Thursday, July 31, 2014

Anahita's Woven Riddle by Meghan Nuttall Sayres

Anahita lives with her family in the village of Hasanabad, Iran. The novel opens in the springtime as Anahita's tribe, the Afshar, are preparing to travel to their summer pastures. Anahita lives with her family in the village of Hasanabad. Anahita's father, Farhad, the Kadkhuda of the Afshar tribe, is insistent that she marry next spring when she comes of age. Farhad (Baba) tells her that the khan is very fond of her and has asked for her hand in marriage. But Anahita is repulsed by this as the khan is older than her own father and his three previous wives have all died.

Anahita does not want to be like her cousin, Shirin who was forced to marry last year at the age of fifteen and who betrayed their dream of marrying a man of their own choosing. Instead, Anahita hopes to apprentice herself to the dyemaster, her granduncle and to marry a man she loves.

Anahita and her Baba like to challenge each other with riddles and as she thinks about who she would like to marry, Anahita decides that she will "only marry a man who has wit and likes riddles." Her grandmother, Maman Borzog, asks how she will discern the wit of her suitors. Anahita tells her father that she will weave a riddle into her wedding qali- a wedding carpet for her dowry and the man who solves the riddle will be the one she marries.

Anahita's Baba is resistant to this idea because he feels they need to be in the khan's favour as he speaks for their tribe in the local government in Mashhad.  But undeterred and determined to not fall into a situation like that of Shirin, Anahita approaches their mullah and tells him what she intends to do. After pondering this, he eventually gives his permission, much to the surprise of Anahita's Baba and mother.

Gradually the narrative weaves in four potential suitors; Reza who is a school teacher in Mashhad, Arash who is a Qajar prince and the new governor of Marv, Dariyoush who works for Anahita's family and is a childhood friend of Anahita and finally, the elderly khan.

When Anahita's tribe begins their migration to the summer pastures, they stop in Mashhad. It is at a merchant's stall that Arash and Anahita have their first chance meeting. When Anahita is called away by her mother, Arash whose mother is from the Yomut tribe, wishes he had learned Anahita's tribe and her home. They have a second chance meeting when Anahita is returning to Hasanabad with her family in the autumn. Anahita and Arash have a chance to talk briefly. Arash gives Anahita a book of verse by the poet, Rumi. Anahita is attracted to this man's gentleness and kind ways and she discovers that he is both educated and a gentleman. When they are interrupted by Dariyoush, upon arriving back in Marv, Arash becomes determined to learn where Anahita lives. At a meeting of all the kadkhudas from northeastern Iran, Arash tasks them to help locate a weaver known as Anahita, who is part of the Ashfar tribe.They succeed and this leads to a third meeting, not by chance, in Hasanabad later in the year.

During the summer, the khan, who continues to fancy that Anahita will be his wife, arrives at the Afshar summer camp. He brings with him Reza, a teacher from Mashhad to tutor Anahita. Reza who has blue eyes and red highlights in his hair is to tutor Anahita in reading and writing. However, when Farhad turns down the khan's offer of marriage for his daughter, Reza's services as a tutor are no longer needed. But Reza, who is captivated by Anahita, volunteers for  the Rural Madrasa Servanthood and becomes the teacher at the new school in Hasanabad with the hope of meeting Anahita.

In the autumn, with everyone back from the summer pastures, Dariyoush decides to enlist for the northern brigade which is fighting the incursion by the Russians. Dariyoush has no intention of entering the riddle contest, although he is obviously in love with Anahita. He never quite manages to tell Anahita of his love for her before he enlists in the northern brigade to fight off the Russians.

Through the autumn, Anahita begins to dye the wool for her qali, working with the dyemaster to learn his trade.  In December, Anahita begins weaving her wedding carpet in an alcove just off the main room of their home. Finally, in the spring at the beginning of the Iranian New Year, Nooruz, all are brought together to solve the riddle Anahita has woven into her wedding carpet.

Sayres has crafted a truly exquisite historical fiction novel of Iran in the late 1800's. Anahita's Woven Riddle succeeds on two levels; first as a fascinating story and secondly as great piece of historical fiction.  Anahita's Woven Riddle has at its core, a timeless story, that of a strong, intelligent heroine, who pushes against the cultural restrictions of her tribe while struggling to respect the basic traditions of her people. Anahita knows she cannot refuse to marry but she insists that she be allowed to chose the man she will wed through the means of a riddle woven into her wedding carpet. There emerge four potential suitors, a khan, a prince, a boy from Anahita's village and a teacher from another town. In contrast to the repulsion Anahita feels towards the self-serving and much older khan, is the romantic Arash, a Qajar prince. From the beginning, he and Anahita appear to be yar, kindred spirits. But separated by distance and only brief meetings, how can Arash ever hope to win this contest?

This lovely storyline is set against the backdrop of tribal Iran in the 1880's, heralding a time of change. Nomadic tribes are being forced to settle and give up their seasonal migrations. Not only that but the tribes are facing the constant threat of attack by the Russians in the north. Most of the tribal people are illiterate, but that too is changing with the coming of schools to the winter villages. Even the tribal rug weavers are facing change with the introduction of chemical dyes rather than natural dyes from flowers and insects that have always been in use.

Sayres succeeds brilliantly in constructing authentic characters true to their era and culture. Anahita is imagined as a young girl, whose intelligent questioning of the world around her wonders why women can't use the deep part of the bath house and why women cannot choose their husbands. But despite going against her culture's tradition in marriage, Anahita nevertheless respects most other traditions. She wears the chador in public, weaves her wedding carpet using natural dyes, and relishes in the rich traditions of her culture, all of which, Sayres vividly portrays in this novel. Sayres manages to convey the warm, close-knit tribal life, with a cast of varied characters; Fatima and Ali, Dariyoush, Shirin and granduncle as well as Baba and Mojdeh.

Anahita grows up in the novel, gradually transitioning from a willful girl into a woman concerned about how her actions affect others. At first unwilling to marry, Anahita offers a compromise - that she will marry but to a man she chooses. She says she is prepared to live with whatever the consequences of her actions are, but she doesn't realize what they might be. When she begins to realize the impact her refusal of the khan has on her tribe, she is willing to sacrifice her choice for the sake of her father and her people. However, the khan, by his threats and bad behaviour has revealed to Farhad and Anahita's family, his true nature.

Layered underneath all of this is the lovely, innocent romance which simmers between Arash and Anahita and the unspoken but strong bond between Anahita and Dariyoush.

Sayres has taken great care to provide her readers with a list of all the chapters, a cast of characters in order of appearance and a list of place names at the front of the novel, while the back contains a Glossary and a detailed Author's Note on Iran, nomads, weaving and Sufi poems.

For fans of historical fiction, I cannot recommend Anahita's Woven Riddle enough. This is a beautiful novel, well written, filled with historical detail and realistic characters. The author who is a weaver and has travelled to Turkey and Iran knows her subject well and her love for weaving, the culture of Iran and Sufi poetry are infused through this entire novel. Sayres has written a sequel to this novel, Night Letter, which I hope to review in the future.

To give readers an idea of the beautiful craftmanship of the Afshar weavers, check out this example of an antique Afshar tribal bag from Quadrifoglio Gallery.

Book Details:
Anahita's Woven Riddle by Meghan Nuttall Sayres
New York: Amulet Books    2006
352 pp.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Body In The Woods by April Henry

The Body In The Woods is about an ecletic trio of teens who join a local search and rescue organization and find themselves drawn into a murder investigation that soon sees one of them being hunted down by that very same killer.

Alexis Frost is a tall, pretty sixteen year old girl who lives alone with her mentally ill mother. They have moved around alot but manage to survive on her mother's disability cheque and food stamps. Alex can't let anyone get close to her because they might discover the secret she's hiding - her mentally unstable mother who stays up days on end and spends her time "blessing" people in the park. Volunteering for SAR was the only way that Alexis can stand out on her college applications. She's never been able to fit in and hopefully this will help her make friends.

Sixteen year old Nick Walker lives with his mother and older brother, Kyle. His father was killed in Iraq when Nick was four and he doesn't remember much about his dad. Nick wants to be in the military just like his father who was awarded the Bronze Star but he fears he's not brave enough. Nick has joined SAR to prove that he is capable of "unimaginable feats of bravery".

Ruby McClure is a strange girl with a keen interest in a number of eccentric topics including birds, continuity errors, true crime and gum flavours. Ruby does everything "by the book" but she has trouble fitting in. She observes people and then creates a character that allows her to blend in. She's hoping that being a part of SAR will help her fit in.

Henry tells her story from the perspective of the three teens as well as the murderer who begins planning his next victim. Alexis, Nick and Ruby are  the newest uncertified members of Portland's Search and Rescue (SAR). On a Tuesday in November, they receive their first call-out from the Portland County Sheriff's office to assist in the search for a missing autistic man in Forest Park. They assemble there with Jon Partridge, one of the adult advisers and the sheriff's deputy, Chris Nagle. All the teens are assembled and in an oversight the three uncertified teens, Alexis, Nick and Ruby are placed together in one group. They are given a trail to search that is unlikely to lead to them finding Bobby Balog, the missing autistic man. On the trail they meet several people; a man jogging with two dogs, a man in his early thirties carrying a duffel bag, a homeless man with black dreads, and a heavy-set white haired man with binoculars who reclaims the birder's notebook Alexis  Instead, Alexis finds a murdered girl, lying off the trail, with only part of her face visible underneath the leaves.

