Thursday, February 27, 2014

Counting Back From Nine by Valerie Sherrard

This touching novel-in-verse explores themes of betrayal, forgiveness and self-acceptance.

Laren Olivier has been seeing the boyfriend of her best friend, Nina for weeks. Laren has been sneaking around with Scott, hoping that Nina and her other friends have not noticed. She is overwhelmed by guilt and the lies she has told her friends, Nina, Morgan and Angie. She knows she has broken the cardinal rule of friendship.

When Laren tells Nina and apologizes to her, her confession not surprisingly, results in the loss of her longtime friend. She is shunned at school and defriended on facebook by Morgan and Angie. An outcast at lunch, Laren is befriended by Christine Oaken and her friend, Denise (Dee).At first Laren is not impressed that she is reduced to eating lunch with the Outcasts but that will eventually change.

Laren's world shifts dramatically again when her father is in a minor car accident on March 15. Laren and her family go to visit her father in the hospital and he is fine. However, he unexpectedly dies the next day. Both Laren and her younger brother, Jackson, have trouble coping with his death.

Then one day a seemingly innocent comment by a classmate throws Laren's world into even more turmoil. Tessa Landau, tells Laren that she witnessed Laren's father's accident and her mother being placed on a stretcher. But Laren's mother wasn't in her father's car at the time and Laren believes this is just her classmate wanting attention. However, days later she finds a note stuffed in her locker about her father and the woman passenger. Laren vaguely recalls the nurse mentioning a woman passenger and she decides that she needs to find who this person is because she might be able to tell her more about her father's final day alive.

When Laren confronts her mother about the mysterious passenger, her mother refuses to talk about it, leaving Laren to suspect the worst. She wonders who this unknown woman is whom no one will talk about. So she decides she will learn the identity of the woman from her Aunt Rita. During this time, Laren's family is struggling to cope with Jackson who is acting out by refusing to eat meat. As well Laren begins seeing a private psychologist, Dr. Socorro, who comes to the school one day per week.

As the months pass by and the school year ends, summer begins and Laren gradually works through her anger and her grief over her father's death. With the start of the new school year, Laren's relationship with Scott begins to show its true nature and she begins to see that their relationship was built on a foundation of lies and deceit. Can Laren forgive her father for what has happened but more importantly can she forgive herself?

Valerie Sherrard has crafted a brilliant novel in which the main character's revelations about her own behaviour lead to forgiveness and healing towards her deceased father. Laren realizes that her so-called "harmless" flirtation with Scott was anything but, that she knew it and she behaved badly. She questions whether this lapse in judgement means she is forever untrustworthy. She vows she will not be like her father. However, it is her mother who makes her reconsider this point of view when she tells her that her father once remarked that nothing is ever perfect but that we find the good and focus on that.

What helps Laren recognize that good in her father are the nine memories of her and her father that she reflects on through the story and that give the novel its title, Counting Back From Nine. In all those memories her father was there for her each and every time. Will Laren allow one lapse in judgement erase all of that?

Laren also discovers the meaning of true friendship too with Christine and Dee. When all her friends bailed after she made a mistake, Christine and Dee are there for her through the year she is recovering from her father's death and especially when she leaves Scott who has already moved on to another girl. They don't judge her, they are simply there for her.

Sherrard's free verse manages to convey the essence of each character in a remarkable way while presenting some important lessons about life. Laren is a young person who has been taught to live with integrity and when she fails, she eventually must confront her own actions. From her we learn that sometimes in our lives we deny the truth in order to justify the choices we've made.

Laren's mother has tried to live her life the best she can; she's been a good mother and a good wife so when Laren blames her mother for her father's actions her mother tells her that she can't be responsible for Laren's father's choices.

"Whatever your father did
or didn't do, was his choice.
I will not be accused or
blamed or held responsible
for his actions."

The beautiful cover combined with a great opening hook to grab young readers make Counting Back From Nine a popular choice for book clubs and reluctant readers. But really this is a story that all readers will enjoy. Valerie Sherrard is an award winning Canadian author who currently lives in New Brunswick. Counting Back From Nine  has been shortlisted for the Governor General's Awards in the Children's Text category, shortlisted for the 2013-2014 Red Maple Award and winner of the 2013 Horn Book Award in the Juvenile category. Sherrard has stated that she first wrote Counting Back From Nine as prose but then rewrote it as a novel in verse. So very glad she did so! It's wonderful to read well written fiction for young people. Well done!

Book Details:
Counting Back From Nine by Valerie Sherrard
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside    2013
198 pp.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau

Independent Study is a remarkable novel that grabs the reader's attention from the opening page. The second in The Testing trilogy, this novel continues the story of Malencia Vale after she has made it through the Testing phase and is now a university student.

 After six months in the Early Studies program being run in Tosu City (formerly Wichita Kansas), Cia, Tomas and Will, are part of twenty students taking their examinations that will place them into their area of study and the career path that has been chosen for them by the government. The career paths include Education, Biological Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Medicine or Government. Those who do  not pass will be "Redirected", which Cia and the others are led to believe means they will be either sent home or sent to another job.  Cia hopes to study Biological Engineering but is stunned to learn that after passing the eight hour examination she is placed in Government studies. Her friend Tomas is selected for Biological Engineering, Will for Government and Stacia for Medicine while Obidiah Martinez is Redirected.

Cia knows that her memories were wiped after passing The Testing which was run by the United Commonwealth Government. She made a recording on her brother's Transit Communicator that told what happened during the testing and she knows that the testing included murder. But she doubts what was recorded so to try to determine the truth Cia surrepitously follows Obidiah as he is escorted by a University official to the TU Administration building. She discovers Obidiah's redirection is simply a euphemism for murder as she witnesses his body being removed. Dr. Jedidiah Barnes who is in charge of the testing process ordered Obidiah's redirection and tells an official that this is unfortunate but necessary.

Cia decides that she needs to leave Tosu City immediately. But when she attempts to do so, she is confronted by Tosu official Michal Gallen who tells her she cannot run away. Cia confirms what Michal suspects - that she remembers her testing. He tells her that she must stay and reveals to her that there is a group of rebels under the leadership of Symon Dean who is determined to put an end to the testing. Dean plans to do this by convincing the president and members of the Debate Chamber to change the law and bring the testing process back under government jurisdiction. Dr. Barnes will be removed as head of testing and the process to find leaders for the Commonwealth will be what it was once meant to be - a process that does not include murder. A second more volatile faction of rebels, led by Ranetta Janke,  believes that Barnes and all the top administrators must be removed in order for things to change.

