Sunday, August 31, 2014

Wildflower by Alecia Whitaker

Wildflower is a fun, refreshingly clean novel about a sixteen year old girl navigating the world of country music and on the threshold of stardom.

Sixteen year old Bird Barrett is part of a family of musicians, the Barrett Family Band who play bluegrass and tour around the southern United States. Besides her mom and dad, Bird shares the family Winnebago with her two older brothers. Her dad sings and plays banjo, her mom the mandolin, nineteen year old Dylan plays guitar and seventeen year old Jacob is on bass while Bird plays violin. Bird has a big crush on nineteen year old Adam Dean, a close friend of Jacob and another young musician who plays the circuit. Bird considers Adam to be a talented musician and every time their paths cross, she excited to catch up with him again but she's not sure if he feels the same about her.

Bird's family ventured into music after the death of her brother Caleb from a drowning accident. If not for his death they likely would still be living in their two-storey home in Jackson, their father working as a real estate agent. But music saved Bird's family; it was suggested by their pastor that they take up a hobby, something they could do together as a family. So her father returned to playing the banjo, purchased some gently used instruments from a music story and the Barret Family Band was born. Dylan played steel-stringed acoustic guitar, Jacob took up the bass, and Bird's other played the mandolin. Bird chose the fiddle. After Bird won a fiddling competition and Dylan had a successful performance at the school talent show, their father Judd began signing them up to play at local festivals. They've been on the road for the last seven years, ever since Bird was nine.

When Bird's father becomes ill before their next gig in Nashville, she is told she will have to sing lead vocals at the Station Inn. Bird loves music but she's never sung lead before.At first she's nervous but she manages to get through the gig with the help of her family. Afterwards, Bird and her father are approached by a talent scout, Randall Strong, from Great American Music in Nashville. Randall wants to sign Bird to a contract with GAM. Although thrilled, Bird is concerned that this leaves her family missing an essential part of the family band, and for Dylan who passed on college to tour with them.

While the rest of the family vacations in North Carolina with Gramma, Bird and her father meet with Randall who arranges for Bird to do a spot at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. After a successful gig "in the round", Randall attempts to sign Bird that night with GAM. Judd however wants to look over the contract. On their way out of the club, the are approached by another talent scout, Dan Silver who is president of a small record company, Open Highway Records. Bird likes Dan who talks to her and explains that if she signs with GAM she will be churning out the same stuff that's being produced everywhere and her unique talent will be lost. He tells them GAM will "try to package you to fit into their pop image and new-country sound." After discussions with Dan, Bird and her father decide to sign with Open Highway.

This means putting the Barrett Family Band on hold while Bird records her first single, shoots a video and gets an image makeover.Shannon Crossley one of the singers at the Bluebird Cafe helps Bird rewrite her Notice Me song that Bird wrote about wanting her friend Adam to notice her. Shannon's daughter, Stella, soon becomes Bird's best friend. Stella helps Bird reach out and connect with Adam, encouraging her to text him.


As Bird's music career begins to evolve, Dylan struggles to accept what is happening and that he is being left behind. A good musician in his own right, he is struggling with feeling of jealousy and pride.At her release party for her single, Notice Me, Bird encounters Randall who tells her that he has signed a new talent who will be stiff competition.

Eventually texts and phone calls with Adam lead to Bird taking time out of her hectic schedule to have breakfast with him at a pancake house. Bird tells Adam that GAM originally was interested in her but she signed with Open Highway because they led her to believe that she would have more artistic control. However, Adam makes her realize that this is not the case, as evidenced by the change in her appearance, and the difficult time she had convincing them to allow her family to play on her album.

During their catch up time Adam reveals that GAM has just signed a new country singer, Kayelee Ford and that he has been offered a gig to play at her release party in a few weeks. Shocked, Bird questions Adam about making music for someone else but he tells her he wants to settle down and doesn't like the road life. In an attempt to head off what Bird thinks is the possibility that she will lose Adam, she makes him an offer to play on her album although she knows this is highly unlikely. They part with Bird promising to come see Adam play at the 5 Spot in a few weeks.

However, several events occur that soon drive a wedge between Bird and Adam. The first is a set up by her publicist, Anita, with a hot movie star designed to create some publicity as her new single climbs the charts. The second is Bird's well-intentioned decision to help out best friend Stella's high school fund-raiser catches her trouble with Dan Silver and causes her to miss Adam's gig at the 5 Spot. The third is the break-up of the Barrett Family Band with her brothers both applying for college. Can Bird possibly cope with the turmoil in her life and her rocket rise to stardom?

