Sunday, November 30, 2014

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn

Set in France, I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister is the story of a young Muslim woman's struggle to come to terms with her feelings over the gruesome honor killing of her younger sister. At its heart is the right of women to choose their a life of their own making.


The novel opens with a women's march in memory of Sohane Chebli's younger sister, Djelila who was murdered. Now trying to cope with her guilt in the aftermath of her sister's death, Sohane reflects on how life has changed while telling the story of what led to this horrific murder of her sister through a series of flashbacks.

Djelila is the beautiful sister, the one with the gazelle eyes, the long legs and the clear skin. She loves basketball and is on the team at Racine High School where she and her sister Sohane attend school. Sohane and Djelila live with their parents and younger brothers, Taieb and Idriss, in the Lilac Projects, a large housing project that is predominantly Muslim. Their high school is equally large, containing five buildings with over two thousand students in grades eleven and twelve.  The two sisters are caught between two worlds, French and Muslim, which Sohane states is like having multiple personalities -- "one for our parents, a second for the projects, and a third for high school."

Djelila and Sohane are very different. Sohane is disgusted by the sexy, revealing ads on the bus shelter. Unlike Djelila, Sohane dresses more conservatively forgoing the tight jeans and close fitting sweater that her sister favours, choosing instead to wear loose fitting longer sweaters and baggy cotton pants. Djelila smokes and also goes out with boys while her older sister has experience none of this.

Then one day when she is leaving school, Sohane notices a gang of Muslim boys - Majid, Youssef, Brahim, Mohad and Said, from the projects, watching and following Djelila. To Sohane, these boys represent "their Taliban", their judges. But the two sisters along with many others in the projects pay little attention to them because all of them are now dropouts. At Djelila's basketball practice, they sit in the bleachers and wait silently, watching Djelila. After practice they follow Djelila home, with Sohane trailing behind them. When they get to the projects, Majid begins to insult Djelila calling her a slut. The boys confront her, spit on the ground and tell Djelila that she shames her religion, family and the projects. When Djelila tells Majid to remember who he is and not to judge her, he slaps her across the face. Djelila is shocked and scared and Sohane has done nothing but watch. The two girls say nothing to their parents.

When their father's brother, their Uncle Ahmed comes to visit, Djelila confronts Ahmed over his views of women and whether they are French or Arab. This is considered disrespectful in their culture and Djelila is forced to apologize and quickly retires to her room. Despite Sohane staying at the table with Uncle Ahmed and Aunt Algia, she finds her uncle to be arrogant and interfering. When Sohane goes to their room, she finds Djelila awake. Djelila tells her that she doesn't respect their aunt and uncle and that the feminist in her wants to respond to his outdated views of women and identity. For Djelila, feminism is the right to dress how she wants but Sohane sees this as following "the cliches men impose on us."

Djelila tells Sohane that if wearing the head scarf is important to her then she should do it, but she warns her it will not be without consequences. Sohane follows through and wears the hijab to school and gets expelled. When the school calls her parents, she is surprised to discover that her father is more than supportive, willing to pay for her to take the rest of her high school by correspondence. Sohane decides that she will continue to wear the head scarf and despite a petition by Djelila's friends that she be allowed to return, Sohane does not return to school.

Some time later Djelila helps her team win their basketball game against a very good team. Afterwards, Djelila and another team member, Alice go out together and get drunk to celebrate. Sohane attended the game and tried to convince Djelila to return home with her. Unsuccessful and worried about her sister, she waits outside the projects for her to return. When Djelila does return it's evident she's very drunk. So drunk in fact, that she goes up to Majid and his friends who hand out near Tower 38 and slaps him in the face in repayment for what he did to her. Fearing for her sister Sohane manages to get Djelila safely home. But it is this event that sets in motions the  events that lead to her sisters horrific murder in the basement of their building.

For Sohane, time has not stopped after her sister's murder. Her Aunt Algia had her baby and final exams are approaching. Sohane plans to ace her exams and leave. But a year later she has still to write her final exams and is unable to cope with her feelings of guilt and loss. Nine months after her sister's murder her friends come and tell her they want to commemorate the anniversary of her death, that they don't want it to pass by unnoticed. At that time Sohane could not face them but on the day of the memorial, Sohane does attend but she is asked to leave because she is wearing a head scarf.


Athough Sarn's novel touches on two very controversial problems, the wearing of head scarves and honor killings, it is more about the freedom of women to live their lives as they choose. Sarn's novel is based on true events that occurred in France. In 2002,  Sohane Benziane was cremated alive when she was doused with gasoline and set afire in the basement of a building. Twenty-two year old Jamal Derrar, the man convicted of her murder, had an argument with Benziane's boyfriend, so her murder was more of an act revenge than an honor killing. Benziane was a Muslim of Algerian descent.

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister  explores the right of women to decide how to live their lives through Sohane Chebli's stark narrative which reveals her deeply conflicted emotions over her sister's behaviour. It covers events that happened during the course of a year and reveals how events unfolded and how her own views towards her sister's actions changed.

Both Djelila and Sohane are rebelling; Djelila against her Muslim religion which she has shed and its expectations of how to dress and act, and Sohane against French culture and its secular values that state she cannot wear the hajib because it is a religious symbol.They are caught between two cultures with two very different expectations for women. In France, women can dress how they please, smoke, drink and date. However, in Djelila and Sohane's Algerian Muslim culture none of these behaviours are acceptable. Women marry young and are expected to be married off as Uncle Ahmed states when he visits their family.

Throughout the novel Sohane continues to state how she wished Majid and his gang would teach Djelila a lesson. She loves her sister but her growing up has left Sohane with a new and changing version of her sister, not the one she wants. After the first attack on her sister she states "At the time, I thought, Djelila will get what she deserves. It's not as if she had no warning....Deep down, I wished they would teach you a lesson. That you would be knocked down a peg. That you wouldn't be so sure of yourself. That you would need me again, just like when we were little girls." Sohane is jealous of her younger sister's confidence and the fact that she seems to know who she is and what she wants. She is jealous because Djelila, bit by bit, no longer needs her older sister. Sohane admits to herself that after Majid slapped Djelila she rejoiced to see her sister humiliated and she did not intervene.

Sohane decides to wear the head scarf or hijab because she wants the world to know her as she really is, "I wish the whole world could know what I am. Who I am." Yet, she is unwilling to grant that same chance to Djelila, who when they are arguing about wearing the head scarf states that "I want to be respected to...Without having to disappear or hide my face."

Sohane refuses to acknowledge Djelila's view writing "I would love to make her see things my way. If she were to follow my example, I'm certain she would be happier. And in less danger." Because their views diverge, Sohane often refers to Djelila as her "enemy sister".

After confronting and slapping Majid,  Djelila tells Sohane, 'I don't want to be afraid of Majid or anyone else. I don't want to live in fear. I don't want my choices to be dictated by fear. I don't want to be what others have decided I should be. I want to be myself. Do you understand, Sohane?"  But at this time Sohane does not understand because she still wants Djelila to be like her - to not drink and to follow other Muslim customs. Eventually however, Sohane comes to realize that she was wrong about how she treated her sister and this happens when she is turned out of the meeting discussing Djelila's murder because she is wearing a head scarf. The women in that meeting saw her head scarf as a symbol of women's oppression and did not respect her right to wear it. Similarly Sohane begins to realize that she did the same thing to her sister, something she doesn't acknowledge until Djelila's friends organize a memorial.
 "You're jeans are not too tight, and your jacket not too short. You had the right to be yourself. But others decided otherwise. I forgot the principles of the Koran. I should not have judged you, Djelila. I should have been more understanding. In any case, I should have defended you. I did not relate to your rebellion, but it was a mistake, Djelila. You were right. Freedom is everything."

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister is a difficult novel to read. We know by page 46 exactly what happened to Djelila and that doesn't make the book any easier to read. Whether women wear head scarves or not, whether they wear tight jeans or not, the choice should be theirs. No one judges men on what they wear or how their hair is styled. A man's virtue is not questioned because of what he wears. Somehow with women it is different. Women should have the right to choose how they live. We are worthy of that freedom.

Book Details:
I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn
New York: Delacorte Press       2014
(originally published in France in 2005 as Un Foulard Pour Djelila)
152 pp.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mockingjay Part 1

Mockingjay Part 1 is the first of two movies that cover the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy. This movie is set almost entirely within District 13 and opens with Katniss recovering after being rescued from the arena in the Quarter Quell. Peeta, Annie and Johanna are now prisoners in the Capitol. The movie climaxes with Peeta's rescue from the Capitol and the discovery that he has been programmed as a weapon to kill Katniss.

This movie's strength is it's faithfulness to the novel, telling a good story without slipping into Hollywood's usual embellishments and tropes, likely because author Suzanne Collins was part of the process in adapting the novel to the big screen. The only difference between the first part of the novel and the movie adaptation is that it portrays Gale, Boggs and his team going into the Capitol to free Peeta and the other victors. The basic storyline of the struggle of the rebels to take down the inhumane regime of the Capitol never becomes bogged down or side-tracked.

Mockingjay Part 1 is a dark movie; the world is grey and smoking, we don't see much of the Capitol excesses and vibrant colours in this movie. Instead we see the massive destruction in District 12 and District 8. The only vibrant colour is the blood of the casualties. Within the confines of District 13, the people live underground in grey concrete bunkers and wear grey or blue coveralls. Even Effie Trinket, fugitive from the Capitol,  is tampered down, her outrageous makeup gone, her clothing muted and dark. Tthe rebels are struggling to overcome the Capitol and Katniss is dealing with the psychological and emotional effects of participating in two Hunger Games and the capture of Peeta.