Michal tells Cia that she can help by continuing on the path the Administration has chosen for her. He tells her that her internship might provide her with information that will help the rebels. Michal also reveals to Cia that besides the three students from the colonies, there are sixteen students from Tosu City who did not have to undergo the testing but who wrote the exam and who have been specially prepared and were selected for Government. This means that Cia's chance to get an internship will be slim.

Professor Verna Holt who is in charge of Government Studies takes Cia to meet her final-year student who is to take the nineteen students to their new home. Groups of students are assigned to a study guide and Ian Maas is to be Cia's guide. Shortly after arriving in her room, Cia faces her first test in what is known as the Induction. She also meets with Professor Holt who informs her that because she has scored so well on the testing, she will be taking nine classes. Ian whom Cia now knows is the person Michal sent to help her, tells her that she is being watched very closely. While the first test was relatively easy, the second test is much more complex as the students are divided into teams of four. The goal is to obtain possession of all four markers upon return to Government Studies. Cia is chosen as a team captain and picks Enzo, Will and Damone.  Cia's team wins the Induction challenge, returning to the Government Studies building first. Other teams are not so lucky. Four students do not return, part of one team who failed. There are now twelve students remaining.

Ian warns Cia that because she was able to figure out the final part of the Induction so quickly, she has aroused the suspicion of Dr. Barnes and Professor Holt. He tells her to work hard and to wait to see what her internship will be. That internship turns out to be with the United Commonwealth President, Anneline Collindar.

Cia meets with President Collindar who tells her that she is disturbed that so many students fail to graduate from the University and she asks Cia to trust her. They travel to Collindar's offices which are adjacent to the Central Government Building. Cia is surprised to see Michal working there and after taking her on a tour he fills her in on what is happening in the government.

Michal explains to Cia that although President Collindar is in charge, the power is really held by Dr. Barnes who is responsible for selecting the potential future leaders through The Testing program. This means that Dr. Barnes and his people actually control the Debate Chamber. Collindar is attempting to regain control of the government and the Debate Chamber. Michal explains that she is trying to make The Testing program accountable to the government once again but that Dr. Barnes is doing all he can to thwart this effort. If she cannot change the law, President Collindar may lose the presidency through a lack of confidence vote.

Both Collindar and Barnes are aware of the rebel faction wanting to change the testing; Collindar wants the change to occur peacefully but Janke's group is prepared to force the change by violent means if necessary. Michal tells Cia that Symon Dean feels the only way to win over the Debate Chamber is to prevent evidence of what The Testing really is by either audio or video recordings.

Because of something she saw during the final Induction trial, Cia believes that the rebels are camped out on the abandoned airfield outside of Tosu City. When she decides to bike out there one night she is attacked by Damone who tries to kill her, but Cia is saved by Raffe. When her trip out to the airfield proves her suspicions correct, Cia contacts Michal. He tells her that the Debate Chamber vote is just days away. Cia knows she needs to get firm proof of what's happening during The Testing to the President. When Raffe offers to provide that proof, Cia, Michal and Raffe uncover a betrayal none ever expected.


Independent Study is a face paced, exciting read that keeps readers on edge from beginning to end. Between the tension-filled action scenes there are plenty of unexpected plot twists. This second  novel is a strong second book in the trilogy, revealing the heroine's purpose (to expose the deadly Testing and stop or change it) and strengthening the overall storyline. Narrated in Cia's practical voice, it provides readers with more of the back story to the United Commonwealth that was formerly the United States of America. Readers also learn more about the way the government is set up and how the testing is organized. There are however weaknesses in the novel's basic storyline. For example, it seems puzzling that government struggling to recover from a war and environmental catastrophe would set about killing off some of its best young citizens through a testing competition and afterwards in university.  Charbonneau has left open the possibility that "redirection" might mean something other than death for those who have failed. Nevertheless, the penalty for failure seems extreme given the state of the country.

Cia is a strong heroine - in fact too strong and too perfect - and it's her characterization that is the main weakness of this novel. She's brilliant at math and sciences, highly intuitive, more perceptive than her peers, is physically capable, and morally superior. It's no wonder fellow student, Damone hates her. Although her voice as narrator is realistic and engaging, she's too perfect, especially in comparison to the other female characters in the novel. Only President Collindar seems to measure up to Cia.

There are plenty of other characters; Ian, Michal, Tomas, Raffe, Enzo and Will - most of whom we really don't get to know more about. They are all supporting characters who help the main character, Cia, on her quest to expose The Testing for what it truly is. Her arch-enemy is shaping up to be Dr. Barnes, although he has yet to confront Cia directly. His interactions with her are mostly passive-aggressive, warning her in subtle ways against going against him. Charbonneau excels at keeping her readers guessing as to which characters might be working against Cia; Ian, Michal and even some of the other students are all suspects.

Despite these weaknesses, this novel was enjoyable. The ending has set up the final novel for what will surely be the end game between Cia. President Collindar, Dr.Barnes and Professor Holt.

Book Details:
Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt     2013
310 pp.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Time After Time by Tamara Ireland Stone

Time After Time is the companion novel to Time Between Us. In this book, the story of Anna and Bennett continues but is told from Bennett's point of view. In August 2012, Bennett has been home for three months. Bennett's parents want him to stop time traveling as it's too dangerous and he doesn't seem to have control over what happens. They also want him to start living his own life in the time he was placed.  But over the last three months, Bennett and his sister, Brooke, have travelled to numerous concerts. Anna will be returning from her exchange in La Paz, Mexico and Bennett plans to travel to see her. So to cover his trip to see Anna in 1995 Evanston, Illinois, Bennett tells them he is going camping in the mountains.

When Bennett arrives in Evanston, he finds Anna's parents less than welcoming. Unrealistically, Bennett had hoped they would not hold his vanishing suddenly against him, but that does not seem to be the case. He and Anna spend the night together at her home. Bennett tells Anna he can only spend a maximum of three days at a time with her, that he's tried to stay longer but that he gets knocked back to his own time. Anna is unhappy about this but accepts their strange long distance relationship as it is.

When Bennett arrives to stay at his grandmother, Maggie's home, he learns that she went to visit her daughter - Bennett's mom, in San Francisco on the urging of Anna. It seems that Anna encouraged her to go visit because of what Bennett had told her. So Anna has affected the future based on knowledge she obtained from Bennett.