After summoning the other two of her team, Alexis shows them where the body is. Ruby immediately examines the person, and discovers that it is a girl who is has possibly been strangled. Jon arrives on the scene, and shortly after the EMTs and police arrive. All three teens are assigned a volunteer from the Trauma Intervention Program to help them cope with what they have experienced. Alexis meets her volunteer, Bran Dawson who seems drawn to her and wishes to help her.

Meanwhile the teens are interviewed by Detective Harriman. Ruby, a stickler for details, questions Harriman about every aspect of his questioning. The detective tells the teens their parents have been notified but that they are not allowed to talk to anyone about what they have seen. Ruby's parent's reaction is to forbid her from continuing to work in SAR because they fear it will feed her obsession about crime.  Everyone is called by the next day to do a ground search for evidence and Ruby is determined to be a part of this. Alexis's mother is too far gone, after being off her meds for weeks, to really understand what is happening.

Furious at being banned from SAR, Ruby searches on the internet and discovers that another girl was killed in a Portland park only a month earlier. Ruby believes that police have made several errors in the investigation and she decides that she will talk to Harriman the next day after the ground search.  Ruby continues to be obsessed about the crime, convinced that the murder of the girl in the woods, who has been identified as Miranda Wyatt, is the work of a serial killer. Harriman disagrees with her theory and eventually arrests a man for the crime. However, Ruby, Alexis and Nick efforts to solve Miranda's murder result in one of them becoming the next planned victim.

The Body In The Woods is a short, face paced novel that is filled with plenty of police procedurals and search and rescue information. The kernel of the idea for this novel came about when April Henry learned about her friends' daughter's involvement in the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue. The teens who volunteer for MCSO SAR undergo rigorous training as their work involves not only helping to find people lost in the woods but also searching for evidence and recovering scattered remains. Henry has done her research and it shows in this novel. The investigation surrounding the murder of the girl found in the woods includes not only the procedures police use but also debunks some of the misinformation TV crime shows perpetuate. Readers interested in the backstory behind the novel can check out this webpage on April Henry's website. Henry's website is filled with many interesting pages including one that talks about her grandfather murdering her grandmother's boyfriend!

The real strength of this book is the eccentric principal characters who make the novel interesting and more than just a mystery murder. Each character is very unique, having very different families and backgrounds. Each has their own difficulties to overcome in life, making them realistic and appealing. Unfortunately giving the killer a narrative destroys some of the suspense the author builds as he plans his next murder.

The Body In The Woods is the first installment in April Henry's new Point Last Seen crime series. It's an excellent short novel for those interested in mysteries and with its short chapters and great cover, may appeal to reluctant readers.

Book Details:
The Body In The Woods by April Henry
New York: Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company    2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau

The second novel, Independent Study concluded with a startling discovery by Raffe and Cia. Raffe Jeffries, whose father, Rychard, is head of the Department of Education gives Cia Vale a tape recording that proves what really happened during the first set of tests. Cia and Raffe tell Michal Gallen that they will take the tape to the rebel camp rather than give it to Michal to do so. They agree to meet Michal at the edge of Symon Dean's rebel camp where Cia hears how she killed Will during the Testing. Michal believes that he has to get these recordings to Symon who will give them to President Collindar so she can play them on the Debate Chamber, revealing what is really going on during the Testing. This should pressure officials into voting against Dr. Barnes.

Michal takes the recordings and meets Symon with Cia and Raffe looking on, hidden. Cia recognizes Symon as the man who gave her food and a drug to help her resist the questioning about her family during the interview. Symon shoots Michal, killing him instantly and then destroys the recordings.

Cia now realizes that The Testing's purpose is to select the best and brightest young minds and make sure they conform to the government's opinions and to be under government control. Those who believe differently have been tricked into believing they are part of a rebellion. Symon is not working to help the rebels, he is working with Dr. Barnes to ensure The Testing continues by deceiving them. Symon and Barnes have created the rebellion as a means to control those who are trying to end The Testing. He has counseled patience to the rebels who now want to attack , an attack Symon and Dr. Barnes know about and is certain to result in death for the rebels including Cia's brother Zeen. Cia realizes that she must now take control of the rebellion, one free of Dr. Barnes's control.

Graduation Day now picks up where Independent Study left off. Cia is contacted by her brother Zeen who is in the rebellion. She explains what has happened and that Symon Dean is a traitor who has engineered the rebellion to bring down those against The Testing. Once the rebels attack, there will be Security Teams waiting for them. They will be killed. Although Cia tries to warn her brother to leave the rebels, he decides to stay in order to retrieve information that might be useful to Cia. Meanwhile, Cia realizes her only hope is to approach the President and tell her what she has learned.

President Collindar tells Cia that she cannot cancel the Debate Chamber vote without raising Dr. Barnes and Symon's suspicions.Instead she decides to postpone the debate a week when Michal's disappearance will become public. Collindar tells Cia that they must carry out the rebel's plan to end The Testing by eliminating specific people who have authority and control over The Testing. The President gives Cia a list of eleven names, supplied by Symon and tells her that if she wants to eliminate The Testing she must kill these people. The list includes Dr. Jedidiah Barnes, Professor Verna Holt, Professor Douglas Lee, Professor Chen,  Rychard Jeffries - Raffe's father, and Symon Dean.

Cia is devastated and has no idea how she is going to do this or if she even should. Collindar gives her a week to decide. Cia returns to the University campus to find that Professor Holt is interviewing everyone to try to discover the whereabouts of Damone Pyburn, whom Cia killed in self-defense. Cia manages to contact Zeen who tells her that she needs to leave the University as the rebels on campus are planning to attack Dr. Barnes and that Symon and Renatta have instructed the rebels to remove anyone who might interfere with their plans.

Cia begins to formulate a plan; she draws up a list of people who will help her to carry out the President's plan. This list includes her boyfriend, Tomas, Raffe, Stacia- a friend in the Medical field of study, Ian, Enzo and Brick. Cia tells Tomas what President Collindar has asked her to do and he is shocked.  They decide taht she needs to test Ian, Enzo and Raffe to determine if they are trustworthy. All pass the test except Enzo who is seriously injured.

Tomas, Raffe and Stacia are the only student Cia knows for certain she can trust. They are determined to end The Testing and to find out what has happened to the students who failed and were Redirected. After looking more carefully over the list Cia decides that there are only five people who definitely need to be killed; Dr. Barnes, Rychard Jeffries, Professor Chen and Professor Holt as well as Symon Dean. One team will go after Barnes and Jeffries while the other one will target Holt and Chen. Zeen has indicated that he will kill Symon Dean.

Having escaped the University grounds, the four begin their plan to kill these people. Can Cia achieve her mission and end The Testing for good?

Charbonneau's conclusion to The Testing series was well written, leading to an exciting conclusion that answers many of the questions posed in the first two books about The Testing. Readers might pick up on what is really behind President Collindar's request and have it confirmed in the final confrontation between Malencia and Dr. Barnes. We also get more of the backstory of how the continental United States was so devastated by a world war, followed by environmental damage and genetic damage to the human population and how the survivors have worked to recover their world and what was left of their society.

Through her narration of the story, Cia proves to be a young woman who attempts to maintain her integrity and hold on to the values of respecting life that her parents instilled in her in the Five Lakes Colony. When confronted by President Collindar, she tells the president that killing these people is murder. Eventually she comes to the undesirable conclusion that the means (murder) will justify the end (stopping The Testing). Rather than just blindly following Collindar's request to kill everyone on the list, she tries to find out about each person and whether or not they are truly responsible for The Testing.

Graduation Day is well paced for the most part, driven mainly by action. There is very little development of the numerous characters and their relationships to one another. For once I felt the romantic relationship between the two lead characters, Cia and Tomas, was well written - low key as it would be for two people struggling to survive under such challenging conditions.

Fans of the Hunger Games will enjoy this very similar series.  Check out Joelle Charbonneau's fantastic website were you can read a copy of the prequel to The Testing. There are also plenty of other activities, quizzes and videos to explore.

Book Details:
Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt    2014
291 pp.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Curses and Smoke: a novel of Pompeii by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Lucia Titurius is the young daughter of Lucius Titurius who owns a gladiator school in Pompeii. Lucia is betrothed to Vitulus, a patrician man forty-five years older than herself. Titurius's gladiator school has been failing since the death of his wife three years ago and he badly needs the money that Vitulus has agreed to provide in exchange for marrying Lucia. Lucia is horrified by the prospect of having to marry this man in four weeks time and is desperate to find a way out of the marriage.

