Monday, March 31, 2014

DVD: First Position

For students and those who love dance, especially ballet, First Position is a must see. This revealing documentary gives us a peek into the mysterious world of ballet by following seven young dancers from around the world as they seek to win the coveted prizes and scholarships of the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world's most prestigious ballet competitions.

The documentary opens with the semifinals and introduces us to the seven dancers who will be followed; tall, elegant and beautiful Rebecca Houseknecht, graceful Miko Fogarty and her younger brother Jules Jarvis Fogarty, the quiet and determined Aran Bell, handsome Juan Sebastian Zamora, the athletic Michaela DePrince and the lyrical Gaya Bommer Yemini.

Through the camera lens we experience the sacrifices each dancer's family makes so that he or she can develop their talent to the fullest. There are sequences showing the damage done to bodies and feet especially. Other scenes show the devastation that follows after a poor performance. Not everyone can win.

Some of the dancers featured in the documentary are especially engaging. Michaela DePrince was living in an orphanage in Sierra Leone when she was adopted by an American couple, Charles and Elaine DePrince. Her best friend, Mia was also adopted by the DePrinces. Michaela began taking lessons at age four and studied at The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia. Her interest in ballet began though back when she was a small child in Africa and she found a picture of a ballerina in a magazine. Michaela's powerful dancing and beautiful leaps make her enthralling to watch! Michaela DePrince's professional debut was in 2012 with the South African Manszi Ballet Company. Michaela DePrince is living proof of what we have always known - that black women can dance ballet with beauty and grace. You can read about Michaela from this BBC article, Michael DePrince: The War Orphan Who Became A Ballerina. Michaela's website is

It's also fascinating to see how some of the young dancers featured in this documentary from four years ago are faring now. As this video demonstrates, Miko Fogarty who is now sixteen has continued to develop into a beautiful dancer with amazing technique:

Bess Kargman, Director, Producer and Editor of First Position, studied ballet at the Boston Ballet School, but never entered ballet competitions. According to the documentary website, Kargman set out to make the documentary she wished had existed. The crew traveled all over the world to film the dancers, who were chosen based on their unique stories and who reflected the social, cultural and economic diversity of students in ballet.

This remarkable and award winning documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in the performing arts.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

DVD: Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks is an entertaining if somewhat  inaccurate portrayal of Walt Disney's efforts to make the book, Mary Poppins, written by P.L. Travers into a movie. Disney made a promise to his daughter, Diane, to make a Mary Poppins into movie. It would be a promise that would take him twenty years to fulfill because he didn't count on the calculated resistance of Pamela Lyndon Travers, author of the beloved children's novel. Walt Disney was a man accustomed to having things done his way, but he would have to wait twenty years to make his Mary Poppins movie. Saving Mr. Banks is about the process Disney and his company went through in collaboration with P.L. Travers to make Mary Poppins happen.

Saving Mr. Banks alternates between the present and the past; the present in which Mrs. Travers travels to and collaborates at Disney studios and the past as flashbacks about her life growing up in Allora. The movie opens with Pamela Travers reluctantly journeying to Los Angeles to meet Walt Disney with the intention of refusing to sign over the rights to the movie. When she does meet Disney, she refuses to sign over the rights, but does meet with the Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard, who are composing the songs for the musical. They find Mrs. Travers prickly and stubborn;  she is critical of almost everything Disney has planned for the movie. Among her criticisms: the Banks house is too grand, Mary Poppins is not proper enough, she can't abide words like "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"  and the character of Mr. Banks is too severe. The Sherman brothers manage to win Pamela over to some degree with their song, Let's Go Fly A Kite!

In the midst of all this are P.L. Travers' recollections of her difficult childhood in Australia. In flashbacks she remembers her experiences as young Helen Goff (her real name) who adored her quirky father, Travers Goff. Helen's father moved the family from it's genteel existence in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia to the dusty, small town of Allora where he was to work in a bank. Helen was close to her father who told stories and encouraged her to develop her imagination. Her mother however, was left to struggle with the fallout from Travers Goff's drinking. After her mother considering suicide, her aunt arrives to bring some order to the Travers household.

When Pamela flees Los Angeles and returns home to London with the rights still unsigned, Walt Disney reflects on what might have happened. He eventually seeks out Pamela in London and convinces her to let him make Mary Poppins.

It all makes for a heartwarming story about an obstreperous author who cares very much for the characters she created and who is convinced to let the lovable, charismatic Walt Disney make her book into a wonderful movie.

P.L. Travers is portrayed in Saving Mr. Banks as a quiet, lonely spinster but in fact her life was much more complicated and interesting. At the age of seventeen, according to biographer, Valerie Lawson, Pamela met Lawrence Campbell, an actor in London. She had hoped to become an actress in London, but it was eventually her writing that got her noticed.  She also had a relationship with George William Russell, an Irish writer and poet. Pamela eventually lived for ten years with Madge Burnand in what was thought to be a lesbian relationship. At the age of forty, and unlikely to be married, Pamela decided to adopt a child. She adopted only one of twin boys, as advised by her astrologer. That boy, Camillus Hone was never told he was a twin nor that he was adopted, facts he later learned as an adult when he met his twin brother in a bar. All of this is something that Disney would not want in its film about a much loved children's movie.

However, this film did capture the frustration both the Sherman brothers and Walt Disney experienced in dealing with Pamela Travers. Although she seemed happy with Mary Poppins when it was released, as the years went by, Pamela became increasingly unhappy with the Disney movie version of her book and never agreed to it becoming a broadway musical.

Viewers will enjoy Emma Thompson's performance and she really is the star of this movie capturing the essence of P.L. Travers. Tom Hanks is a passable Walt Disney, effectively portraying his ever-present enthusiasm and positive outlook. Travers' chauffeur, "Ralph",  played by Paul Giamatti was a compilation of several men who drove her around Los Angeles.  An interesting look at the making of one of Disney's most popular classic movies.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Erased by Jennifer Rush

Erased picks up where Altered left off  with Anna, Sam, Cas and Nick now living in a house near Millerton, Michigan. Anna O'Brien is certain her sister Dani is dead, but is unsure about whether the Branch killed their parents and this is something she needs to find out. After a grocery trip, Nick decides he needs some space and disappears for several days, likely to spend some time with the cashier at the grocery store.

When Nick returns two days later, he tells everyone that the girl he spent time with told him that someone came into the grocery store asking about Anna. Shocked, Anna needs to know if this woman is her sister Dani, whom she was told was dead. Anna, accompanied by Sam, returns to the store and manages to talk the cashier into letting them watch the security video. They confirm that it was Anna's sister, Dani, who came to the store, but also learn that Dani has been taken again by the Branch who were waiting for her in a nearby alley.

The group decides to abandon their house and using a prepaid cell phone, Anna contacts Trev, the other member of their lab group who lived with them in the farmhouse and who was a double agent. Trev had given Anna a flash drive containing a file with a phone contact which Anna now makes us of. Trev tells Anna to meet him in Hart, Michigan where he will provide information on Dani's whereabouts. At the meeting Trev leads Anna and the boys to believe that Dani is being held at another Branch lab known as Delta.

Nick, Anna, Cas and Sam break into Delta lab and after a deadly battle with Branch agents, rescue Dani and liberate three boys, Greg, Jimmy and Matt. Dani and Anna reconnect but Anna feels suspicious of Dani. Since Dani was one of the first candidates in the Branch's genetic alteration program, along with Sam, Nick and Cas, they do not know if she was turned into an assassin as well. Not only that but Dani seems surprisingly ambivalent about Anna being with Sam, her boyfriend before she disappeared.

They flee to a motel where the new boys and Dani are checked for tracking devices. They decide to send the new boys on their own way but when Dani says something, it triggers them into attacking Sam, Nick and Cas. Dani tries to convince Anna to flee with her but she insists on helping her friends fight. They manage to disable Jimmy and Matt, and with the odds against him, Greg flees. Dani believes they were brainwashed and programmed into attacking.