Bennett returns to 2012 and during breakfast on his first day back, learns about a terrible fire in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco that results in the death of two little children. His father feels that Bennett should time travel back to prevent tragedies like this and is contemptuous when Bennett does nothing. Meanwhile, Bennett seems unable to settle into life at school in 2012. He is emotionally distant from his friends, uninterested in a nice girl named Megan, and unmotivated to complete his school work.

Bennett decides to go back in time to the scene of the Tenderloin fire and intervenes to change what happened. For the next three weeks he lives "in the present", although he spends time thinking about Anna. When he returns to 1995, Bennett goes to Anna's friend, Emma's party where he tells her about the Tenderloin do-over, they spend three days in Paris, and Bennett does a do-over in 1997 to help someone who is injured in that time. But then the unexpected happens - Bennett passes out and awakens at his grandmother, Maggie's home. Bennett decides to tell Maggie about his abilities and a bit about what happens in the future but he warns her against doing anything to change that future.

Back in 2012, one day in October,  Bennett learns about another tragedy and this time he and his father go back in time to change what happened. Thrilled at the result, Bennett decides he has to tell Anna about this but when he attempts to return to 1995, he gets thrown back to his own time. Except he is injured and 22 hours are unaccounted for. Bennett has no idea where he has been for those 22 hours. This also means that he missed Anna's homecoming.When Bennett does finally get back to 1995, he tells her that his parents have requested that he stop time travelling. This causes a great deal of conflict between the two of them and Bennett promises that he will tell his parents about her.

To prove to Anna that he is serious about their relationship despite the time travelling, he brings Brooke back with him to 1995. But an expected event in Anna's life reinforces Bennett's belief that he cannot continue to redo time to help people without influencing the lives of others. Bennett must now make the decision as to whether to keep seeing Anna or to stay in 2012 and live his own life. Convinced he's not meant to be in her life in 1995, Bennett must tell Anna despite his desire to keep seeing her.

Overall this was an engaging novel that continues the interesting premise Tamara Stone set up in the first novel. Bennett's narrative was interesting because it showed him facing two major conflicts - whether or not to help people who have suffered a tragedy and whether or not to keep seeing Anna. In this novel, Bennett breaks his own rule of not changing things on two different occasions.Although this makes him feel like he is helping others, when tragedy strikes Anna's life, Bennett finds that it's not so simple to stage a "do-over" because too many lives could be changed.

He also must face the inevitable impossibility of his relationship with Anna - continuing a relationship where he can see her only three days at a time. At first Bennett believes that travelling back to see Anna won't work, but she tells him that she wants him to keep coming back and that she won't place any restrictions on when or how he comes back. This makes their whole, out of time relationship seem very tenuous at best, with neither being able to live their lives fully in the time they are placed. For me this made the ending somewhat unsatisfying because I wanted Bennett to face the reality of his situation - something he seemed to do until his sister Brooke convinced him to go back once more.

Stone doesn't focus on the how's and why's of Bennett's time travelling abilities which she keeps quite simple so as to not bog down her story. Although the ending seems far-fetched and wraps up rather quickly and neatly, it would be interesting to see where Bennett and Anna are in five years time.

Time After Time is a well written sequel to Time Between Us which most young readers will enjoy both the romantic elements and the suspense of wondering what will happen to Anna and Bennett.

Book Details:
Time After Time by Tamara Ireland Stone
New York: Hyperion      2013
339 pp.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Promise of Amazing by Robin Constantine

The Promise of Amazing tells the story of two young people who have a completely unplanned, incongruous encounter that leads to a relationship.
Wren Caswell is an average student in the junior class at Sacred Heart Academy. Her average marks means she's unlikely (according to Mrs. Fiore) to apply to Harvard. Ranked 49th out of 102 students, she has been denied admission to the Sacred Heart Honor Society.

Wren lives with her dad, who is a lawyer and her mother who runs the family wedding business called Camelot where Wren helps out. She also has two older siblings, Josh and Brooke.

She has just come off a break-up with her boyfriend, Trevor DiMarco, who dumped her so he could be free for his first year of college at SUNY Purchase in the fall. Trev was a friend of her brother Josh,when they attended St. Gabriel Prep.

Grayson Barrett lives with his dad and his new wife, Tiffany. His father is in the real estate business and they are well off. Grayson's parents split 6 years ago, with his mother taking off for another man. Grayson was one of the stars of St. Gabriel Prep, a top student and star of the lacrosse team. But last year he was expelled for selling term papers. Gone is his chance to get into Harvard.

While serving at a wedding one night, Wren steps in to save a boy who is choking. The boy happens to be Grayson Barrett. Grayson is immediately attracted to her and decides to pursue Wren. He knows he needs to change the path he has gone down, and Wren seems like the ticket to make that happen. He feels that Wren is a good person, someone he can be himself around. When Grayson comes clean about why he was expelled from St. Gabe's, Wren backs away from him. Undaunted, Grayson decides to apply for a job at Camelot so that he can get to know her better.

But Wren has no idea just what a bad boy Grayson is, because pimping term papers was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next few weeks Grayson and Wren see each other and fall in love. Motivated by his feelings for Wren, Grayson tries to break away from the group of guys he's been involved with. But this proves to be more difficult than he imagined. His friend Luke, refuses to let Grayson leave. Can Grayson find the inner strength to do what is right and win Wren back?

The Promise of Amazing has some great strengths and some terrible weakness. This book brilliantly portrayed modern life with all its tragedies and difficulties. Especially poignant is the Thanksgiving dinner Grayson experiences with his mother's second family. Grayson is lost between the two worlds his divorced parents have created. He doesn't fit in with either.

His mother has remarried and started a new family, with two young children, Ryder and Gwen. When Grayson goes to the holiday dinner there, he still has a great deal of anger towards his mother for cheating on his dad. He has a disparaging name for his stepfather and ends up leaving the dinner early. This scene realistically portrays the alienation and loneliness teens often feel and are forced to accept when the adults in their lives behave selfishly. It also accurately reflects the anger many children feel towards the parent (in this case, Grayson's mother) who abandons the home without sufficient cause.
"The day my mother left wasn't monumental. My parents' divorce was sickeningly amicable....No glasses thrown across the room. No heated debates over who got what. They simply woke up one day, decided they didn't like the life they were living, and said, "Okay, done with" But the one thing they couldn't split down the middle was me."
His parents divorce seems to be the force behind Grayson's bad behaviour - pimping term papers and becoming involved in a theft ring to finance a graduation trip to Europe. His world seemed, not surprising, to have unraveled. However, Constantine has her character come to realize that his problems have arisen BECAUSE he has not moved on rather than being due to the fact that his world was shattered when his parents divorced. While it's true that Grayson, like all children, must come to terms with his parent's divorce, this is often easier said than done and often assumed by adults to just happen.