The warm, attractive cover of Wildflower invites readers into a touching story about a young girl getting her big break into the music world while struggling to come to terms with the changes that break brings to both her family and her personal life. Bird never imagined herself having the life of a musician, it wasn't something she'd worked towards. Life was simple, just she and her family touring enjoying making music in small towns and crushing on a cute boy who seemed to like her.

Wildflower is the first in a three book series about Bird Barrett's rise to country stardom. I wish the cover was of a young woman holding a fiddle but perhaps this is representative how Bird doesn't quite stay true to herself in the novel. Although Dan Silver stated that his label would not repackage her that is in fact exactly what they do to Bird. They replace her beloved violin, Maybelle, with a fancy guitar, make her a red head and her publicist even sets her up with a hot, young movie star to garner her some publicity. Instead of being backed by her family, Bird has seasoned session musicians perform on her album. It is her muse, Adam Dean, who inadvertently makes her aware of this, yet Bird seems to ignore this. When she tries to step outside of the boundaries Dan Silver has placed her in, by playing her fiddle at the fundraiser at Stella's school, she's taken to task for it. Not yet mature enough to fully understand who she is, Bird apologizes to Dan and Anita. Ironically, it is Bird doing what she does best, singing and fiddling, that results in her trending on Twitter and getting a ton of publicity. It will be interesting to see how Whitaker develops the theme of identity and the conflict that seems to be building between Bird and Dan over their different visions of Bird as a country music singer.

Whitaker has created well developed characters who interact in a believable way in situations that seem realistic. Especially well done is the lunch Bird has with famous movie idol, Jason Samuels.  They behave as two young people who don't know each other and who have basically been set up on a blind date would - they struggle to find common ground and have a conversation. Based on Jason's actions, Bird realizes that he's is not the plastic movie star he's made out to be.  "...even though all the characters Jason plays in movies make him seem like just another pretty face, now that we're two regular people hanging out in a coffee shop, I realize there's a little more depth to him than I'd figured. He's really a nice, if slightly quirky, guy." 

Bird is a typical teenager with teenager interests that include music, worries about how to attract the interest of a cute guy she's crushing on, shopping and hanging with her new best friend.The descriptions of how important her music is to her are well done. Her best friend, Stella, is a caring person who understands Bird's world of music and offers her a sympathetic ear.

Wildflower has a bit of everything that makes it work; there is the interesting hook of a young girl being discovered and on the verge of stardom, a touch of romance and a bit of conflict. The novel ends on a somewhat sad note, with Bird struggling to find comfort in her music, creating a perfect lead into the next novel.

Having just discovered this wonderful author, I plan on reading her first novel, The Queen of Kentucky, and can hardly wait for the next installment in the Wildflower series. Wildflower is undoubtedly one of the best novels I've read this year.

Book Details:
Wildflower by Alecia Whitaker
New York: Poppy, Hachette Book Group    2014
304 pp.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Year of Chasing Dreams by Lurlene McDaniel

The Year of Chasing Dreams follows the romances of two close friends, Ciana Beauchamp and Eden McLauren, as they chase their dreams of marrying the men they love.  Their romances are set against the backdrop of the Beachamp family and the possible secrets kept by previous generations.

Ciana and Eden have returned from their trip to Italy and are still trying to come to terms with the death of their mutual friend Arie. At Bellmeade with her mother Alice Faye, Ciana must now focus on turning the

Twenty-one year old Ciana Beauchamp lives on her family's estate, Bellmeade with her mother Alice Faye and her best friend Eden. She hasn't heard from the man she loves, Jon Mercer in seven months until one October day he shows up at her ranch. She's angry that Jon has never contacted her in that time. Ciana wants to push him away but her mother invites Jon for dinner. Jon wants to move back in as a ranch hand, but Ciana is not keen on this.

Eden has a letter that Arie, her friend who died of cancer, wrote her before she died. She had tried to track down the Australian man, Garret Locklin whom Eden met while in Italy and whom she has fallen for. Although Arie could not find out much she gives Eden the email of an Irish girl, Colleen, in Garret's walkabout group to help locate Garret. Arie emails Colleen and learns that Garret became very ill with double pneumonia while in Sweden. His friends, Tom and Laura had to take him back to Australia. Eden emails Garret and eventually receives a response from him indicating that he is on the mend, but wants her to visit.