The group of friends find an empty house to regroup and determine their next course of action. Concerned that Cas and Sam may have also been reprogrammed with the new alteration, they decide to separate into two groups; Nick and Anna and Cas, Sam and Dani. Anna learns that Dani has seen their Uncle William, who may be their only surviving relative. Dani tells her that Uncle William has been tracking the Branch for years and is trying to bring them down. She also tells Anna that he knows what happened that night five years ago when their parents died because he was there. Based on this, Anna tells Dani to contact William and arrange a meeting.

The two groups go their separate ways but Anna is not happy being paired with Nick as their relationship is strained at the best of times.  Anna decides that she wants to return to Port Cadia to locate her Uncle William. Although Nick is not pleased with this he agrees to accompany her. On the way to Port Cadia however, Nick and Anna have yet another encounter with Branch agents who attempt to capture them. Barely escaping the agents, Nick and Anna continue on their way to Port Cadia. Anna is determined to find out about her family, and how and why she ended up in the Branch. But can they trust Uncle William, after everyone they know seems to be entangled in the Branch.

Erased is certainly filled with numerous action scenes and plenty of violence, to the point that it almost seems overdone. For example, picking up a railway tie with one hand and hitting someone over the head with it is no small feat, especially for a woman who's been shot in the leg. There are many plot twists throughout the novel to move the storyline along and which work to hold the reader's interest. Woven into the action is the romance between Sam and Anna, but also a hint of a possible relationship between Anna and Nick too. Almost all of Anna's flashback memories involve Nick and although in the present he seems angry and distant, Anna senses that Nick cares for her.

The most dominant theme is this novel is that of identity as Anna and the four boys are all struggling to regain their identities, to remember who they were and to escape from the hold the Branch has on them.

There will be a third novel in the Altered series despite the fact that Rush seems to have wrapped up the situation with the Branch quite neatly. However, Riley, the agent who was second in command has not been accounted for and perhaps he will play a big part in the third novel.

Book Details:
Erased by Jennifer Rush
New York: Little, Brown and Company   2014
275 pp.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

A galactic love story with shades of Titanic, These Broken Stars is unlike any science fiction novel you will read.

Lilac Rose LaRoux is the only child of Roderick LaRoux, the wealthiest and most powerful man in the universe. Lilac is traveling through dimensional hyperspace on the Icarus, one of her father's spaceships with a friend, Anna and her bodyguard, Swann, on her way home to Corinth. On the same ship is decorated war hero, eighteen year old Major Tarver Merendsen, heading home for his next posting. Men consciously avoid Lilac LaRoux, heiress to an unimaginable fortune, because even to be seen talking to her can have deadly consequences for a man.

Tarver is unaware who Lilac is when he first sees her. He moves to intervene in an altercation and manages to meet Lilac, whose beauty, red hair and straightforward manner appeal to Tarver. They spend a few minutes talking until Anna returns and Tarver understands he is supposed to leave. When they meet a few nights later on the observation deck of the Icarus, instead of a friendly encounter, Tarver finds he is dismissed abruptly by Lilac. Although Lilac finds she likes Tarver, she knows that he might be in danger from her father if they are seen together.

Their lives are suddenly thrown together again when the Icarus is ripped from hyperspace and begins to collapse. As Tarver is making his way to his escape pod he manages to save Lilac from the chaos of panicking crowds. They make it to a pod which aborts its launch due to a power failure but Lilac hotwires it and they escape the dying ship.  Tarver and Lilac are shocked to discover that they are near a planet on which they crash land.Both Tarver and Lilac are uninjured, but their communication array has been destroyed.

Tarver decides  to hike to the top of a nearby hill to get a look at the surrounding area. They appear to be on a terraformed planet, but Tarver notes that the vegetation is unusually uniform and very large, despite the planet's rich air. Lilac insists on accompanying Tarver, despite wearing a long gown and designer high heels.During their hike, they watch the destruction of the Icarus as it enters the planets atmosphere and crashes beyond mountains in the distance. Tarver tells Lilac that if they are to have a hope of being rescued they need to be where the Icarus crashed as that is where the rescue crews will search.

Most of the novel now recounts their journey towards the Icarus and the change in their relationship as they endure the hardship of survival on an alien planet. Their walk through the forest is slowed by Lilac's large dress and her unsuitable footwear which cause her feet to swell and blister. She is convinced that they should stay at the escape pod and this leads to an argument and the two of them separating with Lilac determined to return to the pod. It is at this time that Lilac begins to notice the background whispers of the forest; "Snatches of sound rise up from the awful, untidy forest all around me for a moment sounding just like voices, high and distressed." Lilac notes that Tarver doesn't seem to hear the voices or if he does, they don't seem to bother him.

 On her journey back to the pod, Lilac is immediately confronted by a large cat-like animal.When Tarver returns to rescue Lilac they continue their journey onward but things rapidly begin to change.  While waiting in the forest as Tarver scouts ahead, Lilac again notices "The forest is full of sound and movement I can't track, things that flicker out of the corners of eyes, vanishing before I can focus on them. The major doesn't seem to notice...But it's as though the forest is whispering all around us...".

From his scouting, Tarver finds an escape pod at the edge of the forest with all the occupants dead. He buries them but does not allow Lilac to see how many or who they are. He strips the boots off a dead woman and gives them to Lilac. She is horrified but agrees that if they are to make it to the Icarus she needs something more suitable to wear. When they arrive at the edge of the forest they make camp at the beginning of the plains. That night Tarver is awakened by Lilac who insists she can hear a woman crying - a woman whom she later realizes sounds like her. All night searches by Tarver reveal no human presence.

As they journey across the plains, they see no signs of colonists, but Lilac insists she hears a man's voice. Worried, Tarver urges Lilac to rest, concerned that she is suffering from exhaustion and hallucinating. Because they are running out of the nutrition bars they have been surviving on, Tarver collects grasses for them to eat and also sets snares to catch small animals.

The struggle to survive gradually begins to draw Tarver and Lilac closer together. The previous misconceptions that had about one another begin to dispel as they learn more about each other. They spend time talking about their lives and Tarver reveals that his mother is the famous poet, Emily Davis, whom Lilac happens to read. Lilac also learns that Tarver's older brother, Alec, was killed in action. For the first time since meeting Lilac, Tarver feels that she is finally seeing him as he really is, and not as a war hero or a lower class soldier. Similarly, Lilac begins to sense that Tarver is becoming more comfortable with her and that he considers her beautiful.

Lilac continues to hear the voices but now they are coming from the direction of the mountains and the Icarus wreck. She also notices for the first time, that what they thought was a second moon appears to be an array of lights in orbit. As they journey across the plains in a soaking downpour, Lilac hears heartbreaking sobs over the rain. Struggling to maintain her sanity, Lilac is further frightened when she goes to the river to get water and sees a group of people pointing towards the mountain pass leading to the wreck of the Icarus. Lilac however, doesn't believe she is going insane because she tells Tarver that one woman wasn't wearing boots and of the five people she saw, one was a soldier with dog tags and two were men in evening dress. She is convinced that these are the dead people from the escape pod and she knows she is correct by Tarver's reaction.

The view of what is happening on the planet changes drastically when Lilac is warned by the voices to leave the cave they have sheltered in during a blizzard. Both Tarver and Lilac begin to realize that she is not going mad and they must consider "the possibility that she's receiving communications..." from something or someone. They are pushed further in this direction when both see the same vision of Tarver's home.

When they arrive at the Icarus they work to unravel a startling mystery about the planet that will forever change their lives.

These Broken Stars is a brilliantly written novel that is both a romance and a piece of unique science fiction. The main strength of this novel is the relationship between Tarver and Lilac and how that relationship blossoms from one rooted in prejudice and misunderstanding to one of mutual love. The authors take their time developing Tarver and Lilac's relationship, having them develop respect and support for one another that leads ultimately to them both developing the maturity to take on Lilac's powerful father.  My only complaint is that the characters should have been slightly older, perhaps twenty-one and nineteen. Nevertheless, their story is tender and beautifully written.

