Friday, January 31, 2014

Just Like Fate by Cat Patrick and Suzanne Young

Have you ever wondered if your life would be completely different if you'd made a different choice at a certain point? As we get older, it is not surprising to look back and see pivotal points in our lives and wonder "What if I had chosen differently?"  Well that is the premise behind Cat Patrick and Suzanne Young's jointly authored novel, Just Like Fate.

Caroline Cabot has been living with her Gram for the last five years, after her parents bitter divorce. When she is called down to the principal's office, she learns that her beloved Gram has had a serious stroke. Caroline races to St. Mark's Hospital to be with her, not bothering to wait for her brother Teddy to pick her up at school. At the hospital, her older sister, Natalie meets Caroline and takes her to Gram's room where they meet their mom and their two year old stepsister, Judith.

Outside Gram's room, Caroline's mom tells them that Gram's cancer has spread and that she will likely die within days.  Gram is transferred to a hospice and Caroline goes back to school while members of her family keep vigil. Caroline has moved to her mom's house to be close by her Gram. Three days pass without much change in Gram's condition.  Caroline's friend, Simone, asks her to go to a party but Caroline refuses, explaining to Simone that she can't simply abandon her grandmother at this time. She explains to Simone that her gram is not going to get better - "People don't get released from hospice... she's still dying."  But Simone encourages her to take a break, telling her the party will be a distraction from what is happening at home.

After school Caroline returns to the hospice to see how her Gram is doing and learns that she is becoming weaker. Natalie and Caroline, who have not gotten along for years, become involved in an argument when Natalie warns Caroline not to act out. Caroline decides that she is fed up with Natalie and decides to leave the hospice. When Simone calls her to ask if she has made a decision regarding the party, the novel breaks off into two separate stories, one told in the chapters titled "Stay" where Caroline decides to stay at the hospice that evening to be with Gram as she lays dying, the other told in chapters titled "Go" where she attends the party with Simone, leaving Gram to die. From this point on the reader follows what happens to Caroline, comparing the consequences of each choice in two separate story lines.

In the "Stay" chapters, Caroline returns to the Gram's room and apologizes to Natalie, leading to the sisters making up with one another. When Caroline's mom and stepdad, Albert, return, Gram wakes up and asks to speak to each of the grandchildren alone, beginning with Natalie, then Teddy and finally, her favourite, Caroline. Gram passes away and Caroline settles in at her old room at her mom's house. Meanwhile Simone fills her in on the party that she missed telling her that the boy she's been crushing on since forever, Joel Ryder, was asking about her. In school after Gram's funeral, Joel surprises Caroline by reaching out to her, although why he does is a mystery to her.

Caroline is confused about Joel's intentions because he is dating another girl, Lauren who is attending college out of town. Caroline at first tries to steer clear of Joel but he is persistent. Although he sends Caroline mixed messages, being overly affectionate and then ignoring her in school she can't seem to resist him. After several make-out sessions in which Caroline still feels confused about Joel's intentions, she decides to tell Natalie what is going on.  Natalie, whom Caroline has become closer to, tells her that being a cheater never makes you feel good about yourself. Despite Joel breaking up with his girlfriend, Caroline finds her relationship with him not to be what she expected or wants. When Caroline, Joel, and Natalie attend a rock concert, fate intervenes and Caroline meets a boy she repeatedly seen over the last few months.

In the "Go" chapters, Caroline makes the decision to go to the party with Simone, to escape some of the family drama while believing that she may have a few more days with her Gram. At the party she meets a cute blonde haired boy named Christopher Drake (Chris) who attends Clinton College. Chris is friendly and has a great sense of humour and despite her sad feelings, Caroline finds herself attracted to him. Caroline is surprised to see Joel Ryder, the boy she's crushed on since grade four, at the party. As she goes to meet up with Joel in the backyard, Caroline receives a phone call telling her Gram is dying. Caroline races to the hospice but does not make it in time to say good-bye to Gram. In shock, she leaves the hospice and unexpectedly meets Chris who has left the party and needs a ride to his friend's place. Chris who is a freshman at Clinton tries to ask her out, but Caroline tells him she's not ready.

After the funeral Caroline ends up estranged from just about everyone; Simone, her mother and Natalie. This leads her to make some big changes in her life; she moves in with her father and his new wife, Debra, and she attends Clinton High. Caroline's repeated encounters with Chris lead her to start dating him even though she learns from Simone that Joel Ryder has broken off with his girlfriend, Lauren.

Despite enjoying a good relationship with her father and stepmother, Debra and her new boy friend Chris, Caroline must deal with bullying at Clinton High, and heal her relationship with her sister and mother. But things start to go awry when Caroline suspects Chris of cheating on her. When she learns the truth from Teddy about Chris, instead of running, Caroline tries to repair her relationships

This novel is very similar to the 1998 film, Sliding Doors in which a young woman's relationship and future vary depending upon whether or not she catches a subway train. When I read this novel I decided to read the Stay chapters only and then return to the beginning and read the Go chapters. Readers will be impressed with both story lines however they choose to read the novel, and will come to understand the significance of the book's title.

The Go storyline was more interesting and was better written, demonstrating growth in Caroline. At the hospice, Natalie accuses Caroline of being a "runner", that is, she runs away from all her problems instead of dealing with them. In the Stay storyline, Caroline continues this behaviour to the very end, abandoning Joel who is a problem for her at the concert and leaving with Chris. However, in the Go storyline, Caroline actively reaches out to Natalie, Teddy, her mother, and Chris to repair the relationships that have been broken because of misunderstandings and poor choices.

The epilogue ties the theme of choices and fate together using the lead singer from a fictional rock group, Electric Freakshow, whose concert the characters in the novel attend in the last chapters. The group has a song entitled Magnates For Fate, which seems to suggest that our lives are controlled by fate. In an interview, the vocalist, River Devlin is angry that people, including his own band-mates, don't understand the message of the song; that we are free to live our own lives, making mistakes, because even those mistakes are important. After listening to the interview, Caroline comes to realize that whatever choice she made, the life that came out of that decision is important and relevant. Regardless of the choices we make, we may very well end up in the same spot in our lives, but the journey getting there is significant and makes us who we are. We will never know how another choice might have changed our lives, but that doesn't matter because the choice we made,  for good or bad, make us who we are today.

Another important theme in this novel is that of family no matter what choices we make. This is emphasized in the Go storyline through the character of Debra, who encourages Caroline to heal the rift between her and her mother and Natalie when she tells her, "But I promise you, there will come a day when you really need someone -and it'd be nice to have a sister. Everyone needs family."

Overall, Just Like Fate has a unique concept behind it coupled with a sensitive, realistic protagonist in Caroline Cabot.

Book Details:
Just Like Fate by Cat Patrick and Suzanne Young
New York: Simon Pulse
294 pp.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Rachel's Promise by Shelly Sanders

Rachel's Promise is the second book in Shelly Sander's historical fiction trilogy about a young Jewish girl in the early 20th century. The story is set against the backdrop of the Russian-Japanese war of 1904 to 1905. It follows Rachel Paskar, a Jew, and Sergei Khanzhenkov,  a Christian, as separately,  they leave their home town of Kishinev after the Jewish pogrom has destroyed the Jewish sector, leaving hundreds of Jewish people dead, homeless and without a means of livelihood.

The novel opens with Rachel, her sister Nucia and their mother Ita on their way to Shanghai, China via the Trans-Siberia Railway. They are fleeing Kishinev, Russia hoping to eventually travel to America. At the urging of Sergei, Rachel and her family have taken Menahem with them from the Kishinev Orphanage. Rachel has made a promise to her Christian friend, Sergei to look after the homeless boy. They must travel by train to the very eastern border of Russia, to Vladivostock where they will catch a steamer to Shanghai.

Their journey by train is mostly uneventful except for the frequent searches by the Cossacks who are soldiers who work for the Russian emperor, the Tsar. Rachel meets a young couple, Isaac and Shprintze, who are also traveling to Shanghai.

Upon arriving in Shanghai, Rachel and her sister, along with Isaac and Shprintze find work and begin saving towards their passage to America. While Nucia works as a seamstress, Rachel is forced to work twelve hours a day. Rachel is determined to get herself to America, to get an education and to become a journalist so she can write honest pieces telling the truth about what has happened to her people. To that end she begins to write for Mr. Ezra who publishes a newspaper called Israel's Messenger.  Rachel knows that she and her sister have a ways to go before they can escape the humid dampness of Shanghai and travel to San Francisco in America.

Meanwhile, Sergei is still in Russia but readying to leave Kishinev. His father, a police chief and a drunkard, did nothing to help the Jews during the pogrom. The pogrom had started because of stories printed in the anti-Jewish newspaper, Bessarabetz, which blamed Jews for the deaths of Christians.

Sergei leaves Kishinev and moves to Saint Petersburg to get a job. He is impressed by the beauty of the city with  it's Summer Garden, the beautiful Neva River, the elegant hotels and "stunning cathedrals topped with golden onion-shaped domes...". But when he tries to find a place to stay, the reality of his situation becomes apparent to Sergei. He ends up in a dirty hostel and is soon robbed of all his money. Unable to support himself and find work, he lands a job in one of Saint Petersburg's many dirty factories where the work is dangerous. Sergei is forced due to circumstances, to live in the factory barracks losing most of his wages.