Jennifer Lawrence gives an outstanding performance that continues to remain true to the character of Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence brilliantly conveys the emotional fragility Katniss has, the result of the trauma she has endured in the Games. We also witness her inner struggle over Peeta and her attempt to understand how her relationship with Gale has changed. Enhancing her Lawrence's performance is an outstanding by a cadre of supporting actors

Gale, well played by Liam Hemsworth, continues to support her but begins to realize that he has likely lost her love and that she seems to only notice him when he is in pain. The Katniss he once knew no longer exists. Woody Harrelson returns as the now sober (and dull) Haymitch Abernathy who is still on the ball when it comes to outguessing the Capitol, Donald Sutherland continues as the cold calculating President Snow, Katniss's archenemy who loves to leave her white roses with their sickening scent, and Philip Seymour  Hoffman as Plutarch Hensbee, President Coin's advisor. The movie is dedicated to Hoffman who committed suicide this year. Jeffrey Wright plays Beetee the technical wizard whose abilities help to turn the war in the rebel's favour.

There are many new characters in this movie among them, Cressida played by Natalie Dormer who is the director in charge of the propos, Messalla played by Evan Ross who is Cressida's assistant and friend, Castor and Pollux (Wes Chatham and Elden Henson) that later who is a Avox,  and Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin. Both Dormer and Moore's performances stand out.

The depiction of Peeta's "hijacking" and madness is especially well done; it's the last scene in the film and very intense as Katniss witnesses the havoc President Snow has wreaked upon the man she is only just coming to realize she loves.

There are several differences in the movie compared to the novel. One is that Katniss does not demand from President Coin that she be allowed to assassinate President Snow, leading one to wonder how the ending of the second movie will play out.

Overall a very good movie adaptation of a popular young adult novel that will leave fans truly pining for the final installment next year.

Below is the trailer for Mockingjay:

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bunny the Brave War Horse by Elizabeth MacLeod and Marie LaFrance

Bunny the Brave War Horse is an exquisitely illustrated picture book about a very sombre topic, The Great War, which began one hundred years ago in 1914. The focus of this book for children in Grades 1 to 3 is the true story of a war horse named Bunny.

Bunny is a strong, well trained police horse so named because of his long ears. However,despite his strange ears, Bunny has a reputation for being very brave. Bunny along with all of the police horses  are shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe for the soldiers fighting in the Great War.

When Bunny was a police horse he was ridden by Officer Thomas Dundas. Thomas now follows Bunny overseas with his brother, "Bud" who is given Bunny to ride.

Bunny, Bud and Thomas arrive in France and then travel to Belgium where they experience their first battle. This battle sees poison gas used on the soldiers and their horses with many wounded. War horses like Bunny performed many tasks, pulling ambulances,  supply carts and cannons and artillery.  When Bud is killed in a battle, Thomas is given Bunny to ride. During this difficult time, Bunny is a comfort to Thomas. Eventually the war comes to an end on November 11, 1918. Thomas has earned many medals, partly because of his excellent war horse, Bunny. However, Bunny like many war horses, is unable to return to Canada, instead like the other war horses, he is sold to a farmer in Belgium.

Bunny encountering mustard gas on the front lines.
Bunny the Brave War Horse tells the true story of Bunny who was part of the mounted police force of Toronto, Ontario. Bunny was one of eighteen horses sent by the force to fight in the 9th Battery Canadian Field Artillery. Thomas Dundas was a real constable in the Toronto Police force and his brother also served. Bunny and the Dundas brothers along with many other soldiers were on the battlefield at Ypres, Belgium when the Germans launched the war's first poison gas attack. Many soldiers died and most of the horses that were shipped from Toronto did as well.

What the illustrations in the picture book do not show, is that World War I was fought using trench warfare - something different from previous conflicts. In the past horses were an integral part of battles which consisted of cavalry charges. Horses however were still very important to troops performing many different duties.

Bunny the Brave War Horse does touch on some of the realities of war though. For example, during one battle, conditions are described as "the sky was midnight black. Drenching rain and thick smoke from the guns made it almost impossible to see. Bombs exploded all around. The noise was terrifying." When the supply wagons cannot reach the troops in the field because of the rain and mud, the horses and men go hungry. "Tom visited Bunny in the stable one nigh. He noticed that the horse beside Bunny was shivering. The horse had been so hungry it had eaten its blanket."

This is an excellent picture book that accurately portrays a little bit of Canadiana in a readable, interesting manner.

Marie LaFrance's beautiful illustrations are rendered in mixed media and Photoshop. LaFrance is an award winning illustrator whose art appears in many different publications. You can learn more about Marie at Kids Can Press.

Book Details:
Bunny The Brave War Horse by Elizabeth MacLeod and Marie LaFrance
Toronto: Kids Can Press               2014

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay

This touching short novel by Canadian author Sharon McKay tells the story of two elderly brothers who risk their lives to save a little Jewish girl from certain death after the Nazis overrun Holland.

The story begins in the fall of 1942 in Amsterdam where a young mother and her five-year-old daughter are on the run from the Nazis. The little girl is warned by her mother to never tell anyone that she is Jewish. Fleeing from the home of Mrs. Dahl, whose husband had brought them to hide,  the mother is on her way to meet a stranger, a woman who will take her daughter to a safe place. To get there they must take the tram.

Two brothers, sixty-five year old Hans and sixty-three year old Lars Gorter live alone together in the house they once shared with their mamma and papa. Hans and Lars, like many older Dutch had lived through the Great War and also endured years of economic depression. In 1940, the Germans swiftly overran Holland but the Dutch people were determined to resist the Nazis and  had remained loyal to their queen who was in exile in England. When the Germans invaded, Mrs. Vos, an elderly neighbour of the Gorters fled to their home.

Hans and Lars both worked on one of Amsterdam's many trams, with Hans operating it and Lars collecting tickets from the passengers. In occupied Amsterdam, they like other tram workers, were told to report suspicious passengers to the authorities - which meant the Nazis. Both brothers decided they would do no such thing. They knew all their regular passengers on their tram; the nun with her winged hat, the elderly man and students. When the young mother and her daughter boarded the tram Hans did not recognize them.

Their tram is stopped by a Nazi soldier who boards and begins asking the passengers for their identity papers. The young mother's papers identify her as a Jew and therefore not allowed to ride the trams. As she is taken off, the German soldier begins tellign the child that she must come with them. Lars who has seen the woman's identity papers knows that she is Jewish knows that if the child goes with the Nazis she will not survive. And so he speaks up and tells the soldier that the little girl is his niece. No one believes him but to distract the soldier, Hans releases the tram brake and it lurches forward throwing the German off his feet and into the lap of the nun. He leaves the tram angry but the little girl is forgotten. The little girl's mother along with others from the tram are loaded onto an army truck and the little girl sits there alone.

At the end of the day Hans and Lars take the little girl home intending to take her to Mrs. Vos. But before they can leave the station the little girl needs to use the bathroom. The brothers are helped in this tricky situation by a well dressed woman who when she leaves wishes Beatrix a good evening. and walks off with a man dressed in the uniform of an SS officer.

When they arrived at Mrs. Vos's home, she tells them to take Beatrix to their house where she will meet them. When she comes to Hans and Lars home she begins to question Beatrix about where she is from and where she was going. Lars explains what happened on the train and how the Nazi's took Beatrix's mother away. Based on what she has seen over the past weeks, Mrs. Vos believes that Beatrix was being taken someplace safe to be hidden and after hearing more of their story, she helps the brothers brush her hair and has them feed her. Based on her appearance, Mrs. Vos is certain Beatrix is loved because despite evidence that the child is starving she is clean and her clothes well mended. Considering that the neighbours have seen Beatrix enter Hans and Lars home, Mrs. Vos visits each of them assuring their inhabitants that their personal secrets are safe with her and encouraging them to welcome Hans and Lars long lost niece. The one neighbour she feels she can trust is Mrs. Lieve van der Meer. Mrs. Vos's visit with Lieve reveals that she has lost her entire family in the bombing of Rotterdam by the Nazi's and that her husband is away doing "war work".  Mrs. Vos is right about Lieve van der Meer who offers to teach Beatrix the Catholic faith on Saturdays and for her to attend mass with them on Sundays. Beatrix must appear to be Catholic if she is to survive the war. And so begins the story of how two shy, kindly brothers who as the result of a brave act,  save the life of a little girl.

The End of the Line is about strangers and how the most unlikely of people can make a difference. McKay tackles the subject of the Holocaust and the occupation of Holland in a gentle but authentic way for younger readers, while still portraying the terror and difficulties the Jewish population faced and the suffering the Dutch people experienced. McKay portrays life in Amsterdam through the latter part of the war. At first Hans and Lars find the Nazi's annoying until they begin to see what happens to the people on who ride on their tram. By the spring of 1943, Mrs. Vos and the Gorter brothers fully comprehend the ruthlessness of the Nazis who had no qualms murdering even children. Hans and Lars decide the best way to protect Beatrix is to hide her in plain sight - on their tram. It is a bold move but one that works. Lars becomes an expert in studying the people who ride the tram and begins to know those who may need help such as the young woman disguised as an old lady. He does what he can to help those who need a chance. The winter of 1944 sees everyone starving as the Nazi's seek to punish the Dutch for refusing to run the trains. McKay describes the hunger and privation Lars and Hans, Beatrix and Mrs. Vos experienced. McKay relates all these experiences in a thoughtful manner that manages to capture the fear and uncertainty without being overly graphic.

The End of the Line is written in third person omniscient which means the readers have the opportunity to understand the story from the perspectives of all the characters. Hans and Lars who are bachelors have no idea how to care for a little girl but their fear of little girls is easily surpassed by their fear of what will happen to Beatrix should the Nazi's find her. The reader experiences Beatrix's terror when she reaches the end of the tram line and is alone with two complete strangers in the cement tram depot with it hanging lights. "She gazed up to bald, dim lights hanging from a vaulted ceiling. Her eyes widened, her lips quivered, she crossed her legs. This was a scary place." When Mrs. Vos is combing Beatrix's hair she notices how thin she is and realizes that she might be starving. She also realizes that despite being on the run, Beatrix's mother has managed to keep her child clean and her clothes neat.  "The child was clean, her hair soft. Even from this distance she could see that the child's clothes were well mended and clean too. Keeping clean on the run, surrounded by war, without a home, must have been very, very hard. 'This child is loved,' she whispered." We are as moved as Mrs. Vos is, fully understanding the tragedy that is unfolding.