Meanwhile Ciana has been reading through her grandmother Olivia's diaries. When she mentions her interest in her grandmother's past, Alice Faye tells her that she's not interested, that for some reason her mother never quite took to her like she did to her granddaughter, Ciana. Ciana's readings of Olivia's diaries unearth an interesting story about a neighbour, the Soders adopting a boy when Olivia was eight in 1936. When Olivia was fourteen she had an encounter with Roy Soder whom she both hated but was also attracted to.

Ciana is struggling to restart the Beauchamp farm and is boarding horses to make ends meet. Added to her worries is the pressure placed on her from an outside real estate developer, Gerald Hastings, to sell Beauchamp's land for his new development, Bellmeade Estates. Ciana is one of the few opposed to the new development. She's a farmer and the land is important to her. However many of the townsfolk see it as an economic windfall for the town of Windemere which has been economically depressed for years. The new development would bring buyers from Nashville and Murfreesboro and add jobs. But Ciana wants no part of it and has no intention of selling her family's land. Jon warns Ciana that the developer will not back down so easily as he likely has invested a great deal of money into his project.

Eden flies to Australia to stay with Garret and his parents, Maggie and Trevor. She explains to Garret that she had to leave Italy because Arie become very ill during their trip and that she was unable to contact him. Garret accepts this and things go fine until his former girlfriend, Alyssa Bainbridge, a beautiful model, reappears. Garret manages to ease Eden's worries about his former girlfriend despite her continued unfriendly encounters with Alyssa. Eden tries out surfing, almost losing her life when she gets caught in a riptide. As their relationship deepens, Eden tells Garret about her past with Tony and her mother's bipolar disorder. None of this matters to Garret who eventually asks Eden if he can return with her to the United States.

Back in Tennessee Ciana has to contend with locals who are tearing up her fences and ruining her land. When Jon hears of her trouble, he fixes the fences and despite her opposition moves into the third floor of Bellmeade, at the request of Alice Faye. Exhausted by all the trouble she's having, Ciana gives in to Jon staying at Bellmeade and begins to accept his help in saving her family's home.

As she continues reading through her grandmother's diaries she makes an astonishing discovery. Past entries revealed that Olivia continued to be attracted to Roy Soder, kissing him at the age of sixteen but the entry from 1961 stated that Olivia bought the Soder farm for back taxes.

In the spring, Ciana receives a visit from Enzo Bertinalli, who continues to be captivated by her beauty and her beautiful farm. She attends the Horseman's Ball in Nashville with Enzo and when he asks her to be his lover, she politely declines. Enzo correctly understands what Ciana herself is afraid to admit, that she is in love with Jon Mercer.

Troubles continue at the ranch with Ciana being run off the road. Despite this Ciana remains determined to keep her land, even after Gerald Hastings personally tells her that he had nothing to do with the recurring vandalism. Eden and Garret return to Bellmeade for a short visit before they plan on touring the States in their camper. During Eden's visit,  Ciana reveals to friend that she believes she has uncovered a family secret involving her grandmother Olivia, Roy Soder and her mother. Eden advises her to sit on what she knows since there seems to be no reason to stir up the past and cause her mother potential hurt. Little does Ciana realize that it is this secret which when missing pieces are supplied later on, will threaten to destroy Ciana's plans for the future and her happiness.

While Eden and Garret travel to Nashville to deal with a sad event in Eden's family, disaster strikes Windemere, affecting Bellmeade too. A series of deadly tornadoes strikes the town, destroying part of it and also the historic Bellmeade home. Jon is seriously injured and is taken to Nashville. His mother Angela Mercer comes to visit during a conversation to Ciana about Jon's family and their upcoming wedding she reveals information that upends Ciana's world. Having lost her family home, can Ciana face losing the man she loves?

The Year of Chasing Dreams is slow paced, taking it's time to weave a family secret from the Beauchamp past into the present day lives of Ciana and Jon while following the developing romances of Jon and Ciana and Eden and Garrett. This novel is part young adult and part cheesy romance, the writing sometimes clumsy with the predictable happy ending for all involved. The older characters, the numerous references by Jon about wanting to "bed" Ciana, and the adult sexual relationships in the novel make this a book that attempts to fit into the "new adult" genre.