Working in the Putilov factory testing the couplings for trains, Sergei witnesses the workers suffering terrible workplace accidents with little care or concern from factory management. Sergei meets Lev, a twenty-one year old man who works next to him at the factory. Incensed at the terrible working conditions and the poor treatment of injured workers, Sergei learns from Lev about the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries, an organization working towards rights for Russian workers. The party organizes strikes and demonstrations outside factories to try to force the government to enact laws protecting workers and providing better wages.

At first Sergei decides against joining the party because it is anti-government and does not support the Tsar, whom Russians have been taught to love. The strikes are mostly ineffective; organizers are exiled to Siberia and strikers fired. However, in January 1904, when Sergei has an accident at the factory, he decides to participate in his first strike at the Ekaterinoslav factory. The strike is an eye-opener for Sergei, who witnesses the Cossack's intervening.

All of this leads to Sergei becoming more radicalized. He has a chance encounter with Boris Savinkov, head of the Combat Organization known for assassinating government officials. Sergei is eventually invited to a secret meeting in which the organization is planning another assassination of a person Sergei has grown to hate. It is at this point that Sergei begins to question the path he has set out upon.

During all this time he has been writing to Rachel in China and he still desires to travel there and meet up with her and Menahem. But when his involvement with the Combat Organization causes him to lose his job and become a fugitive his plans change. He still wants to be with Rachel, but he has work left to do in Russia before he makes plans to travel to America.

Rachel's Promise was inspired by the author's maternal grandmother Rachel Talan Geary and her sister Anna "Nucia" Rodkin who fled to Shanghai, China from Russia. In the early 1900's, Shanghai was a safe have for many people but especially Jews who fled from pogroms in Russia. The story alternates between Rachel and Sergei's narratives, with the book broken into four parts Summer 1903, Fall 1903, Winter/Spring 1904 and Summer/Fall 1904.

This novel is well written and filled with interesting details about the hardships in Russia over a decade before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as well as life in Shanghai, China at the turn of the last century. Sanders attention to historical detail is evident throughout the novel, especially in Sergei's narrative. The author's ability to weave these details into the story is one of the strengths of this novel. There's plenty of information about historical events from the turn of the century that young readers may not know much about such as the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-05, and the massacre of workers and Russian citizens on "Bloody Sunday" in Saint Petersburg on January 22, 1905.

Sanders has created well-rounded characters that keep her readers fully engaged. Rachel is intelligent, determined and hard-working, a devoted daughter to their mother dying of consumption in a hospital in Shanghai. Despite the exhausting work at a laundry, Rachel continues to work towards her goal of immigrating to America. Sergei is

Rounding out this wonderful novel, is a map at the front showing Rachel's journey to Shanghai, a Glossary as well as a detailed Historical Note. Highly recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction.

The final book in the trilogy, Rachel's Hope will be published in 2014.

Book Details:
Rachel's Promise by Shelly Sanders
Toronto: Second Story Press   2013
273 pp.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Eleven Eleven by Paul Dowswell

November 11, 1918. Three men. Three destinies that will come together in the final hours of the Great War.

Axel Meyer is heading to the Front with his fellow German soldiers when a terrific explosion jolts him awake on the train he's traveling on. Axel, who is from Wansdorf, just west of Berlin along with the other German soldiers is ordered off and told to march. Alex is befriended by Erich Becker, a young German about his age who has lost his three older brothers to the war. Exhausted, Axel hopes they are being marched to a barracks to rest but instead he finds himself in a tiny village called Saint-Libert, to be sent to the front. Alex and Erich along with a group of soldiers are marched to the village of Aulnois where the two boys are ordered into the tower of the Church of St. Nicholas as lookouts. They are expecting an attack any time now.

Eddie Hertz is a pilot in the American Air Service First Pursuit Group. with 4 kills. Eddie who now has four kills, one short of making him an Ace, has been stationed at the airbase at Doullens. He's been in France now for nine months and early in the morning of November 11, he too hears a catastrophic explosion. Eddie's family is the wealthy Hertz family who have an apartment on Upper East Side, across from Central Park. Eddie, along with his younger brother Bobbie has had the best education money could buy and a privileged life. He's just lost his girlfriend back in America, Janie Holland, but Eddie doesn't mind because he's met a lovely French girl, Celine who works at a field hospital close to the base. When Eddie learns that the war will be over at 11 am on November 11th, he decides to take his Camel out for one last mission, to try to get his fifth kill. As an excuse to go up, he decides to provide air support for the American troops under Colonel Miller as they attack Aulnois.

William (Will) Franklin's C Company, of the 'King's Own' Royal Lancaster Regiment is resting by the roadside He thinks back to his sweetheart, Alice Hayworth, whose father, Dr. Hayworth convinced Will to enlist despite his being too young. Will now realizes that Alice's father wanted him as far away from Alice as possible. Will hadn't really wanted to enlist especially since his older brother Stanley had died at Passchendale, and his other older brother Jim was already overseas fighting. When Will enlisted his parents managed to have Will serve alongside Jim, in the same company. Will's unit is to attack the town of Saint-Libert while the Americans will attack the village of Aulnois. Will and his unit survive a gas attack and is sent with his brother Sergeant Jim Franklin to reconnoiter the woods nearby for Germans before the attack. Shortly after Jim and Will's patrol leaves for the forest, a runner arrives at their unit with the new that the war is over. The soldier sent to tell them the new is shot dead by a sniper.

Meanwhile in a railway carriage in the Compiegne forest, north of Paris, negotiations to halt the war with the surrender of Germany, are ongoing. The fictitious Captain George Atherley is recording the terms of surrender. Representing Germany is Matthias Erzberger, representative of the coalition formed after the abdication of the Kaiser and Count Alfred von Obersdorff. Representing Great Britain is First Sea Lord, Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. The French delegation includes Marshal Foch, Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies. No American representatives are in attendance. The papers are signed and the war is declared over at approximately 5 am in the morning. The Armistice would come into effect at 11 am, Paris time. There were six hours left for war to rage and men to die.

On that last morning of the war all three men and the soldiers they are with will be drawn together partly by circumstances beyond their control but also by the choices they make. For some it will be the last day of their lives, for others the beginning of the rest of their lives.

Eleven Eleven is a realistic portrayal of war by Dowswell, author of  the novel, Auslander. Dowswell is an excellent historical fiction writer, capable of bringing history to life for his young readers. His portrayal of the horror of war and the terrible fear young men endured when confronted with the realities of the battlefield are  subdued but realistic.  Readers will generally get the idea that many of these soldiers suffered terrible wounds from shrapnel, mines, gunshot, shells and mustard gas.

Dowswell has chosen to focus on a very specific time period in this novel, from 2:00 am in the morning of November 18 until 1:00 pm in the afternoon on what would be the last day of the war. The end of any war is bittersweet. It's wonderful that the war has ended but bitter because of those last few men who die in the final hours. We experience these emotions intensely near the end of Eleven Eleven; the men who managed to survive four years of war only to die in the final hour of the war or even after the Armistice went into effect.

One aspect of this novel that stands out is how Dowswell portrayed each of the different soldiers, Americans, Germans and British as ordinary people who are remarkably similar to each other despite their different nationality. Each recognizes the fear in his enemy's eyes, sees the exhaustion and can even manage to look past the uniform to see another young person there just like them. Flashbacks for each character allow the reader to see that life at home for these soldiers is not all that remarkably different, whether they are German or British. They still struggle with the same problems, suffer the same losses, experience similar joyful moments.

I can't really recommend enough the novels of Paul Dowswell. He's a wonderful historical fiction writer whose novels are engaging and well written.

Book Details:
Eleven Eleven by Paul Dowswell
New York: Bloomsbury
224 pp.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

When We Wake by Karen Healey

Sixteen year old Tegan Oglietti wakes up one hundred years into her future. She discovers she has been frozen for all that time. It had been 2027 and she along with her new boyfriend, Dalmar, and her best friend Alex, had been on their way to a protest. Tegan did not survive the protest. She was mistakenly shot by a sniper intent upon attacking the Prime Minister and died. But because she had signed her body over to science upon death, she was taken to an experimental cryonics unit run by Dr. Tessa Kalin. There she was injected with a solution derived from tardigrades, which are segmented micro-animals that can survive under extreme conditions (from extreme cold to very high temperatures) and then frozen. Dr. Kalin and her team did not know how to reverse the cryonics procedure in 2027 and Tegan was kept frozen until a future time when scientists would have developed that ability. That time has now arrived in the year 2128. Under the direction of Dr. Marie Carmen, who is working in conjunction with the Australian military.

Tegan's first reaction was to flee. In her previous life, Tegan was involved in parkour and so she uses that skill to try to escape the building she is being kept in. She ends up at a talk in progress by Dr. Carmen who rescues her and takes her back to the research compound. When Tegan realizes that she is not going to be allowed to leave, she goes on a hunger strike for five days. Eventually Dr. Carmen (Marie) and Colonel Trevor Dawson who is in charge of the program agree to allow Tegan to attend school and live on the outside with Dr. Carmen. They arrange for Tegan to attend the Elizabeth Murdoch Academy and after she is accosted by a journalist,  to have two body guards, Master Sergeant Gregor Petrov and Sergeant Zaniesha Washington.

