Monday, June 30, 2014

Surrounded by Sharks by Michael Northrop

Thirteen year old Davey Tsering and his family have just arrived on an island in the Florida Keys for a holiday. His mom and dad and younger brother Brandon, who goes by the name of Brando are hoping to enjoy a week of quiet time. When Davey wakes up their first morning on the island at the Aszure Island Inn, he decides to sneak out of the room his family is sharing and find someplace quiet to read. Davey is a book worm, who loves Tolkien. Grabbing his copy of the Simarillion, he first checks out the beach and the dock where a boat makes regular runs to Key West. As people begin to line up at the dock to take the first boat over the the island, Davey sits under a palm tree and reads. Meanwhile, Drew Dobkin and her parents, from Manchester, England, have arrived at the beach. Drew notices Davey sitting under the tree reading. Drew wants to take a trip over to Key West where she's heard there's more to do.

Meanwhile, Davey decides to wander around the island looking for a quieter spot. He finds that spot on the far side of the island at an isolated beach with an old "No Swimming" sign. At first he just wades into the shallow water and then returns to the beach to read. But eventually, the beautiful, warm water lures Davey back in. As he goes in up to his waist he realizes that he's very far from shore. When he tries to walk back he finds he cannot. Every time his feet leave the sand the water pulls him further out. When he tries to swim to shore, he finds himself being pulled further and further away from the island. Exhausted, he realizes he is being carried out to sea by a rip tide.

When Davey's family awakens, at first they assume he has simply gone for a walk around the island. But a quick search makes them realize that he is no where to be found. Meanwhile Brando struggles with guilt over not having woken his parents earlier in the morning when he first discovered Davey had left their room. When they head to Key West, believing that Davey may have boarded the boat in the morning, Brando is certain this is not something Davey would have done. It isn't until they meet the Dobkin family in Key West that their first real lead turns up.

As Davey is carried further into the Gulf of Mexico by the ocean current, he must deal with the beginnings of hypothermia, exhaustion, the sun, and worst of all, the very real threat of sharks.

Northrop has written a thrilling short novel that is certain to appeal to a wide range of readers. Written in third person omniscient, Northrop first sets the stage by introducing Davey in Chapter 1 and then captures his reader's attention in Chapter 2 explaining to his readers how a tiger shark hunts and that this particular tiger shark is on the hunt. This foreshadows the inevitable meeting between Davey and the tiger shark later in the story. The novel is divided into three sections, Part One Carried Away which explains how Davey ends up in the ocean, Part Two Boy And Sea which focuses on Davey's struggle to survive and Part Three Catching His Drift which chronicles the unraveling of the mystery of Davey's disappearance and the race to save him. While the reader knows what has happened to Davey, the characters in the book do not, building suspense to the thrilling climax of the novel.

Northrop excels at demonstrating how tiny things, missed, misinterpreted can mean the difference between life and death, between a rescue operation or a recovery when a person goes missing. For example, Tam and Pamela, Davey's parents assume that the boy Tony Dobkin saw at the beach was Davey. From that assumption they and the Key West sheriff made a second incorrect assumption that Davey took a boat to Key West, thus wasting valuable time in the search.

There is a varied cache of characters from the quiet, intelligent Davey, his timid but courageous brother Brando, the observant Drew Dobkin, the loud, gregarious Mr. Tony and the authoritative, quick thinking Lieutenant Commander Daniel Bautista of the US Coast Guard.

As an aside, Surrounded by Sharks highlights the dangers of a rip current which are common along many coastlines. A rip current is a strong channel of water that flows out to sea from the coast. It can be only a slight current or very very strong and is responsible for most rescues by lifeguards. The key to surviving should you get caught in a rip current is NOT to swim against it, like Davey did in the novel, but to swim parallel to shore in order to get out of the strong current. This diagram from the NOAA website best explains a rip current and what to do.

Overall a truly excellent novel for boys especially and also those who like adventure and mystery.

Book Details:
Surrounded By Sharks by Michael Northrop
New York: Scholastic Press   2014
208 pp.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

Ignite Me is the final installment in the Shatter Me trilogy. This novel is essentially a love triangle that focuses mainly on the relationship between Warner and Juliette, with the fight against the Reestablishment reduced to a mere setting for the love story.

Juliette Ferrars awakes to find herself in Warner's bedroom at his military base. As commander of Section 45, he has a large living and training area. She has been saved from her mortal gunshot wound by Warner who used the twins, Sonya and Sara to heal her. Warner, who is the only one who can touch Juliette, was able to transfer their power to save her. Juliette however, is more concerned with what the outcome of the battle for Sector 45 was and if her friends are still alive.Warner tells her that battle is over and that Omega Point, the home of the rebels, has been destroyed and all her friends are dead.

Juliette is horrified to learn that Adam, Kenji, James, Castle, Brendan and Winston have been killed. The twins have been taken by Warner's father, Anderson. Filled with anger, hurt and hate, Juliette decides to kill Anderson and destroy the Reestablishment. Warner offers his help.

Warner reveals to Juliette that he has been waiting for her "to be ready" to fight back against the Reestablishment. He tells Juliette that he designed an elaborate scheme to trick his father into studying her. Warner's mother was sick - she could not touch anyone, not even her own body. He hoped that Juliette's condition in which no one could touch her, might offer him answers to his mother's condition. Warner's father has her locked away in his house, where she is drugged. When Juliette was captured, she did not react the way Warner expected - that she would fight back. So he needed to push her to do this and use the abilities he was certain she had; he developed a simulation that appeared to have a child in danger and which forced Juliette to break out of her cell.

Juliette is deeply relieved to know that this was a simulation but at the same time angry. She comes to realize that she must lead the resistance. As she spends time with Warner, Juliette begins to realize that he is not the monster she thought and that he cares deeply about her. She tells him that she loved Adam and explains that he was the first person who was kind to her. But Warner insists that Adam was in love with who she was, a quiet, timid girl.

Warner takes Juliette to Omega Point to see the damage and there they meet Kenji who has survived. He tells Juliette that most of their group survived the bombing and are living at Adam's house. There Juliette meets Castle, Ian, Alia, Lily, Winston, Brendan and Adam and his ten year old brother, James. Nine survivors of Omega Point.

The surviving rebels believe that Warner will come back to kill them, but Juliette explains that he is not the cold-hearted murderer they believed. Juliette finds Adam and the survivors willing to give up and no longer interested in fighting back. Adam tells Juliette all he ever wanted was just her. But for Juliette this is no longer what she wants. She has changed. Juliette is not longer the timid girl she once was, afraid to use her abilities, afraid of her own strength.

When Warner arrives at Adam's house, Juliette, Adam and Warner have a huge confrontation. Adam no longer wants to fight against the Reestablishment, while Juliette and Warner are convinced they can now win if they combine their abilities. This leads to a huge conflict between Adam and Juliette with Juliette forcing Adam to face the truth about their relationship.

The rebels, along with Juliette must now decide whether to take this last chance to destroy Anderson and the Reestablishment, to trust that Warner will not betray them.

