean." 
When she goes to work at a birthday party for a little girl, Minny becomes emotionally distraught when she sees the father making a birthday cake for his daughter and the silly decorations he's made for the party.
"It was silly and cute, and I started to laugh and then some tiny dam inside of me broke, and a sudden wave of tears threatened to engulf me."

Even after the confrontation with Minny's father, Pat refuses to acknowledge the harm she has done to her daughter. She is in complete denial when confronted by Aunt Joan who tells Pat,
"Minerva's text was a cry for help. What exactly did you tell her about Keanu?"
"Nothing. This isn't about him. Minerva is sick. She has strep."
"It's not strep. She is self-destructing, Pat, she needs --"
"She is fine --"

Pat makes the decision for her daughter about whether or not she should have seen her father. "He deserves to be hated, Joan. He would not have been a good fath--" and when told by her sister that Keanu is not an evil person she becomes furious. In trying to protect her daughter from being hurt by her father, Pat has hurt Minny instead.

Minerva Watson is a plucky girl whose bravery in confronting both her parents and in taking the first steps to heal and to forgive her mother for what she has done make her an appealing character. Throughout the novel, Minny uses music, she plays the ukelele and she writes songs, to help her cope with the stresses of school, her mother, her father having abandoned her, and her relationship with Hayes.

The major disappointment in Get Happy is that the reader never gets to experience the heartbreaking reunion between Minny and her father, Keanu. Instead we are told what will happen - she will meet him for the first time in family therapy- which is much less satisfying. Nevertheless, Amato succeeds in portraying the turmoil children experience when parents are separated through a story filled with wit, humour and many touching moments . She ends Get Happy on a hopeful note with Minny experiencing the beginnings of a first love with Hayes and continuing to focus on her songwriting and playing her ukelele. The message here is that life can go on and be happy in spite of deep hurt and loss.

Those interested in songwriting will find Get Happy has song verses throughout and a collection of Amato's songs at the back of the novel. Mary Amato runs songwriting workshops and has a website specifically geared towards songwriting, Thrum With Me.

Book Details:
Get Happy by Mary Amato
New York: Egmont USA     2014
244 pp.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Young Elites by Marie Lu

This paranormal fantasy is a cross between native spirituality and X-men with Star Wars Jedi Knight overtones. A young girl who has the ability to harness fear and hatred into immense powers is trained by a stranger to become the most dangerous person on the planet.

Sixteen year old Adelina Amouteru has been sentenced to be burned at the stake for being the murder of her father. Adelina is a malfetto - a marked one, after having survived the blood fever, along with her younger sister, Violetta. The fever caused her left eye to swell so badly it had to be removed and so her face bears the scar of her lost eye. As a result of the illness, Adelina's hair and eyelashes are a strange silver colour.

Weeks earlier, Adelina discovered that her father intended to sell her off to a Her father considers Adelina's fourteen year old sister, Violetta to be the beauty of the family, having "inherited their mother's rosy temperament and innocent charm." Adelina did not have her mother's temperament nor her beauty and after contracting the blood fever at four, she was marked. The mysterious guest has offered to take her now as a mistress as she will receive no offers of marriage from any man on the island of Kenettra. The guest points out the latest news concerning a group of specific malfettos, The Reaper, Magiano, The Windwalker and The Alchemist. Together they are known as the Young Elites. Her father agrees to sell her and Adelina decides to flee his house before the mysterious man arrives the next morning.

Unfortunately, Adelina does not get far before she is tracked down by her father, who violently attacks her and insists she return with him. This enrages Adelina to the point that she pulls together the threads of energy around them, creating black phantoms which strike terror in the heart of her father and spook his horse. The horse stomps on Adelina's father, killing him instantly. Adelina, not understanding what has happened, flees on her horse to a farmhouse. She is found days later by Violetta who leads the Inquisitors to her hiding place.

Adelina sentenced to be burned at the stake by Master Teren Santoro, the Lead Inquisitor of Kenettra. When the fire is lit on the pyre, Adelina turns the clouds into black, frightening shapes that begin to descend on the crowd. However, Adelina is as terrified as everyone else, not fully realizing what she is creating and that she cannot control them. She is rescued by a boy wearing a metallic silver mask and a blue hooded robe. This boy is known as the Reaper, a malfetto who is able to create fire with his hands.

Adelina is taken to the city of Estenzia in Northern Kenetta where after several days of rest she meets her saviour, Enzo Valenciano, a tall, handsome young man with dark red hair in a short ponytail. Enzo tells Adelina that the blood fever left him unable to control his body's temperature and with the ability to make fire. He also explains to her that she has the ability to create illusions. The Young Elites are young people with "unnatural abilities" which the Inquisitors hate. Enzo is the leader of a Young Elites group called the Dagger Society, who seek out others with special abilities. He tells her there are Young Elites all over the world and that he intends to unite all of them and to seize the throne in Kenettra.

Adelina realizes that Enzo is the Crown Prince, Kenettra's heir to the throne. The people had been told the young prince died of the blood fever but he survived as a malfetto. When his father died, his sister, Guillietta, became queen and her husband, a powerful duke became king. By contuining to hunt malfettos, the queen ensures that Enzo can never claim the throne. So Enzo offers Adelina to join him and the Dagger Society for both revenge and for power.

After a week's rest, Adelina is taken to meet Raffaele, who is a consort in a brothel fronting for the Young Elites. Raffaele is a Young Elite with the ability to sense other Elites and recruits for the Dagger Society. He is the one known as the Messenger. Raffaele tests Adelina to see what sort of energy she is drawn to and he discovers that she is drawn to power and ambition, truth in oneself, passion and compassion, hatred and the strength of fear. Raffaele warns Adelina that some deep and bitter darkens her heart and that she will have to be trained.

In Raffaele's narrative he tells Enzo that Adelina should be killed - that her energy is twisted and that she will over power all of them. But Enzo believes that Adelina can help him recover his throne.

During her training, Adelina meets the other members of the Dagger Society; Spider, Star Thief and Windwalker who all demonstrate their unusual abilities. Later on Raffaele explains to Adelina how each pulls on specific threads of energy. "Every Elite is different, and pulling on threads in specifi ways will do specific things. The Windwalker, for example, can pull on threads in the air that create wind. Enzo pulls on threads of heat energy, from himself, from the sun, from fire, and from other living things...There are countless ways energy manifests in us. I can only imagine what undiscovered Elites out there can do...There are even rumors of an Elite who can bring people back from the dead."

Raffaele tells Adelina that he can see and sense all the energy in the world but he cannot use it. Raffaele undertakes a makeover of Adelina, wrapping her hair in the traditional Tamouran fashion and giving her a white half mask that covers her scarred eye. In the coming weeks, during training Adelina learns about each of the Elites; that Star Thief (Lady Gemma of House Salvatore) can steal anything including a person's mind and has a purple marking across part of her face, that Spider (Dante) has dark irregular markings on his neck and chest, that Windwalker (Lucent) exiled to Kenettra from the Skylands has dark swirling lines on one of her arms and that the Architect (Michel) can unwind an object and reform it somewhere else.