Tag, the son of the head slave healer, Damocles, has only recently returned to Vitulus's household after a stay in Rome. During his time away, Tag has discovered his elderly father is no longer of sound mind, often forgetful and disoriented.  Tag wants Pontius, the overseer of the gladiator school, to allow him to train and fight as a gladiator in order to earn his freedom.

Lucia and Tag were childhood friends, often spending time playing outside the city walls in a small cave. Upon Tag's return both discover the other has matured and as they begin to renew their friendship, gradually the flame of love are stirred. The begin to meet regularly, taking walks in the woods where Tag gathers herbs and flowers for his medicines and where Lucia continues to observe the changes in the earth around Pompeii. These changes along with the frequent tremors suggest to Lucia that something dangerous is about to happen to this area.

Meanwhile, Lucia's friend, Cornelia, who is heavily pregnant, tries to help Lucia find a way out of her marriage to Vitulus. She suggests that Lucia flirt with the wealthy guest, Quintus Rutilius staying at Lucia's father's gladiator school. Quintus is the fifth son in a wealthy roman family and he has been sent to the gladiator school to shape up and stop his dissipated lifestyle.

Eventually Tag is allowed to train with the gladiators and is chosen as Quintus's sparing partner. One evening after dinner at Cornelia and Atyllus's home, where Lucia is ridiculed for her idea of trying to learn about , Tag reveals the truth about what happened to her mother three years earlier and curse placed on Titurius by his dying wife. This horrific revelation only makes Lucia more determined to leave her father's home with Tag. Tag however, feels deep conflict over having told Lucia what happened and comes to realize that he cannot leave his father to his fate in Titurius's household.

While Tag and Lucia are busying plotting to run away, Quintus has his own plans and succeeds in having Lucia betrothed to himself and her betrothal to Vitulus cancelled. For Lucia, this is almost a bad as her betrothal to Vitulus.She doesn't love Quintus anymore than she loves Vitulus.

When Quintus discovers Tag and Lucia love, he explains the true nature of his bizarre plan that involves Tag, himself and Lucia. Horrified they refuse to accept it. However, discovery by Titurius leads to Tag being chained in the household prison while Lucia is to be wed by nightfall to Quintus. However, everyone's plans, counterplans, hopes and dreams are changed forever when Vesuvius erupts.

Shecter has once again crafted a very well-written historical novel set against the back-drop of the Pompeii disaster in 79A.D. Those who have read Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon know well the historical detail this author fills her novel's with, enabling her to effectively set the stage in Curses and Smoke for the timeless story of forbidden love set against the backdrop of catastrophe. Detail about homes, fashion, hair styling, food, religious practices (Roman and Estrucan gods) and social structure are well integrated into the story, working to create an accurate picture life in a Roman city in the first century. This is no surprise since the author visited Pompeii and was fortunate to spend time with Mario Grimaldi, archeologist and professor at the University of Naples, Suor Orsola Benincasa.  My only complaint is that Shecter peppers her narratives with numerous Latin terms and names of Roman gods and goddesses that are unlikely to mean much to modern readers, especially since the novel does not have a glossary of terms at the back.

The storytelling is done by both Lucia and Tag in alternating chapters allowing readers to gain both perspectives. The characters are convincing and engaging. Lucia is an intelligent young woman who is the only surviving child, her brother having been killed in Germania and later on we learn, her sisters all being exposed and left to die by her hard-hearted father.  She refuses to accept her fate of being married to a much older man; she wants to choose her own fate in life, what she will do, where she will live and also her husband.  Instead she finds herself being sold to finance her father's business. Tages is kind and compassionate, descended from an noble Etruscan priest and healer whose family was sold into slavery after the conquest of the region by Rome.His desire for freedom echoes those of the many slaves who lived in the Roman empire. Their love, based on years of friendship isn't unrealistic, but it's likely a young Roman girl would not have risked everything for a slave.

The inclusion of a rather unusual character, Quintus Rutilius, a young bisexual Roman, provides a strange twist (which most readers will pick up on) to the storyline later on. Other interesting characters include the stern but kind-hearted gladiator Pontius, Castor a young impetuous boy whom Tag begins to instruct in the healing arts, Cornielia, Lucia's wealthy but insensitive friend and the dissipated, paunchy Vitulius.

The story of Pompeii, like the story of the sinking of the Titanic is one which we know the ending. The trick is to make it fresh and interesting, and Vicky Alvear Shecter does just that.

The back of the novel contains a detailed author's note on the date of the eruption, the eruption itself, the practice of exposing children, slavery and religion.

Book Details:
Curses and Smoke. A novel of Pompeii by Vicky Alvear Shecter
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.     2014
324 pp.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Of Neptune by Anna Banks

Of Neptune is the final installment in the Syrena trilogy. Emma has returned to land with Galen and his brother Grom. While the two brothers argue inside the beach house about Rachel's death, Emma wanders alone at the beach trying to collect her thoughts. Emma's grandfather, King Antonis arrives at the seashore to speak with her and makes a startling revelation. He tells Emma that when her mother, Nalia, disappeared and was thought dead, one of the trackers, Baruk, thought he had felt her mother's pulse. The pulse eventually disappeared and Baruk urged Antonis to consider her dead. However, King Antonis could not bring himself to do this. He continued to search for her, eventually moving inland and that's when he uncovered something unique - a town called Neptune, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. He wants Emma to visit this town when she takes her trip with Galen.

While Emma's mother, Nalia, has now partnered with Grom and they have decided to return to the sea, Emma and Galen take off on a road trip to spend time together. Grom is not happy about his brother spending time alone with Emma because he fears that there will be rumours about them not respecting the laws about not mating before their ceremony.

Emma has asked Galen that their mating ceremony wait until after they have completed college. However, Galen is anxious to secure Emma as his mate and really doesn't want to wait three years. But he recognizes that it is very important for him and Emma to follow the law to its limits because they need to regain the trust of the kingdoms in the royal family.

Emma and Galen set out on their journey. Emma changes their destination from the Cascade Mountains to the Smoky Mountains and unknown to Galen, is set upon trying to find this mysterious town of Neptune. She has no real reason why Antonis wants her to visit it but she knows she must. They stop to explore the springs near their destination and end up going for a swim in a river with caves in the Smoky Mountains. During their exploration of a cave, they are shocked to meet another Syrena, a boy named Reed who is obviously a Half-Breed and who tells them he is from Neptune. Against Galen's wishes, but at Emma's urging, Reed takes them his parents home in Neptune. Reed tells them that there are many Half-Breeds in Neptune, as well as full-blooded Syrena and humans.

Galen cannot understand how Neptune has been able to go undetected by the Trackers, especially someone like Toraf who is able to sense Syrena anywhere in the world. The only other community like that of Neptune was Tartessos which was destroyed by General Triton thousands of years ago. General Triton destroyed all the half-breed children of General Poseidon and all of the full-blooded Syrena returned to the ocean.

Emma and Galen take rooms at the local bed and breakfast, Sylvia's Starfish Bed and Breakfast and later on have dinner with Reed's parents, his father Reder Conway, a full-blooded Syrena who is leader of the Neptune community and his human mother, Lauren. Reed recognizes that Galen is an ocean Syrena because of his pulse and he also recognizes the royal trident on his stomach as marking him a royal. Although Reed's parents are very friendly, Galen becomes jealous of Reed's obvious attraction to Emma.

After dinner, Galen and Emma quarrel about their plans for the future. With the discovery of Neptune, everything seems to have changed between them. Galen tells Emma he doesn't want to attend college and he wants to have their mating ceremony and return to the ocean with her. However this is not what Emma wants because she cannot breathe for long periods of time underwater. Galen leaves Emma in Neptune and heads back to Grom and Triton, intending to tell them of Neptune's existence. Emma pleads with Galen not to tell Grom about Neptune and the Half-Breeds because she is certain the Syrena will come to Neptune and kill everyone.

Despite Emma's pleas, Galen leaves but never makes it to Grom. Instead he is captured by a Syrena in the woods outside of Neptune. Meanwhile, Emma spends time with Reed getting to learn about the town and beginning to establish a friendship with him. Reed is very interested in Emma and offers the possibility to Emma of her choosing him over Galen.

What Emma does not know is that Galen has been captured by a Syrena known as Tyrden. Tyrden recognizes that Galen is a Royal and begins torturing and interrogating Galen about Jagen and Paca's attempts to overthrow the Royals. During his time with Galen, Tyrden reveals how the plot to overthrown the Triton kingdom came about with his meeting with Jagen and how he trained Paca to work assimilate on land with humans.

When Galen does not return Emma's phone calls and her mother tells Emma that Galen has not arrived back home, she begins to suspect that something has happened to him. Emma's  mother is worried about her and she manages to get Emma to reveal where she is. At this point Emma approaches Reed and tells him she is certain Galen is missing. At the Huddle, a town meeting of the Neptune Syrena and Half-Breeds, Emma is welcomed and search parties are set up to try to find Galen.

Can Emma save Galen in time and also save Neptune from possible destruction by the Kingdoms?