The problem with this novel is that many of the interesting elements are either never fully explored or only receive a cursory development often leaving the reader feeling like they have only skimmed the surface. For example,  the conflicts between characters flare briefly and then are quickly resolved. This is true of the initial conflict that exists between Jon and Ciana at the beginning of the novel and seems to simply fizzle out, with Ciana welcoming Jon back into her life rather quickly. Jon deceived Ciana and slept with her best friend, Arie, in what was presented in the first novel as a demonstration of (false) compassion and sacrificial love - a man having sex with a terminally ill woman so she can know what it's like to get laid before she dies. It's the hurt stemming from this betrayal that Ciana alludes to at the beginning of the novel, that never seems to be broached or resolved in a meaningful way. Instead, she simply gives up her anger towards Jon - it's an easy resolution.

Another potential conflict, the arrival of a wealthy Italian man, Enzo Bertinalli who is smitten with Ciana could have been a source of tension between Jon and Ciana but Jon is conveniently mostly never around and after attending the Nashville Ball, that's the end of Enzo.  The same is true of Aylssa Bainbridge's re-appearance in Garret's life. There is some initial conflict but it is never more deeply explored, becoming a very superficial part of the story that serves to create a bit of tension. Even the devastation of the tornado seems toned down.

What does work well is the discovery of what could be a devastating family secret, the implications for Ciana and Jon not yet fully understood until a few extra pieces are supplied by a very minor character in the story.  This leads to the climax of the novel but it is easily resolved and the novel ends happily.

Fans of Lurlene McDaniel will enjoy The Year of Chasing Dreams, especially those who have been reading her while in their teens.

Book Details:
The Year of Chasing Dreams by Lurlene McDaniel
New York: Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children's Books     2014
327 pp.



Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor

The Things You Kiss Goodbye is a bittersweet novel about relationships, first love and struggling through terrible loss. It also tackles the sensitive subject of abuse in teen relationships.

Bettina Vasilia who lives with her Momma, Bampas (father) and her two younger brothers, ten year old Favian and seven year old Avel is Greek and very different from most of her classmates. She wears combat boots, has a long thick braid of hair, a wide smile and is covered in henna tattoos.

Bettina first met Brady Cullen at the end of their sophomore year when she was just fifteen. At that time Brady was sweet and shy which Bettina found endearing. Bettina's Bampas is very strict; she's not allowed to date, she has to be picked up from school and is expected home at night for family dinner. After waiting numerous times with her outside the school, Brady meets Bampas who gives his permission for Brady to date Bettina. So Brady becomes Bettina's way of getting around her Bampas's strict rules which leave her feeling like she's "kind of grounded as a way of life."

At first Brady is a good boyfriend; he is kind, friendly, thoughtful and caring. Before school breaks for summer Brady convinces Bettina to try out for cheerleading which she does because she realizes it will allow her another excuse to be out at night.

They continue to be friends thorough the summer but the beginning of school in September sees a change in Brady's behaviour towards Bettina. Brady has a group of people he hangs out with and he seems friendly with everyone at school. "Brady Cullen wasn't a shy, skinny guy bouncing a ball just beneath everyone's radar anymore. He was a nodding, fist-bumping, 'jock machine,' working the hallway like it was his job."

When Bettina meets an old friend, Tony Colletti, Brady acts jealous. The first week of school, Brady takes Bettina back to his house where he forces her to have sex with him, completely unaware that she does not feel ready for this unexpected move forward in their relationship. From this point on Brady begins to hurt Bettina. It starts out small, like stabbing her with the toothpick end of a clay figure she had made for Brady and a few days later crushing her hand causing severe bruising and swelling from her new school ring. After the latter injury, Bettina flees the school and crosses over to Hammer Hill Industrial Park where she encounters a handsome young man who looks like a cowboy or a motorhead. This young man who appears to be much older than Bettina, around twenty five or so, takes her to Unit 37, tenderly ministers to her injured hand and puts her ring onto a shoelace so she can still wear it. Bettina nicknames him Cowboy and discovers her runs an auto shop.

Bettina makes excuses for Brady because he always seems genuinely sorry. The situation with Brady makes Bettina recall the advice her Bampas always gives her: fili antio or "kiss it goodbye". Whenever she was denied something by her Bampas, he had her kiss his cheek and then told her to bury her disappointment and not to cry. To let it go. Bettina decides she will apply Bampas's fili antio philosophy to her relationship with Brady.

Bettina agrees to visit Tony Colletti's nonna, Regina Colletti, who is sick with cancer. Bettina once lived in the same neighbourhood as Tony, so they have many memories of his nonna who ruled as both queen bee and rebel.