Although the romantic element of the story is entirely predictable, the mystery of the whispering voices set on an alien planet adds a decidedly science fiction touch that makes this novel extremely appealing.

Kaufman and Spooner tell their story in the alternating narratives of Tarver and Lilac. In between sections of this narrative is a short page featuring part of Tarver's debriefing by authorities, which of course tells readers that the two are ultimately rescued and indicates that Lilac's father and the scientists know Tarver has not revealed what really happened on the planet.

This is the first in the Starbound series written jointly by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. The second novel in this series is a companion novel which tells another story with different characters.If it's as unique as the first novel, readers will be in for yet another treat from this wonderful writing duo.

Book Details:
These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
New York: Hyperion      2013
374 pp.

Monday, March 24, 2014

This STAR won't go out by Esther Earl with Lori and Wayne Earl

Esther Grace Earl was a vibrant teenager, with her entire life before her; a life a many possibilities. One of those possibilities Esther thought, might involve becoming a writer someday and to that end she kept a diary. From these diaries and from those who knew her comes this beautiful and deeply touching book that is part memoir/part biography about a young girl whose life inspired young adult author, John Green to finally complete a book he had been working on prior to meeting Esther. That novel was the immensely popular, The Fault In Our Stars.

Green met Esther at a Harry Potter convention, LeakyCon in Boston in 2009. They were both Potter fans obviously, but Esther was also a fan of Green's novels. Post-LeakyCon, they continued to talk via Skype and while Green knew Esther was ill with cancer, the internet allowed Esther to have a friendship with Green and others that was not defined by her cancer and her illness. To her internet friends, she was simply Esther. Compassionate, funny and intelligent. Esther became one of Green's many vlog followers (named nerdfighters). As Esther's illness progressed, her "Internet" friends, including Green, soon discovered that this young woman was indeed very ill and was dying. This came about through a Skype chat group which collectively called itself Catitude. As Esther's health began to decline she was able to meet some members of Catitude as well as John Green in a sort of "reverse Wish". In his foreword to this book, Green writes that we often place the terminally ill on a pedestal, claiming for them a uniqueness that has its basis in their illness. But Green felt that Esther was special simply because she was Esther and not because she had terminal cancer.

 Esther was born in 1994 in Beverly, MA. She was the middle child in a family of five children, a spunky girl with wild hair. In 2006, at the age of twelve, Esther, who was living in France with her family,  had been feeling unwell for some time. A persistent cough, shortness of breath and pain in her chest forced her to seek medical help and she and her family were stunned to learn that she had thyroid cancer. Although this cancer usually has a very good survival rate, Esther's cancer was different; she had metastatic papillary thyroid cancer. This meant that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in her neck and lungs. Esther had her thyroid and some lymph nodes removed and underwent radiation therapy. The prognosis was not promising. In 2008, Esther took a turn for the worse, and she and her family decided to try two new experimental therapies.  The experimental drugs stymied the cancer for a period of time allowing Esther and her family a short reprieve. Esther's condition slowly began to deteriorate and during the summer of 2010 she developed kidney failure. She passed away with her family at her bedside on August 25, 2010.

This Star Won't Go Out is a compilation of Esther's diary entries, miscellaneous writings, poetry and drawings. The book also includes a foreward by John Green, entries written by her online group who called themselves Catitude and Lori, Wayne and Esther's entries from Caringbridge a website that helps families with seriously ill children.

Besides being a book about one person's journey through a difficult circumstance in life, This Star Won't Go Out is also a magnificent example of faith in God; Esther by her own admission stated she "was not close to God. I didn't want to deal with Him. I liked enjoying the material things that don't matter...But one day I realized, without God, nothing maters. So, I asked Him into my heart. Look, I don't understand anything, basically, about God except He loves me, He made me, without Him I'm lost." But yet after becoming sick, she really did come to know God in a way she probably wasn't even aware of just how much she really knew Him.

This deeply moving tribute to Esther Earl is well organized, drawing from many sources, chronicling Esther's life and giving those of us who did not have the privilege of knowing Esther, a very good sense of who she really was. The pink pages are Esther's Caringbridge pages which can be found online, the cream pages are her blog and diary entries, while the light green pages are friends and family writing about her.  Be prepared to cry and laugh through Esther's difficult journey. I was deeply touched by this book, because Esther's life proves that one doesn't have to be exceptionally beautiful (although she was very pretty) or smart or talented to make a difference in this world. One simply has to be true to oneself. Esther Earl did all of that as This Star Won't Go Out demonstrates.

My only criticism is that the entries by numerous Catitude members overwhelms the last part of the book, detracting from the message that Esther lives on in the work her foundation, This Star Won't Go Out does to help families struggling with cancer. Unless readers are a part of Catitude, they will probably find themselves skimming these entries.

You can watch the videos that Esther Earl made on her youtube channel. Esther's Caringbridge page is still live and you can read about her story, the journal her parents posted online and sign the guest book on her page. Esther Earl is a star whose light will never go out. After Esther's death, her parents, Wayne and Lori founded a nonprofit organization, This Star Won't Go Out which aids families in crisis with a seriously ill child suffering from cancer. Please take the time to check out their website and if you are a young person looking for a good cause, this might just be one to consider helping out. Both this organization and the book by the same name,  This Star Won't Go Out is one of many ways Esther will live on in the hearts of those who loved and knew her, and those of us who wished we had.

DFTBA today in memory of Esther Earl. :)

Book Detail:
This Star Won't Go Out by Esther Earl with Lori and Wayne Earl
New York: Dutton Books      2014
431 pp.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Deepest Blue by Kim Williams Justensen

The Deepest Blue explores the idea concerning how much input teens who are minors should have the right to determine how they live their lives when tragedy strikes. Justensen explores this theme through her character, fifteen year old Mike Wilson who lives with his dad, Richard (Rich),  in Moorehead, near Atlantic Beach. They've been on their own for the past ten years.  Mike's dad runs a charter boat business in the spring and summer and works as a handyman during the fall and winter. As Mike's gotten older he has gradually assumed more responsibility, helping his father on charter trips.  Mike's life is typical; he has a girlfriend, Rachel, whom he just doesn't understand, and like many young men he's struggling to discover what he wants to do with his life, in particular if he wants to take over his dad's business some day.

Five years ago his dad met Margaret (Maggie) Delaney, his girlfriend whom he is now considering marrying. Maggie has been good for Mike, accepting him into her life and helping Rich parent his son. Mike considers Maggie to be his "real" mom since he hasn't spoken to his mother in years. Mike is thrilled that his dad has finally decided to ask Maggie to marry him. In order to do this, Mike's father decides to drive up to Raleigh to purchase an engagement ring. Sadly, the trip ends in a terrible tragedy with Mike's father being killed by a drunk driver.

In shock, Mike learns that there is even worse in store for him; his mother, Julia, whom he hasn't seen in years is his only legal guardian and she is intent on coming to Moorehead to bring him to live with her in Seattle.  Mike asks Maggie to adopt him and to be his legal guardian, which she agrees to do. However, she tells Mike that this will not be easy, as the courts often give priority to a living biological parent.

Maggie contacts Chuck Marshall, a friend of Rich's, who is a lawyer. He tells Maggie that they need to get a lawyer for Mike quickly and arrange for a hearing to determine what will happen to Mike. Chuck arranges for Ms. Young, a lawyer from Jacksonville to represent Mike at a hearing that will happen after the funeral.

As Mike struggles to come to terms with the death of his father, he must now begin to fight for the life he wants, a life that doesn't include the mother who abandoned him ten years earlier.

The Deepest Blue is completely predictable with its satisfying ending, but this novel does serve to highlight the predicament some teens find themselves caught up in during custody battles following the death of a parent of a minor child. In this novel, Justensen slowly builds the background to her story by showing the easy and close relationship Mike and his dad, Rich, have. The scene where Mike and his dad take customers on a charter fishing trip only serves to emphasize their close relationship and the conflict Mike feels about whether or not he should take on his father's business.