To help her assimilate into school, a fellow student, Bethari Miyahputri, is assigned to Tegan. Her first day at school sees Tegan meet a fellow "immigrant" to Australia, Abdi Taalib, who is in the country on a "Talented Alien visa". Abdi is a "Thirdie", someone who is from a Third World country. After a brief misunderstanding, when Tegan attends music class, Abdi breaks his silence and sings with her as she plays guitar.

When an Inheritor of the Earth protester confronts Tegan in a Catholic church where she has stopped to say some prayers, he tells her that she is being used by the military and to research "Ark Pro...". The protester is killed by Tegan's bodyguard before he can finish but Tegan decides that she needs to know more about this future society and who the protesters are.

Certain that her own computer is not secure, Tegan uses Bethari's computer to research life in the 22nd century and to find out what the Inheritor was trying to tell her. She discovers that there is some kind of top secret military project called Ark Project and is given a list of addresses, one of which is in Victoria and close to the army base. Tegan sets up a "sleepover" Bethari and Joph, who is a classmate at Elizabeth Murdoch Academy. While Bethari and Tegan check out the location near the army base, Joph stays at Bethari's house to help the other two avoid detection. Tegan and Bethari discover that the abandoned warehouse is a cover for some kind of top secret military operation but are unable to discover exactly what that is.

Meanwhile Dawson sets up an interview with journalist Carl Hurfest to try to get some positive press for Tegan who has been labeled the "Living Dead Girl". However, the interview goes badly when Tegan criticizes the Australian government over its treatment of immigrants and not being willing to share its resources with "thirdies"  as people from the Third World are known. This PR disaster causes Dawson to order her to be handcuffed and taken back to the concrete army bunker. But Dr. Cameron intervenes, knocking Dawson unconscious and helping Tegan to escape.

Tegan meets up with Bethari, Abdi, and Joph. They decide that they need to find the truth about the mysterious warehouse. But what Tegan uncovers changes everything and reveals the truth about her existence and the life she is leading in the 22nd century.

In When We Wake, author Karen Healey has crafted a sort of science fiction version of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. However, instead of a helpless young woman who is rescued by a dashing knight as we've come to know through Disney, we have a heroine who is both capable and strong. Revived after 100 years, Tegan is determined to forge her own life in a world that is very different from the one she lived in a century ago and yet has many of the same problems. To accomplish this she stands up for herself from the very beginning, taking on Colonel Dawson so that she can start her second life essentially where she left off. But it turns out that the motives behind Tegan's revival are more sinister than she ever imagined.

Religious themes permeate this novel. Healey asks her readers to consider the question of what happens after the body dies because this is a question that 22nd century society is now struggling with after the revival of Tegan. The heroine of the novel, Tegan is a Roman Catholic - though not a particularly well-informed one. There's mention of a Fourth Vatican Council which reformed  women's equality, likely a euphemism for women priests.Tegan prays to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but mostly she seems to have a superficial understanding of her faith and certainly no theological understanding of the deeper questions that her revival brings about. And that's fine - she is after all a sixteen year old girl struggling to come to terms with what has happened with her.

The author asks her readers to consider the question of whether or not a human being having been declared dead, subsequently frozen and then revived a century later has a soul. It is integral to her story because those against the research being done, the cult known as the Inheritors of the Earth, consider such a thing a moral abomination and an affront to the will of God. They believe Tegan does not have a soul but is only a body, a shell of what she was. They therefore believe she should end her life and return to God. When captured and confronted by the leader of the cult, a bizarre man who calls himself The Father, Tegan doesn't have an answer which is also understandable since it's a question . Mainly because her situation is implausible.

From a Catholic perspective, metaphysically what has happened to Tegan is likely impossible, although there are precedents in scripture; Lazarus was brought back to life after three days in the tomb, and the apostles were also given the power to raise people from the dead. But miracles aside, Catholics believe that all persons upon death, will face an immediate judgement by God - called the Particular Judgement. When the physical body is dead, the soul separates from the body and goes before God. Once judged, the soul either goes to heaven, hell or to purgatory for purification. A soul cannot return to its body after judgement unless by the will of God.

Despite the metaphysical impossibility that this story is based on, I was interested to see what Healey would do with the interesting scenario she had created for this novel. Unfortunately, the reason behind Tegan's revival is not unique (humanity wants to flee the planet) and nor is the constant message throughout the book about widespread ecological disaster that has befallen most of the planet and fundamentalist war in America. It all felt somewhat unimaginative despite the novel's great cover. However, there is the promise of a blossoming romance between Tegan and Abdi and as well as more conflict between Tegan and the agency that revived her.

Tegan's story is told as a narrative video which she broadcasts to make her story and the government conspiracy known to the world at large. The ending is the perfect setup for the next installment in this series.

The novel has a great book trailer - one of the better ones lately:

Book Details:

When We Wake by Karen Healey
New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 2013
304 pp.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Live To Tell by Lisa Harrington

In Live To Tell, Lisa Harrington broaches the sensitive subject of teenage drinking and driving.

Elizabeth (Libby) Thorne awakens from being unconscious to find herself in hospital badly injured after having an accident. She learns from  Dr. Murray that she has a concussion, a broken leg and a damaged spleen but that she will recover. Libby can't remember anything about the accident or the time immediately before the accident. Her mother tells Libby that she and her best friend Kasey Evans went to a Halloween party at a friend's house. Libby drank alot and drove away from the party with a boy named Cal. There was a terrible accident but Cal suffered only minor injuries and was able to call 911.

While still in the hospital, Libby overhears that she will be charged with impaired driving causing bodily harm. Her parents explain to her that she hit someone who has been seriously injured. Libby is completely devastated to learn this.

As Libby struggles to cope with what has happened, she learns that Cal has been coming to the hospital every day to try to see her. When Libby's mother suggests that her younger sister, Emma come to visit, she tells her mom she doesn't want visitors. However, she does receive a surprise visit from her friend, Kasey.

Kasey helps Libby remember why she didn't go to the party with Nate;  she gradually remembers that she and Nate broke up the week before the party.  Libby decides that she needs to talk with Cal so she can try to find out what happened the night of the accident.  But when Cal comes to her room he seems mostly unhelpful and unwilling to talk about what happened.

When Libby is discharged from the hospital she is taken into custody, charged and then released to her parents. This is very traumatic for her and she is barely able to cope with what is happening. She is depressed and can't eat. Once home, Kasey comes to visit her, but strangely sneaks in through Libby's bedroom window.

After Libby's first appearance in court, her lawyer, Diane Edwards, comes to visit her at home. She fills Libby in on more of the details about the accident. The night of the accident was foggy and rainy and Libby was seen leaving the party at 11:30pm. The accident occurred around midnight which leads Libby to wonder what happened to her during that half hour.  Although Cal wasn't seriously injured in the accident he claims he was unconscious for about a half hour and he didn't call 911 until 12:28pm.

After hearing these details, Libby is desperate to speak further with Cal. However, Cal's visits leave Libby with more questions than answers - and answers are what she needs. With the encouragement of Kasey and little bit of help from her, Libby works to find the answers she needs and to regain her memory. And the truth is more painful than she can ever have imagined.

Live To Tell is a psychological thriller with a big twist at the end. There's really not much in the way of character development as this short novel is mostly driven by the mystery surrounding what happened to Libby that night. Most readers will find part of the storyline very predictable, but likely won't see the twist at the end coming. The story is set in Halifax, and Harrington uses some local Canadian colloquialisms such as going to "Tims" a reference to the Tim Horton's coffee store chain.

Overall, the novel should appeal to those who are looking for a high-interest, quick read. Live To Tell is a 2014 White Pine Nominee.

Book Details:
Live To Tell by Lisa Harrington
Cormorant Books    2012
168 pp.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

who dreamed of becoming a great engineer."

Children's author, Andrea Beaty has done it again with another beautifully illustrated, engaging picture book that encourages young people to follow their passion in life. It's a lesson best learned early in life.

Little Rosie Revere is shy and likes to collect stuff so she can make gadgets and gizmos. When she was younger she showed a favourite uncle, Zookeeper Fred one of her inventions. When the invention failed, his ridicule made Rosie determined to keep her passion for creating things hidden. Until one day she meets her great-great-aunt Rose who has a dream to fly. Might Rosie help her great-great-aunt achieve  her dream?

So Rosie sets to inventing and creating once again. But when her invention doesn't work, great-great-aunt Rose tells little Rosie that failure is only a brief stop on the road to success.

This is a wonderful story told in rhyme about the value of perseverance and how we mustn't let failure or other people stop us from achieving our dreams. In a world where so many young people struggle to find their niche, it's a reminder to find our passion and make it work. People who do what they are passionate about are happier and more successful than those who are motivated by other reasons.
Rosie Revere, Engineer is illustrated by David Roberts who used watercolors, pen, and ink on Arches paper. He also used pencil and graph paper to give the pictures a mathematical or engineering atmosphere.  This is a lovely picture book with an important message for everyone, adults and children alike.

Book Details:
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty
Illustrated by David Roberts.
New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers 2013

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

The Spymistress is a fictional account of the real life Civil War heroine, Elizabeth Van Lew. It is the second novel in Jennifer Chiaverini's historical fiction series about the Civil War. Chiaverini divides her novel into short periods of several months beginning from April 1861 to April 1865. The novel opens set against the drama of secession in Richmond, Virginia.