Ignite Me is essentially a love story about a girl discovering herself with the help of a young man whom she thought was her biggest enemy. Juliette's journey began in Shatter Me with her overwhelming fear of her supernatural abilities, a timid and immature girl who is ashamed of who and what she is. With Aaron Warner Anderson's help, his belief in her and his love for her, in Ignite Me,  she learns her abilities give her a superior strength that is to be accepted and developed.  He also tells her she deserves more than what Adam Kent was offering her. Warner tells Juliette "You deserve so much more than charity...You deserve to live. You deserve to be alive."  This gives Juliette another reason to confront the evil of the Reestablishment head on. The title of the novel is a reference to the passion Warner has for Juliette.

However, Warner felt like a manipulative man who was determined to get what he wanted - Juliette, and who had no qualms about killing certain types of people - men who abuse their wives and his own meglomaniac father. Adam, who from the beginning was honorable towards Juliette, is portrayed in Ignite Me as an angry, disillusioned man. There seems to be no regard that he has been through a devastating battle which saw most of his friends killed. Unlike Warner, with his status, his wealth and his military position and someone who has been largely protected from the effects of war, Adam is battle-shocked and traumatized. Juliette is harsh in her treatment of him, although she thinks she's being kind and caring towards him. The Juliette we knew in  Shatter Me , who was so concerned for others, now simply moves on from Adam. She no longer needs him.

This leads to the one of the biggest disappointments of this novel - the complete transformation of the three main characters, Warner, Juliette and Adam. None are the same as what they were in the first two novels. Warner, the monster in the first novel is now the passionate, tender lover and Adam, the caring hero becomes the battle-scarred cynic.

Ignite Me will certainly appeal to fans of romance as the angst and sexual tension between Warner and Juliette, which dominates throughout most of the novel, finally develops into full blown passion.  Mafi's story becomes completely bogged down with Warner and Juliette's love affair, with little development of the storyline. The action of the rebellion really takes a back seat to their love affair, with the take down of Anderson and Sector 45 accomplished in the remaining forty pages of this four hundred page  novel. It all seems just too easy and too neat.

It was also difficult to come to a good understanding of the world that Warner, Juliette, Adam and Kenji inhabit. We know there are over five hundred sectors, all of which they will eventually have to conquer in order to overthrow the Reestablishment. Mafi provides scant details on the rest of their world and how people live day to day.

The best novel in this series was Shatter Me, which set up an interesting premise of a group of people with X-Men like powers in a dystopian world. The series never fully lived up to expectation for me and became hopelessly bogged down in a love triangle.

Book Details:
Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi
New York: Harper    2014
406 pp.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Soldier Doll by Jennifer Gold

Jennifer Gold has written a wonderful novel with a very unique storyline. The novel is a series of stories interwoven with a narrative in the present about a girl who finds a small wooden soldier doll..

Soldier Doll opens in the year 2007 with fifteen year old Elizabeth Bryant who, along with her mother and father has just moved from Vancouver to Toronto. Her father, an engineer in the Canadian Armed Forces, will be working out of CFB Trenton before he ships out to Afghanistan.

While searching for a birthday gift for her dad at a community garage sale, Elizabeth finds a small wooden doll.The  doll is very unusual with a baby face, blond hair, blue eyes and a painted soldiers uniform. Sensing her dad, who enjoys collecting junk, might like this, Elizabeth purchases the doll. When she gives it to her father on his birthday, her mother seems to think the doll might be special, but can't remember why.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is understandably having trouble adjusting to life in Toronto. She misses her friends and is lonely. With less than a week before the start of school, her mother suggests that she go out to meet people. Elizabeth does this one evening and soon discovers a used bookstore called Read It Again Sam. At the bookstore Elizabeth meets the young store clerk, Evan, and Boris, the store owner's large black and white rabbit. She discovers the store has a copy of Margaret Merriweather's novel, Autumn Evening, one of her favourite books. Evan tells Elizabeth about a Merriweather's poetry and asks if she studied the Soldier Doll in school. Stunned at the coincidence of a poem about a soldier doll and her having found just such a doll at the garage sale, Elizabeth learns from Evan that the poem is about a real soldier doll that went missing during a war and which people have been searching for many years. Evan locates a copy of the poem and buys it for Elizabeth and asks her to friend him on facebook.

Convinced that the soldier doll is an important antique, Elizabeth mentions the soldier doll poem to her parents and how the doll has been missing for years. Her father contacts Dr. Madeleine McLeod, an archeologist and twentieth century historian. They go to meet Dr. McLeod who tells them that the doll has a German World War I military uniform rather than a British one. She agrees to run tests. Elizabeth decides to see if Margaret Merriweather is still alive. Although she will be very very old, it might be possible for her to verify if this is in fact, her soldier doll.

Interwoven with Elizabeth's efforts to uncover the origin and history of the doll are the stories of how the doll came to be and how it was passed from one person to the next throughout the 20th century.

Readers will meet Meg Merriweather who fell in love with Ned Roberts in Devon, England in 1918. When Ned is killed in action in Germanyduring World War I, the doll passes to Franz Roth, a Jewish German soldier. In 1939, Franz gives the doll to his daughter, Hanna, and explains how he came into possession of it.That night, which turns out to be the infamous Kristallnacht, Hanna returns the doll to her father, as he goes to rescue a neighbour. He never returns, instead being deported to a work camp. In 1944, Franz, still in a camp, Terezin (also known as Theresienstadt) in Czechoslovakia, and still in possession of the doll, gives it to Eva Goodman in the hopes that it will bring her good luck and that she will survive. In Da Nang, Vietnam, Mike Stepanek has a soldier doll in his pocket. Mike is a squad leader for his platoon, which is searching the jungle for Viet Cong. His mother, who got the doll from the nuns at an orphanage in Prague before she fled Czechoslovakia,  gave the soldier doll to him as a memento. While searching a Vietnamese village, Mike is horrified by the effects of the war on the villagers and when a small girl begs for food, he impulsively hands her the soldier doll. Years later, in 2001 in Toronto Canada, a young university student, Alex Cameron has the doll his mother, Thuy, a Vietnamese refugee was given by an American soldier. Alex, an idealistic university student who wants to fight for freedom, enlists against his parents wishes and goes to Afghanistan. In a moment of anger, he tosses the doll into the street in Toronto.

Eventually, when tragedy strikes Elizabeth's family, the soldier doll brings comfort to her, by connecting her with someone from its past who helps her to come to an important realization about life.

Soldier Doll is excellent novel marred by an unimaginative cover that does nothing to draw in its intended audience of teen readers. Which is truly unfortunate. Gold who has degrees in psychology, law and public health,  has written an engaging novel which provides readers with a brief snapshot of war throughout the 20th century.


 Soldier Doll explores the long reaching effects of war on families regardless of country or era through the narratives of Meg, Franz, Eva, Mike and Alex, all survivors of war. Elizabeth and her mother too are survivors of war, having lost their father and husband. After learning her father has been killed in Afghanistan, Elizabeth doesn't care anymore about the soldier doll, but Mike Stepanek tells Elizabeth, "It's hard to be the one who lives" and Elizabeth comes to realize that this is what many people experience in war, the guilt of having survived. They must learn to go on living, not only for those around them, but also to prove the instigators of war wrong. They must have hope. In Elizabeth's life, the unborn child her mother carries, is a symbol of the future and of this hope.