Meanwhile Teren Santoro's narrative reveals that he is in league with Queen Guilietta I of Kenettra to capture the members of the Dagger Society. He is also Queen Guilietta's lover. Later on it is revealed that Teren is also an Elite with the power to heal himself instantly from any wound. Eventually after waiting for weeks, Teren learns that Adelina has been sighted in the Fortunata Court. Teren arrives at the court and immediately blackmails Adelina, telling her she must come to him at the Inquisition Tower with information about the Young Elites in order to save her sister, Violetta whom he has imprisoned.

As Adelina's ability to use her power grows, she must decide whom to betray, the young Enzo Valenciano whom she is gradually falling in love with or the deadly Teren Santoro who promises to torture her sister. At stake is the future of the Elites and the balance of power in a kingdom.


The Young Elites is the first in this fantasy series about a girl who doesn't yet know the extent of her powers.Lu tells her story using four narrators; Adelina, Enzo, Raffaele and Teren which allows the reader to understand the motivations for each of these important characters. Where Lu excels is creating an exciting storyline with interesting, multi-layered characters.

Adelina is a complex character engaged in a monumental battle between good and evil within herself. She has a good side - she is devoted to her sister who represents the goodness Adelina seemingly cannot find within herself. However because of the abuse by her father, Adelina's dark side and the hatred she feels for him begins to overwhelm him.  As she continues to betray the Young Elites with the information she feeds to Teren, she also begins to develop her formidable ability to create illusions that are based on the fears of those around her, fears that make her feel very powerful and give her pleasure.

Tucked into all the action is a blossoming romance between the volatile Enzo and the dark Adelina. His death, unwittingly at the hands of Adelina is soul destroying to her and pushes her to the very edge of her sanity. It also leads the Dagger Society, on the direction of Raffaele, to abandon her. Raffaele tells Adelina that she and her sister, Violetta, an Elite who has the ability to take away another Elite's power, must leave since the safety of the Elites can no longer be guaranteed in her presence.  Raffaele tells her, "You have goodness in your heart,...But your darkness overwhelms it all; your desire to hurt, destroy, and avenge is more powerful than your desire to love, help, and light the way." When Adelina tells him that the Dagger Society is no better than the Inquisitors or her, Raffaele reminds her that they do not murder for pleasure - something Adelina feels.

The power struggles and political intrigue in Kenettra becomes more understandable after reading the Epilogue which sets up the next novel and the possibility that Enzo Valenciano may not yet be finished.

Overall The Young Elites is a fascinating story that grabs the reader from the beginning with an intriguing premise of a young girl on her way to her execution. Lu builds her world gradually, aided by the presence of a detailed map at the front of the novel and the perspectives each narrator provides. The next novel may be predictable based on the Epilogue but it should be fascinating reading.

Book Details:
The Young Elites by Marie Lu
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons
355 pp.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as mathematician and cryptogragher, Alan Turing, tells the story of Turing's contribution that led to the breaking of the Enigma code during World War II.

Alan Turing has been described as a "visionary scientist" whose brilliant ideas led to the birth of what eventually became modern day computer science. All of modern computing came from Alan Turing's one idea that machines that could think faster than the human brain and could be made to solve any problem. Turing is arguably credited with changing the course of World War II, possibly shortening the length of the conflict by two to four years and saving the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians, by doing the impossible - cracking the Enigma code.

The German military had an encoding machine used in all branches of their military, called the Enigma machine. This machine used rotors with twenty-six electrical contacts on either side which sent the electrical signals to scramble and encipher military messages. The British had at least a copy of one of the machines which had been given to them by the Polish Cipher Bureau before the war. To try to figure it out, the British assembled the brightest minds they could find; mathematicians, a chess champion, even people who could do crossword puzzles in under six minutes. Alan Turing was one of those people summoned to Station X at Bletchley Park in 1939.

Alan Turing was born in London, England in 1912. His father, Julius, was a civil servant in British India. Since both parents lived in India, unbelievably, this meant that Alan and his older brother, John, were left behind in England to stay with a foster family. Alan first went to school at St. Leonards-on-Sea and then to Sherborne School where he was only an adequate student. While at Sherborne, Turing became close friends with a fellow student, Christopher Morcum. Morcum was a good student with an interest in many things but especially astronomy. In December of 1929 the two decided to take the Cambridge scholarship exam. Turing did not know about Morcum having tuberculosis until he passed away on February 13, 1930. Turing was understandably upset at the loss of his only close friend whom he admired.

Turing obtained a scholarship at Kings College at Cambridge of 1930. In 1934, Alan Turning was awarded first class honours in mathematics at Kings College and became a fellow at the college in 1935. In 1936 he published an outstanding paper on the mathematical problem of computing, titled "On Computable Numbers, With An Application To The EntschedungsProblem" in which he introduced the idea of the computer. In Turing's time, a computer meant not a machine but a human being who performed mathematical operations. Turing believed that we could automate this to make it faster and he believed that any mathematical problem could be solved by a machine using only 1's and 0's. This was known as a Turing Machine, a hypothetical universal machine. By June 1938, Turing had been awarded his PhD from Princeton University.

When World War II started, Turing was summoned to Station X at Bletchley Park to be part of a top secret endeavour to decode Enigma. Turing was a strange man, eccentric - known for doing things differently and "thinking outside the box". He was a loner, an athletic man who liked long distance running. The British were keen to break the Enigma code because they were being strangled by the U boat attacks on convoys from Canada and America. These convoys brought supplies and much needed food to Britain. The German navy was coding their messages using Enigma and had recently changed the configuration in 1940 on the Enigma machine. There were 15 million million ways to code a message - that is, 15,000,000,000,000,000,000 ways. Turing reasoned that if a machine is being used to code the messages then maybe a machine could be built to decode them. It would be faster than humans.

That machine was called a Bombe, which was an electromechanical machine. Eventually many of these machines were built and there were 200 of these machines looking for the settings on the German Enigma. But even this was not fast enough. Turing used mathematical analysis of a number of deciphered German messages and eliminated some of the area that needed to be searched.This allowed Turing and his team to break the Enigma code, allowing them to intercept  instructions from the German High Command to U boats in the North Atlantic and to know where and how the Germans would attack.

The Imitation Game was directed by Norwegian film director, Morten Tyldum and is his English-language debut. The movie is based on the book, "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges. The movie takes three threads and weaves them into the story of Alan Turing's life. The movie opens with the first thread set in 1952 when Alan Turing's apartment is robbed and he calls police to report the robbery. He insists police not investigate, which piques the interest of Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) who believes Turing is hiding something. When he discovers his war file to be empty this raises Nock's suspicions that Turing might be a Soviet spy. Eventually Nock learns that Turing is a homosexual and after being caught committing a homosexual act in public, Turing is convicted and undergoes chemical castration. The second thread is a flashback featuring young Turing's life at Sherborne where he meets his only friend,  Christopher Morcum. Eventually the two form an intense friendship leading Turing to write Morcum a love note to give to him upon his return to the school after vacation. Except that Morcum never returns. Turing learns later from the strict headmaster that he has died of tuberculosis. The third thread is set during World War II and details Turing's summons to Bletchley, his work on Enigma, including the building of the bombe machine, the group's struggles to obtain funding from the British government and to overcome the doubts of Commander Alastair Denniston who was head of the Government Code and Cypher School. Eventually all three threads are pulled together when Turing under questioning by Nock reveals what he did during the war.