Of Neptune continues the saga of the Syrena and the two kingdoms, only this time there are revelations about the Syrena on land. Although events were tied up nicely in the second novel, Of Triton, this third novel focuses on the history of the Syrena and how it relates to the future and the significance of Emma being accepted by the Syrena kingdoms.

Emma as a Half-Breed has been accepted into the Syrena, but this is the first time in their history that they have accepted a Half-Breed. Her grandfather Antonis comes to her revealing the existence of a town, Neptune that she needs to visit. When Emma arrives in Neptune she discovers a town filled with people like her - half Syrena, half human and accepted by both. She also meets a Half-Breed young man, Reed who shows immediate interest in her. This causes Galen to doubt her choice to be his mate, leading him to wonder if this now gives Emma a second option - to live life in Neptune, possibly with Reed. This feeling of conflict leads the two to quarrel and sets up the events that follow.

Separated from each other, they must both determine if their original decision is still valid in light of these new events. Emma discovers that she has not acknowledged Galen's pain over Rachel's death and that his desire for her to live with him in the ocean is the desire to be together and live a long life. Meanwhile Galen, struggling to overcome his feelings of jealousy towards the attention Reed is giving Emma, realizes that he has been pushing Emma towards a life she cannot live. The strong conflict between them is eventually resolved and serves to strengthen their relationship.

Paralleling this personal conflict is the conflict between the full blooded Syrena in the Poseidon and Triton kingdoms and their intolerance of Half-Breeds. Neptune, it turns out is one of many towns throughout the world filled with both Half-Breeds and full-blooded Syrena. Antonis's purpose in sending Emma to Neptune was twofold; partly for her to discover others like herself, but also to try to unite all the Syrena, full-blooded and Half-Breeds, those on land and those in the ocean. the intolerance towards half-blooded Syrena needs to end, because some day the Syrena, whose existence has (mysteriously) not been revealed to the world, will someday be and Antonis and others recognize that all the Syrena need to be united.

In this way Of Neptune explores the theme of working together to resolve conflicts on both a personal and social level as well as the theme of intolerance or bigotry towards those who are perceived as somehow "less" than others.

What I felt was missing from this novel were the strong secondary characters Banks had created in the first two novels, Toraf, Grom, Rayna and Nalia, who do make an appearance in the opening and closing of the novel. Instead we have two villains in the novel and a rather creepy,unlikable character in Reed Conway.

Readers however, will be satisfied with the romantic ending to this unique series and of course the romantic cover.

Book Details:
Of Neptune by Anna Banks
New York: Feiwel and Friends Book 2014
327 pp.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Paige Turned by Erynn Mangum

Paige Alder has been working for two months now as a Youth Minister with Pastor Rick at their church. After Tyler saw Layla's brother, Luke, who is Paige's ex-boyfriend, kiss her at the end-of-the-school year youth party, things have been decidedly cool between them. At first Paige is certain that Luke's kiss is the cause of Tyler's lack of interest and the fact that they haven't seen each other for most of the summer. With the exception of the youth karaoke picnic where Tyler grabbed Paige and they sang, Tyler has been mostly absent and distant.

During Paige's week off, her best friend Layla who is stressing about her upcoming wedding, decides to get a puppy. Layla's brother Luke, shows us at the animal shelter and Paige finally has the courage to confront Luke and tell him that while she forgives him for what happened between them, she is not interested in pursuing a relationship and that he is messing up what she has with Tyler.

As both Layla and Paige's sister, Preslee prepare for their upcoming fall weddings, Paige tries to help both young women. At the same time she becomes increasingly worried about Tyler until one night Tyler and Pastor Rick talk together. It is after this that Tyler confesses to Paige that he did not lead a good life before he became a Christian and this is why he has taken things slowly.

From this point on, Tyler and Paige begin to fall in love against the backdrop of two other couples planning very different weddings. But will their relationship lead to a trip down the aisle?

Paige Turned is a light feel-good conclusion to the Paige Alder series. Readers will not be surprised by the sweet, predictable conclusion to the series. It's nice to see a series of novels where the characters focus on becoming friends first and trying to determine if each has a good character and might be someone suitable to spend the rest of life with. It was refreshing to see Paige finally confront Luke and tell him how she felt and that in this case, it was too late for a second chance.

There was one thing I didn't like about Paige and Tyler's relationship. His question at the end seemed too soon and too sudden, given that Tyler only asked Paige to be his girlfriend at the beginning of the summer and it's now October. They did not date over the summer because of Tyler struggling to tell Paige about his past - a past he never fully reveals to her.

I also wasn't keen on the language used to describe a very important aspect of Paige and Tyler's relationship which the author brings up. When Tyler reveals that he has a past before he was Christian and that he has made mistakes,  Paige spends a large portion of the novel working on "forgiving" Tyler for his sin involving his past relationships. I didn't like this notion of Paige having to "forgive" Tyler. Eventually this evolves into the more realistic concept of Paige needing to accept Tyler, despite the mistakes of his past and to realize that just because he's now come to Jesus does not mean that he won't make mistakes in the future.  The same applies to Paige's relationship with her sister Preslee, who also made mistakes as a young person. Paige has had to forgive Preslee for the hurt she cause her and her parents and to realize that Preslee is a work in progress. While it takes time for her to get to this point, in the end Paige does so, with the realization that she too has a past.

As a result, in Paige Turned, the relationships feel real and the characters are decidedly authentic. Paige has the support of her pastor and married friend to help her live a chaste single life and Tyler is respectful and honourable, always looking on the bright side of life. While Paige comes from a stable, intact family, Tyler's family has suffered from divorce. His mother, a somewhat stereotypical divorcee, is bitter and critical, the complete opposite of Paige's kind, warm mom. It felt refreshing to see a strong Christian  not reject someone outright because their family has suffered from divorce. Paige accepts Tyler on the basis of his good character and the respectful way he treats her.

There's plenty of wit to go around, and Paige Turned is a light, refreshing romance that avoids heavy discussions about sin, sex, dating and marriage. The message comes across clear; people can and do date without focusing on sex, intent on saving themselves for marriage and they are normal, happy people!

Book Details:
Paige Turned by Erynn Mangum
Colorado Springs:  NaviPress    2014
286 pp.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

While We Run by Karen Healey

While We Run, the sequel to When We Wake focuses on Abdi Taalib and Tegan Oglietti's attempts to stop the cryonics program.

In the first novel Tegan who had been revived after being frozen in the year 2128 uncovers what seems like a sinister program run by the Australian government. Terrified after awaking, Tegan escapes the compound she is being held in, only to be recaptured. She is sent to live with Dr. Marie Cameron, the scientist who successfully revived Tegan. Tegan along with a fellow classmate and "thirdie" student, Abdi Taalib uncovered the real reason behind the cryonics program. A rebel group known as the Inheritors of the Earth group told them about the Australian government's secret project whereby thousands of Third World refugees were being imprisoned and frozen so they could be used as slave labour for the colonization of a new world. Earth is gradually succumbing to pollution and overpopulation and a group of select people are looking to recolonize a new planet. Tegan believing what the Inheritors of the Earth had told her, reveals all this to the world in a live broadcast. However when Dr. Marie is captured, Tegan turns herself in to try to help her.

This novel opens with both of them in captivity, heavily secured and monitored as they are forced to speak on tour promoting the cryonics and the Australian government's starship project. Tegan is touring internationally and while Abdi is in Australia, to explain to the world that they were mistaken and that these "thirdie" refugees are in fact, volunteers. Tegan explains her revival and how she was wrong about the Third World refugees. The refugees agreed to cryosuspension and kept it secret for fear of sabotage. Abdi's function is to talk about this and the benefits of the refugee camps in Australia.

Both Tegan and Abdi have brutal handlers and both have implants in the base of their necks that are activated to cause extreme pain whenever either one of them resists.  Abdi's handler is Diane, a cruel woman who has no conscience while Tegan's handler Lat also seems similar. 

At a dinner party hosted by criminal Valda Simmons, Abdi meets Valda's daughter Ruby who despite her mother's reservations about the ArkProject will be undergoing cyronic suspension the very next day before she turns thirty. Abdi is shocked at Ruby's decision and when they are alone as Ruby attempts to seduce him, Abdi both refuses and tries to warn Ruby about what she is doing. This is unsuccessful and Abdi is punished by the implant and blacks out, only to awaken in his cell back at the compound. There is he warned that he MUST cooperate because every time he does not, Tegan will be punished. He is forced to watch as Tegan is mercilessly punished by her handler Lat.

However, Tegan and Abdi escape during the Presidents Ball with the help of Joph Montgomery, and Lat who turns out to be part of the Save Tegan organization. They are taken to an abandoned underground shelter built by Joph's great-great-aunt, Celia Davies. Carl Hurfest, the journalist who helped Tegan broadcast her statement about the truth of the ArkProject is there, along with Bethari Miyahputri who created a twelve kilometer EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which knocked out all electronic equipment, allowing Joph and Lat to spirit Tegan and Abdi away.