This theme of hope is also present earlier in the novel in the narrative of Eva who after losing her mother and father and her best friend Ilona to deportation to a death camp, does not want to sing when the Red Cross comes to Terezin. But Adam, one of the children initially set against them cooperating with the Nazi's to put on this concert, tells her,
"It has to do with hope, I think. If we sing, we have hope, still. And if we have hope, we might survive."
Eva does survive. As does her son, Mike Stepanek. As does the little girl, Thuy, who was given the soldier doll by Mike. The soldier doll also survives and represents all those people who survive war.

Another aspect of war the Soldier Doll considers is the complicated factors that are involved in enlisting to fight in a war. In Meg's opening narrative, Ned doesn't want to go to war but it is the honourable thing to do. He will be judged a coward if he doesn't enlist, despite the fact that it is obvious to him and Meg that he is still not fully recovered from his pneumonia. In Mike's narrative, 

Soldier Doll is well written and cohesive despite the many narratives.It would have been nice to have a map at the end of the novel chronicling all the locations the soldier doll traveled.

Book Details:
The Soldier Doll by Jennifer Gold
Toronto: SecondStoryPress       2014
277 pp.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Time To Dance by Padma Venkatraman

Veda Venkat  lives in an apartment in Chennai with her Pa and Ma and her grandmother, Paati. Veda is a Bharatanatyam dancer. She lives and breathes dancing. She hears music everywhere in the world around her.

But Veda's Ma encourages her to study because she wants Veda to become what she wanted to be, an engineer. Ma believes dancing is not a respectable career for a middle class girl.

Veda is very close to Paati who has had a hard life. Her husband died when she was young and Veda's father just a baby. As a widow, Paati did not give up. Instead, she returned to college and became a teacher. She never remarried.

Veda, who trains with dance instructor, Uday anna, wants more than anything to win the upcoming Bharatanatyam dance competition. When she makes it to the finals, Veda is ecstatic and certain she will win.

Veda competes in the Bharatanatyam dance competition and beats her nearest rival, Kamini. She is ecstatic and celebrates her victory with her best friend, Chandra, but her Ma is not so pleased. Paati tells her not to be discouraged about how things are going with her mother.

Tragedy strikes when the van taking the dancers, musicians and teachers home from the competition crashes. Veda's right leg is badly mangled and despite the attempts by Dr. Murali to save her leg, she has her right foot amputated. In a split second, Veda's life is changed- her dreams of dancing seemingly destroyed forever.

It feels like Shiva destroyed my universes of possibility,
like He's dancing
on the ashes
of my snatched-away dreams.

While she is in hospital recovering from her injuries, Veda meets Mr. James, a prosethesist from America. James, or Jim as he asks Veda to call him, helps Veda with her rehabilitation, teaching her to use crutches and prepare for her new prosthetic. Veda finds herself feeling drawn to the kindly American man, even though he is much older than her.

Veda returns home and eventually to school where she is taunted about being lame. However her friend Chandra encourages her to be the fighter she's always recognized her to be. While she has never considered herself beautiful, Veda felt that dancing and the control she had over her body, made up for her lack of beauty. Now she feels ugly and clumsy. But Chandra tells her it is her spirit that makes her so attractive.

Jim studies Bharatanatyam dance so he can understand Veda's art and learn what she will need her prosthetic leg to be able to do. In his office he has several posters of dancers who suffered seriously leg injuries, yet still found the courage and ability to continue to dance. He tells Veda he will make her a leg she can dance on and Veda becomes determined that she will dance again. When she goes to see Uday anna, who never even visited her while she was in the hospital, he tells her she cannot dance, that it is time for a new dream. Disillusioned and very upset, Veda returns home. When Veda tells Paati what happened, Paati tells her to seek out Dr. Dhanam, a Bharatanatyam teacher who teaches her dancers to express their emotions.

Dr. Dhanam accepts her but tells Veda she will need to begin again with the younger students. She will study with Govinda, a student of Dr. Dhanam's who teaches young children. Veda finds Govinda, patient, kind and handsome. In turn, Govinda admires Veda's demon-like desire to pursue what she wants in life, an ability he feels he does not have. Govinda wants to be a dancer but his parents want him to be an engineer.

As Govinda and Veda spend time together training, a deep friendship begins to blossom between the two. Gradually Govinda teaches Veda to accept herself as she is and to have patience to relearn dance.

After asking Akka if she might be in the play, Dhanam akka gives Veda not one but two parts; a sick, old woman Buddha sees and the part of Gautami, a woman who came to Buddha with her dead son in her arms, asking him to bring her son back to life. Veda's thrill is soon replaced by trepidation and discouragement when she finds the latter part difficult to portray as Akka wishes. Akka takes Veda aside and tells her she must learn to dance the way she wants her students to, with compassion. To do this, Akka tells Veda she must first acknowledge her own pain that she has experienced from the loss of her foot.

Although Govinda understands dance and is more mature in his approach to his art than Veda, he lacks the courage to pursue his dream of being a professional dancer and teacher. With his parents forcing him to curtail his dancing, Govinda must decide for himself what his future will be.

A Time To Dance is another brilliant novel by Padma Venkatraman. In this novel, Venkatraman explores a number of themes, those of loss, identity, the resilience of people to overcome tragedy and the power of art -(in this case, Bharatanatyam dance) to transform lives.

Venkatraman tells Veda's story in free verse that captures the physical and emotional pain Veda experiences from her accident as well as the joy of dancing and the uncertainty and exhilaration of a blossoming first love. Each poem has a title that captures the essence of the verse.

It is especially the last two themes that Venkatraman explores in-depth. The purpose of art whether it be music or dance to reach out to others and to allow the performer to express his or her own feelings is important and can sometimes be forgotten due to competitions and the desire to win.  Veda wants to work to regain as much of her dancing skills as possible - to be able to do the exotic poses and to awe her audience. However, now she knows she has certain limitations because of her artificial leg. At first she angrily rebels against her body's new limitations. But Govinda admonishes her for viewing dancing in this manner. He points out that Dhanam akka's body has limitations due to her advanced age, but this does not mean she is not a good dancer.

"You think because she's older and less flexible
she's not as good a dancer anymore?
Being a good dancer is more
than mastering
every pose there is."

Govinda tells Veda to care about "entering people's hearts and elevating their souls" and to stop obsessing over her body's new physical limitations. Veda's gradual transformation into accepting her body as beautiful despite its limitations is a result of gradually gaining back some of her ability to dance, being able to express more fully her feelings through dance.

She achieves the latter partly by coming to some acceptance of what has happened to her. Since her accident Veda has questioned why certain things happen to people; why God leaves a beggar with nothing and why he allows suffering. Chandra has no real answers to these questions except to say that eventually good is rewarded. Govinda tells her that for him, finding the answers is not important - he realizes through the wonder and awe of things that are good, that God is present. Veda realizes that she needs to feel the wonder of dance again, like she did as a child.

"Maybe all I need is to feel what I felt as a child. Through dance.
By dancing a different way,
dancing so it strengthens not just my body,
but also helps me find, then soothe, and strengthen, my soul."

The relationship between Govinda and Veda is quite lovely; both have a mutual respect for one another and each admires in the other, a quality they feel they are lacking.  Venkatraman's free verse beautifully captures this aspect of their relationship.

Overall another great novel from Padma Venkatraman which captures some of the flavour of eastern mysticism.