The tragedy of Alan Turing was that the British people did not know of his immense contribution to winning the war until after he was dead and that he suffered the indignity of being chemically castrated as a result of his conviction for being a homosexual and that this led to him committing suicide.  The film doesn't really explore either in enough depth to present the full picture though. For example, The Imitation Game ignores the tremendous work done by Polish cyptographers in breaking the Army Enigma code in 1932, (but never the German Navy cod) laying the groundwork for Turing and his group. Eventually the enciphering by Enigma became too complex for the Polish who did not have enough cryptographers. The Polish cryptographers provided the British copies of the Enigma and information about German procedural operations that were helpful.

One of the strongest messages The Imitation Game conveys is that Turing was able to succeed in breaking Enigma because of his unique way of thinking, that because he was different in many ways; he thought differently and he certainly behaved unusually. At times in the movie, one gets that sense that Turing may well have had Aspergers, but was high functioning. The movie takes it's title from a 1950 paper Alan Turing wrote, Computing Machinery and Intelligence in which he asks, I propose to consider the question, "Can machines think?" This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms "machine" and "think". Turing proposed an "imitation game" to answer this question, while avoiding the philosophical question of "consciousness". Similarly Turing himself had to play an imitation game of his own, trying to imitate the behaviours of "normal" people whose social cues he could not understand. Of course there is also the imitation he attempts at being a straight man, becoming engaged despite not being "interested" in women in that way.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an amazing performance as Alan Turing - likely his best to date. He captures Turing's eccentricity and his inner struggles, while portraying his incredible genius. Keira Knightley is one of my favourite actresses and she portrays Joan Clarke, Turing's girl friend, whom he felt an affinity towards because he could say things to her that he could say to no one else. Turing eventually proposed to Clarke, telling her he was a homosexual. She remained unconcerned about his attraction towards men, but the engagement did not last. I feel that Knightley was miscast in the role of Clarke, although she delivers her lines with effectiveness and care. Perhaps because she is a big screen name, more was made of Clarke and Turing's relationship in the movie than happened in real life.

There are some historical inaccuracies in the movie, especially regarding who worked where at what time during the war. John Caircross, played by Allan Leech, did not join Bletchley Park until later on and worked in a different area of the complex on a different code. He was, as shown in The Imitation Game, passing secrets onto the Russians.

Overall, The Imitiation Game is an riveting, historical biography about an amazing man who helped the Allies eventually to win the war. Alan Turing's story is a complex one, which would likely take a documentary series to explore in depth. The Imitation Game at least gives viewers a good introduction to Turing and the race to decode Enigma, an operation so secret that all documentation was destroyed.

You can read about the capture of a second Enigma machine at World War 2 Today and learn more about Engima at the Virtual Bletchley Park webpage. The history section of the BBC website has a good webpage on Alan Turing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The final installment of Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of The Hobbit opened earlier this week. It picks up where the Desolation of Smaug left off.

After recovering their gold and their destroyed homeland of Erebor under the Lonely Mountain, Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves have inadvertently unleashed Smaug on Laketown. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves now watch in horror as Smaug burns the town to the ground. But Thorin has concern only for his vast treasure of gold.

In Laketown, with death and destruction all around, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) frees himself from the town jail and with his arrows makes his way to the belltower where he tries repeatedly to kill Smaug, but his arrows simply bounce off the dragons scales. His son, in an act of outstanding bravery, brings his father the iron arrow. Smaug, angered at Bard's attempts to kill him, tells Bard he now will die. Remaining calm, Bard with the help of his son, lures Smaug in and his arrow hits Smaug in the part of his body that is missing a scale. Smaug dies. With Laketown in ruins, Bard organizes the townspeople and they head to the mountain for safety and to seek their share of the dragon-gold to rebuild Laketown. They make camp at Dale opposite Erebor.

Meanwhile in the mountain, Thorin Oakenshield has the dwarves search for the Arkenstone. His obsession with the gold and the finding of the Arkenstone indicate that he has been afflicted with the "dragon sickness". Unknown to the dwarves and to Thorin, Bilbo has found the Arkenstone. Wanting to give it to Thorin, Bilbo speaks to Balin who tells him that if Thorin should possess the stone he will likely get sicker. Not finding the Arkenstone, Thorin has the dwarves block the entrance to Erebor so they can more easily defend those who will come looking for the gold.

Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman arrive at Dol Guldur to rescue Gandalf and to banish Sauron who has returned, although he does not yet have a physical form. The three fight off the Ringwraiths and free Gandalf who is carried to safety by the Brown Wizard, while Saruman tells Elrond and Galadriel that he will deal with Sauron.

Meanwhile Sauron has sent Azog and his army to the Lonely Mountain to destroy the dwarves and capture the gold.  Azog learns from Bolg that Thranduil and his woodland elves are massing near the Lonely Mountain. Bolg is sent to Gundabad to bring a second army of Orcs to Erebor.

In Dale, Bard meets with Thranduil who tells him he has come to fight Thorin to reclaim what is rightfully his, a white necklace. Bard tries to dissuade Thranduil from making war and offers to negotiate with Thorin. He is unsuccessful. Bard agrees to fight with Thranduil so they can both claim what is Thorin has promised them. However, Bilbo arrives on the scene and shows them the Arkenstone and tells them that Thorin has the dragon sickness.They decide to use the Arkenstone as a bargaining piece, but when Thorin see it he does not believe it is the real gem. At this point Gandalf who has arrived in Dale to warn Thranduil about the approaching Orc army, tells Thorin that Bilbo found the Arkenstone.

Just before Bard and Thranduil are to attack Erebor, Dain, Thorin's cousin arrives with his army. As the three armies are about to go to battle, Azog's army of Orcs arrives. Dain and the Elves and Men realize that they must now join together to fight a common enemy or they will all perish.

Although director Peter Jackson's third installment of the film adaptation of The Hobbit differs from Tolkien's novel, this is still an exciting movie to watch. Great casting, incredible CGI, good editing and a beautiful soundtrack all work together to make The Battle of the Five Armies a visual feast. Like the first two movies, it tells the story of Thorin's quest to reclaim Erebor and the Arkenstone from Bilbo Baggins point of view.

The Battle of the Five Armies features nonstop suspenseful battles on an epic scale that many Tolkien fans have come to love. The excitement begins immediately with the attack on Laketown by Smaug and the courageous confrontation of the dragon by Bard. This is so well done, with Bard using his young son to help him aim the deadly arrow properly so as to take down Smaug, who in his smugness does not realize he has exposed his weak spot to the bowman. Smaug is brilliantly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch who in combination with the incredible CGI captures all of Smaug's chilling desire for revenge.

Besides the epic battles involving the glorious Elven Army and the mighty Dwarve army under Dain, the one-on-one confrontations are especially well done.The face-off between Legolas and Bolg was foreshadowed at the end of The Desolation of Smaug, when Legolas and Tauriel drove the Orcs from Laketown. The two battle to the death on a crumbling bridge that sees Legolas defy gravity and Bolg meet his end. Meanwhile above him on an ice covered waterfall, Thorin is locked in a life and death battle with Azog. In the novel, Thorin was killed in the Battle of the Five Armies (and not by Azog).