This is an excellent short novel for those who are interested in the Holocaust and the experience of Dutch Jews and the Dutch people during the Second World War.  After liberation by the Canadians, McKay reveals what happened to Beatrix, her mother Judith, Lars, Hans, Mrs. Vos, Lieve van de Meer and her husband in the years following the war.  The Afterword explains Hitler's plans for Holland and its people whom he considered to be one hundred percent Aryan (with the exception of the Dutch Jews of course), the different sides in the war and also how total strangers worked together to save many children from the war.

Author Sharon E. McKay was born in Montreal, Quebec and now currently resides in Prince Edward Island. Her novels, Charlie Wilcox and Thunder Over Kandahar are two of her more popular novels. She continues the tradition of excellence in Canadian fiction for young adults and children with this latest novel.

Book Details:
The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay
Toronto: Annick Press     2014
120 pp.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Latitude Zero by Diana Renn

In Latitude Zero, cycling enthusiast-author, Diana Renn combines the competitive world of team cycling with an exciting murder mystery.

Seventeen year old Tessa Taylor and her boyfriend, disgraced cycling star, Jake Collier, are bandit riding (that is riding without registering and raising money) in the charity race Chain Reaction: Fighting Cancer by the Mile. Ten professional cycling teams from all over the United States are entered in the hundred mile race. The professional teams will leave the starting line first, followed by the recreational riders who are raising money for cancer by riding either the one hundred miles or one of the shorter race routes. Jake and Tessa will be doing the thirty mile route. Among the professional teams racing is Ecuador's Team EcuaBar with its rising star, eighteen year old Juan Carlos Macias-Leon, nicknamed el Condor because of the way he attacks hills during races.

Tessa is not really comfortable being a bandit rider in the cancer ride because some of the riders are cancer survivors and to her it somehow seems wrong. However, Jake does not feel this way. His plan is to join the ride after they make their way through conservation land. Tessa had first met Jake while interviewing him for her show KidVision on the GBCN network. Jake and Juan had been rivals on the EcuaBar juniour development team but Juan Carlos had made the pro cycling team. However, Jake had been kicked off Team Cadence-EcuaBar for distributing drugs. With Jake having lost his racing license and his cycling scholarship at Colorado Mesa University, his plan was participate in rides like this to keep his skills sharp so he could reapply for his license and maybe get into another university.

The Team Ecuabar owner is Preston Lane and one of Tessa's school, Shady Pines' alumni. Coached by Tony Mancuso the team has a new sponsor, Cadence Bikes which is owned by Chris Fitch. During the pre-race photograph, Carlos is strangely absent from the starting area. So while Jake has gone to retrieve his racing drinks which he forgot and which Tessa finds strange, she sets out in search of Carlos. She finds Carlos at the edge of the conservation land praying. Carlos asks Tessa to meet with him after the race to talk. He enters his cell number into her phone and they arrange to call at 2pm. Juan Carlos also gives Tessa his gold crucifix which she tries to refuse but eventually accepts and then leaves to join the race. Unfortunately, Jake sees the two of them together and since Carlos is his old rival, he is furious with Tessa and ditches her during the race.

At this point Tessa wants to return to the starting line and sign on as a volunteer because she feels she is doing the wrong thing. But at this point, Tessa isn't ready to drop Jake. On her way through the forest Tessa sees a white and green bike with a J. Macias decal. She assumes this must be Juan Carlos spare bike and that it's been stolen. She texts Juan Carlos telling him his bike is in the woods. No sooner has she done this than Tess has a frightening encounter with a man whom she first thinks is a race official. However he seems intent on finding the bike and asks Tessa where she saw it and not to mention him or the bike to anyone. He forces her to hand over her phone and wipes Juan Carlos's number and the video she took of him walking through the woods from the device.

Tessa meets up with Jake at the point where they will cut into the race and tells him what happened. Jake believes it was probably a bike theft and that she ran into the fence - the man who is going to resell the bike. Tessa wants to call the police but Jake wants none of that. The race starts and instead of waiting for the medium speed recreational riders to pass by, Jake enters the race with the faster riders. This forces Tessa to join and try to keep up with him. Tessa is stunned to see Juan Carlos riding far back of his team with the recreational riders and soon passes him. When Tessa sees a rider in front of her who is riding in memory of a cancer survivor she recalls her friend Kylie's mom who has breast cancer and she decides she needs to leave the race. But when she tries to leave on a sharp turn she crashes and brings down many riders too.

Tessa is taken back to the medical tent and confronted by Gage Weston, former mechanic from Team Ecuabar and one of the race marshals. Tessa is ashamed for being called out on bandit riding but is devastated when she learns that Juan Carlos has been badly injured in the pileup she caused.

There's a great deal of fallout after the race; her parents are furious with her, and Tessa is suffering from extreme guilt because she's certain that Juan Carlos crashed as a result of her actions. News coverage suggests that maybe something was wrong with Carlos bike, but Chris Fitch insists that all Cadence bikes are thoroughly tested.

Tessa ignores the frequent texts Jake keeps sending her but more worrisome are the strange, threatening messages she's now received on her phone from an unknown person - presumably the man she met in the woods. He calls her a liar and warns her against going to the police. This scary situation is compounded by Juan Carlos unexpected death from his injuries, the discovery that their garage has been broken into and Tessa's producer dumping her show. A second set of threatening texts from this person who is called Darwin, admits to breaking into her garage and demands that she meet him with Carlos's bike on Thursday.

A search of the area where the race took place and where Carlos's bike was hidden by Tessa and her friends Kylie and Sarita reveal no clues. Jake comes to Tessa's home late at night to try to make amends. Despite Jake's attempts to reconcile, Tessa wants none of it and breaks up with him. She notices poison ivy blisters on his ankle when he climbs out her window  leading her to wonder if Jake saw Carlos's bike hidden in the forest. When she questions Jake, he denies being involved in stealing Carlos's bike and hiding it but Tessa now considers him a possible suspect. She considers he may have been using her as a cover to steal the bike.

Tessa decides to go to Compass Bikes to speak with Marisol (Mari) Vargas, the woman medic on the Chain Reaction ride to see if she knows anything about Carlos's missing bike. Although she initially goes to the shop on the premise of getting her bike fixed, Tessa learns about the bike drive underway to bring bikes to Quito, Ecuador in honour of Juan Carlos. Mari tells Tessa that she is flying to Ecuador to volunteer with Vuelta to teach bike mechanics to girls and women in Quito. Returning to Compass the next day to help with the bike drive, Tessa discovers from the pictures Gage shows her that Jake never did the race. Further conversations with Mari reveal people believe Carlos's bike was tampered with. Mari tells her that Carlos bike is being stored at Dylan Holcomb's bike school. Mari and Tessa go to the school and while Tessa distracts Dylan by pretending to be a biking student, Mari sneaks into his shop and takes pictures of Carlos's bike. They learn not only is Carlos's missing bike in the shop but also the bike Carlos was riding during race was tampered with. They decide to send this information to a friend of Tessa's who is an investigative reporter.

After the story about Carlos's bike breaks, Jake shows up at Tessa's home. Since his missing glove was found near the EcuaBar bike trailer, he is now a prime suspect in the tampering of the dead racer's bike. Jake confesses to Tessa that he tried to frame Carlos for doping but was caught. He wanted to get rid of Carlos who would have been deported and his career ruined because there wasn't room for two stars on the team. Now Jake wants Tessa to provide him with an alibi that they were never apart during the ride. However, there are too many unknowns about Jake, including why he never made it to mile twenty like he told Tessa. Tessa refuses his request telling him he should just tell everything he's told her to the police.

When her parents catch Jake at their home, they decide that maybe time away from Boston and troublemaker, Jake is in order. They decide to send Tessa to Quito, Ecuador to stay for three weeks with the Ruiz family while volunteering at Vuelta, an advocacy group in Quito that Juan Carlos was involved with. Vuelta works to make the streets safe for bikes and teaches kids how to ride and repair bikes. Before leaving for Ecuador, Tessa tells her parents that Jake is a possible suspect in Juan Carlos's homicide investigation. This leads her father who is an environmental law lawyer to take her to the Cabot Police detachment to tell Detective Lauren Grant what had happened on the morning of the Chain Reaction ride. However,  Tessa doesn't tell them about the threatening text messages from Darwin, about being threatened by Pizarro nor about Juan Carlos's stolen bike or its possible mysterious secret contents. Instead she's hoping that a trip down to Quito will help her trace Carlos bike and learn why it is so important to Darwin. However, Tessa doesn't realize that her investigative efforts will uncover a much bigger operation, one that is illegal and has global repercussions for professional cycling.


Renn has crafted an exciting murder mystery using the world of competitive team cycling as a backdrop for story. Renn who identifies herself as an avid cyclist knows the sport and it comes across in her descriptions of races, bikes and team cycling. That is where this novel shines - she's writing about something she truly loves. There are many twists and turns in the plot but one of the main ones, the location of the missing USB drive, readers will quickly pick up on.