Abdi learns several things from this; first that Tegan KNEW they were going to be rescued since her handler, Lat, told her this and secondly that likely some people died as a result of the EMP cutting power to life saving equipment at two hospitals within the radius of the pulse. Abdi struggles to trust Tegan and to control his anger over her not telling him somehow about their rescue. He almost sacrificed his life on stage during the President's Ball because he could no longer go on living under the torture and abuse he was suffering at the hands of Diane. Abdi also suffers from guilt when he learns that his mother, Madame Taliib resigned from the ruling party in Djibouti, Somalia, due to pressure from the opposition on the President there.

Abdi and Tegan are told that Dr. Marie Carmen has also been rescued. She is brought to the safe house by Zaneisha Washington, Tegan's former bodyguard. Marie, who has been heavily sedated,  had been tortured in order to extract information about the revival process and is unable to walk.

When Washington lets slip about a Phase Two plan, Tegan and Abdi, Joph and Bethari discover that that they are planning to use Tegan to help take down the Australian Prime Minister, Nathan Cox. Tegan cannot do this and they decide to play along until they can find a time to leave. However, when deadly bushfires sweep over the desolate Australian land, they must flee into Bendigo.

In Bendigo, the divide between Hurfest and Lat, and the rest of the group is revealed when Abdi confronts Lat about the plans to take down President Cox. With Bendigo in ruins due to the fire, President Cox has decided to visit the devastated area. Hurfest and Lat decide that this will provide them with the opportunity to implement their plan. However, Tegan and Abdi make it clear they will not cooperate with such an undertaking. Zaneisha agrees to escort Tegan, Abdi, Bethari, Joph and Marie out of Bendigo, leaving Hurfest and Lat behind. But when they run into trouble on their way to Crib Point, Marie reveals a shocking truth about the cryonics program that changes Tegan and Abdi's plans about fleeing the country. Who can they trust to help them stop the cryonics program and save thousands?

While We Run is a fine conclusion to this well written duology. Healey truly engages her readers with the unique voice of Abdi, who narrates this novel. Abdi is being physically and emotionally abused by Diane and appears to have no hope of escaping. The terrible predicament he and Tegan are in, is the hook that draws readers in to the story.

Having Abdi narrate this novel further develops his character. Healey allows her readers to get into Abdi's head and to feel what he is feeling. Abdi was prepared by his politician mother to effect positive change in the world. He was trained by her to never show his feelings, to work towards having the perfect politician's face. Eventually all this training pays off in the end, saving their lives and working towards a resolution of the crisis. He is a sensitive man, as evidenced by his wonderful ability to reach people through his singing ability and he has a strong sense of conscience. He protests strongly against the use of the EMP weapon, even if it was to free himself and Tegan and he wants no part of the assassination of President Cox. He is also determined to come up with a plan to save as many of the people in cryonic suspension as possible.

Abdi also has another redeeming characteristic, that of sacrificial love for Tegan which he demonstrates by enduring torture and humiliation at the hands of Diane in an effort to protect Tegan. But Abdi also has many inner conflicts too; he is jealous of Lat whom he thinks might love Tegan and he suffers from guilt and anger towards Tegan for not revealing their plan to escape, as well as his decision to return to Somalia. Abdi also struggles under the burden of guilt over his mother's destroyed political career - the direct result of his involvement with Tegan and his smuggling of vaccines into Africa.

Tension is maintained throughout the novel in various ways. Abdi voices the conflict many of the characters feel as they struggle to determine who they can trust. Abdi has a difficult time trusting Lat mainly because he witnessed him torturing Tegan. They wonder if they can trust Zaneisha Washington, a former government soldier.

Healey does a wonderful job of portraying a government intent upon manipulating its own people and willing to go to greats lengths to do so. She shows how a hostile government can manipulate media and use force to trick people into believing a lie.

While We Run is an excellent conclusion to a duology that explores the possibility of cryonics, what it might be like to awaken in a future world, the ethical implications and potential abuse of such a technology.

Book Details:
While We Run by Karen Healey
New York: Little, Brown and Company     May 2014
327 pp.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco

The Blessing Cup is the prequel to The Keeping Quilt which told the story of Polacco's great-grandmother coming to America as a child. In The Blessing Cup Patricia Polacco tells the story of her Great-Grandmother Anna's life in Russia before she emigrated to America.

The night before Shabbat and after Anna and her family experienced harassment at the hands of the csar's men, her mother takes out a beautiful tea set. Anna asks her mother to tell the story of the wonderful story of the tea set.

Anna's mother and father lived in Roynovka, Russia (near present day Belarus). The tea set came from her Aunt Rebecca in Minsk who sent it to her mother with a special note about the blessing it would bring her family.

Despite the poverty of Anna's family, life in Roynovka was good. But one night the temple is burned down and Anna's family learns that the czar has ordered all Jews to leave Russia. Terrified and shocked, Anna, her parents and her baby sister, Magda,  must pack up only what they can carry or take with them in a cart. They take their menorah, the shofar, their holy books and of course the exquisite tea set. They face a long journey through Russia and possibly to America. How will they manage to survive such a journey and travel so far?

The book's beautiful illustrations were created by acclaimed author-illustrator,  Patricia Polacco, using 2 and 6B pencils and acetone markers. The free-hand sketch-like quality of Polacco's illustrations conveys the hustle and bustle of village life, the comraderie of the Jewish people, the warmth of family life, the physical hardship of their journey out of Russia, the joy when they are helped by a Russian man and the love for each generation as the cup is passed on through the generations. The expressive faces and the sense of motion conveyed in each of these beautiful drawings enhance the story of Polacco's ancestors.

The heartwarming story of hardship overcome and devotion to family and God make The Blessing Cup one of Polacco's best books. It's a story many families will be able to relate to.

Book Details:
The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco
Toronto: A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers 2013

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gasp by Lisa McMann

Gasp is an exciting conclusion to the Vision Series.

In Gasp, Jules Demarco and Sawyer Angotti have successfully navigated through two visions, saving people destined to die. Now they are desperate to learn who among the students they saved at the University of Chicago campus shooting is experiencing the next round of visions. A week after the shooting and Jules and her brother Trey, along with Sawyer meet up with Ben Galang to learn if he is the one having the visions. Ben is not however and they need to determine who is. With Ben's help, they put together a list of people to contact and Jules suggests that they have a support group meeting to see if they can glean who might be having the next vision.

The group of students gets together but no one claims to be having any problems. At this point Jules and Sawyer decide to visit Tori who was badly wounded and who is still in hospital. But when the arrive, Tori tells them she hasn't experienced anything weird.

The visions are temporarily forgotten when tragedy strikes Jules family and their restaurant and home above burn to the ground. It turns out that the fire was the result of a worn electrical cord that ignited all the books and papers that Jule's father has been hoarding over the years. Now homeless, Jules and her family move in temporarily with her Aunt Mary and Uncle Tito.

A breakthrough comes in the visions when Tori Hayes texts Jules telling her she wants to talk about the visions but when Jules and Sawyer show up at the hospital, Tori is reluctant to talk about them in front of her mother. Jules eventually manages to have Tori reveal that she has been having scary visions involving a house, ambulance and plenty of bodies. However, any further information is not forthcoming from Tori except taht the incident is on Loomis Street. Eventually the incident does happen and this upsets Jules and Sawyer.

They decide to visit Tori once again in the hospital to show her what happened  and to impress upon her the gravity of trying to determine what is happening and where it is happening in the visions. At first everyone believes that the visions for Tori have ended but several days later a new, more sinister vision begins. Now both Tori and her mother seek the help of Jules and her friends. But can they save a large number of people this time around?

There are plenty of family details at the beginning of the novel, and while not necessary to the plot, they help to develop the characters and their relationship to one another. Jules sister, Rowan is more involved in the storyline and we learn more about Jules father, who manages to redeem himself admirably, fighting to overcome his hoarding addiction. There's an entire chapter devoted to a steamy makeout scene involving Jules and Sawyer, which was out of place in the storyline and felt somewhat gratuitous in its inclusion. All of this means that it takes a few chapters to get fully into the visions part of the storyline, but once it does, events move quickly. McMann has the perfect vehicle for creating and maintaining suspense because details of the upcoming tragedy can only be obtained gradually from the person having the visions. The time constraint and the lack of details help develop reader suspense.

As with the first novel, events in Gasp are narrated by Jules, whose witty, intelligent voice feels more natural than Sawyer's was in the second novel, especially when relating information about the visions.

As with the first two novels, a hint of the vision is given in the iris of the eye on the front cover. McMann also reveals where Jules might have gotten her vision from and where it definitely did not come from. Overall, this was an original story that was concluded in the only way possible with an exciting and satisfying resolution that is somewhat open-ended.

Book Details:
Gasp by Lisa McMann
Toronto: SimonPulse    2014
273 pp.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The One by Kiera Cass

The One is the final installment in the Selection series which sees Prince Maxon Schreave finally chose his princess from the remaining four girls, Elise, Kriss, Celeste and America, collectively known as the Elite. This novel has two story lines; the Elite and the final choosing of the princess, and the civil war with the Southern rebels.