Mike is further shown to be a typical teenage boy in his relationship with his girlfriend, Rachel, whom he doesn't understand. Their immaturity and implusiveness is shown in how they relate to each other and is realistic. Mike is also thrilled that his father is finally going to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Maggie, in part because this means they will become a real family.

However, all this falls apart when Rich dies in a car accident. The author realistically portrays Mike's reaction to his father's death; disbelief and anger as well as extreme emotional upset that affects his ability to eat and to make good choices. Despite the turmoil, Mike becomes determined that he will not return with Julia  and he sets out, with the help of several caring adults in his life, to work towards what he believes will be best for him. This process means he will have to learn to control the anger he feels towards his mother and to behave responsibly.

Justensen walks her readers through the court process, although this aspect of the novel seemed less credible. It's unlikely much weight would be given by a judge to Michael's memories as a four year old child. It is also possible that the young teen might be interviewed separately by the judge. While the courts do give considerable weight to a minor teen's desires, it's likely that the legal procedures and the outcome would vary considerably depending upon the jurisdiction, and the particulars of each case.Certainly minor teens like Michael should and often do have a say in what happens in their lives.

Nevertheless, as Justensen demonstrates, rarely are these cases simple. In Michael's case we learn that his mother was dealing with post-partum depression as well as other mental health issues. However, the judge must  take into account that Mike's life, his school and his friends are now all situated in North Carolina. It is a fine line between balancing Mike's desire to control his life with his mother's right to reconnect with her son.

Justensen has chosen an unusual story to tackle the themes of self-determination, identity and family in The Deepest Blue. The title refers to the color of the water that Mike sees when he looks into the ocean and where he often finds solace - on the ocean in his father's boat.Without his father as his anchor in life, Mike must find his own inner strength and count on those around him to help him.

Book Details:
The Deepest Blue by Kim Williams Justensen
Terre Haute, IN : Tanglewood Press              2013
292 pp.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Rule of Three by Eric Walters

Sixteen year old Adam Daley's life changes suddenly one afternoon when everything electronic crashes at his high school. Like everyone else, he and his friend, Todd, believe that the power failure is just limited to computers and phones and will be temporary. However, they soon discover that anything run by computers, including cars and planes, will not function. Lucky for Adam, he drives a 1981 Omega to school, so while those students with BMWs are left stranded, Adam is able to drive Todd and Lori Peterson, a girl he's been crushing on, home.

Adam picks up his younger siblings, twins Rachel and Danny. With their cars not working, people begin walking home and without planes, this means Adam's father, who is a pilot, is stranded in Chicago.

When Adam arrives home he meets his quirky neighbour, Herb Campbell who has only recently moved into their neighbourhood of Eden Mills. Almost seventy, Herb is a retired government employee and is a  ham radio operator and all around handyman. He'd lent Adam and his father tools as they built the ultra light plane in the family's garage. Adam has recognized that there is something different about Herb - that he always seems to be studying people. From the very beginning of the crisis Herb begins to reveal the many talents he has for reading people and situations, as well as for planning.

Immediately Herb has Adam drive him to the nearest pool shop where he purchases enormous quantities of chlorine. Herb explains to Adam the rule of survival in emergency situations: a person can go three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food. The chlorine tablets are for water purification, suggesting that Herb believes that this computer blackout will be lasting much longer than three days.  That night Adam learns that his mother who is a police captain, has stationed a cop, Brett in Eden Mills and he sees Herb standing guard at the top of their street. Herb has learned that while most people are calm, there has been some looting overnight and without computers,  most first responders (police and fire) are unable to assist.

Things quickly turn ugly in Adam's neighbourhood when the local mini-mall is attacked by a crowd of people desperate for food and water. Adam's mother stops the crowd but it is Herb who organizes the distribution and payment of the supplies. They decide to organize patrols of the Eden Mills using the older noncomputerized vehicles they have found. The patrols include the four police officers, Howie, Brett, Sergeant Evans and Officer O'Malley organized into two checkpoints and four patrols.

Adam and Herb go out to check on Adam's friend, Lori who lives on a farm. Herb and Adam meet Lori's father, Stan Peterson who tells Herb that people showed up at the farm trying to take food and water. Mr Peterson wants to remain on the farm and Adam and Todd are left to help guard the property. When people show up that night demanding water, Adam manages to talk the situation down but it's evident that the farm will soon be under attack by people desperate for food and water.

Meanwhile in the suburbs and the surrounding city, assaults, robberies, fires and looting continue. Herb suggests that they increase their patrols and also take a census of Eden Mills to learn  what skills are available to them. Adam and his mother also learn that Herb is considering the possibility that they might have to abandon the neighbourhood because they will be unable to defend it and also they will be unable to feed the population living there. But Adam has another idea; to use all the available land to grow crops including the large green area underneath the power lines  behind the house. Herb considers that this plan will only work if they can get the Petersons to abandon the farm and move into Eden Mills. That turns out to be easier than they anticipated when the farm is attacked by men in a truck. Herb tells Stan Peterson that it is only a matter of time before the farm is overrun and that they are best to leave while they still can.

Adam now realizes he needs to finish his ultralight plane because being airborne means they can learn what is happening around them. When they take to the air, they discover that a nearby police station has been destroyed by what appears to be rocket propelled grenades - an indication that someone somewhere is willing to take on the police for control. This discovery pushes Herb to convince Adam's mother to abandon her station and move the officers into the neighbourhood. With the Peterson's now moved into Eden Mills, Herb, Kate, Adam and the rest of the leaders begin to organize. They reinforce the walls around the neighbourhood, begin preparing for planting, organize a committee of civilians that includes Dr. Morgan, Councilwoman Stevens, Judge Roberts, the fire chief Captain Saunders and an engineer, Mr. Nichols.

But the flights also reveal something more sinister coming their way. When a nearby neighbourhood, Burnham, whom they have befriended, is attacked and almost everyone killed, Herb and Adam set out to discover who has committed this act of aggression. Evidence suggests that a rogue military group with rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and heavy assault weapons attacked the neighbourhood. They took no prisoners and killed everyone they could find. Knowing they will be next, Herb, Adam, Todd, Brett and Kate must do everything in their power to defend their lives and more importantly the values they hold, if the world they want to preserve has any chance of survival. In a life and death battle, they must determine how to confront a group more powerful and better armed.


Walters, a well known Canadian author, builds his story brick by brick, methodically outlining all the steps ordinary civilians must do so as to survive when all social structure and civil authority has broken down. Most of us live day to day, without reserves of basic items like water, canned food, batteries and candles, matches and windup clocks and radios. But if a disaster struck many of us would be at the mercy of those who have the supplies needed to survive. Walters does a fantastic job at demonstrating how quickly social norms and authority would collapse and how people who normally wouldn't steal and murder, begin to act very badly, very quickly when placed under enormous pressure. He also portrays the power struggle for resources that begins to develop both locally (in Adam's neighbourhood) and also on a much larger scale when Adam and Herb are faced with taking on the rogue military group. In this respect, The Rule of Three is frighteningly realistic.

The author maintains tension in the novel by never revealing the cause of the loss of power and the use of computer technology in the novel. Herb tells Adam that whatever the cause it must be worldwide because if it were not, other countries would have come either to help or attack them. This leads Adam to realize that whatever Eden Mills is experiencing is likely a reflection of what is happening all over North America and the world.

Against this dystopian backdrop, the author does a great job of developing both his characters and their relationships to one another. By far the most interesting character in the novel is Herb Campbell. From the beginning Walters establishes Herb as a mysterious person with a cool demeanor that masks some rather interesting talents. Everything Herb predicts will happen eventually does happen leading the Adam to conclude that he has experienced this exact situation at least once before. This causes Adam to open his eyes and really study Herb, just as Herb studies everyone around him. But Herb is also a highly conflicted character. He tells Adam that he was both "used" and "almost used up" and that he has done things he isn't proud of and that he hopes Adam will never have to do. Herb proceeds cautiously in everything he does, but acts when he feels it is necessary. It is obvious he is trying to protect Adam from falling into similar situations but also trying to develop in him the skills he will need to survive. In this respect, Herb is a mentor for Adam, guiding him towards what will likely be a leadership role in this new world. Their relationship is a major strength of this novel as the two characters are very different; Herb is the experienced, mature former government "operative", while Adam is young, naive and trusting. However, Adam begins to adopt some of Herb's techniques in dealing with people and also develops some of his forward thinking ways.