Constantine told her story using two narratives, those of the main characters, Grayson and Wren. For the most part their entire relationship was unappealing. Credibility was strained as to how quickly Grayson and Wren's relationship developed, despite Grayson repeatedly stating he wanted to move slowly and develop a friendship first.Wren seemed determined to give Grayson chance after chance despite his behaviour demonstrating again and again that this was not a good boy to be with.

Neither character was particularly appealing. At times the things Grayson says and thinks seem either too mature for someone his age, or too immature. There's plenty of "f" words or variations of the same and a total obsession with sex. Grayson's prime motivation for changing his life was the brief encounter he has with Wren while choking. For some inexplicable reason, Grayson's conscience seemed to assert itself when he was with Wren. Even he was puzzled by this. He was a mostly despicable character whose immoral behaviour, rationalization and lack of conscience made him wholly unlikeable even when he was trying to redeem himself.

Grayson's redemption is accomplished gradually through the novel, although he's a liar right to the very end. He gradually changes from the sexy boy with a bad attitude, a player, thief and liar, to at least a person who has come to the realization that he has been "stealing trust". His attempt to leave the theft ring that he and Luke created, his confession to Wren about his past and the realization that he needs to repair his broken relationship with his mother are commendable but don't outweigh the fact that for the balance of the novel Grayson is genuinely unlikable.

Wren is good, kind and hard-working and in a word boring until she meets Grayson. Her indecision regarding Grayson when it's obvious he's not a good person, and her repeated rationalizing of his behaviour is tiresome. She too experiences her own journey in the novel. Always known as the quiet, obedient daughter and student, she begins to assert herself and even tells Mrs. Fiore how her speech about Harvard affects the students. Wren comes to realize that a piece of paper labeling her doesn't define her.

I also didn't like that this novel perpetuated the all too common perspective that hooking up with multiple people is a normal part of teenage years as expressed by Wren's girlfriend, Jazz who advises "What I'm getting at is -- so what if he's been with other girls? It only means he's experienced.....We're sixteen... this is what it's supposed to be." This kind of boy drama is best left to older girls in college, or maybe never. Sixteen year old girls should be focused on school, sports and other extra curricular activities that build character and social awareness.

The Promise of Amazing doesn't deliver the promise of the title. There is lots of mature content in the book making it more suitable for older teens who will likely find Grayson and Wren's relationship silly. Most annoying was the repeated us of phrases such as "a hormonal puddle of hotness" that are awkward and cliched. The Promise of Amazing is a take on the good girl meets "the sexy, troubled bad boy" theme with an ending that is most unsatisfying, making it a novel that is best passed over.

Book Details:
The Promise of Amazing by Robin Constantine
New York: Balzer & Bray An imprint of HarperCollins     2014
371 pp.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Underground Soldier by Marsha Skrypuch

Thirteen year old Luka Barukovich has escaped from a work camp by hiding in the back of a truck loaded with corpses. Luka has reluctantly left his friend, Lida Ferezuk behind, to whatever her fate will be. He can only hope that one day they will see each other again. Luka had been a slave working in a metal factory making bombs but was wounded in the thigh during an attack on the factory.

Luka intends to walk over the mountains and back to Kyiv where he hopes to reunite with his father who is in Siberia and his mother. He sets out for the mountains in the distance but while walking through a farmers mucky field, Luka badly cuts his foot. Cold, hungry and not properly dressed for travel, Luka manages to find shelter in the farmer's barn. His luck changes the next day when he is caught by the farmer's wife attempting to steal food from their well stocked pantry.

The farmers,Helmut and Margarete, are Germans who were given the farm by the Nazis when they overran this area. They have two sons, Claus, who is serving at the Eastern Front and Martin, whom they mention nothing about. Luka learns Helmut's farm is near Breslau, in what used to be Poland, but is now part of the Third Reich. All of the Polish people who lived on these farms have been forcibly removed and the Germans moved onto them.

Helmut and Margarete clean Luka up,  treat his wounds, feed him and lock him in one of the bedrooms for the night. Luka wants to escape and continue his journey to Kyiv, but Helmut and Margarete insist that he stay. Weighing the risk of having him stay at the farm against the chances of him dying on the way to Kyiv, they decide he should stay until he has recovered his health. They advise him that with winter coming on he will not likely survive the journey.

Luka stays with them for a time but when their son Martin pays an unexpected visit to the farm, they decide it is too dangerous for Luka to remain. Luka hides while Martin visits but he quickly places Martin's voice as that of Officer Schmidt from the labour camp. If Schmidt finds him, Luka knows he will be shot on sight.

Helmut and Margarete pack a rucksack of food and warm clothing for Luka and take him to the forested area along the Oder River where they drop him off. They tell him to follow the river south to reach the foothills. For Luka this journey will ultimately bring him to safety but it will not be without tragedy.Luka manages to make it to the Polish-Czech border, avoiding the German bandit hunters who kill those hiding in the forest. By mid-December he has reached the mountains and there he encounters the people working in an underground Red Cross hospital. It is here that he learns about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army which is fighting both the Germans and the Russians. Luka decides he wants to be a part of this underground army. But he soon realizes that he is better suited to healing than killing.

When the war ends, Luka is persuaded to go to the refugee camps in the hopes that he will be able to find his mother and also Lida.

Underground Soldier is the third short novel in Skrypuch's trilogy of novels which includes Stolen Child and Making Bombs For Hitler. These are companion novels which explore events that occurred in Poland, Russia, Germany and the Ukraine. Stolen Child introduces young readers to the horrific Lebensborn program which involved the Nazi's removing children (with "Aryan characteristics") from their parents with the intent of Germanizing these children. Five year old Larissa Ferezuk is stolen from her family and "adopted" into General Himmel's family and renamed as Gretchen Himmel. However, her sister, eight year old Lida is sent to a labour camp. We read about her situation in the novel, Making Bombs For Hitler. On the way to the labour camp, Lida meets a young man, Luka, who befriends her.  Now in Underground Soldier, we learn of Luka's fate.

Luka is a strong character, determined to find his father and mother and also to be reunited with his friend, Lida. He is loyal to his country and devastated to learn that Kyiv has been destroyed. Eventually he comes to realize that his plan to find his father is probably impossible.  Luka represents all those people, young and old, who survived the war only to learn they were the sole survivors- that their families perished or were incarcerated in Soviet Russia and likely never to be freed.