April 1861, and the city of Richmond is in turmoil as a secession convention is being held to determine whether Virginia would follow the southern cotton states and secede from the Union. Forty-three year old Elizabeth (Lizzie) Van Lew lives with her mother, her brother John and his wife Mary and their two children Eliza and Anne, in the family's mansion in Richmond, Virginia's fashionable Church Hill neighbourhood. Lizzie has remained unmarried since the death twenty years earlier of her dearest friend and her fiance. Now she and her family watch with trepidation as more and more it appears the people of Richmond are siding with the Confederacy and into full rebellion against the United States.

While the people of Virginia and their representatives debate joining the southern states, the Van Lew family prepares for the wedding of their black servant, Mary Jane to Wilson Brewser.  The wedding serves to highlight the sympathies of each member of the Van Lew household. Lizzie's brother John gives away the bride and a reception is held at the Van Lew mansion but his wife, Mary doesn't attend either. The Van Lew's like many wealthy families in the south, own slaves but this is very much against Lizzie and her mother's wishes.  Before the death of Lizzie and John's father, a codicil was added to his will to prevent Lizzie and her mother from freeing their slaves.

When Virginia decides to secede, Lizzie, John and their mother are distraught. They know this will mean war and that many people will suffer and die. Lizzie suspects it will bring ruin to the south but even worse it will pit families against one another. But Mary is elated and speaks ill of Abraham Lincoln.

In April and May of 1861, the Confederate Congress decides to accept Virginia's offer to make Richmond the capital of the Confederate states. May sees the arrival of Jefferson Davies, (who will become President) and his wife Varina in Richmond; they take up residence in Spotswood while their official residence in the new capital is prepared for them. July sees the first significant land battle of the Civil War - the Union troops led by major general Benjamin F. Butler attack an outpost at Bethel Church in Hampton. Fighting continues around Richmond, at Manassas, as the Union troops attempt to move deeper into Virginia.

Lizzie and her mother anxiously wait throughout the day hoping for a Union victory but learn early the next morning from John, that the Confederates have won this battle - the Battle of Manassas, at a terrible cost to both sides. A thousand Union prisoners are marched into Liggon's Tobacco Factory as all the city jails are now filled. The factory has no beds, kitchens or sanitary facilities for the prisoners, many of whom are terribly wounded. When Lizzie learns of this she immediately sets out to the factory and manages to see Lieutenant Todd who is in charge. Todd refuses Lizzie's request to minister to the Union prisoners or to even briefly visit with the officers. So she takes matters into her own hands and pays a visit to Christopher G. Memminger, secretary of the treasury and also a staunch Christian. Managing to convince Memminger that it is the duty of a Christian to look after prisoners of war, even Yankee prisoners, he gives her a letter of introduction to General Winder who writes Lizzie a pass granting her permission to visit the prison and minister to the Union prisoners. Thus begins Lizzie's work in support of the Union cause.

The very next day Lizzie and her mother arrive at the prison, prepared with food and bandages. The conditions in the prison are more terrible than they imagined, many suffering from infected wounds and lack of water or food. They meet Congressman Ely who was captured as he watched the battle. Lizzie and Ely manage to work out a system whereby she lends him books and he placed messages in a unique manner in the books. These messages list the names, ranks and regiments of all the prisoners as well as a letter to President Lincoln outlining conditions at the prison.

Lizzie's activities in support of the Union have not gone unnoticed. She is watched by a spy and an article is written about her and her mother in one of the city's papers, the Examiner. Lizzie's work at the prison also leads to an unexpected blow with John deciding to move his family out of the Van Lew mansion to the other side of the city. Lizzie and her mother are shocked but John insists that this is necessary considering his wife Mary's strong rebel views. He fears for the safety of Lizzie should Mary discover what she is up to.

As the war intensifies, the Confederate Congress attempts to thwart the actions of Union sympathizers within its own territory. The first of these measures is the passing of the Alien Enemies Act which requires "men over the ages of fourteen who were not citizens of the southern states to swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederate government". By the end of August 1861 the Sequestration Act is passed which allows the Confederate government to seize the property of Unionist-supporting civilians.  By September 1861 there are over fourteen hundred men who are suspected Union sympathizers arrested. There is no doubt that Lizzie's views and actions will be considered hostile and treasonable.

Despite the increasing number of political prisoners in Richmond's jails, Lizzie continues to visit the prisons and to work on behalf of the Union cause. But she also knows that she must protect her mother and so she plans several actions that will throw into doubt her Unionist sympathies; her family hold a dinner and reception in honour of her cousin Jack's regiment, the Richmond Howitzers and they take in Captain Gibbs (who has replaced Todd) and his family for two months while they wait for a house to become available.

On February 22, 1862, Jefferson Davies is inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of America. He orders Richmond and the surrounding area to be placed under martial law. Many more suspected Union loyalists are arrested and Lizzie waits in dread to be arrested. This doesn't happen but Lizzie now knows who her fellow loyalists are.

Eventually New Orleans is captured by the North, closing the Mississippi River to the South. In April 1862, John pays a rare visit to Lizzie and his mother and informs them that at one of the many functions he and Mary attend at the Confederate Executive Mansion, he has learned that Union gunboats are heading up the James River to try to take Richmond. Mary and her mother are so certain that the North will succeed they prepare a room for General McClelland. But McClelland is not successful. Lizzie and her mother are devastated.

During the battle, Lizzie and her friend Eliza ride out to visit a Union loyalist, Mr. Botts, who has been exiled to a farm nearby. Botts tells Lizzie that she must try to unify Richmond's loyalists so they can all work together to bring about the capture of Richmond and the defeat of the Confederates. He gives Lizzie the names of other loyalists and urges her to contact them but her also tells her that she must be willing to accept the great risk involved. By July 1862 Lizzie begins to set up her network of spies which include many ordinary citizens of Richmond. These people will work to gather intelligence and to get that information past the Confederacy pickets and behind Union lines. We follow Lizzie through many terrible events of the war; the Second Battle of Manassas, the brutal battle at Sharpsburg, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the starvation endured by the people of Richmond as food becomes scarce, and the siege and capture of Richmond. This is an fascinating account of an amazing woman during a fearful time in American history. When Richmond finally is captured by the Union troops, Elizabeth Van Lew's contribution to the victory is immediately acknowledged.

One of the difficulties in writing historical fiction is that there can be a great deal of focus on historical facts which can detract from the overall reading experience. Historical fiction must be more than just the presentation of facts; the challenge is to weave those facts into the story so that the reader absorbs them without really realizing it. Chiaverini mostly achieves this goal in her novel - many of the facts are central to the story of main character, Elizabeth Van Lew and how she acts. Richmond was a city central to the Union's goal of winning the war as it was the capital of the Confederacy. Lizzie's intelligence efforts helped to bring about the capture of Richmond and end the war and the carnage sooner rather than later. So she must be placed within the complex history of the Civil War. Chiaverini's attention to detail allowed readers who are not intimately familiar with American Civil War history to understand the context of Miss Van Lew's actions and to understand what she lived through.

The author realistically portrays life in Richmond during the war. After the Seven Days Battle the terrible state of Richmond is evident even on Church Hill, where the Van Lew mansion is situated.
"In the heat of the day, a sickening, fetid odor permeated the city, so that even high atop Church Hill, the air was so foul that Lizzie and her mother could not sit on the piazza for long before choking, clutching handkerchiefs to their faces, and fleeing back inside."
and the era or event and the characters involved become real.

The character of Elizabeth Van Lewis is developed gradually throughout the novel. At the opening of the war she is a forty-three year old spinster whose life revolves around her two little nieces, Anne and Eliza. It would seem after the death of her fiance years ago, life narrowed a little for Miss Van Lew. However, with the coming of the war Lizzie is revealed to be a shrewd, intelligent woman, who is not easily intimidated by others. She is so loyal to the Union and President Lincoln that she is willing to pay the ultimate price - sacrifice her life if necessary. She suffers deeply to see Confederate boys enlisting and reveling in the fact that there will be war. She is also horrified by the conditions in the Confederate prisons and baffled by the black men who enlist to fight the Union. Chiaverini portrays her as a noble woman who did what she had to to help the war effort.

The novel is divided into time periods of several months, set in Richmond which became the official capital of the Confederacy. Readers will see how the society in the city gradually changed as the war intensified and how war affected even the most honourable of men such as Colonel Winder. Readers may find the middle of the novel to be somewhat slow, but overall this is a great read for those who enjoy novels about this period in American history.

Book Details:
The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini
New York: Penguin Group 2013
355 pp.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

September 17 by Amanda West Lewis

In the summer of 1940, Great Britain was in the throes of what became known as "the Blitz" or the Battle of Britain- the bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany in an attempt to force the British into either surrendering or as a prelude to invasion under the code name of Operation Sea Lion. The bombing began in July and lasted throughout the remainder of 1940 and into 1941, but most of the severest bombing occurred between July and October of 1940. Both civilians and the military were targeted, with much destruction and loss of life. However, the Royal Air Force (RAF) valiantly fought back to protect British airfields, industries and cities. The destruction, fires and general terror that the bombing caused made many British decide to send their children into the countryside away from the bombing, or further north and west, away from German bombers to Scotland and Wales.