Walters plans two more books in the series. Walters has based this series on his own neighbourhood in Mississauga, Ontario but the novels are set in America (as noted by the reference to the "Stars and Stripes" at the local police station).

With its exciting cover to draw in readers, The Rule of Three is a great novel for young teen boys and anyone who enjoys adventure novels and the great stories being written by Canadian author, Eric Walters.

Book Details:
The Rule of Three by Eric Walters
Toronto: Razorbill     2014
405 pp. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Jacob Portman along with a motley crew of peculiars, children with special abilities, have left the island of Cairnholm, to seek safety on the mainland. Jacob is also a peculiar, being able to sense hollows or hollowgast which are monsters who are hunting the peculiars. Scattered among three lifeboats the peculiars include Emma Bloom who can make fire with her hands, Millard Nullings the invisible boy, Olive Abroholos Elephanta who is lighter than air, Bronwyn Bruntley an unusually strong girl, Horace Somnusson who has premonitory visions, Enoch O'Connor able to animate the dead, Hugh Apiston the boy with bees in his stomach, Claire Densmore the girl with two mouths and Fiona Frauenfeld who can make plants grows. Accompanying them is Alma LeFay Peregrine, a ymbryne or time manipulator and shapeshifter. Miss Peregrine is the protector of the peculiars but she has been injured and is in bird form. She can create time loops and manipulate time.

Out on the sea, the children suffer through a violent gale that causes them to lose most of their food and belongings and to land on an unknown shore. The children are being pursued by the wights in a submarine and they must be off the water by nightfall. Wights are hollowgasts who have matured after eating a sufficient number of peculiar souls. They can assume human form and can exist among humans.

On the island the children find a brief reprieve until the wights land and begin tracking them at nightfall. Mysteriously the children manage to avoid them and in the morning seek a way out of the forest. The night before the children read a story from the Tales of the Peculiar about a giant named Cuthbert who is turned to stone in the middle of a lake. Unbelievably they discover a lake with a rock formation that looks like a giant's head. Emma decides to wade out to the rock and climbs into the mouth of the formation, discovering a new time loop.

The new time loop turns out to be exceedingly dangerous however, when they encounter a hollowgast bent on eating them. After destroying it, the peculiars meet Miss Wren's menagerie which includes a talking bulldog who smokes a pipe and various other odd creatures.  The bulldog, Addison MacHenry, was brought to this loop by another ymbryne named Miss Wren who they learn has left for London to help her ymbryne sisters.  Miss Wren is the only remaining uncaptured ymbryne. Her spies, a flock of peculiar pigeons, have told her that the ymbrynes have been captured and are being held in punishment loops which were originally designed to hold wights. Now the wights and their hollows are guarding these loops.  With all of the ymbrynes captured, there will be no one to maintain the time loops and they will collapse.

The peculiars decide to reveal Miss Peregrine to Addison and explain to him that she is unable to revert back to human form.  Addison is certain Miss Peregrine has been poisoned so that she cannot change back. He tells the peculiars that they must find another ymbryne to help her change. The more time Miss Peregrine spends as a a bird, the less likely she will be able to return to human form. Addison tells Emma and Jacob that she has at most three more days before returning to human form will become impossible.

The Peculiars decide they must go to London to find Miss Wren and have her heal Miss Peregrine.Addison tries to dissuade them, telling them the loops are guarded by hollows. However, Emma and Jacob realize this is the only way they can save Miss Peregrine.

They return to the 1940 loop and take a road to a town named Coal.  However, the wights have resumed their pursuit of the children. When they encounter a gypsy caravan on the road, the peculiars take shelter among them. Upon arriving in Coal, the peculiars manage to purchase train tickets for London, but are intercepted by the wights who capture them. Hugh and his bees save the day and they reconnect with the train, arriving in London.

In 1940 London, turmoil reigns as the city is being bombed by the Germans. The peculiars now face a race against time to find help for their beloved Miss Peregrine. They must first locate Miss Wren's pigeons, who they hope will lead them to the ymbryne herself. But in devastated London, hunted by hollows, this proves to be more difficult than they ever imagined. Jacob, Emma and their fellow peculiars must deal with new peculiars, a deceit that destroys all their hope and a murderous plot that seeks to destroy peculiardom once and for all.

Hollow City is a strange story told in a unique way with a collection of photographs that reinforce the storyline. The strength of Rigg's second novel is that it further develops the main characters we met in the first novel, expanding on their peculiarities while revealing more about the world of the peculiars. It appears that Jacob's peculiar ability to detect hollows is either evolving or he is discovering more about what he is capable of. This ability provides a unique twist near the end of the novel just when it seems that all is lost. Jacob grows in confidence in his ability not only to detect and destroy hollowgast but also discovers he can manipulate them.

The other peculiar characters are presented in more detail through their interactions with the narrator, Jacob. Emma is a confident, caring young woman who is concerned for all the children and stands up to Enoch, who despite his sarcasm, can be insensitive. Horace struggles with his fear of the unknown while Hugh often feels neglected and useless.

Emma and Jacob's relationship deepens in this second novel, as their adventures together serve to draw them into falling in love. However Jacob's feelings for Emma are a source of conflict for him because he wants to stay with Emma in her time loop and yet he longs for a normal life back with his family in his own time. Emma too is conflicted. While she loves Jacob she knows he cannot stay with her. She wants Jacob to have a proper life and not one like what she has experienced for the past seventy years. She tells him that she is an old woman hiding in the body of a young girl and that she and the others would never choose the life they have over the life Jacob has a chance to live back in his own time.

Hollow City tends to drag somewhat through the middle, with most of the action happening in the last few chapters. Ransom Riggs manages to keep the reader engaged however through the clever use of strange photographs. The cliffhanger ending will leave readers wondering how Ransom Riggs will wrap up his story in the third novel. This novel is definitely not to be missed by fans of Miss Peregrine and Ransom Riggs!

You can enjoy the very original book trailer:

Book Details:
Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
Philadelphia: Quirk Books      2014
396 pp.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Finding Melissa by Cora Taylor

Life for Clarice Warren has never been the same since the disappearance of her little sister, Melissa during a camping trip to the North Thompson River, twelve years ago. Unable to resolve the disappearance, Clarice's mom became obsessed with missing children and blamed both her father and Clarice. Eventually the strain led to Clarice's parents divorcing and her father remarrying and starting a new family. Clarice's counsellor at school has suggested that she keep a journal. She suspects that Clarice has internalized her guilt about her sister's disappearance and this is causing her to act out.

When Clarice rethinks the events of Melissa's disappearance that night many years ago, she comes to a startling revelation: she and Melissa snuck out of the tent to go to a special hideout but that Claire returned to the tent alone. She remembers the campground being illuminated with what must have been car headlights. Unsure of what to do, Claire keeps this revelation a secret.

Meanwhile in northern Alberta, in the town of Tomahawk, fourteen year old Leesa Weldon still suffers from nightmares. She lives with her Aunt Rosie and she's been told that her father brought her here years ago. This summer Leesa is going to be a live-in babysitter for Rhonda and Peter Friesen and their two children, Agnetha (Aggie) and Dawson. Then unexpectedly, Leesa's father, whose been in jail, gets released and shows up at Aunt Rosie's home. Without knowing why, Leesa is completely creeped out by this man who frightens her beyond understanding.