In addition to being a well written story, Underground Soldier provides readers with information about certain aspects of the Second World War in Eastern Europe that they might not necessarily know about. For example, for people living in Eastern Europe,(Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and Ukraine) the Nazi's were but one of two enemies - the other being the Soviets. For people in the western world, the Soviet Union was considered an ally working towards the destruction of the Nazi regime. But both Joseph Stalin, who was the leader of the Soviet Union, and Adolf Hitler of Germany oppressed the people living in Eastern Europe when they came to occupy land in these countries. Liberation from one meant oppression by the other; the Gestapo was simply replaced by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) when the Russians "liberated" areas held by Nazi Germany and vice versa.

Another interesting fact is how the Soviets treated the survivors of the Nazi-occupied areas of Russia and Eastern Europe. These people were hunted down by the NKVD and sent to camps in Siberia by Stalin who considered them traitors for being captured! Luka was one such person and his youth was no excuse for being in a labour camp.

We also learn through the characters of Helmut and Margarete how families in occupied countries like Poland lost their farms to Germans who were settled on the land taken away from these people. Often these families were sent to work camps or simply murdered.

A map of the area Luka traveled through would have been interesting and helped the reader to more easily place the events in the novel. There is an Author's Note at the back which provides short notes on several important historical events such as the Bykivnia massacre.

Skrypuch has crafted yet another excellent novel that deals with a very dark part of history without being too graphic. Historical novels allow us to examine and to think about the past, and hopefully to learn a thing or two about tolerance and living peacefully with those from different cultures.

Book Details:
Underground Soldier by Marsha Skrypuch
Toronto: Scholastic Canada   2014
192 pp.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher

The Killing Woods is British author, Lucy Christopher's third novel. Like her first novel, Stolen, is a novel combining the elements of suspense and mystery. In this novel, Christopher takes on themes of loyalty, truth and justice.

On a Friday night in late August, Emily Shepherd is shocked to see her dad carrying a young girl out of Darkwood forest, near their home. That girl, Ashlee Parker, a classmate of Emily's, is dead and her father, an ex-army man is the only suspect. Emily's father who has been honorably discharged from the military has been suffering from PTSD after an insurgent incident in which he killed a 16 year old civilian. Police believe that Emily's father murdered Ashlee during a flashback episode. But Emily can't believe her father is responsible.

On the Saturday morning following Ashlee's murder, Damon Hilary awakens to find himself hungover and not able to remember the events of the night before when he and girlfriend Ashlee played "the Game" in Darkwood forest. "The Game" was originally a type of war game that Damon played in Darkwood with his buddies, Mack Jenkins, Charlie Jones and Ed Wilkes, all of them intending on enlisting in the army some day. They each wore dog collars with the object of the game being to avoid being caught first and to capture the other players' collars. The game is usually accompanied by drinking and drugs. When Ashlee became Damon's girlfriend she was keen to join in, telling Damon that she too was intending to sign up with the military.

Damon is stunned to learn from Mack that Ashlee was found murdered in Darkwood forest by Emily Shepherd's father who is now charged with her murder.  No matter how hard he tries, Damon cannot remember what happened that night that might have led to Ashlee's death. He remembers Ashlee drinking and doing  the drugs that Ashlee brought with her and that she left to take the short way back home but that is all. He has no memory of how he got home.

At school in October, Damon, who is a prefect, breaks up a fight between Emily and another classmate. As a detention, Damon has Emily meet him in Darkwood at a place called the Leap, planning to make her run hard and also to question her. Emily is warned by her friend Joe not to take Damon up on his offer, but Emily feels that Damon who was the last person to see Emily alive that night knows the truth of what happened.

Emily meets Damon in Darkwood, determined to question him about that night in August. Although her mother has all but given up on Emily's father, she cannot. Damon too has questions for Emily. He is surprised by Emily's ability to run and, worse, he is troubled by her staunch belief that her father did not kill Ashlee.

This creates tremendous conflict for Damon who is beginning to suspect that something happened that night during the game and that he might be responsible. Damon realizes he has to try to remember what happened the night Ashlee died so to that end he arranges for his friends, Mack, Charlie and Ed to meet him at Darkwood to play the Game again as a sort of memorial to Ashlee. This helps to bring back bits and pieces of his memory that lead to only more questions.

Emily meanwhile investigates the bunker that her father frequented when he visited Darkwood. She finds drawings over the walls of the bunker and later on finds a drawing in her father's car of a deer being chased by a wolf. This drawing deeply upsets Emily because she feels the deer looks like Ashlee and the wolf like her father. Emily is determined to understand what this drawing means and whether or not she needs to show  the police. Can Emily and Damon, working to find answers, solve the mystery of what happened that fateful night in Darkwood?

Christopher has crafted a unique mystery, telling her story using the narratives of Emily and Damon. Emily is a character who is loyal to her father and her love for him pushes her to work to discover the truth about the night Ashlee died. The police are too willing to accept the theory that Emily's father experienced a flashback triggered by the lightning and thunder of the storm. Her mother is also willing to accept this scenario and is ready to abandon Emily's father and "move on" to another town to start over. But Emily cannot. Despite his post-traumatic stress disorder, Emily still believes the man who is her father would not kill.

Damon on the other hand is driven by the need to know if he could have killed his girlfriend, Ashlee. Damon is shallow, self-centered and seems somewhat irresponsible. He was the last person to see Ashlee alive and presumably he left her drunk, alone in Darkwood to find her way home. What kind of boyfriend does that make him? One wonders about his motivation for discovering the truth, is it his troubled conscience and does he really care that Emily's father is in jail for a murder he might not have committed?  Damon decides to recreate, to the best of his ability, the events of that night by returning to Darkwood with his friends. While he regains some of his memory and this only strengthens his belief that he was somehow involved, Damon doesn't run away, but continues to search for the truth.

The author gradually uncovers the mystery through the experiences of Emily and Damon, and while the truth of how Ashlee died that night provides the twist to this novel, the solution to the mystery is really not so unpredictable.

The main weakness in this novel seems to be the incident involving the discovery of Ashlee's cell phone and its ability to function months after being exposed to the elements. Damon's discovery of Ashlee's phone and what it comes to mean for him are important to the storyline. The issue is mainly whether a cell phone would function at all months after exposure or whether it would have had to have been taken to the police and a forensic investigator. It would seem that one of the most significant parts of the investigation into Ashlee's death would have been the recovery of her phone, yet we hear nothing about this at the beginning of the novel.