Book Details:
A Time To Dance by Padma Venkatraman
New York: Nancy Paulsen Books    2014
307 pp.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Treatment by Suzanne Young

The Treatment is the sequel to The Program, Suzanne Young's novel that explores society's attempts to treat a suicide epidemic among young people.. The Program was instituted because of the epidemic suicide rates among teens. Teens at risk or who have attempted suicide are taken into the Program where their memories are erased and then they are sent back out into society with a handler.

Sloane Barstow and James Murphy are on the run from the Program. They are picked up by Casanova Gutierrez, who has never been in the Program, and Dallas Stone, a Program rebels. They were sent by Michael Realm to take Sloane and James to a safe house in Salt Lake City, Utah. Dallas and Cas tell them that Kevin and Lacey never made it to the border either; they have found Lacey but not Kevin whom they assume has been sent back into the program.

Sloane still refuses to take the yellow pill, known as The Treatment, given to her to her by Michael Realm, which will recover her memories. She refuses for two reasons; there is only one pill so either her or James must take it and she has no idea what the effect will be.

While at the safehouse, Sloane and James struggle with their loss of memories and what they have experienced in the Program. They want to find a safe place to live but they also want to destroy the Program which they now know is harming people irreparably. Sloane learns that Dallas was repeatedly raped by Roger, a handler in the Program and that this has deeply harmed Dallas.

One night Dallas takes Sloane and James to a Suicide Club. The Suicide Club is an underground club where people dress in black and heavy makeup to disguise themselves. Strong drinks are served that help people "feel" again and let loose. Dallas hopes to find other recruits for the rebel cause against the Program. They decide to leave Cas at home to watch Lacey who doesn't seem to be acting normally. She has had headaches and a severe nose bleed. When they return, Sloane finds a note from Lacey and they discover that she has run away. With Lacey missing, this means they will have to leave. However, before they do so there is a confrontation between Realm and James, both of whom love Sloane.

Before they leave for Denver, Arthur Pritchard, the creator of the Program visits them at their safe house, seeking the one remaining pill called the Treatment. Pritchard tells them he lost control of the Program months ago. It is under the control of the US government and the Program is now requiring all teens to undergo treatment in the Program.
"Mandatory admittance for people who aren't even depressed is like mass brainwashing. Some sick and twisted version of utopia"

He tells Sloane that the Program has been misused and that he realizes now that traditional therapy was probably the best option for treating the suicides. He cannot stop the Program because he is under a gag order and will have his memories taken from him if he speaks out. He also reveals that those who are untreatable are lobotomized. He tells Sloane,
"Human beings are cruel creatures. And what we don't understand, we tamper with until we destroy it. The epidemic is forcing the world to focus on mental disease, but they've twisted it into something to be feared, rather than treated."
Pritchard is working on a treatment that will counter the effects of the Program and prevent erasure of memories. He tells them that Dr. Evelyn Valentine created just such a pill called the Treatment which she tested on several people who were returned to the Program. However, before she could complete her work, Valentine disappeared. He believes one or two pills from her research survived and Pritchard hopes to find one to analyze and replicate. Sloane and her companions do not tell him they have the one remaining pill.

When Pritchard departs, the group discovers that James has left. This causes Sloane tremendous hurt and anxiety but she is forced to travel with Realm, Cas and Dallas to another safe house in Denver. During that drive to Denver, Sloane is approached by a reporter, Kellan Thomas from the New York Times who wants to do an expose on what is really happening in the Program. Sloane and James have been on the news as fugitives and are wanted. He tells her that his stories about the Program are being buried and that it is becoming a national scandal and that if she wants to talk she can contact him using his business card.

Sloane, Cas and Dallas find a small farmhouse outside of Lake Tahoe and eventually James meets up with them. However, ai are taken back to the Program when their location is revealed by Cas who has been embedded with them by the Program. Sloane learns from her handler, Asa, that unless she works with him and Realm, who are trying to free her, she will be lobotomized in a weeks time. Can Sloane save herself and stop the Program which is set to wreck the lives of millions of young people?

Young has written a fascinating novel that explores issues surrounding mental illness, specifically depression and suicide in teens. The Treatment considers how we view depression and suicide, how it is treated, and how treatments can be misused in an attempt to "cure". Young creates a chilling tale of abuse within a medical facility, where the patients appear to be the sane ones, while the doctors becoming increasingly manipulative and controlling. This is especially well demonstrated in the relationship between Dr. Beckett and Sloane, with Beckett willing to destroy Sloane in order to save the Program and also in what has happened to Dallas during her treatments. All this is of course a reference back to the mental health facilities in the late 1800s and early 1900's when patients were  incarcerated against their will, sometimes abused, given electro-shock treatment or lobotomized.

Readers will find this novel is slow off the start, with not much happening in the first fifty pages, except the setting up of a weak love triangle between James, Realm and Sloane.  The primary focus is on Sloane and James struggling with their memories or lack of them, and trying to decide what to do with the Treatment pill. However, the pace of the story picks up quickly in Part II The Treatment when Arthur Pritchard comes forward with his appeal to Sloane to help him find the remaining Treatment pill.

Young never quite fully explains some of the questions readers will be left with: exactly what happened to Kevin and Lacey, how did Lacey end up in the Program again, and how did Arthur Pritchard meet the fate he did. How the Program gets dismantled is somewhat unimaginative - a reporter's expose leads to it's demise, given that this is the only means left to Sloane, James and Realm.

Overall, this is an interesting duology that explores the themes of identity, mental illness and human experimentation. Not quite as good as the first novel, but still a worthwhile conclusion.

Book Details:
The Treatment by Suzanne Young
Toronto: Simon Pulse     2014
344 pp.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

"It was like the tornado had ripped through my house and torn me way."
In Torn Away, Jennifer Brown explores the issues of loss, grief and the meaning of family  during a  life-changing tragedy. Brown was inspired to write Torn Away as a result of the events in Joplin, Missouri in 2011. On May 22, of that year, the city of Joplin was devastated by an EF-5 tornado that resulted from a supercell thunderstorm originating in Kansas.One hundred and fifty-eight people died and over one thousand were injured. This tornado was one of the most deadly to ever strike the midwest United States.

Sixteen year old Jersey Cameron lives with her mom, her stepdad Ronnie and her little stepsister, Marin in Elizabeth, Missouri. Jersey's biological father, Clay Cameron, abandoned the family when she was a baby. And her mother's parents disowned her when she became involved with Clay.

Elizabeth is under frequent tornado warnings, so when one comes up after school, at first Jersey doesn't really pay attention. Her mother and  stepsister, Marin are at dance class and her step father is at work. Even when the power goes out, Jersey still doesn't blink. However, the weather worsens and Jersey decides to seek shelter in the basement.

As she lays terrified beneath the large pool table, Jersey hears the roar of the tornado as it sweeps down upon Elizabeth. After what seems like forever, the tornado passes on and Jersey is left battered and bruised but alive. She has no idea yet that her life has been changed forever.

Her neighbour, Kolby emerges from his home, relatively unscathed, although his home, like Jersey's, is in ruins. Their entire street is wiped out along with many other areas of Elizabeth. Eventually Jersey learns that her mother and Marin have been killed, two of at least one hundred other fatalities. Ronnie has survived, but it soon becomes apparent that he is not up to the task of taking care of Jersey nor getting their lives in order again. Distraught and overwhelmed, Ronnie contacts Jersey's father's family in Castor City asking them to take in Jersey.