Her protagonist, Tessa Taylor is the host of a children's show, TeenVision. Since she became involved with Jake Collier she's let her friendship with her two best friends, Sarita and Kylie slip away and she now finds herself doing something unethical - bandit riding in a charity race. It is this action that results in Tessa being determined to discover why Juan Carlos crashed and to honour his memory by finding out what has happened to his spare bike and why Darwin and his gang are so keen to get the bike to Ecuador. The main problem with Tessa is believing a seventeen year old girl would have the nerve to confront serious, hard-core criminals, not in her hometown of Boston, but in the drug-ridden, corrupt locales of Ecuador where she would be entirely unfamiliar with her surroundings. Time and again, Tessa doesn't seem to understand the danger she's in or she doesn't care. Despite having the nerve to go into a strange club that's she's been warned about, she doesn't have the courage to get back on a bike after her terrible crash. It's these kinds of inconsistencies that mar this novel. Tessa does have some feminist pluck however, dumping bad boy Jake Collier and refusing to take him back even at the end of the novel when she's inadvertently vindicated him. Perhaps Jake's potential replacement, Santiago Jarmillo is more than enough incentive.

Even the criminals themselves, Darwin for example, seem unrealistic characters, rather pasty and overly benevolent towards a girl who's attempting to ruin their illegal gambling business. Balboa, one of Darwin's agents, whose real name is Bridget Peterson, requires little persuasion to turn against Darwin and help Tessa at the last minute.

Latitude Zero is divided into two parts;latitude forty-two which takes place in Boston, Massachusetts and latitude zero in Ecuador. The first part of the novel is reminiscent of Nancy Drew novels with Tessa taking on the part of Nancy and Kylie and Sarita her Beth and George while the second part sees Tessa as a bold sleuth bent on getting to the truth and finding a missing USB that holds the key to Carlos's bike and his deadly accident.

Readers may find this novel lengthy at 435 pages and that it lags at times as Renn weaves in numerous false leads that Tessa encounters in the second half. Overall though Latitude Zero is an interesting mystery with a satisfying ending that ties up all the loose ends. Tessa Taylor comes through with flying colours with a bit of help from a handsome Latin boy and an agent who turns informer.

Book Details:
Latitude Zero by Diana Renn
New York: Viking      2014
435 pp.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Boy On The Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

"During the next week, some workers, my brother David among them, had to exhume hundreds of bodies from the mass graves where they had been thrown and burn them.
When he returned to the barracks, David was in a state of shock. He struggled to find the words to describe what he had been. He wept as he told us that he literally had to reach down into the graves, lift out and carry the decomposing bodies to the burning pyres. We tried our best to comfort him, but we couldn't make the memory of what he had seen or the stench of death he carried on his clothes and skin go away. David was barely seventeen."

These poignant heartbreaking passages remind us that evil flourished during the Second World War.  But The Boy On The Wooden Box also reminds us that during dark times, goodness can also be present when people decide to confront evil. This short biography tells the story of a young boy's family who was saved by the courage and street smarts of Oskar Schindler.

Leon Leyson, born Leib Lejson in Narewka, a rural village in northeastern Poland enjoyed a good life during the 1930's. He was the youngest of five children, born to his mother Chanah and father, Moshe. His father was determined to provide a good life for his family and so he worked as an apprentice machinist in a bottle factory, eventually moving to Krakow when the owner expanded the business. His father decided he would relocate Leib's family when he had enough money saved. This meant Leib's mother was left to raise four boys, Hershel, Tsalig, David and Lieb and their sister Pesza. His father would often visit and the family would be reunited over dinners. Eventually Lieb's father saved enough money to move the family to Krakow in the spring of 1938. Lieb and his sister and brothers loved the city exploring the historic Old Town, Wawel Castle, St. Mary's Basilica and the parks and department stores.

Leyson writes that Krakow contained 60,000 Jews - a quarter of the city's population in 1938. Like most of his fellow Jews, Leib and his family felt that they were integrated into the city's life, but in retrospect, he now realizes that this was not really true. In October 1938, the situation in Germany is worsening under Hitler. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria  and then occupied the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia in October.  By this time Jews in Germany were becoming more and more marginalized with Hitler now ordering thousands of Polish Jews out of Germany and into Poland. This was followed by Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass on November 9-10 in Germany and Austria. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and life for Leib and his family was forever changed.

First like many other Jews and also non-Jews, Leib's father and his older brother, Hershel fled the Nazi's into the east to avoid conscription. However, Leib's father returned after reconsidering abandoning his family, while Hershel was sent on to their home village of Narewka. In Krakow and throughout Poland, more and more restrictions were placed on Jews, while German soldiers looted Jewish businesses and evicted Jewish families from their apartments. Jewish workers were fired from their jobs, although Leib's father retained his job in the glass factory because he could speak German. One night Leib's father was beaten and taken away to prison. Although he was eventually released he had lost his job at the glass factory.

Eventually he was hired off the books, to work for another glass company. One day Leib's father was asked to crack open a safe in an adjacent enamelware factory by the Nazi owner. That Nazi businessman was Oskar Schindler and he offered Leyson's father a job. Working for Schindler meant no wages earned but a permit that afforded him special protection from being picked up and sent away by to labour camps.

From this point on, Leyson describes his family's attempts to survive the next five years including the "cleansing" of Krakow of its Jewish population in May, 1940, the formation of the Jewish ghetto in Podgorze, the southern area of Krakow which was crammed with over 15,000 Jewish souls, and the transport of Jews from the ghetto to the death camps in the east. During this time, working in Schindler's factory saved all the Leyson family except Tsalig. He was on a transport train with his girlfriend, Miriam, who did not work for Schindler and who therefore could not be saved. Tsalig refused Schindler's offer to get off.

In 1943, the Podgorze ghetto was liquidated and the remaining Jews sent to the Plaszow labour camp. Leib almost never made it as he was repeatedly pulled from the line by soldiers. He eventually slipped onto the transport with his parents, sister Pesza and brother David. The hellish conditions in the labour camp caused Leib to believe he would never leave Plaszow alive. However Leib, his father and mother and brother, David, were moved to a subcamp Schindler had built next to his factory in Krakow while Pesza was moved to another subcamp. Although Leib's name was taken off the list of Jewish transfers, he managed to get the German officer in charge of the transfer to let him rejoin those going to Krakow. It was at this factory that Leib, who was so small, "had to stand on an overturned wooden box to reach the controls of the machine".

With the defeat by the Soviet troops of the German Sixth Army in February, 1943, Leib and his family knew Germany would probably lose the war. It was only a matter of when. Leib and his family just needed to hold on.

Leyson's story is told in a simple, honest way that not only portrays the reality of what life was like for Jews in Europe during the war but also attempts to explain how he was particularly baffled at how his fellow Polish citizens simply accepted the Nazi propaganda spread throughout Poland.
"As the Nazis tightened their grip on Krakow, Jews were barraged with all kinds of insulting caricatures. Demeaning posters appeared in both Polish and German, depicting us as grotesque, filthy creatures, with large crooked noses. Nothing about these pictures made any sense to me....I found myself studying all our noses. None was particularly big. I couldn't understand why the Germans would want to make us look like something we were not."

In fact as Leyson points out later on in his memoir, the Polish Jews often looked just like the much touted Aryans.
"To Nazi eyes, we Jews were a single, detested group, the exact opposite of the blond, blue-eyed, pure 'Aryans'. In reality we were not their opposites at all. Plenty of Jews had blue eyes and blond hair, and many Germans and Austrians, including Adolf Hitler, had dark eyes and hair....It made no sense to me, and I even wondered how Nazis could believe such contradictions themselves. Had they taken the time to really look at us....They would have seen families just like their own: sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, craftsmen, and tailors, individuals from all walks of life."
Leyson also states that most gentiles in Krakow had to have known what was going on in the ghetto but chose to simply ignore the situation. They did nothing.
"As I walked out of the ghetto with its tombstone-crowned walls and along the streets of Krakow, I was dumbfounded to see that life seemed just as it had been before I entered the ghetto...I stared at the clean, well-dressed people, busily moving from place to place...Had they not known what we had been suffering just a few blocks away? How could they not have known? How could they not have done something to help us?...They showed absolutely no interest in who we were, where we were going, or why."
As for Oskar Schindler, Leyson has great respect. He was initially frightened of this man who was a Nazi and who had the power of life and death over him and his family. Yet Leib noticed that Schindler seemed to genuinely care about his Jewish workers, taking the time to learn their names and to help them through small acts of kindness. Years later, Schindler still remembered Leib's name, when the two met in the United States.

Leyson also tackles what life was like after the war. In the displaced persons camp in Wetzlar, Germany Leyson was tutored by a German engineer so he could catch up on his schooling.  Unlike many German's, Dr. Neu listened to Leyson when he told him what happened to him during the war. He did not accept the stock answer most gave that "they did not know."
"After my experiences with Oskar Schindler, I felt I could tell the difference between those Germans who had been true Nazis and those who had retained some humanity, even if they had joined the Nazi Party. I found that the true believers would look down at their shoes or wind their watches when someone mentioned the war. When someone spoke of what the Jews had gone through, their stock response was "We didn't know."

It's hard to accept that the German people and other non-Jews in other countries did not know what was happening; those living near the concentration camps could smell the smoke and knew they were crematoriums, they saw the Jews beaten and arrested, their property confiscated, their children removed from school, their neighbours who disappeared never to return, and many actively participated in the crimes against them. They stole property often after promising to hold it for safekeeping. In a way though, much of the Western world is responsible for what happened in World War II. Antisemitism was rife throughout Western countries for centuries with frequent pogroms against the Jews well into the early 1900s. Leyson himself states that although the Jewish population in Poland thought they were a part of the society, in reality they were not. Hidden beneath the surface of civility was a burning racism that as Leyson relates often showed itself  every Easter, when Jews were pelted with stones or yelled at by Catholics and other Christians. The Nazi's simply capitalized on that racism to secure power and retain it.

Immigrants from Europe brought their antisemitism to Canada and the United States, countries that stood by and did nothing to help the Jewish people when the Germans turned against them. Canada and America were reluctant to issue the visas that would have saved thousands of lives, worse, they did nothing as Hitler and his Nazi government enacted restrictions that gradually subjugated the Jewish population and stripped them of their most basic human rights. The US even turned a boat, the SS. St. Louis filled with Jewish refugees away as did Canada.