Some children however were to be sent overseas to Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) organized the transport of over 200,000 children to these countries as a way to protect them from the bombing and the possible, imminent invasion by Germany. This was to be a temporary relocation as the children were expected to return after the war was over. The children could apply through their schools and they were to travel alone (without parents) but in the company of escorts who were often teachers and young people selected for this dangerous job. The children were placed on boats as part of convoys guarded by navy destroyers from German U-boat (submarine) attacks.But with the escalation of the war against Britain, these attacks turned deadly.

In August 30, 1940, the SS Volendam which was transporting three hundred and twenty children to Halifax, Nova Scotia was torpedoed by a U-boat. All of the children survived but the Volendam had to be evacuated and it was towed to Scotland for repairs. There were 120 CORB children on the Volendam. However, a second CORB transport was torpedoed on September 17, 1940. This ship, SS City of Benares was not so lucky. September 17 tells the story of some of the crew and CORB children and what happened on that fateful voyage.

September 17 has a large cast of characters and tells the story of the sinking of the SS City of Benares from the perspectives of three different characters. It is early September, 1940 and thirteen year old Kenneth John (Ken) Sparks is terrified of taking shelter under the arches of Wembley Park Station. Every air raid, Ken has pleaded with his father to allow him to stay in their flat and every time his father has refused telling him has to shelter there along with his younger sister Mollie and his stepmother. With their situation becoming more dire in terms of being able to feed everyone, Ken's stepmother convinces his father to place him into the CORB program. They arrange for Ken to stay at his stepmother's sister in Edmonton. Ken packs a small suitcase and his stepmother gives him his father's new overcoat to keep him warm.

Fourteen year old Elizabeth (Bess) Walder doesn't want to move to the country in the fall to attend St. Alban's school. She wants to stay at home with her parents and get to know the young fire man, Gareth she recently met. When Gareth enlists, Bess is disappointed but she learns from him that his younger brother is being sent to Canada as part of the CORB program. This leads Bess to try a different tact with her mother and suggest that she and her younger brother Louis go to Canada too. Eventually her parents agree to send them both to an aunt who lives in Winnipeg. Bess and Louis connect with CORB at the train station and board a train to Liverpool. During their journey to the port they meet a young girl, Gussie Grimmond, who is in charge of her four younger siblings. Bess also meets another girl at Fazakerley, Beth Cummings, who will live in Toronto with her aunt and uncle. Beth is just as excited as Bess to be traveling to Canada. They quickly become good friends and nickname each other Princess Elizabeth and Queen Bess.After a brief stay at the Children's Homes in Fazakerley, they board the ship for Canada.

Sonia Bech, her sister Barbara and younger brother, nine year old Derek, live in Aldwick, south of London, near Portsmouth. Sonia's father works in London and returns home only on the weekends. Compared to many British, Sonia and her family are well off. Fearing an invasion by the Germans is imminent, Sonia's father purchases four first class tickets on the SS City of Benares to send his family to safety in Montreal, QC. While Sonia is thrilled to be leaving on such an adventure, Barbara views the trip as an act of cowardice. Nevertheless, they pack their steamer trunks and take the train to Liverpool where they board the City of Benares.

On the City of Benares, all the children settle into the respective quarters. The CORB children are placed in the stern of the ship along with their escorts while the wealthy paying passengers are located up front. The crew of the City of Benares consists of the British officers as well as Indian men called lascars who cook, clean and keep the ship functioning. Captain Nicolls assures Sonia and her mother that they will be quite safe from the German U-boats as they will be escorted by a navy destroyer.

Ken, Bess, Beth and the rest of the CORB children are fed delicious food, have access to a playroom filled with toys and are told that they must carry their lifejackets with them at all times until they are out of the range of the U-boats. During rough weather, many of the children suffer from sea-sickness, but they do manage to spend some time enjoying themselves and making new friends. Then one morning they awaken to find that their navy escort is gone and they are considered to be in safe, neutral waters. But the British couldn't be more wrong. Their exciting adventure is about to turn deadly.

This is a vivid recounting of a terrible disaster which ultimately ended the CORB program of transporting British children out of the country. Only thirteen of the ninety CORB children on the City of Benares survived the sinking. Because the ship sank in approximately thirty minutes, it was very difficult to launch the life boats properly meaning that many of the ships crew and passengers did not end up safely in the boats. Instead, many were dumped into the frigid Atlantic waters and likely died of hypothermia.

Lewis was inspired to write the story of the sinking of the SS City of Benares after seeing an exhibit called "The Children's War" in London, England. The author did considerable research for her novel and she explains in an interview in the back of the book how the survivors of one of the lifeboats coped with the tragedy throughout their lives. Her excellent research is reflected in the novel as Lewis effectively combines historical information with her story. For example, we learn that the British families were truly struggling during the early part of the war to feed their families. The children in the novel complain about being hungry and are completely overwhelmed by the choice of food they are given on board the ship to Canada.

The dialogue between the children and the adults and also between one another is realistic. Lewis also effectively demonstrates that for each child, the journey to Canada was perceived differently and that each had their own emotional response to being sent away. Ken Sparks had mixed feelings, but mostly as a boy on the cusp of manhood, he wanted to grow up and enter the navy. In contrast, little Louis was not so keen to leave home.

September 17 is a well written novel about an event that has mostly been forgotten by history, remembered only by the family of those who lost loved ones and those who survived. But it's good that we remember the unexpected tragedies of war - the sinking of a boat carrying innocent children to a safe life in another country and also the cost of war. The U-boat commander claimed he did not know the convoy was comprised of a ship carrying children. When the Germans saw such a large convoy, they determined that it must be an important one and so made the decision to attack the ships. Even later, he did not apologize for what he had done, although the radio operators on the submarine felt remorse. We must remember and learn if we are to prevent such tragedies in the future. Lewis dedicated her novel to the children who died on September 17. In the front of her novel, Amanda Lewis has a wonderful quote by poet and director, Eve Merriam,
"I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, 'Mother, what was war?' "

Book Details:
September 17 by Amanda West Lewis
Markham ON: Red Deer Press 2013
313 pp.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dark Water Rising by Marian Hale

Dark Water Rising tells the fictional story of a young man and his family's struggle to survive during the Galveston hurricane of 1900, known as the Great Storm or the Galveston Flood.

Sixteen year old Seth Braeden moves with his family to Galveston, the fastest growing city in America in 1900. Seth's Uncle Nate has convinced his father, a master carpenter to move there, offering him a foreman job that would pay enough money to send all his boys to college. Seth however, doesn't want to go to college to study medicine - he wants to work as a carpenter. Although he tells his father this, his wishes are ignored and he is told he is too young to know what he wants.

So Seth along with his parents, his two younger brothers, twelve year old Matt and ten year old Lucas, and his younger sister, four year old Kate, move into a rental home close to the beach on Galveston Island. Seth's Uncle Nate and Aunt Julia have four boys, seventeen year old Ben who plans to attend medical school, eleven year old Andy and nine year old Will as well as ten month old Elliot. Seth finds it strange to see that his uncle has a hired black man, Ezra and his son Josiah and he's not happy about how is uncle or his dad treat them.

Almost immediately Seth is offered work as a carpenter's helper building rental homes near the beach. His father agrees to let him work provided he can save three quarters of his pay towards college. Since public school doesn't open until October, this gives Seth almost a month of work. Seth begins working for foreman George Farrell and is paired with Henry Covington, another promising, young carpenter. Also working on the construction site are the three Judson brothers, Frank, Charlie and Zachary as well as Josiah. Seth decides to walk home each day with Josiah who is quiet and treats Seth like he is his master, addressing him as "sir". This troubles Seth but he when he mentions this to Josiah, he tells Seth that this is how it must be.

Seth and his family settle in quickly. His days are filled with work as a carpenter's helper and his time off is spent at the beach. At home and at the beach Seth can't help but notice a pretty blond girl next door, whom Ben tells him is Ella Rose Covington. Ella Rose is a sixteen year old student at the Ursuline Academy. Ella and Seth meet one day and Seth learns that Henry is Ella's cousin. They decide to meet to go swimming on the Saturday. Unknown to both, their lives will soon change forever.

On Friday evening before quitting time, Ella shows up at the work site to tell Mr. Farrell that the storm flags went up that morning. On Friday evening when Ella and Seth are walking on the beach, Ella remarks how the surf looks strange and different. Neither realizes that they are witnessing the storm surge before a powerful hurricane. On Saturday morning, Seth shows up for work but he is worried; the water in the streets is over his ankles. Soon the streets begin filling with water, the bathhouses and many other beach structure are destroyed by the monster waves. By now Seth knows that this is no ordinary storm and all their lives are in peril. He manages to return home but finds his family gone.

Dark Water Rising is a good fictional account of The Great Storm that is heavily based on historical fact. Author Marian Hale used information from survivor accounts, particularly that of Katherine Vedder, who took in neighbours during the hurricane. In Dark Water Rising her family helps the fictional character of Seth and Josiah during the storm but also many others who were real people who experienced the hurricane. Most of the dialogue between the survivors who waited out the storm in her house is real.