The third narrator in the story, Hector (Heck) Larkin, is a pedophile and convict who pretends he's Rosie's "father". His narration fills in the reader on what exactly happened that night twelve years earlier and what his future plans are for Leesa. His friend Turk who is still in jail will be helping Heck as soon as he gets released. In a strange twist that brings together Clarice's world with that of Leesa, it turns out that Clarice's friend, Shelby, has been corresponding with a guy online. That guy is Turk who reveals to Shelby in an email that his friend had kidnapped a girl from a campground in Northern B.C. years ago. It is this piece of information that pushes Clarice to finally tell her secret to an adult. From this point on, Taylor weaves together the narratives that builds to a suspenseful, but somewhat predictable conclusion.

Finding Melissa is a short novel that is sure to capture the interest of reluctant readers. Taylor has created four unique characters whom the story centers around. Clarice is the forgotten daughter, who in some ways is just as lost as her sister Melissa. With her mother's life revolving around solving Melissa's disappearance, no one seems to have recognized the effect this tragedy has had on Clarice.  Leesa has grown into a strong, self-sufficient teenager, who tries to follow her Aunt Rosie's advice and have some spunk - that is to be assertive when necessary. Heck is a cruel man who likes little girls, a thief and a drug dealer, impulsive and completely lacking a conscience. Aunt Rosie is a generous, kind woman whose main weakness is her brother Heck, whose true nature she can't seem to accept.

Readers may be confused by the timeline given in the novel. The story opens with three pages featuring "newspaper clippings" of the kidnapping which was said to have occurred in 1990. The date of Clarice's diary entries are supposed to be twelve years after the kidnapping but are dated 2012. Apparently, Taylor began working on this story in the early 2000's and so the kidnapping date was set as 1990. However, years later she picked up the drafts and finally finished them, but the date on the newspaper clippings was not changed. For the time line to make sense, the newspaper clippings should be dated 2000.

Cora Taylor is the author of fourteen books. She was born in Saskatchewan but now alternates her time between Alberta, Ontario and Florida.

Book Details:
Finding Melissa by Cora Taylor
Markham ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited 2014
183 pp.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Worlds We Make by Megan Crewe

This novel is the final book in the Fallen World trilogy, a series of novels set in Canada, about a plague devastated world and one girl's struggle to save it.

Kaelyn, Leo, Gav, Tobias, Justin and Anika have left Toronto and are on their way to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. Kaelyn has a cooler containing vials of vaccine serum plus her father's notes on how to sequence the vaccine. She had hoped to find help in Toronto, but the city was in chaos, controlled by a man named Michael and his gang known as the Wardens. When the Wardens learned of Kaelyn's vaccine, they became determined to steal it. Now the six of them are running for their lives, hoping to reach Atlanta without another run-in with the Wardens.

The black SUV the fled Toronto in, becomes disabled with a flat tire, forcing them to stop at a home. During their stop, Gav wakens and becomes very ill, turning so violent they have to lock him in a room in the house they've taken shelter in. He dies overnight and the next morning Tobias' illness begins to manifest itself.

Meanwhile, Leo attempts to contact the CDC via radio, but only manages to receive a transmission from the Wardens who are listening in and warn them that they will take the vaccine. Nevertheless, Kae and her friends forge onward. When they run low on fuel, they stop at a home and Kae orders Leo to take all the gasoline stored in the owner's shed, even though she understands how this person will feel when he returns to find he's been robbed. Kae knows Leo wonders what kind of person she's becoming - someone who must push her conscience down to do the things required in a world where each must look out for themselves. When they attempt to contact the CDC again, they reach Dr. Sheryl Guzman. However, when they explain to her what they have and what they are trying to do, Guzman is skeptical. Kae proves to Guzman who she is and that it was her father, microbiologist Dr. Gordon Weber, who made the first vaccine. Guzman tells Kae that she must make it to Atlanta on her own but that when she gets into the city to contact her and she will help her make her way to the CDC. She also hints that things are not stable where the CDC is situated.

As it turns out the Wardens are hot on the group's trail. When Kae and the group go out to search for Tobias who has left the group, they discover the Wardens searching a house where they have parked the SUV. Barely managing to escape and leaving Tobias to his fate, they find themselves being hunted by Michael and the Wardens in helicopters. In what becomes a game of cat and mouse with Michael, Kae's group finds themselves in a race against time to make it to Atlanta. Complicating matters is that fact that both groups have indicated to Kae that their will be restrictions on who gets the vaccine once it's developed. Kae decides that she can have a say in they type of world that will exist once the plague has been brought under control. Can she devise a plane that ensures that regardless of whether Michael or the CDC makes the vaccine, no one will be denied treatment.

Worlds We Make is a fitting conclusion to Crewe's trilogy, but it is predictable and bland. The linear storyline throws no surprises and even the deaths of two of the characters are to be expected. Crewe wraps up her story in a tidy manner, ending on a positive note. There's nothing special here, except that readers of the previous two novels will simply want to know how it all ends.

There are no especially brilliant characters and even the villain, Michael, isn't a particularly bad person. Perhaps the deaths of too many characters in this trilogy ultimately worked against the storyline.

Book Details:
Worlds We Make by Megan Crewe
New York: Hyperion   2014
280 pp.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller

Today is International Women's Day and this wonderful novel by Sharon Biggs Waller provides young women with the opportunity to reflect on how far women have come  in their struggle for equality over the past one hundred years. Set in London, in 1909, Waller combines the interesting elements of the suffragettes and the art world to create a dynamic, fascinating novel.

Over a century ago, the struggle by women's movement in Britain to obtain the right to vote was in full swing. Women were specifically excluded from voting by the Great Reform Act which passed in 1832. The act used the word "male" instead of "people", thus excluding women from having a say in their national government.  The right to vote movement began shortly after this but seventy years on, in 1903, little had been accomplished.

In October of 1903, the Womens Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed and it was decided that stronger measures were necessary. At the center of the struggle for women's rights was the Pankhurst family; first Richard Pankhurst and then Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst.

Members of the WSPU began demonstrations in front of Parliament, chained themselves to the iron fence outside of Buckingham Palace, and committed arson. Many women were jailed but even in prison they continued to fight on by going on hunger strikes. The movement became increasingly violent and was only interrupted by the advent of World War I. The war effort which saw many women take over jobs formerly done by men, eventually resulted in women achieving the right to vote. (The above was taken from the BBC web, The History of the Suffragettes)

The novel opens in March 1909 and introduces readers to seventeen year old Victoria Darling who is living in Trouville, France, attending Madame Edith's Finishing School For Girls. Victoria has been sneaking out of her boarding school with the help of her friend Lily Northbrook, to work alongside other artists in Monsieur Tondreau's atelier. At Tondreau's atelier, the artists study the nude, referred to as the undraped figure by artists. In Edwardian society such a thing is considered highly scandalous. No self-respectable woman from the upper class would behave in such a way. When the model for the class doesn't show one day, Victoria feels pressured to volunteer so she will be taken as a serious student of art. This decision will life altering consequences for Victoria.

When her posing nude is discovered by a classmate, Victoria is expelled from the finishing school and sent back home to England. She is met by her brother Freddy who has only recently come back into favour with their father, after refusing to be a part of the family business, Darling and Son Sanitary Company. The repercussions for Victoria are just beginning. Her mother informs Victoria that a lady's maid has been hired for her, and that she will make her debut into society shortly. This causes Victoria distress because she knows that the only reason for a debut is marriage. However Victoria's mother hopes that she will still receive an invitation to be presented to the King, as this will be an indication that Victoria's father who supplies plumbing fittings and fixtures will receive a Royal warrant to supply the same to King Edward. Victoria's escapade in Trouville has jeopardized her father's chances at such a warrant.

Victoria also learns that she is to be married off to Sir Henry Carrick-Humphrey's younger son, Edmund. Victoria tries to explain to her mother that she wants to study art, but her mother tells her this is not realistic for a young woman of her class. She tells her that women in polite society do not work and that Victoria is not talented enough to earn a living.

Stunned by her mother's revelations, and determined to discover what she needs to do to apply to the Royal College of Art, Victoria sneaks out of the house and takes a cab to the RCA. There she meets Mr. Earnshaw who tells her that she must submit a sketchbook by the end of April, and as she already suspects, that very few women are admitted.