Leyson rounds out his memoir with an album of pictures of his family, notably absent are Hershel and Tsalig both of whom did not survive the war. As Leon Leyson passed away in January 2013, before the memoir was printed, there are afterwords written by his daughter and son. Leyson had put his war experiences behind him and lived a full life. But eventually he came to realize the importance of sharing with people, what happened to him and his family. It was the release of the movie, Schindler's List which caused Leyson to rethink his reluctance.

The openness and honesty of this memoir is strengthened by the magnanimous tone of Leyson's writing. He demonstrates a noble and generous attitude of forgiveness throughout the book towards those who did his family great harm. Besides the story of fortitude, perservance and the struggle against evil, it is greatest feature of The Boy On The Wooden Box.

Book Details:
The Boy On The Wooden Box by Leon Leyson with Maryily J. Harran and Elisabeth B. Leyson
Toronto: Atheneum Books for Young Readers      2013
231 pp.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Brave Soldier by Nicolas Bebon

Brave Soldier tells the story of a young Canadian man, Frank, who when he hears that Canada has declared war on Germany, is pushed into enlisting in the army by his older friend, Michael. Michael tells Frank it will be easy and the war will be over by Christmas. Frank enlists because he doesn't want anyone to think he's a coward.

Sent overseas to Britain by October, Frank feels afraid despite the jokes that Michael makes about the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm. During the winter and spring, Frank and his fellow soldiers are sent to training camp.

Eventually they are sent over to France where they march to the front. At the front Frank finds deep trenches filled with mud that face the German's across a broad stretch of barren land known as No Man's Land. Eventually Frank and Michael are told they will be attacking the German's the following morning. Frank wonders about the German soldiers whose trenches are so close he can hear them talking. Don't they have families and homes waiting for them in Germany? After shelling the German lines, Frank and his fellow soldier's climb out of their trenches to attack. But for Frank the war is soon over.

Nicolas Bebon's Brave Soldier is an honest portrayal of the expectations young men in 1914 faced about going to war and the fear many experienced. Bebon writes, "Frank didn't know anything about the war, or about Germans. He enlisted in the army because he didn't want anyone to think he was a coward."  Frank's reaction was typical of many young men confronted with war; they don't want to fight and often they have no idea why they are at war. When the soldiers are on their transport across the Atlantic, his friend Michael jokes about the Kaiser. "Frank had to laugh, but inside he felt a little afraid."

Society's treatment of those who enlist has thankfully changed somewhat since the beginning of the 20th century when men were pressured to enlist and those who did not were ostracized. In Britain, men were given white feathers as a symbol of cowardice if they did not sign up and deserters, many of whom were suffering from post-traumatic stress where executed. Bebon doesn't get into all this detail but he does honestly show that Frank was afraid and not convinced about why he was fighting. He also shows Frank wondering about the men he's fighting against, realizing that they are just like him.

This picture book is for older children who may want to learn about World War I and have an interest in soldiers but who don't want a lot of text. There is a short note titled The First World War at the beginning of the book which explains briefly how the war began, who fought who, and that it effected much of the later events in the 20th century.

Nicolas Debon is an author-illustrator who was born in France and who as a child wandered through forests that were once the battlefields of World War I. Debon's illustrations were done in acrylics on cold-pressed watercolor paper.

Book Details:
A Brave Soldier by Nicolas Debon
Toronto: Groundwood Books    2002
The illustrations were do

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay is the dark and tragic conclusion to The Hunger Games series. The final novel in Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy opens with Katniss visiting her home district, District 12, which was fire-bombed into oblivion. 12 was bombed almost immediately after Katniss was airlifted out of the Quarter Quell arena providing the people in the district almost no time to flee.  Gale managed to save about eight hundred people from 12 by herding them towards the Meadow where there were no wooden structures covered in coal dust to catch fire. Three days later the survivors were evacuated to District 13 where they were assigned clothing and living compartments. Connor a survivor from another district has told Katniss that District 13 needs the survivors after a pox epidemic killed many and left others infertile.

The District 13 authorities, including Plutarch Heveansbee and his assistant, Fulvia Cardew,  were against her returning to 12 but Katniss made it a condition of her cooperation with the authorities in 13. She needed to see for herself the devastation. Only the Victor's Village was left intact and Katniss finds President Snow has left one white rose for her in a vase in her bedroom - a promise of revenge.

The president of 13 is Alma Coin who wants Katniss to be the symbol of the revolution- the Mockingjay. Most of the districts with the exception of District 2 are now in open revolt against the Capitol. Besides Katniss, Johanna Mason, Beetee an older inventor from 3, Finnick Odair from the fishing district were also rescued from the arena, although Finnick is in rough shape due to the high voltage shock he received.  Katniss wonders if becoming the Mockingjay will actually do any good and if she might do more harm by getting more people killed. Her mother and her sister, Prim, and Gale's family are all safe now.

The people in District 13 live entirely below ground in a huge complex that was originally designed to be some kind of refugee for government leaders during wartime. 13 survived because the rebels were able to gain control of the nuclear arsenal stored there and to use it as a bargaining chip to have the Capitol retreat and leave them alone.

Shortly her visit to 12, Katniss and Gale are called to Command and watch a broadcast from the Capitol featuring Peeta being interviewed by Caesar Flickerman. Peeta looks unharmed and indicates that he had no knowledge of the plan to rescue Katniss and that Katniss herself had no prior knowledge of the rebels plans. Shockingly, Peeta calls for a cease-fire.  Not understanding why Peeta would call for a cease-fire, Katniss makes the decision that she will be Coin's Mockingjay, but with conditions.

Those conditions include amnesty for Peeta, Johanna Mason and Enobaria, that she and Gale be allowed to hunt outside the complex and that she be allowed to kill President Snow. Once she decides to be the Mockingjay, Plutarch shows Katniss the special uniform Cinna designed for her and she is assigned to making propaganda films (referred to as propos in the novel).  Beetee also designs special arrows for Katniss.

Katniss films a few propos but Haymitch suddenly appears and tells them that this will never work. With Coin, Plutarch, Fulvia, Finnick, Gale, Beetee and others gathered around Haymitch asks them when Katniss has genuinely moved them. He suggests that Katniss be put out in the field, into combat zones. Coin arranges for Katniss to travel to District 8 to a makeshift hospital with a camera crew. On the way to 8 Plutarch tells Katniss more about the rebellion and that the rebels plan to organize a republic where "the people of each district and the Capitol can elect their own representatives to be their voice in a centralized government." He also tells her that rebels plans are to take over the districts one by one, with District 2 being the last to be secured. This will deprive the Capitol of supplies and weaken it enough that it can be invaded.

When Katniss arrives in District 8 she is taken to a makeshift hospital where she is appalled to see all the wounded. However, the people are buoyed by her presence. Her visit turns deadly however, when the district is bombed and the hospital is completely destroyed. While under attack, Katniss and Gale break free of their security and help shoot down several of the Capitol's bombers although both suffer wounds. The footage of Katniss is sent through all the districts but not the Capitol.

While recovering, Katniss and Finnick see another Capitol broadcast of Peeta being interviewed by Caesar Flickerman. This time it's obvious Peeta has been tortured; he's lost weight, is in obvious pain and his hands are shaking. Again he beseeches Katniss not to allow herself to be turned into a weapon by District 13 and asks her " you really trust the people you're working with? Do you really know what's going on? And if you don't...find out."  Finnick warns Katniss not to let on that they saw Peeta. When Gale doesn't mention Peeta's appearance, Katniss begins to wonder how Peeta could know anything more than what the Capitol tells him.

Beetee finally manages to break into the Capitol's broadcasts and they interrupt President Snow's broadcast which also shows a more distraught Peeta. Despite his condition, Peeta tells District 13 they will be dead by morning - an indirect warning that they are about to be bombed. Haymitch understands and along with Katniss they inform Coin who orders everyone evacuated to the lowest levels of the bunkers. Katniss begins to realize that Snow is using Peeta not to extract information he doesn't have but to weaken Katniss and break her emotionally.

After the bombing, they learn that the first ten levels have been totally destroyed but Coin wants them to produce some propos to show that the district is fine and the Mockingjay has survived. Katniss finds it difficult to make the film because she knows everything she says will be taken out on Peeta. After she breaks down and awakes, Haymitch tells her that a team of seven people are going into the Capitol to retrieve Peeta. That team includes Gale who successfully bring back Johanna Mason, Annie who is Finnick's love and Peeta. But when Katniss attempts to embrace him, Peeta brutally attacks her, attempting to strangle her.

When she awakes, Katniss learns that Peeta has been subjected to a torture called "hijacking" which is a kind of fear conditioning that uses tracker jacker venom. Peeta's memories of Katniss have been altered and saved so that he sees her as life-threatening. Katniss is sickened by the fact that someone could make Peeta forget that he loves her.

Meanwhile Gale and Beetee are working on adapting Gale's traps so they can be used against humans in the assault on the Capitol. They try working on Peeta but all attempts to help him seem to not work - he is angry and hateful towards any mention of Katniss. Katniss believes her sister is wrong, that Peeta is irretrievable and she decides she wants to go to the Capitol with one mission - to kill Snow and end the war. However, Plutarch tells Katniss that they must secure all the districts and District 2 is the only one remaining. He agrees to send her to 2 with a team to help the rebels crack the Capitol's military base in a mountain nicknamed "the Nut". Katniss leaves believing Peeta is lost to her and her only remaining choice is to die killing Snow.

Mockingjay starts out slowly, in fact, almost tedious in its opening 80 pages or so, until the first serious action when Katniss and her team are on the ground in District 8. However, although the reader might know generally how this is all going to end, it's the twists Collins incorporated into her story that make it exciting.

Mockingjay is first and foremost a tragedy; there is no true happily ever after because after all this is a dystopia and Collins stays true to the genre. Katniss volunteered to be a tribute for the Hunger Games to save her sister Prim. But after all she's endured and despite her best efforts, in the end, she does not save Prim.