Hale effectively portrays the devastation and death afterwards, through the eyes of Seth, who struggles to deal with what he has experienced. After the storm, the devastation is so complete that Seth and Josiah are unable to free those who are trapped in the rubble. Dark Water Rising is a reminder of the terrible force of nature and that powerful storms were likely experienced by both the early settlers to North America as well as by the indigenous peoples of the continent - with much less warning and a lack of understanding of their potential to cause a significant loss of life. This latter aspect is driven home by the descriptions of people simply continuing going about their business in Galveston without really observing what was happening around them. The wooden houses covered with their deadly slate roofs were no match for the hurricane-force winds and the slate and glass became deadly missiles that decapitated and injured.

Hale includes a lengthy Author's Note at the back of the novel that includes pictures and plenty of facts about the storm. What would have been very helpful was the inclusion of a map at the beginning of the novel showing the location of the city and the physical features and neighbourhoods. Hale does state that she "had to map the entire city, block by block, and key it to names and personal accounts" so as to choose a location to portray the devastation resulting from the storm. Overall, Dark Water Rising is a fascinating historical read.

The city of Galveston is built on a low-lying island in the Gulf of Mexico and at the time of the hurricane the highest point of the city was only a little over 8 feet about sea level. The hurricane made landfall on September 8, 1900 and meteorologists reviewing the data available consider that it was a Category 4 storm. The city did receive some warning regarding a tropical storm, but not of this magnitude. They were unprepared and unconcerned. Afterwards, Galveston was in complete ruins and over eight thousand were dead. Many people drowned or were killed by the deadly debris which was blown around. Others survived the storm but could not be freed from the rubble of collapsed buildings. The Galveston storm is still the deadliest storm to have hit the United States.

For further information on the 1900 Storm check out
The 1900 Storm- Galveston, Texas

The Portal to Texas History  has an online copy of a book, The Great Galveston Disaster by Paul Lester which was published in 1900. It makes for very interesting reading.
Lester, Paul. The great Galveston disaster, containing a full and thrilling account of the most appalling calamity of modern times including vivid descriptions of the hurricane, Book, ca. 1900; digital images, ( : accessed January 12, 2014), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting UNT Libraries, Denton, Texas.

Book Details:
Dark Water Rising by Marian Hale
New York: Henry Holt and Company    2006
233 pp.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy

Imperfect Spiral is a poignant story about a girl struggling to come to terms with a terrible accident during her summer holidays. Imperfect Spiral is really two stories interwoven; the story of five year old Humphrey T. Danker and his fifteen year old babysitter, Danielle (Danny) Snyder during the summer, and the story of what happens to Danny, her family and her town as a result of the accident. The events which occur over the summer and into the month of September, are narrated by Danny with the story of Humphrey and Danny told in flashback.  

The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Fifteen year old Danny is trying to cope with the horror that has overtaken her life - the death of little Humphrey, whom she has nicknamed "Humpty". Danielle's job for the summer had been to babysit five year old Humphrey, the son of a prominent Washington, DC lawyer known for arguing cases that have come before the Supreme Court. Humphrey's mother has seen her breast cancer return a third time and she needs someone to care for Humphrey while she undergoes treatments.

One summer evening while walking home along Quarry Road in the Franklin Grove neighbourhood, Humphrey is struck by a blue minivan. Those living along Quarry Road rush out to help; Mrs. McGillcudy brings a blanket, Mr. and Mrs. Stashowers control the bystanders and Mrs. Raskin asks if Humphrey's parents, Tom and Clarice, have been contacted. All the while, Danny cradles Humphrey's head in her hands until EMS arrive. After being checked out at the hospital, Danny is questioned at home by two police officers about what happened. She tells them that she and Humphrey were walking home when she dropped the football she was carrying. Its crazy bounce sent Humphrey into the street after it causing him to be hit by the minivan. After talking with the police, Danny learns that Humphrey has died and she is utterly devastated.

Danny's family and friends rally around her after the death of Humphrey, including those friends she has lost touch with. Her best "friend", Becca Sherman, texts her from the summer camp where she is a counselor-in-training (CIT).  Becca and Danny have attended both regular and Sunday school together, and had their Bat Mitzvahs together but over time they began to drift apart. Becca has tried to encourage Danny to come out of her shell, to join student council and be a part of student life at Western High, all to no avail. Becca wanted Danny to be a CIT with her, but she refused. Now Becca is reaching out to Danny, attempting to help her through a difficult time.

Danny's other friend, Marissa Martinez calls her after seven months of silence. Danny had a falling out with Marissa over her views about Danny's brother, Adrian. Adrian left home when he was four credits short of his high school diploma. He as a confrontational relationship with their parents who tried to plan out his life. He now works odd jobs and has signed on as a plumber's apprentice. Adrian begins coming home more frequently to help Danny cope with the tragedy. During his visits, Adrian reveals to Danny that he piecing his life back together on his own term.

After the accident, in what appears to be a chance meeting Danny sees a boy, Justin, at the park where she and Humphrey used to play. This park is full of memories for Danny because they made it into their special place, creating an imaginary world called Thrumble-Boo. Justin is from the nearby community of Montgomery Heights and Danny is puzzled as to why he is at the park in Franklin Grove. Justin tells her that he often comes to play ball with his buddies. After meeting a few times, Justin calls Danny at home to arrange to meet for coffee and they soon start to date. But it turns out that Justin has other reasons for meeting Danny, and that he has been harbouring a dark secret that draws him into what happened on Quarry Road.

As Danny struggles to cope with her feelings of guilt over Humphrey's death, the community becomes embroiled in a discussion about illegal immigrants after it is learned that the driver of the blue minivan was Eugene Folgar Guzman, an illegal immigrant whose student visa expired a decade earlier. Others in the community want sidewalks and better lighting installed along the road. Danny becomes distraught over the controversy because she feels lighting, sidewalks and more enforcement on illegal immigrants would not have saved Humphrey. It was her carelessness that resulted in his death not the lack of lighting or the presence of illegal immigrants in their community.

Meanwhile, as Danny struggles with her guilt and shame, she remembers her time with Humphrey over the summer. Humphrey proves to be a delightful child, both creative and inquisitive who seems to be largely ignored by his cerebral father whose focus is on correct grammar and proper manners. And with his gravely ill mother preoccupied with her health problems, it falls to Danny to fill in emotionally where she can.

When Danny throws a football to him, Humphrey wants to throw one too, but his throws never "spiral" like Danny's do, despite her trying repeatedly to teach him. So instead she teaches him to catch a football first. In a very touching passage, Danny struggles to understand why Humphrey isn't able to catch the ball, until she hits on a novel idea that helps Humphrey master the feat. This inspires Humphrey to continue working on trying to throw a perfect spiral - the main goal of his life as a five year old.

Eventually Danny is sent to see a therapist, Dr. Gilbert, who helps her to work through her feelings of guilt and grief over Humphrey but also to help her discover why she has made her life so narrow.

In the town though, the accident draws the community into a battle against immigrants. Danny refuses to attend the community meeting, although she does sneak in to see what happens. Later Danny is asked to testify at the Megis County Council hearing into the possible improvements on Quarry Road.   At first Danny refuses, but then she makes a brave decision to take a stand, to tell her story and what she really thinks. She decides to be an activist, like her friend Becca has insisted she has been all along.

This has to be one of the best-written young adult novels I have read. Levy grabs her readers' attention from the very beginning with the story of the  fatal accident  and then fills in the details throughout the book. Woven between these details are the struggles of Danny, Adrian, Justin, and the Dankers.

The writing is engaging and sensitive, capturing not only the guilt and remorse of a teenage girl, but also portraying a sensitive little boy who thinks a bit differently from those around him. Humphrey is a character readers will easily fall in love with, making his death all the more tragic. And yet as we read about his days with Danny and even at the end of the novel, his very last day, Humphrey's life is a triumph. He finds beauty in the simplest things and looks at the world with a sense of innocence. Levy succeeds brilliantly with the character of Humphrey because she makes her readers truly adore this little boy -  he's truly unforgettable. He is the boy who loves the purple velour pants he sees in the store when they go shopping for a gift for his mother - pants that Humphrey says "bring him to tears".

The main character of the novel, Danny, embarks on a journey of rediscovery and Humphrey and his death help her do just that. When her older brother Adrian left, Danny felt like she lost a part of herself.  She begins to close herself off from people and stops believing in herself. Her time with Humphrey reveals Danny as a perceptive young woman who cares about people. Humphrey's death and the resulting manipulation of the council meetings by people with their own agendas forces Danny to step out of her shell and to find her voice once again - if Humphrey's death is to have any sort of meaning.

The themes of healing and forgiveness are paramount in this novel. Danny begins to learn to forgive herself and try to heal from the loss of Humphrey - a little boy with whom she had a tender relationship. She must also forgive her friends for abandoning her but acknowledge her own responsibility in pushing them away. Tom Danker reaches out to forgive Danny allowing her to begin to heal, recognizing that he didn't treat Humphrey well over the summer. Adrian also began to reconcile with his parents because he was able to live his life on his terms and not those dictated by his parents. Do so meant he had to move out but that was his choice.  Even on a community level, there is a need for forgiveness; many people in the community want the Guzman's arrested and deported as illegal aliens even though they have now lived in America for over a decade and their children are completely innocent. People reasoned that if Guzman wasn't in the country he would not have hit Humphrey but Levy counters this argument by having Guzman's son save a man's life, demonstrating that this argument is a straw man. Choices in life have both good and bad consequences and it's impossible to tell which will come about.