The inclusion of Tauriel (who is not a character in the novel) and Azog (who in Tolkien's world was actually killed by Dain II Ironfoot in the Battle of Azanulbizar) in particular, and the love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and Kimli detract somewhat from the film. The Battle of the Five Armies is best enjoyed on its own terms - as a movie about a grand adventure that sees the inhabitants of Middle Earth fight against evil in its many forms.

 Because Tolkien's novels contain so many religious themes and themes about the natural and supernatural world, it is a shame Jackson did not remain faithful to their story lines. I would love to see the Silmarillion brought to the big screen but I fear for what Jackson would turn it into.

Go see The Battle of the Five Armies mainly because it is a wonderful movie but also because it's the last time we will see a Tolkien story brought to the screen for some years to come.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Truce: the day the soldiers stopped fighting by Jim Murphy

Truce explores the Christmas Day Truce of 1914 by German and British troops during World War I providing young readers with an interesting account of this unique historical event.


Murphy begins with prewar Europe, setting the back story for the events that led up to the start of World War I. Although Germany was arguably the most powerful nation in Europe in the early 20th Century, Kaiser Wilhelm II was uneasy about France and England, believing that they would, along with Russia, one day encircle Germany. England, France and Russia had formed an alliance known as the Triple Entente. Wilhelm's ally, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary was concerned about the economic and military growth of Serbia and he also wanted to expand his empire to include Poland. This potential invasion of Poland made Czar Nicholas II nervous, as Poland was part of the Russian Empire. France had been defeated by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and had to give up two of its territories, Alsace and Lorraine. King George V was concerned about Germany's growing naval might. All of these tensions and fears, backed heavily by propaganda produced by each of these countries helped foment hatred and the desire for war among within each country.

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated this set in motion a sequence of events that led to war. Believing that the assassination was intended to incite a Serbian rebellion in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary was encouraged by his advisors and by Wilhelm of Germany to take action against Serbia. Franz Joseph hesitated since there was no evidence that Serbia was involved, but eventually capitulated. Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia containing fifteen demands", the acceptance of which would have required "Serbia to give up a great deal of its national authority..." Serbia agreed to the demands with the exception of Austria's participation in the Serbian investigation into the assassination. Instead, Serbia asked that the issue be sent to the international court in The Hague. Unfortunately, due to Wilhem's encouragement, Emperor Franz Joseph did not accept these terms and ordered his troops to begin attacking Serbia. Meanwhile in Germany, Wilhelm read the text of Serbia's reply to Austria's ultimatum and realized the reason for war was removed. But he was too late. As Murphy writes, "Only those at the highest levels of government knew that the war could have been avoided."

As each country became involved, its men rushed to sign up partly to defend their countries and partly because they believed, as a result of propaganda, that it would be "a quick and glorious adventure" not to be missed. This was also partly due to the fact that both Germany and France had already devised plans for attacking one another. For Germany it was called the Schlieffen Plan, developed by General Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905, and called for Germany to invade France by first going through Belgium and then attacking Paris from the north. For the French it was Plan XVII which called for half the French army to invade Germany and retake Alsace-Lorraine.  The first battle at Mons, Belgium provided strong hints that the war was going to be anything but a quick conflict. For one thing soldiers on the battlefield were still fighting according to nineteenth century rules, while facing twentieth century weapons, some of which their fathers and grandfathers could never have dreamed of. Poison gas, tanks, flamethrowers and machine guns all changed warfare.

A series of victories and defeats saw the German and British and French armies bogged down in France due to exhaustion, depletion of ammunition, artillery, supplies and men and also due to heavy rains which made the countryside swampy and mucky. At this point the commanders of both sides decide to dig a long line of trenches wherever the two sides met. In France this became known as the Western Front. The Western Front stretched 475 miles from the south of Belgium through France to a small part of Germany - the Alsace-Lorraine region. The two sides faced off against each other, England, France and its allies against German troops separated by No Man's Land, an area filled with muck, shell holes and razor-wire.

The closeness of the trenches resulted in the two opposing armies becoming familiar with each other and recognizing that they were not so different from one another. This led to more and more fraternizing, trading insults, tinned goods and even setting up shooting competitions. This made the commanding officers furious on both sides. British officers ordered large scale raids under ridiculous conditions in order to put an end to the fraternizing. The result was a needless loss of life which the public back home was not aware of because they were lied to about the success of the raids. With Christmas approaching, the rainy warm weather changed to cold and snowy. Fraternization with the enemy soldiers in the previous weeks created feelings of goodwill and added to the Christmas cheer. The fact that two armies sat facing each other day in and day out seemed ridiculous and many felt that something extraordinary was about to happen. That extraordinary event was to be the Christmas Truce of 1914.


Jim Murphy who has won numerous awards for his fantastic history books for young people, specializes in making history come alive for his readers. He writes on his blog that he wants "to write books that were honest, informative and dramatically involving, and largely focused on the experiences and emotions of those who were actually in these conflicts."  And Truce does just that for a generation of readers a century after this remarkable event. The writing makes the story of the Christmas Day Truce come alive as Murphy sets the stage for the beginning of World War I by introducing the Kings and Emperors and the major countries involved and then describing the early months of the war in 1914, leading up to Christmas. In Truce, Murphy presents some of the most discussed aspects of The Great War to young people; the rush to war by various countries, the effect of trench warfare on the troops and the ordering by generals, far from the front, of thousands of soldiers to their deaths through senseless attacks.

Murphy effectively describes how a unique set of factors set up the conditions for the soldiers, after only four months of fighting, to wonder "Truly, there is no longer any sense in this business."  He also explains how trench warfare, where soldiers could hear the enemy affected them and countered to some degree the indoctrination they had experienced in their home countries about the enemy.

"The incidental contacts with the enemy made each side curious. They had been induced to fight in part because they'd been led to believe the enemy was inferior to them or a mindless monster. What they were now hearing might be in a different language from theirs, but the sounds were still very familiar."
This humanizing of the soldiers resulted in less anger towards the enemy and a lessening of the desire to kill someone who seemed very much like themselves. This combined with the obvious inability to gain ground against their enemy led directly to the Christmas Truce.

Truce is remarkably interesting and easy to read. It is divided into six chapters with a Preface and an Epilogue. In the Epilogue, Jim Murphy suggests one the reasons he has written this book is for the lessons younger generations might learn from history.
"...some wars are justified (such as the Second World War against Hitler and his allies) while other are not. But there is no reason why lessons can't be drawn from history. World War I might very well have happened anyway, but it is fair to ask how the world would have been different if the sides involved had been more willing to sit down and negotiate their differences. At the very least, the Christmas Truce of World War I demonstrated that the combatants were more alike than not."