Christabel Pankhurst
Bouyed by this Victoria decides she will draw the suffragettes who are demonstrating in front of the Parliament buildings. She especially wants to draw Christabel Pankhurst, the beautiful leader of the women's rights movement in Great Britain. During the demonstration the police show up and arrest Victoria along with the suffragettes including Victoria who loses her sketchbook. Distraught over the loss of her sketchbook, she begs a police man named William Fletcher who seems sympathetic to the suffragettes to save her book.  Fletcher helps Victoria get released from jail and he escorts her to the home of her brother, Freddy.

Freddy tells Victoria that Edmund is more forward thinking than his father. He tells her that once she's married to Edmund, she will have her own money and be able to attend college to study art. Victoria decides that she will marry Edmund by the end of the summer so she can attend attend the RCA in the fall. All she needs is to apply by the end of April, write the exam and be accepted in August.

The next day Victoria is lectured by her father to focus on marriage and becoming a wife and mother. He tells her that her duty in life is "to be pretty and entertaining" to her husband. However, when the Carrick-Humphreys come for dinner, disaster strikes as Edmund gets Victoria drunk and she argues with Sir Henry. This is the final straw for Victoria's father and he has her art supplies removed.

Furious, Victoria vows to live her life on her own terms. She becomes involved in the WSPU working on Sylvia Pankhurst's mural for the Women's Exhibition, and more importantly, she enlists Will Fletcher to pose for her an artist's model in return she will illustrate his short novels. In an unexpected turn of events, Victoria's new lady's maid turns out to be the youthful and very capable Miss Sophie Cumberbunch. Victoria finds Sophie to be both an aide and a sympathizer, who will help her complete her application for the RCA despite her parents objections. In Will she finds a muse and true love.  As her love for Will grows, Victoria becomes more distraught over her forthcoming marriage to Edmund who seems less suitable with each passing day.

When Sir Henry threatens to destroy everything Victoria has worked, for she must make a decision to either accept her fate marrying Edmund and live life as a society lady and lose forever her dream of being an artist, or stand up for herself and her dreams.

This beautifully crafted novel truly captures the essence of early 20th century society when industrialization was leading rapidly to modernization and a changing society. Waller weaves an intricate tapestry of domestic and public life in the early 1900's throughout the novel. Readers see life as it was for the very wealthy through the Darlings and the Carrick-Humphreys,  as well as the ordinary workers such as Will Fletcher's family. Women of privilege looked down on the lower classes, refusing any contact with them.

But society was changing. Many women were no longer content to remain in the home, relatively uneducated or uninvolved in the life of the nation and society. They were demanding a voice in society through the vote.

The world was fresh out of the Victorian age in which many contradictions existed. For example, in the novel, Victoria remarks that great works of art portraying the nude, such as Waterhouse's Mermaid, are admired and displayed, yet the process of creating those works is considered "unspeakable".

Waller has created a strong heroine in Victoria Darling. Victoria is resourceful and determined,  and has an almost mercenary approach to achieving her dream of someday become an exhibiting artist. She's willing to marry a man she doesn't love which might make her seem like she is using Edmund - and to an extent she is just as his family is using Victoria to settle Edmund in his way. This shows how marriage in Edwardian times was rarely for love and often for arranged for other reasons such as wealthy and social status. Victoria also considers that she has a social responsibility to the women who will come after her. While staying with her brother Freddy and his wife Rose, while watching her little niece sleeping, Victoria decides that she does not want her niece to face the same limited choices for her life. This is when Victoria knows she has to take a stand, so that future generations of women will be able to live their lives as they choose.

Waller also sets up a wonderful contrast between the two men Victoria must chose between. William Fletcher is everything Edmund Carrick-Humphreys is not. Will and Edmund are at opposite ends of the social spectrum, their lives as different as could be imagined. Will is frugal and hard-working, saving his money to purchase a gift for Victoria that was well above what he could afford. In contrast, Edmund has a gambling problem, lives in luxury that he doesn't have to pay for. Will deeply cares for Victoria's well being and understands her passion for art because it is similar to his passion for writing. Edmund's indifference to Victoria's desire to attend art school and his reluctance to stand up for her to his father, finally make Victoria understand who he really is. 

Although this is a long novel, it is well paced, packed with historical detail and has a suspenseful but satisfying ending. Sharon Biggs Waller has done her research and it shows. A Mad, Wicked Folly, whose title is a reference to Queen Victoria's remarks about the women's movement,  is chock full of many interesting themes including identity, the role of women in early 20th century, women's emancipation, the effect of industrialization on society and women artists.

For an interesting blog post in which Sharon Biggs Waller writes about the research process for this novel check out this entry over at Corsets, Cutlasses and Candlesticks.

Christabel Pankhurst image taken from

Book Details:
A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller
New York: Viking     2014
431 pp.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Vitro by Jessica Khoury

After receiving a mysterious email from her mother telling her that there is an emergency, seventeen year old Sophie Crue arrives in Guam searching for someone to take her to Skin Island. None of the local pilots are interested, warning her away from travelling to the strange isolated island, except for one pilot, Jim Julien. Sophie recognizes Jim immediately but he doesn't remember her until she tells him that she needs to get out to Skin Island.

Sophie used to live on Guam with her parents who both worked at the Skin Island research facility. However, when her parent's marriage broke up, she moved to Boston with her father while her mother stayed on at Skin Island full time. Jim's parents broke up three years ago when he was fifteen, his mother left Guam. His father once a pilot for tourists now drinks himself into a stupor daily.

Jim agrees to fly Sophie out to Skin Island in his Cessna Caravan. As expected, things go wrong almost immediately. When they land on the island's airstrip, all four tires on the Cessna are blown. A young boy, named Nicholas comes to greet them and while he takes Sophie across the island to meet her mother, Jim stays with his airplane to see if he can repair it.

As Sophie is led across the island by Nicholas, he begins acting very strangely, telling her to be quiet when they approach the facility. When she questions him on the type of research being done on Skin Island he only smiles enigmatically He leads her to complex and once inside the facility, Sophie manages to escape from him. When Sophie is forced to hide in a room, she discovers it holds a young woman asleep on a gurney who looks remarkably like herself. Sophie is knocked out from behind.

When Sophie awakes she finds herself in a lab with her mother, Moira, and several doctors as well as a middle aged man. Unable to speak, Sophie learns that this man, Mr. Andreyev is here to see her and that they think that she is the twin, Lux, she saw in the room. Sophie decides to play along, mute and unable to walk to learn more about what is happening. As it turns out her mother is not researching cures for Alzheimer's. Instead, this facility is doing research on frozen left over embryos from in vitro procedures. These embryos have a computer chip that has a special code called the Imprima Code implanted in their brains at just the right time so brain grows around it. At nine months gestation, they transfer data to the chip. Sophie's mother, Moira developed the imprint technology which isolated the imprinting instinct and amplifies it so that when the young person is awoken after years of sleep they imprint on the first person they see. The imprint creates a deep psychological need in the person and the desire to do the will of the person they imprint on. The doctors explain that Lux has no will of her own and no sense of self. Sophie also learns that Lux is a Class Three Bodyguard meaning she is prepared to defend the person she has imprinted on.

Meanwhile Jim, unable to repair the tires on his plane, manages to roll the Cessna down to the beach and secure it in the water. He waits for a time to see if Sophie returns and when she doesn't he makes his way across the island to the research facility. There he too discovers the room holding Sophie's twin. But Jim, thinking this is Sophie who has been drugged, snatches her and makes his way out of the facility and back to his plane. Unfortunately,what Jim doesn't know is that he is carrying Sophie's twin, Lux, who was being awakened today for a potential buyer.

Things begin to go badly for Jim when he runs into three young people from the island, Mary, Jay and Wyatt who behave in a hostile manner and give chase to him. Jim escapes from them but during the chase, Lux awakens, seeing Jim first and imprinting on him.Gradually Jim comes to realize that this is not Sophie and that he needs to go for help.