Attacks on the palace by the Southern rebels continue while America is now thoroughly in King Clarkson's bad books for her statement on the Report. Maxon tells America that they need to make her the people's favourite.

The Elite share how far they've each gotten with Maxon and discover that all of them are about the same in their relationship status when it comes to physical affections. When Maxon learns of this he is upset at America for triggering such a discussion.

The next day, Maxon and America are summoned to meet to rebels from the Northern camp who are interested in forming an alliance with the King and especially Prince Maxon. They introduce themselves as August Illea, a direct descendent of the ruling Illea family and Georgia Whitaker, his finance. August is a direct descendent of Gregory Illea, his grandfather was Spencer Illea who was thought to have died. Instead, Spencer fled to the north where he had a family. August tells Maxon that they would swear allegiance to him, promise never to attack the palace and do their best to stop the Southern rebels if he will give them some indication that he will allow the people of Illea to determine their own lives. They also tell Maxon that if the Southern rebels win, things will be worse.  August asks Maxon to choose America as his wife because they know from her statement on the Report that she too wants to abolish Illea's caste system. Maxon agrees to an alliance but tells August he cannot arm them and take the risk that they might turn on him.

Gradually the four young women grow closer together as they wait for Maxon to make his choice. Meanwhile Maxon and America's relationship grows increasingly tense; Maxon is waiting for America to tell him she loves him but America feels Maxon should reveal how he feels. Maxon tells America "Because half the time I've been sure you loved someone else and the other half I've doubted you could love me at all,..." America tells him that he should spend more time with the other girls to see if he really does love her .

The rebels begin to step up their attacks by announcing that they will be attacking the castes of the Elites, levels 2, 3, 4 and 5 unless the four remaining girls withdraw from the Selection. The King tells them that guards will be provided for their families. Maxon tells America he wants to find out how bad the death toll is from these attacks. America decides that she will enlist Aspen's help and he manages to arrange for her and Maxon to sneak out of the palace one night and travel to meet August and Georgia. Although they learn that the loss of life for now is low, their mission take a turn for the worse when America is injured in an attack.

The final test the Elites must undergo is The Convicting ceremony where each girl must demonstrate her willingness to submit to the laws of Illea. When America is faced with an impossible situation she finds an innovative solution that angers King Clarkson.

Three days before Christmas, King Clarkson gives America an ultimatum: if she wants to stay she needs to read a message telling the castes to accept their lot in life. This is something America cannot do. All this is put on hold when tragedy strikes.

The One is an entirely predictable story with a disappointingly predictable ending that is likely to thrill many readers. Cass attempts to stave off the inevitable predictable ending with several contrived twists, but events transpire exactly as the reader expects. "The Bachelor" aspect is the strong point of this novel as Cass expertly draws out the romantic tension and personality clashes between Maxon and America. It's a story that focuses exclusively on the relationship between Maxon and America, the girl whose ability to break the rules and do the unexpected rule the entire Selection.

My biggest disappointment was the way the storyline between Aspen and America simply wound down, again to a very predictable conclusion. America told him she would always love him and yet, the glamour and wealth of the palace and Maxon's status simply overwhelmed her and changed her forever.It was all very contrived and unoriginal.

Young readers who want a girl-becomes princess-and-lives-happily-ever-after story will enjoy this series and especially the final novel. As expected, the third book also has an appealing cover of a beautiful woman wearing a deliciously gorgeous wedding gown.

Here's the book trailer from HarperTeen:

Book Details:
The One by Kiera Cass
New York: HarperTeen 2014
323 pp.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier

Cleo Berry lives in Portland Oregon with her brother Jack and his French wife, Lucy. It is September, 1918, and the First World War continues to drag on. Jack and Cleo's parents were killed four months earlier when their carriage ran off the road into a ravine. Jack and Lucy were living in France but returned to Portland to care for Cleo.

The novel opens with Jack and Lucy planning a trip to San Francisco and then onward to Australia. It is mid-September and they have decided that Cleo will board at her school, St. Helen's Hall until Jack and Lucy's return on the third of November. At St. Helen's Hall, Cleo and her classmates, Margaret Kesey, Grace Skinner, Emily Tobias and Anna, have barely settled in when rumours of the Spanish influenza begin to circulate. They have heard that the influenza is raging in Boston and Philadelphia with many people sick. So many people have died in Philadelphia that they have run out of coffins and are burying people in mass graves.

Their worst fears are confirmed though, when Miss Abernathy announces that the school will be closed immediately. A train carrying soldiers arrived at Camp Lewis, from the east and most of those soldiers are sick with influenza. Miss Abernathy reveals that there are now 200 cases of flu in Portland.

Although Cleo receives a telegram from Jack telling her they will be in Portland as soon as arrangements can be made, Cleo decides that she will not wait for her brother to pick her up at the school where she will be under quarantine. Instead, she decides to sneak out of the school and go home.

At home, Cleo is alone, since their housekeeper, Mrs. Foster is away in Hood River. Cleo sees an ad in the local newspaper, the Oregonian, for nurses to help out and women to enlist with the Red Cross. Cleo thinks of her parents and how her mother died when help did not arrive on time and this motivates her to enlist to help with "unattended" cases of influenza, that is those people who take sick but have no one to care for them.

At the Portland Auditorium, which has been made into a temporary hospital, Cleo meets Hannah Flynn, a young nurse who is running the site and who has no qualms about sending Cleo out to canvass the nearby neighbourhoods for sick people.

On her first day, Cleo is sent to South Portland where she rescues a desperately ill mother and her two young children. When she arrives back at the Auditorium she encounters Lieutenant Edmund Parrish, a young man who fought overseas in France and was badly wounded. Edmund has recovered from his wounds and is now a medical student. There are no doctors left as most have gone overseas or are working in the military infirmaries. Cleo also meets seventeen year old Katherine (Kate) Bennett. Cleo is shocked to see how many people are desperately ill and how the influenza kills so quickly. She asks Hannah and Kate if they are afraid and it is Hannah who states, "...these people need help. If not me, then who?"

Edmund Parrish tells Cleo that she doesn't have to help, to place herself at risk. He warns her that the influenza is taking more young people than old and that there is no shame in leaving to keep herself safe. But Cleo does stay.

Jack phones Cleo to tell her that because Lucy is pregnant they have been advised to postpone their travel arrangements for several weeks. Lucy tells him that Mrs. Foster is due back soon and that she has enough money for food and other necessities.

As the medical crisis deepens, Cleo watches as neighbours sicken and die, the hospitals run short of morphine and undertakers of coffins. Although their relationship began with a misunderstanding, Cleo begins to warm to Edmund, whom she discovers is kind-hearted and deeply concerned about her living alone. When Mrs. Foster does not return, Cleo is left wondering how long it will be before she too becomes ill.

A Death-Struck Year is Makiia Lucier's debut novel. Lucier enjoys historical fiction and her love of this genre definitely shows in this finely crafted novel about the influenza pandemic of 1918. She wanted to write a coming of age novel set during the time of the Spanish Influenza and in that regard she has succeeded admirably. Although the subject matter is grim, A Death-Struck Year never overwhelms the reader with that era's bleak atmosphere. Instead, Lucier incorporates plenty of historical details into her story in a manner that will be interesting to young readers. She also manages to imbue her characters with a sense of hope, that eventually life will soon return to normal.

And of course, there is the budding romance between Cleo and Edmund that feels natural even though the world is falling apart between a terrible world war and an influenza pandemic. This relationship, delicate and slowing developing, seems realistic and adds a measure of hope - life goes on even in spite of terrible tragedy and difficult times. Lucier avoids having their budding romance overwhelm the story arc as both Cleo and Edmund have plenty of other difficulties to capture their attention.

Lucier gradually reveals her characters through their actions in the novel; Cleo is brave, quick-thinking, Jack is firm but gentle with his younger sister, while Edmund is intelligent and thoughtful towards Cleo. The author balances these noble characters with the darker side of human nature; those who steal from abandoned homes and shops, spouses who abandoned sick family and those unwilling to help others.

Lucier has done her research on her subject matter and it shows. There are plenty of facts about the 1918 influenza that will inform readers, from its gruesome symptoms and progression, the numbers of dying, to the effects the pandemic had on life in American cities.  The author has included a short historical note on the 1918 pandemic as well as a short booklist.

A Death-Struck Year is an excellent historical fiction novel that I highly recommend. I would love to see a follow-up novel that tells Edmund and Cleo's story fifteen years into the future!

Book Review:
A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt     2014

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars - Commentary by Father Robert Barron

Father Robert Barron has some interesting comments on the popular book and movie, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

In this first video, Father Barron discusses John Green's novel, The Fault In Our Stars which deals with the lives of two young people suffering from terminal cancer. Father Barron discusses Hazel Grace's nihilistic view of life and how it affects her relationship with Augustus Waters. Please note this video contains spoilers.