Spread throughout this informative book are interesting photographs, of life (and death) at the front lines. Murphy has included photographs of German, British, Scottish and French in their trenches as well as pictures of No Man's Land and some of the commanding officers. There are also many fascinating photographs, taken by the soldiers themselves, of the Christmas Day Truce. Like any good historian, Murphy has included several maps showing the Schlieffen Plan, the Western Front, and Europe after the war to help orient young readers.

The back of Truce is chock-full of more information: a Time Line, an extensive Notes and Sources, and a section on More About World War I which lists print, movies and online sources. The book is also indexed allowing readers to access information with ease. Truce is informative reading for those interested in history and will make a great supplementary resource for high school students studying World War I.

Those wishing more information on the Christmas truce can check out Canada's Veteran's Affair Website webpage and the following webpage about the British soldiers and the Christmas Truce as well as at the Imperial War Museum website.

Book Details:
Truce by Jim Murphy
New York: Scholastic Press   2009
115 pp.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Red Berries White Clouds Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas

In Red Berries White Clouds Blue Sky, author Sandra Dallas tackles the issue of the Japanese internment during the Second World War with sensitivity for younger readers. This novel is based off her successful adult novel, Tallgrass which tells the story of a family living near the fictional internment camp, Tallgrass, that is the focus in Red Berries.


It is 1942 and war has been raging across Europe for three years. Tomi Itano lives in California with her Mom and Pop, her older brother, Roy, and her younger brother, Hiro.  The previous December, December 7, 1941, the American Navy at Pearl Harbor was bombed and within hours, President Roosevelt declared war on the Empire of Japan. While everyone is gearing up for the war effort, life seems to be going on for the Itano's who rent a farm from Mr. Lawrence. However, one day when they go into town, Tomi and Hiro are asked to leave the grocery store. Tapped onto the front window is a sign that says "No Japs" and Mr. Akron asks them to leave because they are Japanese. Shocked Tomi leads Hiro outside.

Tomi knows they are American citizens because they were born in America. Tomi and Hiro's grandparents Jiji and Baba still live in Japan, but their parents Osamu (Sam) and Sumiko, came from Japan and are Issei or first generation Americans. According to the law, they cannot become American citizens and cannot own land. But Tomi and Hiro having been born in America are Nisei or second-generation Americans. Tomi's father grows strawberries on the land that they rent from Mr. Lawrence and whose daughter, Martha is Tomi's best friend.

One day they arrive at home to find Mr. Lawrence at their house with Tomi's father and three men. One man questions both Sam Itano and Mr. Lawrence as to why Sam purchased so much fertilizer and gasoline, believing that he is giving these materials to Japanese submarines off the California coast. A second man finds Sam's Japanese newspaper and letters written in Japanese. They also question Sam about his radio. Tomi and Hiro watch as their father is handcuffed and taken away by the FBI to prison. When this happens, Mr. Lawrence is furious and tells Sam he will get him a good lawyer, while Tomi and Hiro race out to the strawberry fields to tell their mom. Mom explains to Tomi and Hiro that because of the war with Japan, many Americans believe that the Japanese living in America will help Japan to invade.

Soon the Itano's find their lives drastically changed; Roy who is part of a jazz ensemble is told by a woman he's not welcome and Tomi is forced to quit the Girl Scouts when she is told by Mrs. Malkin who is hosting the meeting, that they don't allow "Japs" in their house. Tomi's father is sent to New Mexico and the government asks all people of Japanese heritage to move away from the coast to Colorado, Kansas and Montana. Tomi's mom refuses but when President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, they are forced to move to one of ten relocation camps. In April, they are given two weeks to pack only what will fit into a suitcase. Mrs. Lawrence tells Sumiko that she will store her silver and china until she returns. Tomi and Hiro are saddened to leave their home and the strawberry farm but Tomi tries to keep positive.

Mr. Lawrence drives them to the church in town where along with many other Japanese families they board buses that take them to the Santa Anita racetrack. Since the barracks for the Japanese-Americans are not yet finished, Tomi and her family spend four months living in a horse stall at the racetrack.Finally at the end of August,the Itanos along with the other Japanese internees, move to a "relocation" camp called Tallgrass in Ellis, Colorado. At first Tomi is excited, believing that in Colorado she will find blue sky, tall pines, large mountains and snow. Instead what the Itano family find is a large camp set in the middle of the dusty, brown prairie. The unfinished barracks are surrounded by barbed wire and prison guard towers. As Tomi tries to adjust to life in the camp, her mother gradually takes over as head of the household to make a little home out of their small shack for their family. Tomi and Hiro attend the camp school where Tomi is an excellent student. Eventually Tomi's Pop is sent to the camp but he has changed - once a vigorous man, he now uses a cane and has grey hair. But worse than that, her once happy and proud Pop is deeply bitter and hates America. Seeing her father suffer so much changes Tomi and she becomes angry and begins to fail in school. Tomi's struggles leads her mother to ask her to for help with her father to recover from the anger that is poisoning his life and the lives of those around him. But can Tomi overcome her own anger and find a way to prove to her fellow Americans that the Japanese Americans are loyal citizens?


Red Berries White Clouds Blue Sky is a short novel for ages 8 to 12 year olds, which focuses on a troubling area of American history that Canada too shares - the imprisonment during wartime of certain ethnic groups deemed risky to national security. During the Second World War, in Canada,  people of Japanese, Italian and Ukrainian heritage were sent to internment camps for for the duration of the war. These people had families, jobs and owned businesses. Virtually all were productive citizens who were very loyal to their new countries, grateful for the opportunities they had to make their lives better. It is this aspect and the grave injustice done to them by their adopted country's government and citizens that Dallas portrays through the character of Pop in the novel. His bitterness over his treatment and betrayal by his adopted country is the one aspect that is keenly demonstrated.

Unfortunately the author's portrayal of the experience of being rounded up, relocated and living in the internment camps is mostly diminished due to Tomi's muted narrative. Dallas creates some excellent situations with good dialogue to portray certain aspects of the internment, such as when the FBI make ridiculous assumptions about Pop's Japanese newspaper and his use of the radio, and when his basic human rights were violated - he had no recourse to a lawyer and he was never charged with any crime. In these situations as the beginning of the novel, Tomi and her brother and Mr. Lawrence try to reason with the authorities to no avail. But mostly Tomi tells rather than the reader experiencing the events - as in their struggle to adjust to life in the camps and how the internment affected family life. Other issues are briefly mentioned in Tomi's narrative such as her older brother Roy joining the all Japanese 442nd Regiment, which ended up becoming the most decorated unit of its size in US history.

Red Berries White Clouds Blue Sky is definitely a simplistic treatment of the Japanese internment with a happy ending. The Itano's were able to return to their farm in Sandra Dallas's story, but for many Japanese-Americans, their experience was one of loss and disruption. More often than not,  they lost everything and their lives afterwards were severely impacted by the internment.  Nevertheless, this is a good starting point for children to learn more about this important part of World War II history, the meaning of tolerance, the effect of war on people, the use of propaganda in inciting racism and the violation of human rights.

It should be noted that this children's novel is an extension of an earlier novel, Tallgrass, which Dallas wrote for adults on the Japanese internment experience.