As the days pass, Bettina is drawn to Cowboy. She begins taking him coffee early in the morning as she visits his shop before school. Cowboy asks her if the boy he saw her with is the one who hurts her. Bettina brushes this off refusing to acknowledge what Cowboy has quickly recognized.When the cops show up at his shop, Cowboy tells Bettina that his family is messed up adn that there were problems at his ma's home during the night.

Brady's physical and emotional abuse of Bettina continues to escalate.  Bettina meets Regina again and wants to tell her the truth about Brady, about how at first he was a nice boyfriend but how he changed. Instead, she reasons that she "just had to steer him around so he'd be funny and tender." and that she is the problem. To that end she commits herself "to making things better with Brady." She tries everything to diffuse situations that look like they might cause him to behave badly. One day in October she brings baklava for the cheerleaders. Bettina tries her fili antio philosophy but Brady smashes the locker door hard enough that it knocks the pastries out of her hands onto the floor. Afterwards as she is rushing to cheerleading practice, Brady drills a basketball into her knee severely injuring her. Later Brady brings ice for her knee, leading the cheerleaders to think he is such a caring boyfriend. At this point Bettina tries to tell Brady that when he's mad he needs to tell her. This seems to work for a time as Brady is on his best behaviour.

Meanwhile during another visit with Tony's nonna, Regina tells Bettina about a boy she fell in love with when she was fourteen and how her father beat her badly when he found out about them Regina says never forgot that first love and that her father was wrong to do what he did. Bettina says Regina's story "stitched itself to my heart".

Cowboy is concerned about Bettina's leg injury but once again she deflects his questions. They continue to meet during mornings and sometimes after school always avoiding the subject of Brady. During this time Cowboy encourages Bettina with her idea about opening a coffee shop with one of her father's properties and reveals to Bettina that her father is very wealthy, something she did not know. Their relationship begins to shift gradually as Bettina and Cowboy often go for milkshakes and she helps out in the shop. One afternoon Cowboy takes her to the hill on the water company property and Bettina tells him how she feels. When he tells her she can't come to his auto shop anymore Bettina begs him to let her continue to visit.During one of Bettina's visits, Cowboy reveals his true name, Silas Wolcott Shepherd.

In November, as Brady's basketball season approaches, he becomes increasingly stressed and the abuse returns. He becomes furiously jealous when another boy asks her to dance at a party and during a fight Bettina falls seriously injuring her cheek. Bettina's injury prompts Cowboy to tell her about the scars she saw on his back a few weeks earlier - that his ma beat him and his dad and brothers left. But Cowboy stayed with his ma and this leads Bettina to question his reasons for staying.  When Cowboy comes to see her at her home, sneaking in the back way, Bettina acknowledges that she is doing the same thing with Brady - that she is really putting up with the abuse because she's using Brady as a means of getting around her father's restrictive rules and getting out of the house.

One day Brady violently assaults Bettina by yanking her braid, injuring her neck and smashing her locker door into her side. It is the assault and Cowboy's recent altercation with his mother that leaves him bruised that makes Bettina realize she is being abused in the same way that Cowboy has been and that she needs to stop it.

However, when Bettina finally concedes that Brady Cullen is hurting her, and realizes she needs to leave him, she feels trapped. Bettina feels there is no way she can leave Brady without there being some kind of fallout. She knows that if she tells people at school he is abusive, he will be given the benefit of the doubt. She can't quit the cheerleading squad because she's made a commitment for the year. If she told her Bampas, although upset that she is being hurt, Bettina feels he would likely see the situation as a proof that he was right all along about her having a boyfriend - that she was too immature and he would claim that she didn't do enough to support Brady through his difficult season.

Bettina and Brady go through the motions of being boyfriend/girlfriend with Bettina gradually finding excuses to not spend time with him.  As Brady continues to have an awesome season, Bettina is there to support him, hoping that when the season ends, they will end too.

As her relationship with Brady begins to unwind her friendship with Cowboy grows deeper. He takes her to his dad's farm and on New Years Day he sneaks her out of her bedroom and takes her to the hill on the water property. In February, Cowboy shows up at her home via the River Road and shows her the reconditioned '57 Chevy. Bettina is stunned to see Cowboy with a large welt across his face. Cowboy tells her that this was from his mother and that he has finally left. He thought his mother was finished with the abuse;  "'I didn't see this one coming. But you know what? There's always another one coming.' He looked at me dead-on. 'You have to get completely out of the way.' " Cowboy tells Bettina that her situation is the same as his with his mother and that Brady is hurting her. Cowboy and Bettina finally admit that they are in love and that they need to try to be together.