Moira eventually realizes that Sophie is playing the part of Lux. She isolates Sophie to try to protect her from Dr. Strauss and sets out to try to find Lux. Nicholas finally manages to meet up with Sophie again and he tells her that he was the first Vitro and that he wants Sophie to help him escape by stealing Corpus' helicopter. However, with Lux and Jim missing,  and Sophie refusing to leave unless Jim is with her, Nicholas' plans are unravelling. As more information is revealed about the dark nature of the experiments going on on Skin Island, Sophie has to come to terms with her connection to the island and try to save her mother and Jim before all is lost.

The story in Vitro is told by three narrators, Sophie, Jim and Lux. The novel could have done without the short narration by Lux - her perspective did not really add significantly to the story.  There are numerous twists to the storyline which at times is convoluted and dragged out. Some situations stretched credibility enormously. Can we really believe that a seventeen year old girl who receives a mysterious email from her mother whom she rarely sees, simply leaves home and travels by herself to learn what has happened without any input from her father? In a situation eerily similar to the Nazi death camps, we learn that the research facility has showers that serve as gas chambers. As well, the entire compound has numerous cannisters of hydrogen cyanide gas underneath it. Dr. Strauss at one point decides to kill all the Vitros by exposing them to hydrogen cyanide gas. This scene was not written realistically in any way,  since Jim and Lux would have had to have been treated with a cyanide antidote which did not happen in the novel. They would have been in no shape to participate in the events that followed having suffered from extreme cyanide poisoning.

Although this is science fiction, Vitro is more action-adventure than anything else. The stuff Jim endures is most remarkable and reads more like a Hollywood action film; a crash landing, rolling his plane by himself into the sea, numerous chases, a fall off a cliff into a lagoon, an explosion in his plane when he tries to leave the island, a swim back to Skin Island,  poisoning by hydrogen cyanide and an explosion that throws him into the sea. All this makes Vitro overly dramatic and at times, tiresome.

Because the story was more action based, we learn little about the characters other than Sophie and her mother. Jim who was a main character in the novel was mostly a one dimensional hero whose function is primarily to provide Sophie with a means of escape from the island.

Vitro has a great cover but is no match for Khoury's first novel, Origins.

Book Details:
New York: Razorbill a Division of Penguin Young Readers Group
357 pp.


Monday, March 3, 2014

The Beginning of Everything by Robin Schneider

This delightfully quirky book tells the story of a teen whose life takes a dramatic turn after a serious accident.

Ezra Faulkner lives in Eastwood, California where he attends Eastwood High. Ezra believes that everyone experiences a tragedy in their lives "after which everything that really matters will happen." For his friend Toby Ellicott, that tragedy happened in seventh grade. For Ezra it was the car accident after he broke up with his girlfriend Charlotte Hyde at Jonas Beidecker's party. His car totalled, Ezra suffered a broken wrist and a shattered knee, the latter injury destroying his dream of attending college on a tennis scholarship.

Ezra is still in physical therapy at the beginning of the school year, limping and using a cane. He left school before vacation as part of the in-crowd and mostly likely to be Homecoming King and returns as a social outcast, no longer fitting in with his jock friends. His academic schedule is changed so that he has classes with those who are not in the athletic stream. This reunites him with Toby whom he hasn't spoken to in years. No longer pudgy and bespectacled, Toby is tall and nerdy, wearing a bow tie. They are thrown together in debate class, where Toby is team captain. 

In Spanish class, Ezra meets the new girl in the school, Cassidy Thorpe, when he is partnered with her. She has moved from Barrows School, a private boarding school and has just returned from a summer program at Oxford studying Shakespeare. Ezra and Toby also have Cassidy in their debate class. Toby is shocked that Cassidy is attending Eastwood and can only think what this means for the debate team.Cassidy has reputation as a "fencer" - someone who places first in every round of a tournament. During their first class, as a joke, Ezra signs up Cassidy to the debate club. Later on Toby tells Ezra that there is something mysterious about Cassidy, that she disappeared suddenly from Barrow last year, that she won the State Qualifications but never competed, instead withdrawing four (or two, depending upon which account of Toby's you choose) days before the State tournament.  Toby warns Ezra not to get involved with Cassidy, telling him that she will "get into your head and mess you up."

 Days later Ms. Weng, the teacher responsible for the debate team informs them that both have been signed up for a debate tournament in San Diego. Cassidy is furious with Ezra. Thinking he has made Cassidy very angry with him, Ezra is surprised when she continues to be friendly. Instead, Cassidy takes on Esra as a debate protege, taking him to classes at the University of California Eastwood campus. Exposure to these classes cause Ezra to reconsider his future plans; that college classes might actually be interesting. No one has suggested to Ezra that he consider trying for an Ivy League school.

As their friendship grows, Ezra opens up to Cassidy telling her how it's been for him since the accident. He doesn't know who he is anymore and who he wants to be since the car accident turned his life into appointments with a physical therapist, walking with a cane and pain in his shattered knee. They attend the debate tournament in San Diego, at the San Diego Academy of the Performing Arts where Cassidy dresses and behaves strangely. Gradually their friendship evolves into a sexual relationship. Just when Ezra decides he's fallen in love with Cassidy, he discovers in a very blunt manner, that everything he thought he knew about Cassidy is wrong. Ezra learns that he and Cassidy are connected by the same tragedy, one that defines her life but which Ezra hasn't allowed to define his.

The Beginning of Everything has a strong male narrator in Ezra, who is witty and realistic. Ezra is struggling to come to terms with a life-changing accident that has affected him in ways he couldn't imagine; not only is he no longer a college tennis prospect, his social circle at school has disappeared and his body is changing from his athlete's physique. He's no longer the "golden boy", the popular jock with the beautiful girlfriend and part of the "in" crowd. He's an invalid with a wrist brace and a cane, and no reason to hang around his tennis team friends. Can he fit in though with his new friends?

But from the beginning, Ezra starts to rebuild his life, although at first he is unaware he's actually doing so. He knows the answers to the questions in AP Euro, he reconnects with his old friend Toby from Grade 7, and explores a new relationship with new girl and outsider, Cassidy Thorpe, and he begins to discover things about himself. He becomes friends with the misfits of Eastwood High, who have a secret film club, The Floating Theatre, are on the debate team and who set up silent raves or flashmobs. But while all this is developing Ezra still questions where he fits in the grand scheme of things.
...Nervous that I didn't really belong with this group of friends after all. That I was destined to forever be someone whose defining characteristic was lost forever at seventeen, rather than found."

But Ezra's tragedy, the kind "after which everything that really matters will happen" is a catalyst for change and for living rather than existing. He decides to live in a way that matters.

In contrast, Cassidy Thorpe, the pretty girl with "disquieting and dark blue" eyes, who hasn't "bothered trying to fit in" can't move on from a tragedy that brings together her and Ezra but which ultimately ends up tearing them apart. Unlike Ezra who can see the possibilities in their relationship, Cassidy sees herself as defined by tragedy that she and Ezra share. She also doesn't want to fit into the image Ezra has created in his own mind of her - a "bohemian adventurer".

The message, that in the end, we decide how others define us is central to this novel. Ezra thought that Cassidy was the impetus for his taking hold of life after his tragedy and moving on. But he comes to realize that he was the one who refused to let it define him and that he set about creating a new image, one that included new friends and new possibilities. Cassidy didn't want to be part of that and likewise she didn't want Ezra to define her either - just as her parents defined who her brother Owen was.

Overall this novel was well written but, my main complaint was the sexual relationship Ezra and Cassidy fall into, in the second half of the novel. This characteristic, although maybe realistic in life for teens in California, detracted from the relationship being forged by Ezra and Cassidy - as it would in real life for most teens. It made Ezra seem superficial, not the thoughtful character Schneider was forging him into.

The novel takes its title from a F.Scott Fitzgerald quote taken from his personal correspondence regarding Zelda his future wife , "...I love her and that's the beginning and end of everything."

Book Details:
The Beginning of Everything by Robin Schneider
New York: Katherine Tegen Books       2013
335 pp.