Despite this, Lucy Christopher has written yet another engaging novel, dealing with an unusual social issue, that draws readers in with a good opening chapter and well formed characters. Readers will want to read on to discover what really happened that night.

Book Details:
The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher
Frome, Somerset, UK: Chicken House an imprint of Scholastic Inc.
359 pp.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Trick of The Light by Lois Metzger

"Anorexia takes a terrific person and turns him into a lying, moody, deceitful, self-centered manipulator."

Lois Metzger has written a novel that accurately and with great sensitivity, explores the world of anorexia and bulimia. A Trick of The Light specifically deals with a teenage boy who develops anorexia when his family experiences a crisis. Anorexia is a hidden disease among adolescent boys because it isn't as common among males and it also doesn't have the apparent physical repercussions that starvation has on the female body.

Mike Welles is a fifteen year old who lives in Belle Heights in Queens, New York. Mike's mom Regina (Gina) is a professional organizer and his father, Douglas, is a lawyer.

Mike and his best friend, Tamio Weissberg have just seen the 1933 version of King Kong at the neighbourhood theatre that shows only classics. Mike and Tamio met in sixth grade at Belle Heights Middle School and have been friends ever since. They share a love of stop animation or stop motion cinematography.

Shortly after this and before the beginning of grade ten, Mikes family begins to fall apart. His mom seems to spend alot of time sleeping and not going to work. When she does to to work she seems disorganized and struggling. At the same time, Mike's father is never home, instead focusing on working out at the gym. Mike enjoys eating but one day notices that he has been gaining weight, particularly around his belly.  When he asks his father if he can accompany him to the gym his father refuses, much to Mike's disappointment.

While out on an errand for his mom, Mike encounters a classmate, Amber Alley, who is a loner and bit weird. Athough Mike has no interest in her, the voice in his head tells him to talk to her. Mike goes into the flea market where he spies himself in a mirror. He looks fat and wonders how he got that way - at least that's what the voice in his head tells him. He decides to buy the mirror even though it will cost him all the money he has in his wallet.

The first day of grade 10, Mike's homeroom teacher, Mr. Clayton introduces a new student, Valerie Braylock. Mike thinks she's beautiful and discovers that she is a ballet dancer. He tells Tamio that he is in love with Valerie.  When he asks Valerie out a few days later and she refuses, Mike thinks she doesn't want to go out with him because he's fat. Later on he sees Valerie in the hallway talking with Tamio leading Mike to believe that Tamio has gone behind his back and that he and Valerie are a couple. Mike's day only gets worse when he arrives home and his father announces that he is leaving the family for a younger woman whom he met at the gym. This leaves Mike completely unmoored  - "My dad's mom's a wreck."

The voice inside his head convinces him that his parents don't matter, that he can be fit, he can be strong, that he can control the chaos.

"Strong body, strong mind, strong enough to master the chaos."

So Mike begins restricting his food intake, he skips breakfast and lunch. He meets up with Amber who seems to have a wealth of knowledge about food. Mike goes with Amber to the grocery store to learn about different foods. When he asks her where she gets her information from she tells him that it comes from her best friend "Anna".

Mike quickly moves from not just restricting his calories but also begins to exercise, running, doing situps and pushups. Since he's often left alone at home, he begins eating what he wants when he wants.

By October, Mike's mom notices that he has lost weight. Mike refuses to be drawn into a discussion about his weight. His mother begins making dinners again but Mike finds he simply cannot eat. Distraught that he has to eat dinner, he calls Amber who provides him with ways to lie to his mother about what he's eating. Mike's mom gradually starts to pull herself together- she begins doing the laundry and making meals again as well as seeing a therapist. But as she begins to heal, she notices that Mike is unwell, withdrawn, unhappy and that he's lost alot of weight. She also recognizes that he is wearing lots of bulky clothing and seems to be complaining of the cold.

At this point several people attempt to intervene in Mike's life. One of them is his friend Tamio who has never stopped begin Mike's friend and who is genuinely concerned for his friend. He confronts Mike about how he looks, showing him a picture of a haggard, skinny man. But Mike gives Tamio the brush-off. Another person is his mom who decides to take him to her doctor. But the doctor refuses to see anything wrong with Mike.Even his physics teacher, Mr. Clayton expresses his concern to Mike.

The turning point comes when Amber is hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat and other problems. By this time Mike too has lost so much weight that he is unable to concentrate, has little energy, is cold all the time and blacks out at home. His mother forces him into hospital to be treated.  He will not be released until he has regained 90 per cent of his body weight and he undergoes therapy.

Metzger had done a great job in A Trick Of The Light of capturing the typical thought processes that an anorexic experiences. Much of the cognitive distortion comes about as a result of starvation and that is why the first approach is to have the person regain as much weight as possible so the persistent thoughts about food and distorted views of themselves can be treated. A perfect example is given when the tiny voice inside Mike states "I think parents generally do their children more harm than good, and Mike's parents are no exception. They don't seem to care about him." And it is this voice, the anorexia, that narrates the story until almost the very end of the novel. Metzger is not the first author to utilize this approach for a novel on eating disorders, but she does an excellent job.

Like Mike, many teens with an eating disorder are high achievers, and they may also be perfectionists. The often think they are ugly, stupid and unworthy. Anorexia is a way to gain control in their lives, when things seem to have gotten out of hand. In what seems to be a paradox, the best way to treat an anorexic is to completely control almost everything about their eating, deciding what they eat, to portion size, and how much they eat. They must be treated like toddlers until they are able to relearn how to eat properly.

I particularly liked the therapist in the novel and how she explained what the eating disorder had done to Mike. She was able to show Mike how the eating disorder overtook his life so that the only thing that remains now IS the eating disorder. Very little is left of him. He must reclaim himself if he wants to get better.

Metzger includes an Author's Note at the back of the novel in which she describes reading an article about a boy with an eating disorder. She managed to talk to that boy and his doctor and family as well as other families of anorexics in order to better understand this deadly illness. It took Metzger ten years to write this novel. The author also provides a short list of resources in her note. I highly recommend James Lock and Daniel Le Grange's Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder. There are many causes of anorexia, and in some cases a number of factors may be involved. In Mike's situation, it is likely his family breakup contributed significantly to his illness. He was left to fend for himself emotionally and physically at a time when he was abandoned by both his mother and father. We may think a 15 year old is almost an adult, but in fact, he is still very much a young person in need of two parents.