For more information:

Canadian readers are directed to the following websites:
The Internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II

Japanese Canadian Internment During World War II
This website mentions that Japanese Canadians were not protected by a Bill of Rights as were Japanese Americans and many lost all their possessions which were sold off by the Canadian government for a fraction of what they were worth. They also had to cover the cost of living in the internment camps. 

This pdf file contains an overview of the American experience and provides many links.

The PBS documentary, Children of the Camps is also a website with numerous resources.

You can also watch this brief video about the Manzanar which was a Japanese internment camp in the California desert.

Book Details:

Red Berries White Clouds Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas
Ann Arbor, Michigan: Sleeping Bear Press 2014
237 pp.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

With Fearful Bravery by Lynne Kositsky

Kositsky's well written novel tells the story of a young Jewish girl's struggle to survive in Shanghai, China after her family flees from the Nazi terror in Germany and she takes responsibility for herself and her younger sister after they are abandoned by their mother.


Kositsky is one of several Canadian women authors who have penned quality historical fiction for young readers. It is 1939 and Freda Isen, her younger sister Lotty, their Mameh and friendly elderly lady, Frau Gold, are at the port of Genoa, Italy trying to obtain passage on the ship, the Conte Biancamano, bound for Shanghai, China. They have tickets for the ship, Julio Cesare which will arrive in a month, but Freda's Mameh is desperate to leave Genoa as soon as possible since the port of Shanghai may not be open to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe much longer.

Freda's mother paints her face, puts on her high heels and silk stockings and manages to charm her way onto the Biancamano. On the ship Freda becomes very ill, developing a bad cough.  She dreams about her Tateh who was a clockmaker in Berlin until the Nazi's forced him to close his shop and eventually forced their way into their home and took him away.

In the port of Shanghai, the nurse is furious that Freda is so sick and she is taken off the ship to the hospital while Mameh, Lotty and New Oma are sent to the heim, a large building into which the Jewish refugees are crammed. In the hospital, Freda receives shots of sulfa (antibiotics) to fight her pneumonia and visits from Mameh who is well dressed and looking for work so that they can move out of the filthy heim. Mameh treats Freda harshly and accuses her of deliberately getting sick. While in the hospital, Freda meets Yoshi a young Jewish boy who was sent by his family to a yeshiva but whose entire family is now missing. They also learn that Hitler has invaded Poland and that now Britain is at war with Germany.

When Freda recovers she goes to live in the heim with her family and discovers it is cramped and smelly, overrun with bedbugs and spiders. Freda shares a cot with Mameh who has found a job working at night and although Freda has no idea what her mother's job entails she begins to suspect it is something immoral. Freda begins to attend a school for the Jewish children in the heim. It is there that she meets Gertrude, who hates her name and decides to call herself, Izo for Isobelle. Freda loves school and soon is the top student.  Freda finds that the shortage of good food and being able to take a hot bath only once a month makes life challenging in the heim. Although Mameh saves money she wants Freda to quit school and to come to work at the Green Lily Cafe where she is paid to dance with men. Freda is horrified and tells Mameh what she does sounds like prostitution and even worse since she is a married woman. Shortly after this the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and then take over Shanghai. Soon American is drawn into the war with both Japan and Germany.

One day in 1943, Freda awakens to find that her Mameh has not returned. After seven days it becomes apparent that Mameh has left and will not be returning. Stunned that her mother would abandon them and realizing that she planned this, Freda knows she now must quit school and find work. Freda must find the strength to put aside her plans to work towards her international baccalaureate and work to support her family, while hanging onto the hope that Tateh will someday join them.


Kositsky has created a irrepressible heroine in Freda Isen, a young girl forced into adulthood early due to her mother's self-centered behaviour while capturing the trials of life as a Jewish refugee in China. Freda transforms from an innocent eleven year old at the beginning of the novel into a mature, responsible seventeen year old who eventually has the opportunity to emigrate to Canada. When her mother disappears Freda finds herself "so stupefied by her behaviour  that I can't sleep and can hardly get out of bed." Unable to find work, she ends up working at the same cafe as her mother, serving tables, greeting customers and dancing with men who have paid for a ticket to do so. Freda, who was critical and unforgiving towards her mother when she worked the the Green Lily Cafe, now finds herself in the same predicament. Gradually, she begins to understand what her Mameh endured. "I see now that the nasty odours she brought home likely originated with her sweaty customers." And as she comes to understand the weight of the responsibility Mameh bore, Freda states, "I'm beginning, despite the ever present tangle of anger in my gut, to feel a dark, disturbing sympathy for her." Later on when Freda begins accepting gifts from a childhood friend, her behaviour brings back memories of how much she is like Mameh. "The truth is that the costly and opulent gifts have begun to excite me, just as they did Mameh...I remember swearing I'd never be like her, but when I murmur the words costly, fabulous, and opulent to myself, they roll over my tongue like sweet wine..."

Freda's past also catches up with her in Shanghai with the appearance of her childhood friend, Hans, now a handsome man and a Nazi soldier. Freda and Hans were best friends until she was eight years old and his father forbade him from talking to her because she was Jewish. Freda encounters Hans as a customer at the Green Lily Cafe and soon they develop a deepening friendship. However, Freda feels intensely conflicted over this relationship; she craves the attention and loves the money and gifts he lavishes on her but she also realizes that he represents an terrible evil. Leila, another Jewish refugee who works at the cafe warns Freda about Hans. But Hans tells Freda that he will come every day as a sort of protector to her and a benefactor, even though outwardly she doesn't want him to. However, inside Freda "desperately want(s) him to be my best friend again. If he were interested in a closer relationship, he could mean even more to me." Hans begins to win out against Freda's better judgement. "He's extremely generous, and that pits me against my better self...I continue to participate even though the swastikas on the backs of the coins disgust me, convincing myself that I'm acting charitably...Although I demurred at first, wouldn't accept what he offered, after a while I couldn't help but be charmed." Eventually though, Freda comes to see what Hans is really after and when he does not get what he wants, he disappears, leaving her feeling ashamed and depressed.

Told from Freda's point of view, Kositsky  has structured her novel into seven parts, for each of the years of the war from 1939 to 1945, given each the title of the Chinese Zodiac. Not many young readers will be aware that many European Jews fled east to China and Japan and then overseas to the United States or Canada. Although Japan was Germany's ally during the Second World War, the Japanese did not share the German's desire to build gas chambers for them.

Kositsky manages to vividly portray life Shanghai for the Jewish refugees with great attention to detail in the heim as well as in Shanghai itself.

Overall, With Fearful Bravery is a touching and riveting story that brings to life a little known aspect of World War II and the Jewish experience outside of Europe during this time.

Book Details:
With Fearful Bravery by Lynne Kositsky
Dancing Cat Books    2014
184 pp.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Defector by Susanne Winnacker

Defector is the second novel in the Variants Series by Susanne Winnacker. It picks up immediately after the mission completed in the first novel, Impostor.

Alec and Tessa are returning to their FEA (Forces With Extraordinary Abilities) base after Tessa's first mission which was almost a disaster. Alec has told Tessa that he has ended his relationship with Kate and is interested in being with her. On their first date night in response to Tessa's questions about his relationship with Kate, Alec tells her that he and Kate became a couple due to their involvement in a mission together.