Jersey is horrified to learn that she will be going to live in Castor City with her grandparents, Billie and Harold. She will be leaving her friends and the only home she knows. In desperation, Jersey contacts her friend Dani, and begs her to ask her mother to take her in. While waiting for Dani to help her, Jersey is picked up by her grandparents and driven to Caster City.

It quickly becomes apparent that no one at her father's parent's home wants her at the house in Caster City. Her grandparents are cold and insensitive and she discovers that her father, along with his wife, Tonette and their two daughters, Lexi and Meg are uncaring and mean, her father an alcoholic and crude man who tries to claim he is not her father. Jersey struggles to survive in a completely dysfunctional home and soon things get completely out of hand. Will Jersey's life ever be right again?

In an attempt to save herself, Jersey runs away and is finally picked up by Ronnie and taken to her mother's parent's home in Waverly. It is here that Jersey just might have the chance to recover from the terrible tragedy that has upended her entire world.

Brown has written a very realistic story about how life can change in the blink of eye, and how without friends or family to help, such loss can have the potential to destroy a person. When Jersey loses her family, she discovers that she has no one to turn to. Her best friend's mother won't get involved to help her. Ronnie is unable to cope and so he passes her on to the only people he believes will take Jersey - her father's family. However, it is immediately apparent that this family has too many of its own problems to adequately help Jersey cope with the loss she has experienced; in fact, they seem to not even acknowledge that loss, which makes it even worse for Jersey. The only person who appears to understand is Clay's sister, Terry, but she is not in a position to help Jersey. Clay and Grandmother Billie's sense of duty only add to the hurt that Jersey is feeling.

Adding to Jersey's emotional turmoil is the discovery of new information about her father, his family and her mother and father's relationship. These revelations continue even as she is moved to the Berry's (her mother's parents) home in Waverly. This leads Jersey to act out in anger towards her friends and especially towards her father and both sets of grandparents.

Another factor contributing to this bad behaviour is Jersey's lack of a safe environment to share her grief and her anger. This gradually changes when she goes to live with the Berry's. However, Jersey, at first, doesn't recognize this safe loving home for what it is because her mother has trained her to hate them as a result of what happened between her mother and her parents many years ago.
"The eight-year-old inside of me was afraid to breathe in this house, afraid of catching the oppression Mom had always talked about. Afraid of being judged. How did I know who this woman really was? How did I know she would turn on me the way Dani's mom had, or give up on me the way Clay had, lie to me the way Mom had, or cast me out the way Ronnie had?"
When Jersey's mother, Christine, refused to break-up with Clay, the Berry's told her that if she married him she should never come back. But as Jersey comes to know her grandparents better and listens to their side of the story, she realizes that her mother was also partly to blame for what happened because of her stubborn wilfulness. Jersey has to come to the realization that her loving her grandparents will not be a betrayal of her mother.

Having learned from their mistake, instead of judgment, the Berry's now offer Jersey love and support and it is in this environment that she finally starts to work through her grief.

Another interesting aspect of this novel is how our behaviour can shape others whether we realize this or not. The most obvious of course is how Jersey's mom trained her to hate her grandparents without ever meeting them. But Jersey, in reflecting back on her little sister, Marin, comes to realize that she behaved in a similar way. Her sister was fascinated with scorpions but when Jersey scares her, she changes that fascination into fear, forever changing how Marin will look at scorpions.
"I'd taken away her fascination and replaced it with fear. She'd died scared of bugs, because that was how I'd shaped her."

The novel's positive ending with a touch of a blossoming romance only add to the great storyline, the many diverse and well developed characters and the realistic portrayal of living through a tornado.

Jennifer Brown continues her tradition of excellent writing for teens with Torn Away. Highly recommended.

Book Details:

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown
New York: Little Brown and Company 2014
276 pp.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Donkeys by Adelheid Dahimene and Heide Stollinger

This quirky picture book tells the story of two old donkeys, Jenny and Jack, who have been together for twenty five years. However, when Jack sleeps through their 25th wedding anniversary, Jenny gets mad and stomps off. Jack decides he can easily find another donkey just like Jenny. Similarly, Jenny feels there's plenty of fish in the sea. So they each set off in search of a new mate, meeting a cow, goat and a camel - only to discover that in fact, their best match is really each other.

What could have been a delightful children's book with its hilarious, expressive drawings of the donkeys is marred by both a weak storyline and some questionable text. If Jenny and Jack are so perfect for each other and have been together so long, would they really fight over a missed anniversary?  Probably not. And although children are not likely to comprehend the references to "horsing around", some adults may feel uncomfortable reading this text to young children.

Heide Stollinger's delightful pencil crayon illustrations capture a wide range of emotions, making these two donkeys seem almost human. The facial expressions are truly wonderful.

Adelheid Dahimene was born in Austria and won several awards for her children's books. She passed away in 2010.

Book Details:
Donkeys by Adelheid Dahimene and illustrated by Heide Stollinger
New York: NorthSouth Books an imprint of NordSud Verlag AG, Switzerland  2014

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Storm by D.J. MacHale

Kent Berringer, Tori Sleeper, Olivia Kinsey and Tucker Pierce have survived their daring escape from quarantined Pemberwick Island, to Portland, Maine. Pemberwick is under control of SYLO, the secret, mysterious part of the United States Navy. And Portland has just been destroyed by the strange black planes from the United States Air Force.

The group of four witnessed an epic sea-air battle between the air force and the Navy. Now in Portland, they discover the city is a wasteland; most of the buildings have vanished along with the people And they are being hunted by the strange black planes whose engines emit a musical sound. When the beams from the planes were brought to bear on buildings they disappeared but sometimes only the people vanished. Anyone below ground level was saved.

The group manages to destroy the black plane hunting them and using a stolen car make their way to Maine Medical so Tori can get treated for her gunshot wound. There they meet Jon Purcell who works in transportation and a doctor, Luna Kayamori. The hospital has a radio which has been receiving a broadcast every two hours. Through the static they can only make out some of the words, which seem to be a call for help. Tucker asks Dr. Kayamori if she can translate the Latin phrase, "Sequentia yconomus libertate te ex inferis obendienter"  which was found written on the Air Force plane and which forms the acronym SYLO. Kayamori is familiar with only a few of the words and cannot translate yconomus.

Eventually, Tori who stayed up all night listening to the message, is able to decipher it and determines that it is a call to resistance and that provides co-ordinates of a location in Nevada where survivors of the attacks can gather. The group of teens along with Jon decide to head to Boston first to see if other major cities have been attacked. On the drive to Boston they come to realize that there are likely few survivors in the city; the highways are littered with abandoned cars and the wrecks of airplanes. There are no people and no animals either.

In Boston, they find a large group of survivors who seem well organized and who are led by a man named Chris Campbell. Chris takes them to Faneuil Hall, a historic building in the city where the survivors are housed and fed. There they are questioned and detailed information about them is recorded, they are well fed and set to work. However Tucker begins to suspect that things are not as they appear. One morning he sees men and women being loaded onto a bus. After telling Tori about what he saw they decide to investigate and make an astounding discovery - that the Faneuil Hall camp is supplying slave labour for some kind of strange construction being undertaken and Fenway Park. When they see the men and women lifting huge steel girders they realize that they are under the influence of the Ruby.