The theme of friendship is also important in Imperfect Spiral. There's the special friendship Danny had with Humphrey despite their age difference. And then there is the friendship that Danny had with Becca. Danny was intimidated by Becca's ambition and her plans for her life. But Danny didn't have those kinds of plans yet and she wasn't as sure about her future as Becca seems to be. When her brother Adrian left, Danny began to limit herself because she didn't want to outshine her older brother. Her life got smaller and her friend Becca recognized this change but couldn't seem to help. It's only when Danny talks with Dr. Gilbert that she begins to understand this. Humphrey's death provides the motivation she needs.

Imperfect Spiral is a wonderful novel that is such a refreshing change from the typical young adult fare.  My one complaint is the book's cover which should have featured a playground with roundabout, perhaps incorporating a bumblebee mounted on springs and a football. These figured prominently in the novel and just seem to make sense on the cover.

Book Details:
Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy
New York: Walker Books An Imprint of Bloomsbury
339 pp.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Audacious by Gabrielle Prendergast

Audacious is a bold story about a girl struggling to understand herself, her place in the world and deal with the many problems in her life.

Sixteen year old Raphaelle's family moves to the wide open prairies when her father gets a new job as a professor of history at a university. Their new home is spacious, allowing Raphaelle and her younger sister Michaela to choose their own rooms. Life is supposed to be better, a fresh start for everyone.

Raphaelle is eager to move given that she has had a history of problems and acting out at all of her many previous schools. In an attempt to start over and remake herself, she changes her name to Ella and insists on attending the nearest public school, John Cretchly Collegiate rather than the Catholic one her parents want to send her and Michaela to. Michaela also decides to shorten her name to Kayli and will attend the Catholic Girls School.

Through a series of flashbacks told throughout the novel, we learn that Ella's family has had it's share of struggles; Ella's mother lost a baby, a little boy named Gabriel shortly after he was born. Her mother has never seemed to recover from this loss which left her unable to have more children. She was a stay at home mom, but found it difficult to cope and so went out to work at the local public library. But in their new town, there are no jobs at the library and she begins to lose weight. Ella begins to suspect that her mother's struggle with bulimia has returned yet again. While all of this has been going on, Ella's father is mostly uninvolved, his focus being on trying to build his career as a professor.

On her first day at school, no one talks to Ella. She decides that there will be no pranks, vengeful practical jokes - nothing inappropriate, no challenging anyone's beliefs or morals. Ella will be the good girl; she will avoid controversy and blend in. In contrast to Ella, is Kayli, popular and happy, the sister who brings home two new friends the first week of school.

Ms. Sagal, Ella's art teacher is impressed by her drawing of a mandala. Sam, a boy in Ella's class also draws a mandala. Their serious approach to art attracts the attention of two classmates, Eugenia whom Ella nicknames "Freckle Arms" and a second girl she calls "Puffy Blonde". Sam and Ella are drawn to one another but their passion for one another is coloured by the fact that their are strong cultural differences between them. Sam, as it turns out, is short for Samir and he is Muslim, the exact type of boyfriend Ella's family would not approve of. Sam tells Ella that he is serious about his faith, but that his family used to be more moderate until the 9-11 event.

Ms. Sagal tells Sam and Ella that she is in need of more pieces for the art exhibit. Ella who is struggling to cope with all the problems at home, reverts back to her bad behaviour and decides to do something controversial. The impetus for this comes from Sam whom Ella tricked into whispering into her ear resulting in him calling her "audacious". This gives Ella the idea for her art piece - nine pictures of women who go against convention. She will use the letters in the word, "audacious" to determine the subject of each picture. A will be Arab, u stands for unemployed, d for disabled and so forth. However, Ella has a shocking idea for the letter "c" - a crass, four letter slang to describe a part of the female body. Ms.Sagal approves of Ella's idea, without knowing about the subject matter for the letter "c".

Ms. Sagal's interest in Ella leads her to breakdown and confide in her teacher, telling her about the loss of Gabriel, her mother's bulimia and her father's refusal to acknowledge the problems within their family.

Ella begins her project, photographing various people for each of the letters in the word, "audacious", including Sam's older sister, Hala who represents "arab", Ms. Sagal's daughter, Marika who is disabled for the letter "d", and a homeless woman named the Phantom for the letter u which stands for ugly. For the letter "c", Ella takes a picture of her own body. Ella hangs all of her pictures but one up the day before the exhibition, returning early the next day to place the "c" picture in her artwork. Her idea is that although we use these different words to describe women, in reality these words are not who we are; in reality we are all very similar.

As it turns out, Ella is not the only student with a controversial piece of art. Samir's art is a statement for the creation of a Palestine homeland - controversial but not pornographic like Ella's work. While Ella's work is shocking, and Ms. Sagal seems to approve, the offending picture is removed from Ella's art, but the fallout is just beginning. One of the students takes a picture of the "c" picture and posts it to facebook. Considered child pornography, Ella is arrested and charged and Ms. Sagal is suspended. This happens all before Christmas but only leads to a crisis of epic proportions within Ella's family. Her mother, whose bulimia is now life-threatening ends up in hospital and Kayli, the only seemingly perfect person in the family is failing in school. This crisis provokes their father to notice that the family is deeply in trouble and to finally act.

Can Ella come to terms with who she is and with the realities of life? Can she and her family pull back from the abyss they find themselves teetering over and find a way to heal and help one another?

This novel in verse is well written, the prose sometimes rhyming and very well done. The subject matter is for more mature, older teens and touches on themes of bullying, forgiveness, acceptance, and identity- particularly Ella's journey of discovering and accepting who you are - although this journey is also mirrored by Samir, a Muslim who experiences conflict between the personal freedoms secular society offers and the duties  his Muslim faith requires of him.

Facing a crisis in school, charges in court and a deteriorating relationship with Samir, as well as her art provoking a possible hate crime, Ella questions the suffering people experience in life and the existence of God. She also begins to comprehend the consequences of her actions not only for herself but also for others who were innocent. The reality of this doesn't sink in until she goes to visit Ms. Sagal who has been suspended over the art exhibit. Ella sees that she is a single mom who needs her job to be able to support her disabled daughter and that's when she begins to think about somebody besides herself. This is a significant step in her journey towards maturity.

The theme of identity is especially prominent in the novel and Prendergast employs the pink chiffon dress that Ella mentions at the beginning of the novel as its symbol. Raphaelle discovered this pink dress at thrift store and loved the long sleeves and high collar as well its bright colour. The dress becomes a symbol of Raphaelle's identity - her desire to not conform to please others and a symbol of her rebellion. Raphaelle wore this "floaty, hot pink vintage dress/To a black and white ball...", making her stand out in a see of black. The other girls in junior high lured her into a room underneath the stairs with a bottle of whisky and then locked her there, until her dad came with the police to rescue her. With the move and the fresh start, Ella decides to give the dress away, but Kayli rescues it, recognizing that it is an integral part of who Ella really is. When Ella is packing to run away with Samir to New York, she discovers the dress and decides to keep it, recognizing and accepting what her sister did months ago. As proof of this, Ella decides to wear this dress to the Phantom lady - Charlotte Connelly's  funeral. Charlotte Connelly was a woman who lived life on her own terms - even if that meant being on the street. My one complaint about this novel was the poor cover given the significance of the pink dress in the novel. The cover artwork is acceptable but unappealing and doesn't really draw the reader to pick up the novel and read. Perhaps the paperback edition will remedy this.

Prendergast tackles many controversial topics in Audacious including the "Arab question", art vs. pornography, and the feminist notion of a woman's right to control her own body, as well as the nature of suffering and the existence of God. Despite all these weighty issues, the story doesn't feel bloated with too much substance because Raphaelle is a character who seems to be truly struggling to figure herself out. Her questions about the nature of God and suffering are especially pertinent because many people, not just teens struggle to understand this mystery and it is often a serious roadblock to faith.

Audacious is the first in a series of books, the second to be titled, "Capricious", which seems fitting given the ending of this novel. It is an installment that I look forward to as it's a sequel to a novel that's not a dystopia!

Book Details:
Audacious by Gabrielle Prendergast
Victoria, B.C.: Orca Book Publishers 2013
327 pp.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

There's no doubt this second installment in the film trilogy of Tolkien's novel, The Hobbit, is an exciting, well made movie that is a visual treat but a loose retelling of this famous story. Diehard Tolkien fans will be disappointed with Peter Jackson's film adaptation, because that is exactly what this is - a mostly made up story loosely based on the middle part of the The Hobbit.

The film opens with some backstory showing Gandalf meeting Thorin Oakenshield at the Prancing Pony and convincing him to retrieve the Arkenstone as well as to drive out Smaug from the Lonely Mountain. Gandalf tells Thorin that something evil has awakened and that he is concerned that this evil will ultimately use Smaug for its own ends.

After this, the movie picks up where the first left off,  with the dwarves entering Mirkwood accompanied by Bilbo Baggins, but without the protection of Gandalf the Grey who leaves them for a mission of his own. Gandalf warns them not to stray from the old elven path or they will become hopelessly lost. Bilbo can sense that things are not right in Mirkwood, telling Gandalf that the forest is "sick".

In a flashback, the two wizards, Gandalf and Radagast decide they need to check the sealed tombs of the nine Nazgul kings. There are rumours of a necromancer in the destroyed fortress of Dol Guldur and of the return of a terrible evil that was thought to have been destroyed 400 years earlier.