In December 2013 my youngest daughter was diagnosed with anorexia. She has had problems with weight loss the last two years but because she lied about what was going on and managed to keep her weight up, the doctors thought her weight loss was due to anxiety issues and not body dismorphia. They were partly right - she is anxious about eating because she believes she is fat. It was this novel, which I brought home to read in December, and which she read instead,  that triggered events which led to me determining that she was scared to eat. Although she has regained all her weight, her thinking about her weight, about food and about herself continue to be distorted.This is going to be a long struggle. Although I knew all of the information Lois Metzger has incorporated into this novel, it will definitely be of help to parents who might not be so savvy yet, to the lengths an anorexic will go to hide their illness and to the siblings and friends of anorexics who struggle to understand this truly mystifying mental illness.

Book Details:
A Trick Of The Light by Lois Metzger
New York: Baltzer and Bray    2013
196 pp.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

VIII by Harriet Mary Castor

This is a dark re-imagining of the story of young Henry VIII, who comes to the throne of England at the age of seventeen. As a young man, Henry was considered virtuous, a devout Catholic, well educated and a skilled warrior. But as his reign progressed, Henry increasingly resorted to murder as a way to remove anyone who stood in his way. He is famously remembered for having six wives, two of whom he had beheaded. What happened to create such a tyrant? Author Harriet Castor offers a new imagining on a very old story.

VIII opens with six year old Henry (Hal) being awoken in the early dawn, roughly taken from his bed in Eltham and placed upon his mother's horse in the courtyard. Hal learns that he, along with his mother and her entourage are fleeing to the Tower of London, to safety from the attacking rebels, who are in league with the Pretender, Perkin Warbeck, the man who claims to be his mother's lost brother (Richard) and therefore king.

England has barely survived years of civil war between the two ruling houses of the Tudors. Known as the War of the Roses, a reference to the emblems of the houses of York and Lancaster which fought for the right to rule the country, this war has almost destroyed England. Hal's father, Henry Tudor, after years in exile in France, returned to England to fight. Henry emerged victorious, acceding to the throne and in an attempt to unite England, married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV. King Henry VII and Elizabeth have had six children at the time the novel opens, but only Henry who is 6 years old, and his two older siblings, Margaret (Meg) and Arthur have survived.

In the Tower, Hal begins experiencing visions of a blonde haired boy in black velvet, first in a trunk containing his clothing, then in a cubby closet in a long abandoned room. While hidden in the closet he witnesses an encounter between his mother and a priest who brings her prophecies from the city.When Henry overhears the prophecies he decides that one of these prophecies, "York will be king and your glory will down the ages..." refers to him and indicates that he will someday be King of England as he is the true Duke of York. How this will be Hal cannot know, because his older brother Arthur is being groomed to be king of England.

Four years later, when Hal is ten, and Arthur is fifteen, King Henry VII attempts to negotiate a treaty between England and Spain. To secure this and further legitimize his rule he is determined to arrange a marriage between Arthur and Princess Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of  Spanish king, Ferdinand. A tournament and banquet is being held in Westminster Hall, which Hal desperately wishes to participate in. When he outshines Arthur, his father later tells him that he must never do this again and that his purpose is to stay out of Arthur's way and that Arthur will "be the first great king of the golden age of peace..." Henry tells his youngest son that he must be very careful, lest Arthur have him killed. Hal is the "spare", the son that doesn't matter.

Catherine and Arthur are married, but months later, Arthur succumbs to a fever, leaving Hal as the sole heir to the throne. However, if Hal thought this fact would turn his father's favour towards him, he could not be more wrong. Henry VII decides to have Hal marry Catherine, but a special dispensation from the pope will be required since her marriage to Hal's brother is considered to have made Catherine his sister. After the death of his mother, and once Hal has been summoned to court by his father, Hal and Catherine's betrothal is secured. Hal is thirteen years old.

Catherine and Hal are married when he becomes king at the age of seventeen. She is twenty-three. Their first child, a boy, lives a mere fifty-two days. A second baby, Mary survives but is not the boy heir, Henry so deeply desires. With the death, stillbirth or miscarriage of almost every pregnancy, Hal who is now twenty-six years of age, becomes increasingly distraught over the lack of a male heir. Until one day he notices the sister of one of his friends, the youthful, dark haired Anne Boleyn.

As Hal's attraction grows, and his fears about a male heir continue, Hal reaches an important conclusion. Hal concludes that his marriage is invalid and therefore not blessed by God and that he must put aside Catherine. He decides that he will have Wolsey petition the pope for an annulment so he can marry Anne. The future of his royal dynasty and the country depend upon his marrying Anne.

The author has chosen to focus primarily on Henry's early life, his early years as King of England, his happy marriage to Catherine and the three years he was married to Anne Boleyn. Subsequent wives and the remainder of his rule, including the death of Wolsey, the beheading of Anne and Cromwell are dealt with in less detail.

Castor has chosen to tell Henry's story from the perspective that his change from the loyal, kind, devoutly Catholic young king to a cruel, manipulative tyrant was due to disturbing apparitions that haunted him with increasing frequency. The apparition mirrors Henry in age, appearing as a young boy when he first sees him and as a older, decaying man when he is in his final years. The person he sees mirrors his own inner torment and Henry soon comes to realize that he looks just like him.

Although the development and portrayal of characters in this novel are well done, they are not necessarily historically accurate depending upon which sources one refers to regarding Henry VIII whom the author nicknames Hal in the novel.

While Castor manages to capture the goodness, intelligence,spirituality and athleticism of young Henry, the focus is more on the presentation of Hal as a boy struggling with his inner demons - a tormented boy, convinced of his superiority and divinity, who believes he is destined to rule England. Even when Hal is in line for the throne, his father shows him little affection and continues to believe he is unfit for rule. But Henry is convinced he will not only be king, he will be a glorious king destined to rule over all of Europe.

Catherine is accurately portrayed as Hal's faithful, quiet wife, a devout Catholic with an inner strength that is demonstrated when Hal decides to abandon her. She stoically suffers the humiliation of being put aside, and of being deprived of visits by her only surviving child, Mary. When Hal comes to her to tell her what he plans to do, she tells him she has seen how he has been suffering lately. She is compassionate towards him, but also refuses to co-operate with him in a scheme she knows to be sinful.