It is at the Fenway that Tucker and Tori once again encounter Feit, whom they thought was killed in their escape from Pemberwick Island. Feit indicates that he is working for the Air Force. Feit reveals that the Air Force are fighting to save a doomed planet and trying to create a better world. He was on Pemberwick Island testing the Ruby to see how much the body could withstand before burning out.  Feit indicates that they have wiped out almost three-quarters of the world's population and are now planning to eliminate others. Only a small remnant of humanity will be left and they will be kept as slaves, like the people at Faneuil Hall, to maintain the infrastructure. Feit tells them they are working against SYLO which has a different plan for the world, one which would change the world too.However SYLO's version of the world is not revealed.

Feit also tells Tucker and Tori that there were many infiltrators on Pemberwick Island - people Tucker recognized as strangers who were there to help them take out Captain Granger and SYLO.

In a stunning surprise, SYLO bombs Fenway destroying the silver domed structure that the Retro's were building, allowing Tucker and Tori to escape. They race back to Faneuil Hall to warn the other survivors and to rescue Olivia, Kent and Jon but discover that Chris Campbell is indeed part of the Retros. Their group barely manages to escape and head out to Nevada.

On their way to Nevada they stop in Springfield, MA and are told by an elderly man left in a hospital that his son had wanted him to travel to Kentucky where he assured his father they would be safe. This leads the group to decide to travel to Nevada via Kentucky. It is during their stay in Kentucky, near Fort Knox that they discover a secret SYLO base with an unusual ability to protect itself. Tucker re-encounters Captain Norman Granger, who surprises Tucker by telling him his intention was never to kill Tucker. Granger also tells Tucker that the Retros as he calls the Air Force, accused SYLO of trying to bring about the "end of days". He warns Tucker that one or more of his group might very well be Retro infiltrators. He also tells Tucker that SYLO destroyed the Retro's "gate to hell" in Boston but that another one exists in the Mojave Desert and that they will get that one too. When Tucker asks Granger what he means by this, he is not given any further information, deepening the mystery as to who the Retros are.

Tucker and his companions find the survivor group in Las Vegas, Nevada which has managed to remain undetected. But shortly after their arrival, the city is attacked by the Retros leading Tucker to discover a traitor in their group. They also learn of the Retro's secret plan to destroy Los Angeles and many other survivors too. But it turns out the group of survivors in Las Vegas has a plan, which Tucker is quite willing to be a part of. Can they strike back at the Retros to give SYLO a chance to turn the tide in this war?

Once again MacHale has crafted a thrilling novel that keeps readers in suspense trying to guess the nature of the attacks on the cities and motives behind them. At a whopping 481 pages, readers won't be daunted, because MacHale manages to keep his readers engaged by not revealing who the attackers are nor the extent of the attacks and only gradually revealing bits and pieces of the mystery while adding to it throughout the novel. He implies that the Retros are targeting cities in other countries when Tucker and the survivors at Faneuil Hall witness a large number of the black drone Retro planes heading out over the Atlantic Ocean. The novel ends on a cliffhanger with plenty of unanswered questions; Who are the Retros and why are they wiping out all of humanity? What are the structures they are building? Who are the traitors in Tucker's group?

The novel is action driven and at times reads like it was written for a movie. Characterization is minimal; Tucker seems more like an eighteen year old rather than the precocious fourteen year old he is supposed to be. Despite this, readers will enjoy Tucker, whose bravado and quick thinking make him a likeable character and an interesting narrator. Tori Sleeper and Olivia Kinsey are complete opposite female characters; Tori is courageous, strong and determined while Olivia appears to be interested only in comfort and keeping safe.

MacHale attempt to add bits of romance and therefore, dramatic tension into the relationships between the four teens, seems out of place in the novel. Considering the devastation these kids have faced, romance would be the last thing on their minds.

Overall, Storm is a strong second novel to this trilogy and will definitely be an appealing read to young readers 10 and up. The novel takes its title from the large number of black Retro planes which attack like a storm, destroying everything in their path.  MacHale's third novel, Strike will be published later this year in November, 2014.

Book Details:
Storm by D.J. MacHale
New York: Razorbill a division of Penguin Young Readers Group   2014
481 pp.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer Smith

One September day before the start of school, the power in New York City and throughout the eastern seaboard of the United States goes out. Moments before, Lucy Patterson had just made the elevator, pushing the door open to rush inside. When the elevator comes to a grinding halt, Lucy and the new boy, who'd only moved into the basement apartment a month ago with his father, the new superintendent, are left completely in the dark. They do not know how extensive the blackout is, believing it is only a problem in their building.

As they wait to be rescued, Lucy learns the boy's name is Owen Buckley and that he's not taken a liking to New York. Owen and his father moved to New York after the death of his mother. Her death made living in their home in Pennsylvania too painful and after being out of work for a year, as a contractor, Owen's father was given a job as the building superintendent in New York.

Both teens are on their own; Owen's father has gone out to Brooklyn on a personal errand and Lucy's parents are away in London, England. Lucy and Owen bide their time in the dark elevator, talking about life in New York City and how they view the city in a different way, she a native New Yorker, he a newcomer.

Eventually, they are rescued from the elevator, only to discover that the entire city and seaboard is without power. Initially, Owen and Lucy go their separate ways but Owen reconsiders and follows her up to her apartment, 24D. They get a flashlight and go down to the street to find water and ice cream. Since Owen has a key to the roof of their building, he and Lucy decide to spend the night up there. Owen learns that Lucy is often left alone by her parents who seem to be always traveling to "amazing places". Her father works for a British bank and they travel frequently. They always send Lucy a postcard from whatever city they are visiting.  Owen notes that Lucy seems sad about her parent's absence and they joke about how postcards always say "Wish you were here." when really if people did feel that way, they would have invited the person along. They spend the night talking about family, travel and life in general.

When morning comes, Lucy finds herself alone on the roof. Owen meanwhile has gone back to the apartment worried about his father, who was stuck in Brooklyn the previous day.  He finds his father in the apartment lobby suffering from heat exhaustion after having walked all the way home and spends the next day taking care of him. Because of his father's absence, the apartment building which is owned by his father's second cousin, Sam Coleman, was not taken care of properly during the blackout. Coleman warns Owen that if his father doesn't do his job he will lose it. Which is exactly what happens. As a result, Owen and his father set out on a journey that takes them across America. His father is in search of both a job and an escape from the memories of his wife.

Lucy searches for Owen but doesn't find him. When the blackout ends, her parents contact her and book her a flight to London. When she arrives, Lucy learns that her father is trying for a job at a bank in London and that they will not be moving back to New York. While in London, Lucy sends Owen a postcard with "Wishing You Were Here" embossed on the front and writing "I actually do." on the back. Owen in New York, also sends Lucy the same kind of postcard with the same message.

A few weeks later they both meet up unexpectedly in New York. Both Lucy and Owen reveal to one another that they will be leaving New York City - Lucy to London, and Owen to wherever his father can find a new job. Although they promise to keep in touch via postcards, Owen and Lucy must decide whether their relationship is something that will survive the turmoil of the next year.

The Geography of You and Me chronicles Lucy and Owen's attempts to continue their relationship against the backdrop of the enormous changes both of their families experience throughout the coming year. Readers will love the romantic tension Jennifer Smith creates throughout the novel and the somewhat inconclusive but realistic ending. It would be interesting to meet Lucy and Owen five years into the future to see how their lives and their relationship have unfolded.