The second video focuses on the meaning of the book's title, The Fault In Our Stars, and on the symbolism of the Sacred Heart image on the rug in the cancer support group. Father Barron's website Word On Fire has many other excellent videos relating to culture and faith.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Catch A Falling Star by Kim Culbertson

Catch A Falling Star makes use of a popular trope in young adult literature these days - a down-to-earth, small town girl has an unlikely meeting with a famous teen acting star whom she expects will be insensitive and self-absorbed. Instead, she learns he's just the opposite and they fall in love in what proves to be an impossible to sustain relationship since he will eventually leave town.

Carter Moon's family owns a small cafe, Little Eats, on the main street in Little, California where Carter lives with her mom, dad and her nineteen year old brother John. John is a compulsive gambler who has spent the last three years in and out of support programs without much success.  He is estranged from their parents after stealing from the cafe safe. His gambling has resulted in him becoming indebted to a local small time gangster named T.J. Shay.

Carter likes to hang out with her best friend, Chloe and her boyfriend, Drake Masuda, who goes by the name of Alien Drake due to his interest in aliens and UFO sightings. Alien Drake and Carter go way back as childhood friends who both have an interest in stargazing and astronomy. Drake and Carter also co-author a blog titled Yesterday's Sightings.
One afternoon while clearing tables with Chloe, Carter sees Adam Jakes, famous teen actor, entering town where his next movie shoot is to take place. Jakes is in town to film a Christmas movie, A Christmas Cheryl which is to be a modern remake of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Jakes has a bad boy reputation stemming from a recent scandal. involving drugs, a car wreck and a very public break-up with a famous actress, that sent him into rehab.

Things turn strange when Adam Jake's manager, Parker Hill, approaches Carter to be Adam's girlfriend for the weeks he is shooting his movie in Little. Parker wants Adam to spend "some time with a 'small town girl with proper values'", someone who can help repair Adam's tattered image. Parker seems to know a lot about Carter and her family, including the trouble they have had with John, so when she refuses, he lets her know that this offer is for real and will pay handsomely.

Carter decides to take Parker up on his offer and become Adam Jake's fake girlfriend for the several weeks he is shooting in Little. Parker has scripted their entire "relationship" meaning that he has planned when they will have their first public kiss and when and where they will be seen and photographed together as well as when they will break up.

Carter assumes she will be dealing with an entitled, self-absorbed star and at first that seems to be exactly what Adam is- full of himself.  Adam seems more interested in his iPhone but he is impressed when Carter doesn't seem overwhelmed during their first meeting. As they follow the script Parker has laid out for them, Carter attends shoots and gets a taste of the constant publicity that marks Adam's life. Adam begins to thaw towards her, revealing glimpses of the person he really is and even asking her to hang out with him as a friend. Carter in turn lets Adam into her world; Alien Drake and Chloe invite him to come up to the roof and star gaze with them. She opens up to Adam about the problems with her brother John. But soon the pretend relationship that she has crafted with Adam comes crashing up against the reality of what her heart feels; she has fallen hard for Adam Jakes.

As the days pass and Carter is drawn into the job of being Adam's pretend girlfriend, she comes to realize that the photos taken during their time together present a completely false picture to the public - one that suggests she and Adam have a meaningful relationship. This begins to bother Carter and she confronts Adam about this. He tells her that the tabloids do not tell the real story and that much of it is crafted to entertain people. This is what his life is all about - entertainment. But sometimes what you don't feel when you fake it, eventually becomes real. And this is what Carter is beginning to experience.

However, when Parker inadvertently reveals a secret about Adam, Carter decides she's had enough pretending and quits the job of being Adam's fake girlfriend. She wants to acknowledge her feelings, tell her best friends that she has lied to them, and end the fake relationship. In the end neither is certain they understand the other, but they come to an acceptance that this is the reality of their lives.

Culbertson's novel is a fun, contemporary romance that touches on several themes. First is the irony of Adam and Carter's situation. They are creating a fake relationship for public consumption so that Adam's good-boy image will be repaired. However, in reality, their relationship gradually becomes closer to what they are presenting to the public, as both develop real feelings for the other person. Each believes the other doesn't really care but in reality they both really do. Adam proves his care for Carter when trouble surfaces concerning John and a serious threat to his life and Carter's family. His intervention saves them from a lot of trouble.

Secondly, instead of turning this novel into a completely frothy, fluff piece, Culbertson tackles a host of issues concerning coming of age and making decisions in life. It turns out that besides dealing with her growing affection for Adam, Carter is also deeply conflicted over her decision to stop dancing. She was a dancer good enough to secure a scholarship to a school in New York but turned it down when she attended a camp connected with the school. Discouraged by what she was told at the camp, Carter felt that dance was no longer fun and that she did not want to be a part of the ruthlessly competitive world that characterizes professional dance. All Carter wants is to remain in Little and she doesn't understand why she should consider leaving her small town. She is satisfied with small town life, yet everyone tells her that she needs to go out and experience more of the world.

Adam with his much larger experience of the world, makes a case for trying new things and pushing outside of our comfort zone. He tells her that sometimes whatever you are doing in life, whether it's dancing or acting, is not fun, that hard work, disappointment and struggle are part of the equation. He also tells her not to limit herself to one thing in life, and to stop thinking of all or nothing. She can use Little as her anchor while she goes out and explores the world beyond.

Adam is not the only one who helps Carter. Alien Drake who is disappointed in Carter for dating a movie star, reaches out to her through their blog. His posts which appear sporadically through the novel are the best part of this book.

The weakest area of this novel was Culbertson's portrayal of Adam as a top Hollywood star. Adam was unconvincing in this role and the idea behind the movie he was making, although supposedly a mirror of the issues in his own contrived life,  seemed contrived.

Readers will love the happy twist at the end of the novel. A good summer read for those who like this sort of motif. Fans of Jennifer E. Smith's This Is What Happy Looks Like will definitely enjoy Culbertson's similarly themed Catch A Falling Star.

Book Details:
Catch a Falling Star by Kim Culberston
New York: Point and imprint of Scholastic, Inc.    2014
300 pp.

Monday, July 7, 2014

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

"I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard."
If I Stay is about a young girl's difficult decision to either live or die after a catastrophic family tragedy. The novel is narrated by seventeen year old Mia Hall who, in an out of body experience, lies between life and death over a period of twenty four hours. Interspersed with the events happening in the present, is Mia's life story told in flashback form. As time passes, as indicated by the time stamps, Mia draws closer and closer to her critical decision.

Seventeen year old Mia and her family are enjoying a snow day in early February in Oregon. When the storm finishes suddenly, they decide to take a trip to visit her parents' old friends, Henry and Willow and their baby girl. They never make it. Their Buick is struck by a four-ton pickup truck and totally demolished.

When Mia "awakes" she is able to survey the accident scene and she sees her father lying dead on the road, her mother looking white as a ghoul. When Mia is unable to locate her younger brother, Teddy, she goes in search of him. But what she finds is her own body lying badly injured in a ditch near their completely destroyed vehicle. Not in her body but near it, Mia watches as emergency and police arrive on the crash scene and work to stabilize her so they can transport her to hospital. She is rushed by air ambulance to a trauma center where doctors work to save her. Mia watches from outside her body as all this happens. While she is out of her body she thinks back on her life, remembering various milestones and special moments which are told in flashback.

Mia began playing cello at age eight and had her first recital when she was ten. She was so nervous for the recital that she almost didn't perform, but her father encouraged her, explaining that everyone experiences this and has to learn to work through the nerves. When she was in grade nine her father found Mia a professional teacher, Professor Christie, who is a retired professor from the nearby university. Her teacher and others felt Mia was exceptional and that she should audition for Julliard in New York.

Mia's musical talent comes naturally as her father had a rock band for years. But when a second baby came along, her father decided to leave his band and become a teacher, much to the chagrin of his band mates and his best friend, Henry. But Mia's father simply tells Henry that some day he will understand.

Mia has a boyfriend, eighteen year old Adam Wilde who is the lead guitarist and singer in his emo-rock band, Shooting Star. The two met when Adam was in his junior year and Mia was a sophomore. He had been watching her practice in the music room and one day announced to Mia that he had tickets to a Yo Yo Ma concert at Arlene Schnitzer Hall in Portland. After the concert, the two gradually grow closer together, having their difficult moments but eventually falling in love.But as they get older and Adam moves on from high school to a nearby college, there relationship continues because of their mutual love of music. Ironically, music which brought them together, might now be the one thing that pushes them apart as they move into adulthood.

Mia's successful audition at Julliard is certain to lead to an offer of admission and with it the necessary move to New York and away from Adam. Auditioning at Julliard was her dad's mother, Gran's, idea. Mia prepared an audition tape, got her letters of reference together and sent in a recording. She was then invited to audition for a spot at the school and ended up going with her Gramps to San Francisco where the auditions were held. Mia played five pieces for her audition; a Shostakovich concerto, two Bach suites, all Tchaikovsky's Pezzo capriccioso and a movement from Ennio Morricone's The Mission.She was passionate and in the moment and her playing demonstrated this.

But despite this love of music, Mia is conflicted over the possibility of going to New York and what that will mean for her and Adam. Adam feels the same way as his band often has gigs in other cities, meaning he is often away from Mia on weekends. It becomes increasingly difficult to co-ordinate their lives.