Anne Boleyn is cleverly portrayed as the vain and mercenary young woman history records her as being, determined to be queen at any cost. Anne is correctly portrayed as the architect of Henry's break with Rome. Wolsey is the faithful churchman and statesman, who did Hal's bidding for years, horrified at his suggestion to annul his marriage and marry Anne.

If anything Harriet Castor's unique treatment of Henry VIII will lead young readers to further explore this British monarch and the time in which he lived. This is a fascinating novel of historical fiction that incorporates a touch of the paranormal. Castor has included the family tree of Henry VIII which is very useful for readers who find themselves repeatedly referring to it. The cover and title are well done and will certainly lead readers to check out this novel.

For further investigation into the life of Henry VIII, watch the historical documentary, Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant which was narrated by TV presenter and historian, Dr. David Starkey. Starkey incorporates many primary documents into his presentation, focusing on Henry the king rather than on his wives. The documentary which ran in 2009 consists of five parts, Part 1 Prince (1485 - 1509) is shown below.

Henry VIII Mind of a Tyrant

For further information on Henry VIII check out the National Archives website.

Book Details:
VIII by H.M Castor
New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR 2013
415 pp.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Kate Tattersall Adventures in China by R.S. Fleming

This little novel is the first in what is expected to be a ten part series by R.S. Fleming about the adventures of a young woman, Kate Tattersall. Fleming was a member of the Canadian military, serving as an instrument, electrical and aviation technician. The real Kate Tattersall was one of the author's ancestors and he has taken information from her diaries and letters and created a fictional character who worked as  a clandestine operative for the British in the middle 1800's.  You can read more about the fictional adventures of Kate on the website

Adventures in China opens in 1849. Fifteen-year-old Lady Katelyn Elizabeth Beaufort has just "come out" in British society and has also been presented to Queen Victoria . Kate's father, Lord Beaufort, was a widower for thirteen years and has recently remarried. Her stepmother, Lady Jane Beaufort, is only twenty-five, and determined to see Kate engaged withing the year, preferably before her upcoming journey to China with her brother Jack. Lady Jane encourages Kate to consider an older nobleman so as to inherit a title and fortune, but Kate is reluctant. Kate mentions her brother's friend, Henry Tattersall, a brilliant, eighteen-year-old doctor who runs a clinic in Canton, China. She remembers him as being very intelligent and considers Henry to be a prospective husband.

Kate has hundreds of invitations, most of which she will refuse. But one she doesn't refuse is that of Lord Palmerston, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs who asks her to meet with him. Lord Palmerston questions Kate regarding her planned voyage to China, asking her if Jack has mentioned a "clandestine operation". Kate knows nothing about this, believing that they are travelling to China to deliver two crates of bibles to the Church of England Mission in Ningpo. What she does learn from Palmerston is that he and Jack have known each other for years and that her brother recommended her for this secret "mission".

When she meets Jack at his home in Hastings, Kate is shocked to learn that Jack will not be accompanying her on the journey. Instead, she will be travelling with Mrs. Farewell and her grandfather will meet them in Suez, Egypt. She also learns that Jack has been working for Palmerston and that they would like Kate to take pictures of all the new buildings in the various Chinese ports she visits on her journey.

Kate and Mrs. Farewell have an uneventful journey from Portsmouth to Rosetta, Egypt, travelling by ship through the Mediterranean Sea. From Rosetta they travelled by paddlewheel up the Nile River to Cairo where by caravan they cross the desert to Port Suez. It is at Port Suez that they rendezvous with Kate's grandfather, Sir Thomas Roberts, a tall, elderly man who served as a general.

Their trip to China is not so quiet as they repel an attack by fierce sea pirates. When Kate arrives in China, she finds Dr. Henry Tattersall desperately ill and obviously unable to complete the mission.  Kate, who finds him attractive, has her grandfather arrange for Henry to be taken to Bombay to be treated. Meanwhile, she gives Henry the package and he tells her that she must get the special rifle to a Mr. Wu in one of the nearby factories. Kate learns from Henry that Wu is to assassinate an Englishman who is smuggling large amounts of opium into China through Canton, and taking young girls as slaves out.  That Englishman turns out to be Aloysius (Wish) James Napier, a childhood friend. Can Kate and her grandfather accomplish their mission to stop the opium smuggling and the slave trading without resorting to assassination?

One of Mia Lane's illustrations
The concept behind this series is very good, but the writing doesn't always live up to expectations. Some of the dialogue is awkward (for example when Lady Jane describes her stepdaughter, Kate, as having "alabaster skin contrasting nicely with your onyx hair.") and strangely, at times the writing gets bogged down with descriptions of Kate's wardrobe.

There isn't much character development - Kate's initially presented as a headstrong girl who isn't interested in marrying young. Kate wants an grand adventure and that's what she gets. Rather suddenly she comes into her own, fending off pirates, entering an opium den, and outwitting a man in pursuit of her. Unfortunately, other characters in this novel are not developed and mostly one dimensional.

However, I'm willing to give this series a chance, in the hopes that the writing improves because the concept is unique - a young noblewoman as a British "clandestine operative" or spy. Judging by the author's website, he's done considerable development of the series which I hope will be demonstrated in the next novel.

Detailed illustrations such as the ones done by Canadian artist,  Mia Lane for Fleming's website, would make these books much more appealing. Lane's exquisite illustrations would flesh out the novel, adding more character and flare to the series. The addition of a map showing Kate's journey from Portsmouth to Canton, China would also help readers place where events in the novel occur and a diagram of the area in Canton and region would also be helpful.

My only other concern is that the cover, done in the style of the "penny dreadfuls" published in the 19th century,  suggests that this is a novel for upper middle grades to early high school. However, some content is too dark for this age group; Kate works in an opium den, is sexually harassed there, and witnesses the assassination of a man.

This first installment of the Kate Tattersall adventures is set against the backdrop of the Opium Wars which most young people are likely not familiar with. The BBC has an excellent webpage, The Opium Wars: When Britain made war on China, which provides background information on understanding what the Opium Wars were and how Britain became involved in smuggling opium into China. The Victorian Web also has a webpage devoted to England and China: The Opium Wars, 1839-60.

The novel, published by Dancing Cat Books, has small, dense text which makes it not the easiest of  books to read, but it is short and sweet, which is always a bonus for reluctant readers.

This fascinating book trailer sets the stage for the first novel and the series:

Book Details:
Kate Tattersall: Adventures in China by R.S. Fleming
Toronto: Dancing Cat Books, an Imprint of Cormorant Books Inc. 2013
138 pp.