Smith tells Owen and Lucy's stories in alternating narratives, which often include parallel actions and thoughts in both characters lives even though they are separated by geography and time. This tends to lend a sense of destiny to their relationship which is rather endearing and romantic.Owen's narrative focuses on how he and his father try to come to terms with the loss of their mother/wife. I wondered how realistic it was for Owen to have missed most of his senior year yet still be able to graduate and get accepted at six colleges. Lucy's narrative deals more with her life changing from that of an outsider in New York, to finding her niche in a new place. "In New York, she'd stood apart, and in Edinburgh, she'd stood out; but here, she just stood alongside everyone else, and there was comfort in that, in fitting in for once."

If this novel has one weakness, it's that Smith fails to convey to her readers the chemistry that Lucy and Owen seem to feel towards each other. Their initial meeting doesn't really provide readers with an understanding of why these two people are attracted to each other - other than maybe both are lonely. After their third disastrous meeting, it seems like all is over. Yet something in both Owen and Lucy leads them to break off with their current partner, in the hope of rediscovering what attracts them to one another. Unfortunately, it's all a bit of a mystery that is never quite revealed to the reader and that even the characters themselves don't quite understand. Perhaps that is what is so baffling about love.

Those who enjoy a light, contemporary romance will want to read The Geography of You and Me. Jennifer E. Smith has a masters in creative writing and is the author of several popular young adult novels including This Is What Happy Looks Like.

Book Details:
The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer Smith
New York: Little, Brown and Company    2014
337 pp.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars

The movie adaptation of John Green's blockbuster novel of the same name, will leave theatre-goers and fans of The Fault In Our Stars, weepy but overall, very satisfied. Shailene Woodley stars as Hazel Grace Lancaster and Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters, two star-crossed teens who both have cancer and who meet at a cancer support group. Dispensing with conventional views about young people with cancer, they are determined to live and love despite the life they've been handed. When Gus reads a novel, The Imperial Affliction, that Hazel gives him, he becomes determined to learn what really happened to the characters after the book's hanging ending. Hazel is shocked to learn that Gus's emails to the author, Peter Van Houten are returned and they are invited to come to Amsterdam to meet him and to talk about the book.

During the time that they have read the novel, made arrangements to travel to Amsterdam and are in the midst of supporting their friend, Isaac who loses both his remaining eye to cancer and his girlfriend, Gus finds himself falling in love with Hazel. But Hazel doesn't want Gus to love her because she feels she is like a grenade, about to explode and obliterate everyone's life with her eventual death. All this does not matter to Gus, who believes he is destined to live a remarkable life. However, a remarkable life will not be Gus's destiny. The trip to Amsterdam while not providing the answers they were hoping for, results in Hazel and Gus falling in love. Hazel begins to realize that this is the only life they get and they have to make the most of it, whatever it might be.

Shailene Woodley gives an emotionally riveting performance as Hazel and is well supported by Elgort as Gus, by Laura Dern as Frannie and Sam Trammell as Michael, Hazel's warm, supportive parents. But each of these actor's performances are also exceptional. The chemistry between Woodley and Elgort is surprisingly effective; their relationships comes across as warm, funny and romantic - very believable. But this movie also manages to capture some of the heartbreak, the terror and the pain that goes with cancer. Just as an example, when Hazel receives an email and calls her mother, her mom tears into her bedroom, fearing the worst. Her response seems over the top, but it's not for the parent of a child, chronically and terminally ill.

Fans of the novel will recognize that for the most part, the movie is true to the novel. The film was shot in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Amsterdam. Anne Frank's house was not used for the scenes in the house, only the entrance was used.

The only part of this movie I felt bordered on ridiculous was the portrayal of a cancer therapy group, in particular one that addressed spirituality. In The Fault in Our Stars, the cancer group Hazel and Gus attend is run in a Protestant church by a thirty-something man, who plays the guitar and who has hooked a rug of the Sacred Heart of Jesus - a solely Catholic image used to portray the mercy of God. The cancer support counselor was made to look like an absolute idiot, who has nothing to offer these young people, except some little ditties about resting in the heart of Jesus. Behind all of this is the hint of the senselessness (and hopelessness) of cancer, the suffering and perhaps even prayer. There is no magical theological explanation about the why of cancer; why some get it and live, why others get it and die, or why some never get it at all. It happens, just like bad things happen to good people, and we make the best of them. We help each other along that journey. And yes, we might also pray - a fact that even the National Cancer Institute recognizes. The NCI on its website indicates that studies show that patients whose spiritual issues are addressed either by their doctors or by support groups do better.

Once the movie moved past this point, it was on more solid ground exploring how young people struggle to cope with a serious illness like cancer, how they are viewed by others and how those around those around them, parents and friends, try to come to terms with illness in young lives. For example, Isaac's girlfriend dumps him before his eye surgery because she can't cope with him going blind, ignoring how traumatizing this might be for Isaac. This sort of insensitivity is common in many events in life, whether it be women suffering from a miscarriage or the loss of a child. It's that continual worry that something terrible is about to happen all over again.

Overall The Fault In Our Stars is a touching movie that will make viewers think a bit more deeply about the reality of young people who suffer from chronic health issues and how we often make illness a barrier to one another. The stellar performance by Woodley in particular, will prod those who haven't yet read the novel, to do so.

Below is the trailer for the movie:

Friday, June 6, 2014

Willow by Tonya Cherie Hegamin

Set in Maryland, on the fictitious Knotwild Plantation in 1848, Willow tells the story of a fifteen year old slave, Willow, who must decide between the life her father and master choose for her or to run away to freedom and an unknown future with a young black, freeborn man she barely knows.

Willow's mama died when she was young and her Granmam died last year, leaving Willow with just her Papa. She sits by her mother's grave located just near the Mason and Dixon line, the line between slavery in Maryland and freedom in Pennsylvania. Under the old willow tree next to her mama's grave, Willow writes letters to her mama about her life now. The letters are written in an old copybook with one of Rev Jeff's grease pencils.

Rev Jefferson Jeffries, the master of Knotwild Plantation lost his baby daughter and wife in a fire while visiting family in Pennsylvania before Willow was born. He and Willow's Papa, Ryder, have worked together on Knotwild all their lives. Willow is considered part of Rev Jeff's family; her birth is even recorded in the family's bible. Like Rev Jeff, Ryder also lost his wife, but he still has Willow, whom he loves dearly and is determined will inherit Knotwild.

Lately her father's been talking about marriage and how it's her duty, responsibility and her station to get married and have a family. Although Willow wants to be married, she desires other things in life too. Willow wants to go to school, study literature. She was taught to read the bible, but her desire to read other books has lead her to read parts of Shakespeare.

Then one misty morning, Willow's life is forever changed by a chance sighting of a young black man across the river. He waves to Willow but she flees on her horse, Mayapple.

The man Willow sees is Cato Freeman, from Haven, Pennsylvania. He has traveled south to help slaves fleeing the south, to guide them to freedom. Unfortunately, trouble befalls Cato when he steps into a rabbit hole and breaks his ankle. While the slave he helps travels onward to freedom, Cato is forced to remain hidden in the woods until his ankle heals.

When Cato accidentally discovers Willow's copybook, he is enthralled by the beautiful writing and even more so by the mysterious writer. He learns through Willow's letters to her mama about her predicament of being forced to marry Raymond, a cruel slave from the neighbouring Merriend plantation and this leads Cato to write messages to Willow.