Meanwhile in the present, Mia learns she has been badly injured; a collapsed lung, ruptured spleen, unknown internal bleeding and contusions on her brain. Her father's parents, Gran and Gramps are in the waiting room while she has surgery. After they see her, Gramps asks Gran about whether or not Mia can make a choice about living or not. It is at this point that Mia realizes whether she lives or dies is up to her.
"...He had listened to that nurse,too. He got it before I did.
If I stay. If I live. It's up to me.
All this business about medically induced comas is just doctor talk. It's not up to the doctors. It's not up to the absentee angels. It's not even up to God who, if He exists, is nowhere around right now. It's up to me."
Adam doesn't arrive until 7:13pm in the evening but when he tries to see Mia he is told only family is allowed in to see Mia. Devastated, Adam enlists the help of Mia's best friend Kim and later on some of his band members in what turns out to be a futile attempt. But when Willow shows up at the hospital she manages to get Adam in to see Mia. As expected, Adam is devastated when he sees Mia.

Both Gramps and Mia's best friend ,Kim Schein, give Mia permission to die if that is what she wants. But Adam decides he wants to give Mia a reason to live. Will it be enough?

If I Stay is realistic fiction that effectively captures the horror and grief that permeates those left behind after a terrible tragedy and the difficult decision to carry on afterwards. Forman has crafted a novel that explores what it might be like to be lying in a state near death, aware of terrible loss and possibly wondering whether dying is the better choice over living. Mia in her in between state, knows her entire family is dead, her life changed forever. What if she has the choice to live or die? Can she find the courage to live?

Forman makes excellent use of flashbacks to give her readers some sense of Mia's family, her passion for music and to build the relationship between Adam and Mia thus setting the stage for her big decision. Both Adam and Mia are wonderfully realistic characters, opposites who attract. Adam is the emo-rocker whose loud music and mosh pits contrast with the refined world of Mia's classical music. They have a friendship and a common interest in music that leads gradually to a deeper relationship and finally to love.

Passion for music plays a central part of this novel as all the characters are in some way, invested in music and have a passion for music. Forman's portrayal of the classical music world, especially that of a young aspiring musician is accurate and informative. The author also captures some of the struggles that are common to many musicians; overcoming nerves, the hard work required to master an instrument, exhausting auditions and sometimes just wanting to take a break. It is this passion for music and her love for Adam that ultimately will play a significant part in Mia's final decision. Adam gives Mia something we all need, a reason for living and a reason for going on in the face of such heartrending loss.

Forman doesn't give her readers a sense of the loss Mia experiences - even during the accident scene. Mia's loss is muted on purpose due to Mia being neither alive nor dead. Contributing to this inability to feel is her narrative which focuses on what happened in her life prior to the accident. Mia finally experiences the fullness of that loss in the very last pages when Mia through the music Adam plays for her;
"Yo-Yo Ma continues to play, and it's like the piano and cello are being poured into my body...And the memories of my life as it was, and the flashes of it as it might be, are coming so fast and furious....
...somewhere inside of me I am crying, too, because I'm feeling things at last. I'm feeling not just the physical pain, but all that I have lost, and it is profound and catastrophic and will leave a crater in me that nothing will ever fill."

Overall If I Stay was a well-written, engaging novel. Forman has written a sequel to If I Stay which is titled Where She Went which is even better and is written from Adam's point of view.

If I Stay has been brought to the film screen and is scheduled to be released to movie theaters in August, 2014. 

Book Details:
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
New York: Dutton Books     2009
196 pp.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Push Girl by Chelsie Hill and Jessica Love

push girl\noun

1. A fierce, fearless woman who doesn't let life's challenges get in the way of what she wants.
2. Anyone who overcomes adversity with a never say die attitude and sense of humor.
Senior Kara Moore is a dancer who loves to perform. She's been dating the captain of the water polo team, Curt Mitchell for the past eight months. Kara's upcoming senior year is going to be amazing; she has a new set of friends thanks to Curt and among other things, Curt's water polo club has nominated her for Home Coming Queen. Although Kara finds Curt very handsome she doesn't feel like she can be open with him about the difficult things in her life. One of those difficult things is her home life; her parents are constantly fighting.

After Curt picks her up from the dance studio they plan to meet later on in the evening at Rob Chang's home for a party. Being part of Curt's life has meant that Kara now gets invited to parties she otherwise would not ever attend. When Kara arrives home she tells her mother that she is going to a movie with her best friend Amanda, because she knows her mother would never allow her to go to Chang's party. Although Kara tries to take a nap, she overhears her parents having a terrific argument. After her father leaves the house, her mother tells Kara that they are going to get divorced.

Angry and very upset, Kara leaves for the party. When she arrives, she discovers that Curt is more interested in a drinking game than spending time with her. Wishing to talk to him about what's going on with her parents, she waits for Curt to meet her outside. When he doesn't show after twenty minutes of waiting, Kara returns to the house to find him with another girl in his lap and very drunk. At this point Karla decides to leave and drive to Taco Bell to have something to eat. But she never makes it to the restaurant; her car is struck by a drunk driver who runs a red light.

Kara awakes two weeks later in hospital to discover she has a broken back and is paralyzed from the waist down. Most of Karla's friends from high school do not visit her in the hospital. Conspicuously absent is boyfriend Curt. However Amanda and Karla's ex-boyfriend, Jack Matthews, do visit.They offer her support and continue that support and friendship when she returns home and when she begins school again.

When Kara returns to school she has to confront the attitudes of staff and students as well as physical obstacles. Kara finds students view her with a mixture of shock and pity and she finds a school unprepared to integrate a student with a disability into the classroom. Even more difficult, Kara decides to confront Curt Mitchell's over his treatment of her after the accident. She finds Curt to be heartless and insistent that he has broken up with her because of how she reacted at the party. Speechless at his betrayal, Kara is devastated.

However, Kara soon finds that she has lots of support from the two people she was drifting away from prior to her accident; Amanda her best friend and Jack her ex-boyfriend. Jack drives her to school every day and Amanda is always ready to help Kara and support her in any way she can.

Kara struggles to come to terms with being a paraplegic and the loss of her identity as a dancer. She hates the way people look at her with pity, ignore her paralyzed legs like they aren't there, or  A careless remark by her English teacher, Mr. David infuriates and depresses Kara even more and she decides to withdraw from the Homecoming Queen competition.  As the reality of her situation begins to sink in, Kara first strikes out in anger at those closest to her - Amanda and Jack.

As Kara continues to act out at school she finally realizes she needs help to deal with her situation and a change in medications. Despite her outburst to Jack and Amanda, they stick by her.  And Jack comes up with a plan that just might help Kara work through some of her feelings and give her the motivation to get her life on track again.

Push Girl is an inspiring novel that deals with the sensitive subject of disability and coming to terms with a life-altering event. Kara's struggles to find meaning in her life are realistically portrayed.

"But how could I be fulfilled in my life without dancing? It was tied in to the core of who I was, and who I'd been for as long as I could remember knowing myself. Is this how people felt when they lost a loved one? My grandma died when I was younger but she was sick for a long time before that. Ihad time to get used to her passing. This was different. This was the sudden and absolute murder of the one thing that made me who I was. Kara Moore was a dancer.....
Until I wasn't anymore."
Kara realizes that she is mourning the loss of the person she was - Kara Moore - dancer. Her anger is a normal part of the grieving process in any loss. Eventually as she moves through this process, Kara begins to see positive aspects to her life, even though she can no longer dance. Her journey through the sadness and anger lead to her gradually accepting her life and finding more and more moments were she can truly be happy. A larger part of her successful transition to her new life is her boyfriend Jack, who is a complete opposite of the self-absorbed Curt. Although the reader learns later on in the novel Curt's reasons for his terrible treatment of Kara, they merely reinforce his poor character and immaturity. It's no surprise that Curt's new girlfriend, Jenny Roy, is just like him - shallow and mean. In this respect the characters are somewhat cliched and overly typical, but Hill and Love use them to emphasize the difficulty Kara has in fitting back into life in high school.

Push Girl mirrors the experiences of co-author Chelsie Hill. Hill was seventeen years old when she became a T-10 parapalegic as a result of a drunk driving accident. Chelsie had been a competitive dancer before the accident and her world was changed forever. Undaunted by the loss of the use of her legs, Chelsie began speaking around America about what happened to her and how the choices we make can impact those around us. The Walk and Roll Foundation was started by Chelsie and her father to educate teens on distracted driving which now kills more people than drunk driving. Chelsie is also a cast member of the Sundance Channel's reality show, Push Girls and a member of a wheel chair dance team. You can learn more about her at

Push Girl is a quick read that will appeal to fans of the Push Girl series and also those who would enjoy a quick read. It's well written and doesn't become bogged down in sentimentality. Kara is a likeable heroine, a strong young woman who doesn't believe she is "inspirational" because she is simply doing what she has to do now that her life has changed.

Book Details:
Push Girl by Chelsie Hill and Jessica Love
New York: Thomas Dunne Books      2014
227 pp.