The group of agents are called to a meeting by Major who is in charge of the FEA because another agent has disappeared. The meeting includes Alec and Tessa, Tanner, Kate, along with newcomers Devon whose variation is healing and Phil whose variation is producing a killing toxin. Agent Stevens has disappeared, likely due to Abel's Army, the rogue Variant organization. Major believes that Abel's Army needs reinforcements, "Variants with useful talents" and that they were likely targeting Devon and Phil who were being guarded by Agent Stevens.

Abel's Army broke away from FEA years ago and are involved with illegal activities associated with the Russian, Italian and Chinese mafia. Alec states that he has heard that AA has a Variant in their group who is able to alter memories, thus keeping the Variants existence a secret.

Kate approaches Tessa to reveal to her about Alec's secret second Variation - his ability to manipulate other's emotions. Kate tells Tessa he is a Dual Variant and that he has used his second variant to manipulate her. Tessa confronts Alec and learns that what Kate told her is true and then questions Alec as to whether he has manipulated her emotions. She learns that he has done this "Only for your own good. I wanted to help you."

Before Tessa has time to digest these new revelations, Major informs Tessa, Alec and Tessa's roommate and best friend, Holly that they have been assigned to a new mission - Tessa is to impersonate a politician, Senator Jack Pollard who has been receiving death threats, while Alec and Holly will provide security backup. Tessa agrees to this and meets Pollard so she can grab his DNA enabling her to impersonate him. She also learns that someone has stolen the files on the FEA prison where rogue variants are being housed. The event does not go according to plan however as they are attacked by Abel's Army and Holly is kidnapped.

Despite the recapture of the missing Agent Stevens, Tessa is furious. Stevens refuses to divulge any information about Abel's Army except to tell Tessa that they want her and not Holly. Stevens also stuns Tessa with the claim that she has Abel's unique turquoise blue eyes. This revelation, which is confirmed by Major, unravels Tessa's commitment and loyalty to the FEA. Major tells her that by not telling her Abel is her father, he was trying to protect her because he would have recruited her if he knew about her Variation. Abel learned about Tessa from the Livingston mission and discovered she too was a Variant.

This revelation leads Tessa to long for the father she cannot remember and to question why he left her and her mother and what has become of her brother who must also be a Variant. Suspecting Tessa's interest in her father, Major paints a picture of Abel as a ruthless man, telling her that her father only keeps those Variants he can use and that Abel abandoned her when he no longer needed her. Major tells Tessa that Holly will be used as bait to trap her and he refuses her request to help location Holly.

Tessa suspects that Major has not told her all of the truth about herself or her family. So she decides to assume Major's body and to break into the restricted area which houses top secret files. Tessa finds files on her father, Abel Crane, her mother Heather Crane and herself. Her mother is identified as a "volatile" Variant, meaning she is either prone to mental illness or has lost control of her Variation which is regeneration. In her father's files she finds pictures of him when she was much younger and information that he might be with his group in the American Southwest. Tessa also learns that her mother has been in contact with her father multiple times during the past year. Tessa's file indicates that she is considered possibly Volatile and that Kate and Alec have been assigned to watch her.

Tessa is discovered by Major who takes her back to his office. He considers her behaviour over the past few days to be erratic and informs Tessa that he will be sending her to their facility to be treated for her emotional instability. Major walks her to her room where he forces her to take sleeping pills and injects her with a tracker device. When he leaves Tessa decides that she needs to get to Devon so he can help neutralize the sedative with his healing Variation. With Devon's help Tessa manages to escape the FEA compound intent upon finding her father and the truth about her past. It is a journey that will see her change alliances and begin to unravel the past of her mother and father.

Continuing the X-Men theme, in Defector we meet more Variants with unusual powers; Alec who can manipulate the emotions of those around him, Stanley whose spittle drugs people (seriously?), Jago who can transport people over short distances, Will who shatters glass and her brother Zach who can store memories and replay them for others as well as change those memories . Winnacker keeps her readers interested with strange twists in the storyline, yet this doesn't stop the plot from falling into a predictable ending. Defector is mostly about Tessa's journey to learn more about her missing father, whom she discovers is the leader of the rebel Variants. In Defector, she's overwrought and rebellious, struggling with her identity and feeling betrayed by FEA and the boy she loves, Alec.

Winnacker paints the FEA as a typical government agency, not to be trusted, ruthless, with a spin on every story, including the ones they tell their own agents. For every story or "truth" that Major tells Tessa, there is a corresponding explanation given by Tessa's father, mother and brother. In this respect, Defector shines, because like Tessa, the reader simply doesn't know who to believe. Although at the end of the novel, Tessa feels she has come home, the reader wonders if the memories Zach has provided about her life before her mother left Abel are real or have been altered.

It's likely the third novel in this series will see Tessa learning the truth about Abel and her mother Heather and having to decide which version she can live with and how she chooses to live her own life. This paranormal romance really has nothing new to offer. The writing is adequate, the storyline an old one, and the character not in any way captivating.

Book Details:
Defector by Susanne Winnacker
New York: Razorbill, An imprint of Penguin Group (USA)     2014
272 pp.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Emergent by Rachel Cohn

Emergent is the second book in the Annex series and picks up where Beta left off. It brings in Eysia's First, Zhara, the human she was cloned from and chronicles the attempt of the Defect clones, who now call themselves Emergent, to rise up and free themselves from slavery and take over the island of Demesne.

The story is told in the alternate voices of Zhara and Elysia.  The novel opens with a prologue which sets the stage for what happens in the novel. Zhara and her friends, Reggie and Holly are on a sailboat headed to the forbidden island of Demesne, where only the richest people in the world live. Zhara and her friends are from Cerulea but as juvenile delinquents had been sent to a special wilderness rehabilitation camp; Holly for vandalizing a desalinization plant, Reggie for stealing a dune rider and Zhara for ataraxia "raxia" addiction.  A day after arriving at the camp, Zhara steals a sailboat and they are now on their way to Demesne. However, a sudden violent storm strikes, the result of the special bioengineering that protects Demesne from bad weather. The storm throws the three teens into the water, but Zhara's training as an Olympic-level diver enables her to save herself. Their boat is found by pirates who deal in selling the bodies of twentysomethings to be cloned as slaves on Demesne. The pirates believe Zhara is dead because of the effect of the raxia on slowing her heartbeat. They take her because she is "tasty" or pretty enough but leave behind Holly and Reggie. Zhara awakens on Demesne to meet the Mortician, a tall Demesne clone.

From this point on the novel is narrated alternately by Zhara and Elysia. Zhara is now on an island the Defect clones call Heathen. She arrived several months ago after being taken to Demesne where she was brought back to life by the clone Mortician on the island, Aidan. The clones on Demesne tried raxia, the drug that Zhara was addicted to, and discovered that this "awakened" them - that is made them have feelings by unblocking the brain inhibitors they were designed with to make them slaves. These feeling clones were labelled Defects by the humans and were returned to the lab where Aidan worked, to be "expired" or killed. However, instead of destroying the Defects, Aidan was quietly sending the "Emergents" to Heathen. When Zhara arrived, Aidan tried reviving her using his newly developed electrical abilities. Unable to hide this new ability Aidan was forced to leave Demesne with Zhara.