While the dwarves make their way through Mirkwood, attempting to stay on the path, Gandalf journeys to where he meets up with Radagast and together they discover the terrible truth that the Nazgul tombs have been breached. Radagast is sent by Gandalf to tell Galadriel, while Gandalf journeys to Dol Guldur to confront the evil there before it goes any further.Unfortunately, Gandalf is no match for the evil who reveals himself as Sauron.

Back in Mirkwood, the dwarves are attacked by the spiders who capture the entire party except Bilbo. Using the ring to hide himself, Bilbo can hear the spiders talking to one another about the delicious meals they have just captured. When Bilbo is in danger of losing the one ring, he viciously slays the spider and manages to free the dwarves. But their freedom is only momentary as they are captured by Legolas and Tauriel of the Mirkwood elves and taken to the elvenking, Thranduil. Tauriel is intruigued by one of the dwarves, the handsome and not so short, Kili.  Bilbo through the use of the ring manages to enter Thranduil's realm unseen and frees the dwarves by placing them in barrels which he releases into the river.

At the time of their escape, the orcs under the command of Bolg attack Thranduil's kingdom. The dwarves escape and meet up with Bard who smuggles them into Laketown where the residents of Dale now live.  However, Kili has been wounded by a Morgul blade and becomes ill. When Thranduil learns of the evil outside of his kingdom he orders it sealed. However, Tauriel upon learning of the wounded Kili, disobeys her king and leaves, followed by Legolas.

The mayor of Dale soon learns of the dwarves presence and their intent to retake the Lonely Mountain. At first the townsfolk are horrified, but Thorin manages to convince them that they will share in the treasure beneath the Lonely Mountain. They along with Bilbo are sent off on the journey with great fanfare. The people of Dale do not know however, that the dwarves continue to be hunted by Bolg and his orcs, who are in turn being followed by Tauriel and Legolas.

Bilbo finds his way into the Lonely Mountain by the runes and is sent by Thorin to steal the Arkenstone. However, he only succeeds in awakening Smaug who becomes enraged when he can smell the dwarves.In an attempt to destroy Smaug, they have him restart the long dead forges and attempt to kill him by drowning him in gold. The movie ends with Bilbo and  Thorin watching in horror as Smaug emerges from the mountain intent upon destroying Laketown for helping the dwarves.

Viewers will be captivated by the beautiful cinematography and the amazing CGI within this movie - something Peter Jackson excels at. Because this was originally a children's book, the plot is not so detailed as the adult novels in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, providing Jackson will less to work with. Perhaps because of this, Jackson has taken it upon himself to embellish the storyline with a ridiculous elven-dwarve love triangle that involves a character who does not exist in the original story and to resurrect an Orc king, Azog who has a vendetta against the dwarve heir - Thorin. It all seems a trifle silly. As well, the CGI antics of Legolas are far beyond those seen in the Lord of the Rings movies - he's amazingly agile, fast with both knife and bow, so much so that it's almost impossible to visually follow all of his moves. 

Despite this major flaw, the film effectively captures the dangerous quest of the dwarves to reclaim their long lost kingdom. Jackson does a great job of portraying the once great wealth and grandeur that characterized the dwarve kingdom of Erebor - ruins overflowing with gold, jewels and precious stones that give viewers a feel for both the wealth and the greed of the dwarves. Wealth guarded by a terrible dragon who verbally fences with Bilbo while slinking through the tons of gold that he guards - one of the best parts of the movie!

Martin Freeman is delightful as the seemingly quaint hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who is believed to be a master burglar by the dwarves. He is however,  revealed to have a stout heart filled with more courage than all the dwarves put together. Richard Armitage makes a fine Thorin, in whom we begin to see the corrupting influence of the Arkenstone and gold. He is more than willing to let Bilbo die while retrieving the Arkenstone, were it not for the conscience of Balin who pressures Thorin into helping save Bilbo from the wrath of Smaug.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives voice to Smaug, capturing his maleficence in all its evil glory. As the long-winded Smaug toys with Bilbo the suspense builds as to whether the hobbit can grab the Arkenstone and make it out of Erebor.

The Desolation of Smaug is a very, very good movie - it has visual appeal, great casting, plenty of action and suspense. Enjoy it while recognizing that it does stray from the storyline and it has lost some of the charm of the Lord of Rings movies.

The theme song, sung by Ed Sheeran, I See Fire can be enjoyed below:

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Cassandra Hobbes had been living with her mother, who tricked people into believing she was psychic. Until one day, five years ago when her mother disappeared; her blood spattered dressing room in shambles and empty. Her mother's body has never been found. Her father, Vincent Battaglia, is a United States Air Force man stationed halfway around the world so Cassie was taken by Social Services to live with her father's sister, Cassie's Aunt Tasha and Uncle Rio.

Cassie has an unusual ability to figure out people, what they like, how they think, and who they might be. This ability makes life interesting and comes in handy working at her family's restaurant. Until one day, a good-looking guy comes in for breakfast and leaves his business card for Cassie. That card is from Tanner Briggs, Special Agent FBI, with an invitation to call.

After debating whether or not to call the number, Cassie does so, thinking the call might be about her mother's disappearance. However, Briggs tells her that this is not about her mother and they arrange to meet in Denver where Cassie lives. There she meets Michael, the boy who visited her family's diner and Agent Briggs who tells her that they have a special interest in her because she has a natural aptitude for profiling people. Briggs asks Cassie to become part of this FBI program and move to Washington, DC, telling her that she will be working on crimes involving serial killers. Cassie agrees, probably partly motivated by the unsolved disappearance of her mother. With the permission of her father, Cassie moves to Quantico, Virginia an settles into the Naturals base, a Victorian-styled house. There she meets Special Agent Lacey Locke, a tall redhead who is also a profiler and who will train Cassie.

Retired marine, Judd Hawkins oversees the home and its FBI proteges who include Lia (who specializes in deception), Sloane (gifted in the area of numerics), Michael (who reads emotions) and Dean Redding (a profiler like Cassie). After a day of rest, Cassie begins her training with Locke and Dean who tell her that the unknown perpetrator of a crime is referred to as an UNSUB. When Cassie has trouble profiling, Locke tells her to put herself in the place of the person she is profiling and to think in terms of first person, "I". But Cassie, thinking back on the likely murder of her mother finds this difficult to do and so Dean tells her to think in terms of "YOU". This does give the reader a subtle hint as to the identity of the second narrator.

The unique character of all five teens makes for an interesting but volatile combination, creating tension between them, especially between Cassie, Michael and Dean. Cassie learns from Dean that his father was a serial killer who tortured and murdered nineteen women in a shed on their family property. Michael who seems to be attracted to Cassie, does whatever he can to discourage Cassie's interest in Dean, who doesn't seem to like Cassie.

Both Agent Briggs and Locke are called away to work on a special case resulting in a break in training. Sloane manages to steal a USB from Locke's briefcase, override the encryption and she, Cassie and Michael review the files on the drive. They learn that the UNSUB has killed seven people, four in DC in the past two weeks. After reviewing the files, Cassie comes to the conclusion that the UNSUB in these murders is killing women who have red hair and who work as psychics - that is they resemble Cassie's mother. Although the connection seems coincidental, Cassie is convinced that the UNSUB is escalating and sending them a message. But can Cassie convince Briggs and Locke to allow her to work on the case? More importantly, can they determine the identity of the serial killer before he strikes again, especially since it appears that Cassie is his next victim?

The Naturals is very similar in concept to the TV series, Criminal Minds which focuses on the BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit) of the FBI, an elite group of forensic profilers based who are called in on cases where the perpetrator is unknown and the crimes are of a serial nature and/or very violent. Many of the series episodes are based on real life crimes, although the real BAU does not become involved in the apprehension of suspects. Instead of elite profilers, The Naturals introduces us to a group of teens who are considered to have "natural" abilities to read people. These teens are somehow identified and then brought into this pilot program under the auspices of the FBI where they undergo training in mall courts and parking lots and are allowed, without much preparation to view files containing the details of the most violent crimes. Far-fetched?

Barnes doesn't do much better with her characters who are wooden and mostly cliched; Michael is the rich kid, whom the FBI allows keep his Porsche, Dean is the brooding, dark offspring of a serial killer, Lia is an annoying, cloy, eavesdropping girl with an interest in Michael, while Sloane is the  statistical phenom who snores like a longshoreman. There's plenty of tension among the five teens including a strange triangle that involves Michael, Dean and Cassie.

The storyline in The Naturals takes a twist in the last half, disappointingly predictable (there's never any doubt about who the serial killer is after next), as well as somewhat ridiculous (a serial killer who embeds into the FBI and not just any part of the FBI but the BAU unit!!).  The fact that a group of teenagers is able to solve a serial crime, outdoing seasoned, highly trained FBI agents stretches believability and even more so considering one of the agents is taking time out on the job to murder.

This could have been a great story - one especially appealing to those who love murder mysteries but The Naturals with it's great cover (the black gift box is part of the story and also a piece of evidence, hence the crime tape) just doesn't deliver. It's too contrived.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes is professor of psychology, having studied cognitive science, psychology and psychiatry. 

Book Details:
The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
New York: Hyperion   2013
308 pp.