What Collins manages to portray so poignantly is the effects war has on individuals and societies.  Katniss is broken after the Quarter Quell, but the loss of Peeta is compounded again and again by repeated exposure to war, physical injuries and emotional trauma. The hijacking of Peeta and the death of Prim devastates Katniss to the point where she can no longer speak. When the Capitol is crushed and she is called to a meeting, Katniss wonders "I can't believe how normal they've made me look on the outside when inwardly I'm such a wasteland." 

War leaves Gale filled with anger and so changed that he and Katniss have no future together. Haymitch has always been a symbol of the effects of war throughout all three novels; he's an alcoholic who has been forced to mentor tributes for the past twenty-three years, resulting in him reliving the Hunger Games over and over.

Collins also explores the theme of ethics in war when the rebels are debating how best to crack "the Nut", the impenetrable military mountain fortress in District 2.  Gale suggests there are two ways to disable the Nut; to trap people inside or flush them out. Gale wants to set off rock avalanches to block the entrances, trapping the soldiers inside along with most of the Capitol's airforce. Boggs indicates that this risks killing everyone in the mountain but Gale makes it clear he has no intention of saving anyone. He wants to seal not only the entrances but the train tunnel to the square in District 2. The planning group argues about the morality of killing everyone. Some want to offer the workers a chance to surrender, others like Gale suggest that they will never be able to trust them again. Katniss however, frames the situation in terms that Gale can relate to - a coal mining accident. Katniss realizes that while Gale used to talk like this back in 12 he is now in a position to act on his words. She argues that the people in the Nut may not have had a choice to be there and that their own people, who are spies are also in the mountain. It may very well be that this exchange is what ultimately breaks Gale and Katniss apart. The war has hardened Gale, but in Katniss she learned to find mercy and to make peace. This is seen later on when she confronts the man from the Nut in the square and tries to talk him and the rebels out of killing one another.

The biggest twist in the novel comes during Katniss's unexpected meeting with President Snow in the palace. He expresses sorrow over the death of Prim and indicates that he did not order the parachutes, but that Coin did so. He also reveals that Coin's plan from the beginning was to "...let the Capitol and districts destroy one another, and then step in to take power with Thirteen barely scratched. Make no mistake, she was intending to take my place right from the beginning...After all, it was Thirteen that started the rebellion that led to the Dark Days, and then abandoned the rest of the districts when the tide turned against it. But I wasn't watching Coin. I was watching you...." When Katniss doubts him, Snow responds, "Oh, my dear Miss Everdeen. I thought we had agreed not to lie to each other."   This leads Katniss to consider who is the real enemy of the people.

Despite this, Collins ends her trilogy on a somewhat hopeful note. Katniss and Peeta have made a life together. Peeta has given her "The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again."

It is likely that the Hunger Games trilogy will become a classic in young adult literature and rightly so. Although filled with violence and controversy especially since it involves children who are forced to kill one another, these novels have much to say about the ethics of war, the effect of war on individuals and society and the theme of betrayal.

Book Details:
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
New York: Scholastic Press     2010
398 pp.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

One More Border: The True Story of One Family's Escape From War-Torn Europe by William Kaplan

One More Border tells the story of a Jewish family who undertake a journey across three-quarters of the world to escape to freedom and safety.

Igor and Nomi Kaplan had to flee Memel which was part of East Prussia with their parents, Bernard and Nadja in the spring of 1939.  They had to leave because the Nazi's had taken over this area and being Jewish meant their lives were in danger. They left everything behind, their favourite books and toys and their wonderful turreted home. The Kaplans first traveled to Kaunas, the capital of Lithuania where Igor and Nomi attended school. However, things began to worsen when Germany invaded Poland and Lithuania was occupied by Russian troops who also did not like Jews. The Kaplans decided to undertake the long journey through Lithuania and across Russia to Japan where they would sail for Canada to live with their grandparents.

The Kaplans required visas that would allow them to leave Lithuania to travel through Russian and then to leave Russia and enter Japan. The Japanese consul, Sugihara had been giving exit visas to Jews so they could leave Russia and enter Japan. However, when the Kaplans arrived at the Japanese consulate they found many people waiting, but in a stroke of luck, they also unexpectedly met with Sugihara who was leaving with his family in their car. Sugihara stamped the Kaplan's visa for Nomi, Igor and Bernard. However, Nadja was Russian which meant that she required a separate visa to leave Lithuania. Nadja was unsuccessful in her attempts to get a visa until the last moment when the Kaplan family was on the train!

This was only the beginning of a complicated journey that took them through the desolate Siberian countryside and onto Kobe, Japan. Unlike many Jewish refugees who tried to escape through Europe, the Kaplan's traveled through Europe's back door, across Asia to get to Canada. William Kaplan, whose father is Igor Kaplan tells in detail his father's journey to eventual freedom and safety in Canada. It's a fascinating story of a family whose escape from Hitler's "final solution" was a combination of luck and good timing. They likely owe their lives to Mr. Sugihara, who was eventually named a Righteous Gentile in 1985. Despite being allies of Germany in the Second World War, Japan did not share the Nazi's anti-Jewish views.  Until the middle of 1941, the Japanese were willing to accept refugees on their way to America, Australia and Canada. According to Kaplan, Chiune "Sugihara wrote out as many as three hundred visas a day." Based on his Samurai upbringing, Sugihara believed that he should help people in need. If not for their encounter with Sugihara outside the consulate, the Kaplan's may not have been able to leave Lithuania. Unlike many Jews who were refused entry to Canada and other countries, despite the escalating violence against Jews in Germany it's occupied countries, the Kaplans had relatives in Canada which facilitated their immigration.

One More Border is part picture book, with lovely illustrations by artist Stephen Taylor and part history book with plenty of photographs of the various cities and countries the Kaplan's passed through in 1940, their home and their visas. One More Border contains maps showing the extent of the Kaplan's journey three-quarters of the way around the world. The Epilogue tells what happened to the Kaplans once they arrived in Canada.

Overall this is an well written book that will appeal visually to young readers and provides lots of information to older readers about this historical period.

Book Details:
One More Border: the true story of one family's escape from war-torn Europe by William Kaplan
Toronto: Groundwood Books    1998
61 pp.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland

The Magician of Auschwitz tells the story of  young Werner Reich who met a remarkable man while imprisoned by the Nazi's at Auschwitz. Werner was taken to a concentration camp called Terezin and then onto Auschwitz were he met  Herr Levin. Werner shared a bunk with Levin and struggled to survive the exhausting work on little food and sleep. One night the barracks was roused by the guards shouting at Levin to wake up. Once awake, they demanded he perform magic tricks for them. Levin spent hours that first night performing card tricks for the camp guards. Werner thought these tricks were wonderful and told Herr Levin that perhaps this would mean he would receive extra food. But Levin told Werner that the magic was likely the only thing preventing him from being shipped out to be killed. He would spend hours many nights entertaining the guards. 

One night weeks later, Werner, who was always hungry, hid a piece bread while he slept only to awake the next morning to discover it had been stolen from him. He was very very upset and was on the verge of giving up. But Herr Levin told him that he should not be too hard on the person who stole the break, telling him that this person was just trying to survive like everyone else.To ease his mind Herr Levin showed him one of his tricks and then taught Werner that trick. Herr Levin showed Werner that someone cared about him and that gave him hope. After surviving the concentration camp, Werner never lost his love of magic and did perform tricks.

After telling the magician's story through Werner Reich's eyes, there is a section titled How It Happened that tells who Herr Levin was and what happened to both him and Werner after the war. Herbert Levin was a famous magician who performed in Berlin. His stage name was Nivelli. Nivelli along with his wife and son were sent to Auschwitz where they eventually perished. Nivelli survived the camp and rebuilt his life as a magician, moving to the United States and eventually remarrying. There are plenty of photographs of Nivelli and also Werner Reich both as a young boy, with his sister Renate who also survived and as an older man. 

Where It Happened tells about Hitler coming to power in 1933 and how this led to the Jewish Holocaust and World War II.

The picture book portion is beautifully illustrated with Gillian Newland's watercolour paintings. Based in Toronto, Newland's artwork effectively captures some of the darkness of Auschwitz with the dark pallette of greys, whites, browns and blacks. At the same time she shows the humanity of the people in the camp.

Kacer was introduced to the story of Nivelli the Magician by Jon Freund who also helped her contact Werner Reich.

Below is an interview with Werner Reich who recalls his time in Auschwitz and discusses Nivelli the Magician.

Book Details:
The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland
Toronto: Second Story Press 2014

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Secret Sky. A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan by Atia Abawi

The Secret Sky is a story about forbidden love in an country where a family's honour is based on the sexual purity of its women. To break that code even in the most minor of ways,  is to bring unending shame upon the family who can only restore its honour through blood - the blood of the woman who caused the dishonour. The author, Atia Abawi was an unborn baby when she left Afghanistan as her parents and older sibling fled the Soviet occupation. Although her parents often spoke of returning to their beloved homeland, the rise of the Taliban and the subsequent war with America made such a return impossible. Atia however did travel to Afghanistan in 2008 where she lived for five years as a foreign correspondent. Abawi writes "In the more than four years I lived in Afghanistan, I experienced life in the most spectacular ways -- and death in the most horrific. I learned quickly that Afghanistan is a land of contradictions. It hold unimaginable beauty and inconceivable ugliness." Abawi states that she has tried to illustrate real-life experiences as accurately as possible in the hopes that her readers "will get a small glimpse into a beautiful and tragic world unseen by many." Her novel, although fiction, is influenced by real events and real people. Which makes it all the more tragic and touching.

The title of this tragic novel is a reference to a line from one of the great Persian poet, Jalal ad-Din Rumi's poems which Abawi features opposite her Introduction. This is love: To fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.