On Heathen, Aidan has become the leader of the Emergents and Zhara is his platonic consort. He now plans to lead the clones to Insurrection, where they will retake Demesne as their island since it was built from the slave labour of the clones. Heathen is protected by the Emergents who controlled the beautiful weather on Demesne, now using their abilities to create a weather force field that prevents planes or boats from reaching the island.

Aidan had reassured Zhara that she was not cloned. However, Zhara learns that this is not true when they goes to meet the Uni-Mil soldier who is helping the Emergents. That soldier turns out to be her long lost lover, Alexander Blackburn, known as Xander. But Xander is not alone - he has with him the beautiful clone of Zhara, named Elysia.

Both Zhara and Elysia are shocked at the other's existence. Zhara is stunned to see Alexander's devotion to Elysia, assuming that they are lovers. However Alexander tells Zhara that Elysia's baby is not his. Elysia, while appreciating Alexander's devotion and protection of her, is in love with Tahir, another Beta, who has been taken away from Demesne. Elysia want the chance to be with Tahir again before the Awfuls, the crazy behaviour that precedes their programmed death at age eighteen or nineteen, occurs. Elysia hates the unborn baby she's carrying as a result of her rape by Ivan Fortesquieu, but the fact that she has become pregnant gives hope to the other Emergents that they may also be able to procreate. She is considered their hero and their new de facto leader, although she desires neither.
"I don't want to be the Emergents' hope. I want to be free of their struggles. I just want to be a regular girl, allowed to live in peace with the boy she loves. Tahir. Not Alexander Blackburn."
Alexander reveals to Elysia that the notion that the Demesne clones do not have souls is a myth and that the new clones have their own souls but don't know it because Dr. Lusardi "developed brain inhibitors to block the clone's feelings." She insisted that this remain a secret so as to be able to sell them to buyers on Demesne.

Due to the stress of meeting her clone, Zhara relapses into her raxia addiction causing Aidan to order all the cuvee fields on the island destroyed. Aidan tells her she must focus on Insurrection which must go ahead as soon as possible. Zhara reveals through a flashback how devastated she is that Alexander is now focused on Elysia. Zhara seduced Alexander on Cerulea because she knew that as an Aquine, if he mated with her it would be for life and this would make her his mate. However, Alexander refused her request to join him when he left for Uni-Mil training, resulting in their break up.

Tawny, who was the Demesne Governor's luxissant arrives on Heathen informing the Emergents that ReplicaPharma who make adult clones have been brought in to oversee the problems on Demesne. Aidan believes that ReplicaPharma will likely replace the Demesne clones with their own clones. Meanwhile the rich families on Demesne are exporting their clones to show them off and or selling them to collectors. Because of a global financial crisis, the Governor expects most of the families on Demesne will leave the island and vote to sell it to ReplicaPharma. In light of this information, Aidan wants to start the Insurrection immediately but on the advice of Alexander, Elysia chooses to wait.

Over the next few days, while the Emergents continue to develop their abilities to control the weather and to initiate earthquakes that will be used to retake Demesne, Zhara and Elysia come to know and understand each other a bit better.

Before the Emergents can launch the Insurrection, Heathen is invaded by the ReplicaPharma soldiers who are androids. Dimitri Kelos a vice president of ReplicaPharma informs them that because Demesne has been sold, the clones, including the Emergent ones, are now the property of the company. The Demesne clones will be allowed to live out their remaining time on the island, confined to labour camps. Those clones who did not participate in the uprising will be reprogrammed to stop feeling and will serve the ReplicaPharma personnel who now live on the island. Dr. Lusardi, a clone herself has been expired and Aidan is to be taken and experimented on to learn about his unusual abilities. Unable to fight back Alexander, Zhara and Elysia are taken back to Demesne, while Aidan with his special powers is taken prisoner. Can Elysia and Alexander still launch the Insurrection and save the remaining clones on Demesne?

Emergent is not as captivating a story as its predecessor, Beta which had an intriguing storyline. It focuses mainly on the relationships between Zhara, Elysia and Alexander and later on Tahir.  Cohn does an excellent job of capturing the horror Zhara feels when she discovers she has been cloned against her will and in portraying the emotional conflict between Zhara and Elysia. The emotional conflict seems mostly one sided, at least it is more readily apparent from Zhara's narrative. Zhara is shocked to discover that she has been lied to and that she was cloned without her permission, against her will or knowledge, while Elysia is trying to cope with her anger over her violation and her loss of Tahir.

Zhara is "Exhausted. Confused. Horrified." But this is only the beginning as she soon discovers other disquieting things about her clone. Zhara is disturbed to learn that Elysia has memories of Xander and feels this is "an off-the-charts intrusion into my mind, body, and soul."  She resents Elysia being able to perform difficult dives that Zhara took years to learn and perfect. To Zhara, "Elysia will never be my forever, no matter how much she looks and acts like me. I reject her. I refuse her. I may have to live in proximity to her for the time being, but I will never, ever accept her. She stole me."

When Zhara learns that Elysia was raped by the son of the Governor of Demesne she feels that "...Elysia is that sister I used to long for. I want to touch her hand, hold her close to me, to comfort her, to promise her vengeance. I don't. But I want to." Yet Zhara is disturbed that her clone was treated as property. "She was his property. Fact. Another version of my face, my body -- given no rights or choice, created to serve and have no wants or desires of her own -- there for him to take, just because he wanted to."

Yet despite this, Zhara begins to understand that  her "clone has suffered more in the few months she lived on Demesne than I have in my entire seventeen years. I grieve for her as much as I resent her."

The biggest weakness of this novel is motivation behind ReplicaPharma keeping two other surviving Beta clones, Tasmin and Tarquin prisoners. Their presence serves as a plot device to tidily wind up this installment of the series. The story evolves such that when Zhara and Elysia are taken to Demesne, they learn from Tahir who has returned with his parents to the island,  about two Betas who are kept in a lab as they expire or go "Awful". When the three of them go to see the two Betas they learn from Tarquin that they are part of a medical experiment to use their raging hormones to create a vaccine to be given to teens around the world to prevent them from experiencing irresponsible behaviours and being awful. It's the silliest plot development imaginable and  the impetus that finally unites Zhara and Elysia against the adults to overthrow Demesne and destroy the samples. Tahir and Elysia leave the island while Zhara stays with the clone she loves, Aidan, promising to care for Elysia's daughter, Xanthe.

The cover of the first novel, Beta, has been redone to match that of the second novel. These new covers are unappealing with the photoshopped figures looking tacky and out of place.

Goodreads indicates that there are two more novels in the Annex series but there's scant information on Cohn's website. I will be interested to see where Cohn takes her story; the likely focus now seems on saving Tahir and Elysia from the Awfuls and perhaps developing the storyline involving Elysia's daughter, Xanthe.

Cohn is a well known young adult author whose books, Very LeFreak, Pop Princess and You Know Where to Find Me are popular. She has also co-authored three novels with David Levithan.

Book Details:
Emergent by Rachel Cohn
New York: Hyperion, an imprint of the Disney Book Group    2014
281 pp.