Cato suggests that love done out of obligation is not true love, especially when it condemns a person to a life of bondage or slavery.He encourages Willow to leave Knotwild and seek freedom with him. However, Willow feels she cannot abandon her father. But as Rev Jeff and her father make arrangements for her to marry a man she does not love, and as it becomes increasingly apparent that the woman Rev Jim is about to marry will change life forever at Knotwild, Willow must determine the meaning of love and make a difficult choice.

Tonya Cherie Hegamin has crafted a beautifully nuanced coming-of-age story interwoven with many interconnected themes of identity, the right to self-determination, loyalty and love. In particular, she connects together the issues of slavery and the emancipation of women, demonstrating the parallel thinking that existed during this era regarding rights for blacks and women. For example, when Willow's father, Ryder, is trying to justify his actions forcing Willow to marry,
"Shut up, boy. Why you think God made us the stronger sex? Women's minds and bodies are weak. They need us to put them right."
Cato counters:
"Ain't that the same thing masters say about us? How they justify slavery?"

Hegamin effectively captureds the mindset of slaves in 1848 through the character Ryder; some were grateful to their masters for feeding and clothing them, others felt they were saved from a heathen existence.In contrast to Ryder, is the character of Cato, a freeborn black man who lives in hope and dignity, a somewhat idealistic person who still believes in the goodness of all men.

Willow is a strong, intelligent protagonist, struggling with her internal conflict of desiring to be educated, to be free to determine her own life with her duty to her father and the notion of accepting one's station in life that was common to this era for both slaves AND women. Unlike many slaves, Willow can read and write and she has the desire to learn more.

Hegamin, on her website states that she attempts to "interpret human nature through writing". She also states that "I like the phrase “Translating the Imagination”– stories that make meaningful connection between writer and reader imaginations, ultimately cultivating compassionate understanding." Willow accomplishes this, placing her readers firmly in 1848 America, where black men were free but not, where masters could travel to Haven and re-possess their escaped "property" and where any black man, even a freeman could be captured and enslaved.

Willow has a lovely watercolour painting by E.B. Lewis on the book jacket, showing the first meeting between Willow and Cato in the early morning, near the willow tree. Lewis is renowned for his beautiful illustrations in children's books. More about this artistrator and his watercolours can be found at his website,

Book Details:
Willow by Tonya Cherie Hegamin
Somerville, Massachusetts : Candlewick Press, 2014
374 pp.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Hunt by Stacey Kade

The Hunt continues the saga of Ariane's attempts to extricate herself from GTX, the sinister research organization that created her.  Ariane is an alien-human hybrid, created using human DNA and DNA from the alien found at Roswell in 1947.

Ariane's adoptive father, Mark Tucker,  helped her escape and now she and Zane need to figure out what to do next. They are planning to travel to Zane's mother's home in Chicago. After retrieving a duffelbag from beneath the dumpster, it's contents reveal more surprises. There are Canadian and US passports for a Talia Torv as well as a large amount of cash and a letter from her father, Mark. The bag also contains clothing and the keys to an older model car.

The letter reveals that Ariane has a tracking chip embedded in her neck which can be inactivated by a magnet. But more importantly Mark's letter also reveals several things; that Ariane was never free from GTX but was allowed to live outside the research lab and that she needs to cut ties to Wingate. She also learns that the other labs who are in a battle to win a lucrative government contract to create supersoldiers are out to kill her. There is to be a trial or fight to the death between the three supersoldiers created by Dr. Jacobs of GTX, David Laughlin of Laughlin Integrated Enterprises and Emerson St. John of Emerson Technology. Her father warns her that corporate espionage between all three companies means that Ariane's escape will not go unnoticed for very long. Although her father tells her to try to leave the United States, it soon becomes apparent that this will not be possible.

Zane and Ariane locate a late model van that Ariane's father had hidden for her in a storage center. They travel to his mother's home where Ariane makes the discovery that Zane's mother is the lab technician, Mara, who cared for her and treated her kindly. Zane's mother is confused and frightened when she meets Ariane, mistaking her for another human-alien hybrid known as Ford. Zane and Ariane learn that David Laughlin has three hybrids named Nixon, Ford and Carter. Zane's mother unknowingly became involved with Laughlin Enterprises when she moved to Chicago after her marriage with Zane's dad collapsed,  to take an office job. Laughlin honed in on Mara's experience at GTX and drew her into his research. Mara now works with Laughlin's hybrids, trying to find "the balance between independent thought and obedience, between humanity and all the accelerated benefits of your ...other people." Mara tells Ariane that the Laughlin hybrids seem to thrive as a communal cell rather than as individuals. The Laughlin hybrids were raised without caregivers and are not able to relate to humans. As a result, Ford hates humans. Ariane learns also that the hybrids have been sent to school.

Mara warns Ariane to return to Wingate where she will be protected by GTX from Laughlin and also the hybrids. However Zane and Ariane decide against this and instead learn from Mara where the hybrids are attending school. Ariane intends to seek out the hybrids and try to convince them to work with her to obtain their freedom. But when she and Zane manage to meet them at Linwood Academy, they realize that what Mara has told them is true; the three hybrids move together as though they are a single entity, led by Ford. They also see why Mara mistook Ariane for Ford, as they look identical.

Ariane proposes that they work together to obtain their freedom. Ariane knows that if she can free Ford, Nixon and Carter, the trials won't take place. However, Ford tells them that they will not help her unless she obtains a supply of the enzyme, Quorosene, which is being withheld from them unless they cooperate.

When Ariane and Zane return to Mara's home, they learn that Quinn has been kidnapped by Dr. Jacobs and is being used as a way to lure Ariane back to GTX. However, Ariane believes that if she turns herself into Dr. Jacobs, Quinn AND Zane will never be safe because Jacobs knows that she cares for Zane.

All of this makes Ariane determined to obtain the Quorosene and end the experimentation on the alien hybrids. With time running out,she devises a plan that hopefully will save both Ford and Quinn. But when Zane intervenes with the best of intentions, Ariane must change her own game plan.

The Hunt manages, in the last half of the novel, to live up to the promise of the first novel, The Rules. Readers might find the middle of this novel drags, as Kade focuses on the blossoming physical attraction between Zane and Ariane while slowly continuing to advance the storyline about the hunt and possible recapture of Ariane. At times the relationship takes over the story, when all the reader wants is to learn how Ariane will get away from GTX. The author also spends considerable time developing the backstory behind Zane, his relationship with his brother and the abusive relationship with his father. This allows us to understand the motivations behind Zane's actions later in the novel.

The last eight chapters are very exciting with several unexpected twists that lead to a cliffhanger ending and provide and excellent segue into the final novel in this trilogy.

The Hunt incorporates the requisite themes of identity, human experimentation, and the right to be free. Ariane never asked to be created but now that she exists she has a right to live her life the way she chooses and not to be subjected to experimentation and captivity. Although she is part alien, she is also human and therefore has human rights.

Overall, The Hunt delivers what readers expected based on the first novel. It's unfortunate that it the reading is marred by poor editing, with several typographic errors as well as general slips such as referring to Ariane as Ari.

Book Details:
The Hunt by Stacey Kade
New York: Hyperion        2014
359 pp.