The novel is divided into three parts. Part One is narrated by Fatima who lives with her father, Mohammad, her mother Mossuma, her three year old sister, Afifa and her younger brothers in a small village. Her older brother, Ali, was sent to work in Iran but was killed on the journey there. Fatima is on the cusp of womanhood, still a child but her body is changing into that of a young woman. As a result there are certain cultural restrictions on where she goes and who she is seen with. The girls her age are no longer allowed to leave their homes. Fatima remembers a time when all the children, both Pashtun and Hazara, played together.  Zohra tells Fatima that she's learned that Fatima's close childhood friend, Samiullah, who is a Pashtun, has returned home from the madrassa. No sooner than they have finished pulling water from the well, the two girls meet Samiullah on their way home. His piercing green eyes seem warm  and comforting to Fatima who cannot help but notice how tall and handsome he has grown in the past three years.

Fatima often goes to see her best friend, Zohra, whose grandmother is teaching her how to write and read. Her grandmother and her mother before her were educated in a time when Afghanistan was becoming a modern state. The following morning on her way to Zohra's home, Fatima encounters Samiullah in the woods. Although she knows she shouldn't be alone with him, Fatima agrees to meet him the next day. At Zohra's the two girls talk about marriage and Fatima mentions to her friend that she wants something more than marriage, telling her about the university in Kabul where women attend. Zohra tells a shocked Fatima that her parents are considering marrying her to a wealthy boy in another village.

The next day Fatima lies to her mother and meets Samiullah in the woods. They play hide and seek and sit near the stream talking. When Samiullah hears motorcycles the couple hide quietly behind a rock. At home Fatima overhears her madar begin to push her father to consider arranging a marriage for their eldest daughter, a prospect that upsets Fatima. Fatima and Samiullah meet again but the lies and the risk she is taking begin to worry Fatima. "...what worries me more is that it will ruin my family's name and honor to have their eldest daughter running around the village unsupervised. Not just unsupervised -- alone with a boy....I can't do this. It's far too risky." However, she does meet Samiullah and they spend some time together talking about Sami's time at the madrassa. Their meeting abruptly ends when their hear branches crackling.

Part Two is narrated by Rashid who is filled with anger and hate, yet who believes he is doing the work of God. Rashid is Samiullah's cousin - his father's younger sister Gul Bibi is Sami and his younger sister Nur's mother. Rashid's father along with the rest of his family was murdered and Gul Bibi took him into their family. Both Rashid and Sami were sent to the madrassa, like their father's before them to learn more about Islam and the Holy Quran. But while Samiullah hated it, Rashid seemed to have found his calling.

It is Rashid who has seen Samiullah and Fatima together in the woods, an act he considers sinful and blasphemous. He is determined to punish both but decides to wait. It is obvious that Rashid is poisoned by a hatred of his cousin. "...I see my uncle and my cousin the infidel lagging behind him. Sinner! He's so smug, trying to act sweet as he picks up the little kids, who are giggling like goats.....He lies to everyone and acts as though he is a man of virtue...."

Rashid has been sent by the instructors from the madrassa to help Mullah Latif and his men, who are considered thugs by the local villagers. They are known to extort food from the nearby villagers in return for protection. His time at the madrassa has taught him to look down on the people of his village who he considers as lacking in "any concept of good and bad, God and the devil." Rashid knows his uncle, Samiullah's father hates Mullah Latif, considering  him a thief.

The next morning Rashid accompanies Sami into town to open the family store. Many of the stores are now closed and Sami tells Rashid that this is because of the Taliban. This angers Rashid who begins to question Samiullah about Fatima's family suggesting that because they are Hazara they are cheats. Samiullah outright rejects Rashid's assertions saying they must not judge people based on the actions of their ancestors. Learning that Rashid is teaching the Quran to younger students. Sami encourages Rashid to teach the true Quran to the children. This enrages Rashid who openly accuses Samiullah of running "around with that peasant whore in the woods" - a reference to Fatima. Horrified at what Rashid has said and his hateful attitude towards Fatima and her family, Samiullah prays to God asking him to protect Fatima, guide him and protect Rashid from his own hatred.

Desperately in need of guidance, Samiullah decides to visit Mullah Sarwar in a nearby village to seek advice. Mullah Sarwar helped Sami make the decision to return home from the madrassa.  Sarwar tells Samiullah that God has bestowed a great gift, that of love, upon him but that marrying Fatima will mean overcoming many obstacles.

When Samiullah returns to his home he finds Fatima's father, Mohammad, Zohra's father, Karim, and Rashid with his father, Ismail. Rashid accuses him in front of the other men of "disrespecting" Mohammad's family, Mohammad's daughter and his own family. After Rashid leaves, Sami attempts unsuccessfully to explain to Karim and his father about his relationship with Fatima. Sami asks Mohammad for permission to marry his daughter, but both men refuse. Ismail tells Samiullah that he will not sanction such a marriage as Fatima is a farmer and as such beneath marrying him.

Part Three picks up Fatima's narrative but also now includes narratives by both Rashid and Samiullah as the crisis within their families reaches a climax. It begins with Fatima being sent home from Zohra's home by Karim who then angrily confronts Zohra asking her if she knew what was going on between Sami and Fatima.

After two days of being ignored, Fatima's father tells her that Samiullah has requested her in marriage. He tells Fatima that she cannot marry him and her mother tells her she is whore, slapping her and reminding Fatima that she is lucky they are not going to kill her. He announces that she will marry her friend Zorha's father, Karim and be his second wife. Fatima is horrified and distraught begging her father to reconsider Samiullah's proposal. The next day Fatima is attacked by her mother who drags her to the kitchen by her hair, kicks her in the stomach and then pours boiling water over her arms. She tells Fatima she is a whore who has disgraced their family and warns her that if she tells her father she will burn her face.

Fatima receives Sami's letter and does go to the well to get water, although she is in agony. Sami meets her and discovers her terrible injuries. He tells her that this is further proof that they must flee to Kabul because the people who support this sort of thing will not stop until they are both dead.
"There are people more dangerous than your mother who will want to punish us. Those are the ones I am afraid of. You are in the most danger."

That night Fatima comes to the decision that she must leave her home and her village. She knows her father will never look at her again, her mother will not forgive her and will likely turn all her siblings against her. Feeling responsible for what has happened she decides to meet Samiullah and together they flee to Mullah Sarwar's masjid. Can they possibly escape the terror that now hunts them, seeking their death to restore honour to their families and their village?


The Secret Sky is not a novel for the faint at heart; there is murder, beatings and torture as well as references to the sexual abuse of young boys. It's not overly graphic but, if as Abawi states that she has based her novel on real people and real events, it makes the story all the more tragic. It is a brilliant effort that paints a realistic picture of a culture caught in the throes of a radical shift in thinking complicated by cultural practices around honour and old prejudices between two ethnic groups Hazara and Pashtun. The Hazara are an ethnic group in the central highland region of Hazarajat in Afghanistan. They have been persecuted by the Pashtun who feel they should be labourers and servants.

The Secret Sky outlines in a general way how the Taliban came to gradually overrun Afghanistan. Young people were sent into Pakistan to the madrassas to learn about Islam but in fact were indoctrinated into a radical form of the religion which encouraged people to fight against foreigners and to help create an Islamic state based on strict Islamic laws. According to such laws, men and women who are unrelated cannot be together. Such contact, even though not physical is considered to sully a woman's reputation. These young people returned to their villages bringing with them this radical form of Islam which was then gradually forced onto the local rural villages. It was compounded by cultural practices surrounded a distorted view of family honour which holds that women can be tainted by even the slightest contact with an unrelated male. Whereas before families may have handled these problems and perhaps married off the couple, the radical Islamic teaching now insisted that they were to be punished with death. Also many of these young men returning from the madrassa's in Pakistan set up a sort of Afghan mafia and went around demanding protection money from farmers, villagers and store keepers.

It is difficult to comprehend Mossuma's attitude towards her daughter when she finds out she has been seen with Samiullah because the concept of family honour is so alien to Western culture. Neither family questions either Fatima nor Samiullah as to what exactly happened in the woods and it is assumed that the couple met to have sex. Mossuma has a very mercenary view of her children, seeing them as a means to gain either wealth or status. She sent Ali to Iran to earn money for her against the wishes of her husband. She then tries to marry off Fatima when she hears of Zohra's impending engagement, in the hopes of making a match with a wealthy family, but Mohammad will have none of it. So when Mossuma learns of Fatima's "indiscretion" she knows she has lost another opportunity to gain status. Fatima recognizes this. "Her children aren't people to her. We are her accessories, like a new payron or bangle. She wanted me to marry the boy in the other village because it would have made her look good, not because she was looking out for my welfare. She sent Ali to Iran to make money for her, not so he could build a better life for himself."

Not only does Abawi have a powerful storyline, she creates strong, realistic characters. Fatima is a sweet innocent girl who is not ready yet to leave the carefree ways of childhood behind. She dislikes the changes in her body because they signal her transformation to womanhood and a different code of behaviour that will see her leave behind her best friend and playmate, Samiullah, forever. Despite knowing this code and the repercussions if she disobeys it, Fatima decides to take a risk for the sake of friendship. It is a risk that will cost her and her family dearly.

Samiullah is an honourable young man who unthinkingly puts Fatima at risk of being stoned. His love for her sees him take every risk to protect her and get her to safety.

Fatima's father, Mohammad is a kind, hard-working man who protects his children but still places importance in the distorted idea of honour to some degree. When Mossuma wants to marry off Fatima, Mohammad outright rejects her suggestion saying, " I said enough! No more! I'm not marrying my daughter off to strangers. How do we know how these people will treat her?...I can't trade her to someone in another village for a little bit of money; just because it is in our culture doesn't make it okay...She isn't a sack of wheat. I can't just sell her for a few Afghanis and breathe easily for the rest of my life..."  Mossuma's argument that the boy is from a wealthy Hazara family does nothing to appease Mohammad who tells her there are no innocent groups in Afghanistan, that many including himself have been involved in the killing of innocent women and children. Mohammad defends Fatima even when he learns of her "indiscretion", telling Mossuma he will not beat his daughter. However, bound by his culture, he does agree to marry her off as a second wife.

Mullah Sarwar and Rashid represent two different versions of Islam that are competing for the minds and hearts of people in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Mullah Sarwar, is a gentle, intelligent and courageous mullah who is careful to not to judge and seeks to discern. He tells Sami and Fatima,  "Don't listen to what people may have told you growing up...Our culture and tradition is not our religion. As a Muslim woman, you have the right not to be forced into marriage...." He helps Sami and Fatima, first marrying them and then hiding them.

Rashid is the strongest character in the novel and this is reflected in his narratives which reflect his pride and anger. When Rashid returns to his village from the madrassa he looks down on the people as being ignorant in many ways. Filled with pride, he describes himself as "I was the best; I still am." He is insulted that his uncle's family, who took him in after the murder of his family, hasn't  slaughtered a goat upon his return.  After he sees Samiullah with Fatima he views himself as the person to ensure that he is punished. He refers to Sami repeatedly throughout the story in derogatory terms such as "my cousin the infidel", "He's a pathetic fool and a dropout. A failure!"  and a "little ant".  His bitterness and anger at the murder of his family continue to haunt him and it is Mullah Sarwar who recognizes this telling Rashid that his family has given him enough love to survive but that if he takes that love out of his heart, he may "fall into a dangerous insanity that you may not be able to come out of."  Rashid is driven by the need to show his family that he is the "good one" but Mullah Sarwar tells him that he will only succeed in creating yet another tragic story. He tells Rashid that his rage is not because of Sami and Fatima but something he is holding inside himself and that he must fix before he causes even more harm. Eventually, Rashid overwhelmed by the deaths he has already causes, comes to realize the truth of what the Mullah has told him and by the end of the novel he redeems himself by an act of sacrificial love.

Overall, The Secret Sky is a remarkable novel which touches on cultural expectations regarding women in Islamic countries, honour killings, forgiveness, sacrifice and love. The Secret Sky is a love story set amid the turbulent struggle against radical Islam in Afghanistan. It is tragic, unsettling but hopeful.

Book Details:
The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi
New York: Philomel Books      2014
290 pp.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

If You're Reading This by Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy was an English teacher in Riverside, Iowa before his Iowa National Guard unit was sent to Afghanistan in 2004. He had joined the National Guard like many other Americans, to help pay for his college education. The call to war was both unexpected and frightening. While on deployment, his wife, Amanda, sent him a copy of Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabitha. This book helped Trent Reedy recover some of the hope that he would survive his term of active duty. Reedy corresponded with Paterson who encouraged him to follow his dream of becoming a writer and who helped him gain entrance to Vermont College of Fine Arts' writing program. 

 If You're Reading This is Reedy's fourth novel, which focuses on a young teen who begins receiving his dead father's letters written to him seven years earlier while he served in Afghanistan. His father, worried he might not survive his time in Afghanistan wrote letters so his son would have something to remember him. These letters motivate the young man to change his life and help him come to terms with his father's death years earlier and in doing so to help his family heal.

For fifteen-year-old Mike Wilson grade ten is starting out similar to the past seven years - without his father. His father Mark, died seven years ago on August 28, 2005 in Afghanistan, leaving behind Mike, his younger sister, Mary and his mom, Allison, who has never recovered from the loss of her husband. Mike is a good student who has left behind his football playing days to focus on academics. But now that he's in his sophomore year he's been thinking of returning to playing. At lunch one day, Coach Carter, also Mike's history teacher, tells him time is running out, that he's missed the first set of practices and that he needs to join before the first game on Friday.

Mike works on Derek Harris's farm, helping him with various chores. Mike tells Derek that he really wants to play football but that his mother won't allow him to. Ever since his father's death, him mother has been overly protective. She works constantly, struggling to provide for Mike and Mary, and has given up on her dream of becoming a nurse.

Mike arrives home to thirteen year old  Mary telling him that a letter has arrived in mail for him. When Mike opens the letter he is astonished to discover that it is a letter from his father written when he first arrived in Afghanistan and to be sent to Michael only if he was killed in action and prior to his sixteenth birthday. The letter dated May 29, 2004 tells Mike about what his father did in the Army National Guard where he is a combat engineer, trained in battle tactics with the M16 and other weapons.  He writes that his buddy, Marcelo Ortiz has promised to deliver the letters to Mike. The first letter tells Mike a little about his father's teen years, partying at Nature Spot and giving him advice on high school. He gives Mike his first mission, to go for whatever it is he's been wanting to do. Mike sees this as his father telling him to go for the spot on the football team, so he fakes his mother's signature and hands in the form to Coach. Although his father's first letter mentions that his buddy Ortiz would send the letters, Mike discovers that Ortiz died the same day as his father meaning that someone else has taken on this task.

What follows is a series of five more letters dated from June 12, 2004 until Mike's birthday on September 22, 2004. Each letter reveals to Mike more about his father, who he was, how he met his mother and what he believes in. In each letter Mike's father sets out a mission for him to accomplish including doing something nice for his mother or sister, taking a chance on a girl he might like and working on getting a good mark in a school assignment.  His father also introduces him to the "cowboy way"  telling Mike,  "Out her in the middle of nowhere, we've had to figure out how to handle things on our own, like cowboys on the range. We might not always be completely sure how to solve a problem or carry out a mission, but we do it anyway. It's the Cowboy Way." 

Besides joining the football team, his father's letters lead Mike to gradually figure out how to handle a bullying teammate, Nick Rhodes, who continues to confront Mike because he is chosen to replace him on the team. The letters also encourage hime to take a chance on a relationship even though it might mean getting hurt. In Mike's case it is Isma Rafee, whose parents are from Iran and whose father teaches mathematics at the University of Iowa. He also tries to be patient with his overwhelmed mother who works at a nursing home and seems to be coping poorly with what happened seven years ago.

His father's letters create a sense of conflict in Mike and open more questions about his father. He feels he never really knew his father and it bothers him that he never knew how he died. Because the letters have revealed new things about his father, Mike is determined to find the mystery sender hoping this person will be able to fill in more of the gaps.Repeated online searches of those whom his father mentions in his letters turn up little information. Even a call to his father's old engineer company armory reveals few leads except that the mysterious sender of the letters wants to remain anonymous and is simply following the wishes of Mike's father. Sergeant Andrews who speaks with Mike tells him, "Everyone who knows what you want to know promised your father that we'd let you get through all his messages first, and we promised to let the man sending the letters do this his own way. In the Army, we keep promises..."

The last letter arrives as part of a huge package that contains four video clips. These video clips reveal some startling revelations including the final minutes on the base before his last mission and the identity of the mystery mailer. By the time Mike has watched all the videos his life is in chaos; he's been forced to quit the football team, his relationship with Isma has collapsed and he's being bullied by Nick Rhodes. When he talks to the mystery mailer, someone close to him, Mike learns how his father died. This leads Mike to the realization that he needs to confront his mother  and get her to talk about what happened to his father. He decides to use the Cowboy Way to help his family towards healing and forgiveness.

If You're Reading This definitely showcases the strengths of Trent Reedy- his understanding of the life of a soldier, the struggles families of soldiers deployed overseas encounter and the sense of loss and the difficulty in coming to terms with the death of a soldier. Authors successfully write about those things they know well and this comes across in Reedy's novel with respect to army life.

Reedy uses the vehicle of the letters from Mark Wilson to his son Mike, to portray life for the American soldiers in Afghanistan during the "war on terror" and as the means to establish a relationship between father and son. With regard to the latter, occasionally, Mark's letters lacked authenticity and bordered on mundane. In one letter he writes, "Anyway that brings me to the first thing I guess I wanted to tell you. Always have a book going. Always take it with you. That way, if you get stuck someplace...." In another he tells his son about a first date with too much description that makes it seem awkward. The letters also seemed coincidentally to synchronize almost perfectly with what was going on in Mike's life when he read them. Yet for the most part the letters felt very realistic for example when his father tells him about fighting honourably, about respecting women,  taking care of his mother and sister or when he encourages Mike to work hard in school.

Reedy has created in Mike a character with depth and honesty that feels genuine. He's already a fairly responsible teenager in contrast to his younger sister, Mary. While Mike cleans the house and has a part time job, Mary is more concerned with clothing, being with her friends and trying to blackmail her brother for money. Yet for all his good qualities, Mike undergoes considerable growth throughout the novel as he learns about his father, deals with new situations at school and a girlfriend.

At first Mike is struggling under the smothering blanket of his mother's over-protectiveness - which resulted in Mike leaving the one sport he really loves and is good at, football.  Desperate to be a part of school and to focus on something other than academics, Mike lies to his mom about what he's doing and to forge her signature on the permission form. But by the end of the novel he begins to recognize that in doing so he lacks the very integrity his father has encouraged him to have and one of the values Coach Carter has been working on with the team. He mans up, telling his mother who is furious at his lies. Nevertheless he maturely faces the consequences which involve more than just his mother's wrath, but also rejection from his teammates who don't know his reason for quitting. Overall Mike matures remarkably through the novel, helping his family work towards healing and also gradually learning that he has to defend the girl he likes, Isma, if he wants to continue his relationship with her.

Young male readers will love the exciting descriptions of the football practices and the games.Reedy manages to capture the tension during the games as well as the rivalry and camaraderie of the young players as they work towards creating a cohesive team. The dialogue between the teenage boys feels realistic, although maybe a bit sanitized, which is quite acceptable! Some readers may find that  novels moves a bit slowly in parts, but the author weaves the letters from Mike's father in often enough to keep interest high. Well written with an appealing cover.

Book Details:
If You're Reading This by Trent Reedy
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of SCholasticInc.    2014
296 pp.