When Bettina returns home during the early morning hours her mother is waiting for her, calling her out on her lies. Bettina finally admits to her momma what has been going on and that she loves this much older man. The next morning however, Bettina's world is crushed when she must confront the tragedy that has occurred overnight. Her world changed forever, Bettina filled with a deep sense of loss,  gradually takes steps to take control over her own destiny and how the men in her life treat her.

The Things You Kiss Goodbye is definitely a novel for older teens as there are numerous references to sexual encounters, a much older man involved with a young teenager and an abusive teenage relationship. The strength of this novel is Connor's ability to realistically portray the abusive behaviour in Brady and Bettina's relationship and Bettina's inability to move out of this situation. As is often the case, the abuse begins to escalate, Bettina behaviour is typical of many victims of abuse, making excuses for the perpetrator. Bettina like many women, believe they can change their man only to learn that this is not possible. Bettina lives by her father's mantra, fili antio to kiss goodbye the things she is told she can't have or are beyond her control to change. While this philosophy might work for a parent and young child, it cannot be applied readily to adulthood, as Bettina begins to discover. It is this learned behaviour that enables her to stay in the relationship with Brady for so long despite the fact that she knows he is hurting her. She also believes, as do many abused women, that his behaviour is her fault.

Another interesting aspect that Connor portrays is how Brady hides his abusive nature beneath a veneer of public kindness. After he drills the basketball into Bettina's knee, he shows up at her gym with ice, causing the cheerleaders to swoon over how sweet he is.  I also liked that fact that Connor portrayed a situation where a teenage girl was pushed into sexual activity by her boyfriend before she was ready - something many girls face and not often acknowledged.

Bettina's relationship with Brady is a complete contrast to her relationship with Cowboy. Cowboy treats her with respect and because of their age difference is hands off. They develop a strong bond of friendship that includes mutual respect, something completely lacking in her relationship with Brady. They support each other in contrast to the self-centered Brady who seems unable to recognize the emotional needs Bettina might have and has no interest in encouraging her. In fact, he does just the opposite when Bettina shows him her project which garnered an A+ from the teacher, he blows her off, ridiculing her idea.

But it's not just Bettina's relationship with Brady that is disordered either. Her relationship with Bampas is one of control, lacking in compassion and the realization that Bettina is growing into adulthood. Bampas repeatedly informs Bettina how her afterschool activities are disrupting their family life and making things difficult for the family. He isn't supportive of her, has many rules and when she tries to discuss her needs, Bampas shuts her down with a brusque "siopi" or silence. Eventually Bettina does confront her father on his philosophy after the loss of Cowboy telling him not to tell her to "kiss it goodbye".  She tells her father that her loss is real and needs to be acknowledged; "He is dead. I'll never get over it. This is not a thing I can just kiss goodbye, Bampas. I won't get off that easy. I have to feel the whole thing. So don't say that to me."

I felt that the author didn't adequately explain the abrupt change in Bradyalthough she seems to attribute it to him becoming a jock and the increased pressures of playing with the school basketball team. His self-centered behaviour was well drawn.

Overall, Connor does a great job of fashioning realistic characters, excellent dialogue and creating situations that are believable. While the events are tragic, The Things You Kiss Goodbye ends on a hopeful note. Bettina acknowledges the hurt and loss she still feels in September of another year her heart open to the good that came from loving him.

Book Details:
The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor
New York: Katherine Tegen Books an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers     2014
358 pp.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi

This is the first in a trilogy of books written by Sook Nyui Choi who was born in Pyongyang, North Korea in order to share her experiences in this turbulent period of history. Choi writes, "Having lived through this turbulent period of Korean history, I wanted to share my experiences. So little is known about my homeland, its rich culture and its sad history." Choi wanted "to write this book to share some of my experiences and foster greater understanding."

It is 1945 and World War II continues to rage on. For the Koreans, it means continued occupation by Imperial Japan, which is fighting against the American's to retain control over much of the Pacific and South Asia.

Nine year old Sookan lives with her family in Kirimi, Pyongyang. Her father and older brothers, Hanchun, Jaechun and Hyunchun have been taken away, while her younger brother, seven year old Inchun lives with her and her mother and her Aunt Tiger. Her older sister, Theresa is a nun in a convent just outside of Pyongyang.  Sookan's grandfather is a Buddhist but her mother is Roman Catholic. 

Sookan's Grandfather has been teaching her to read and write in Korean and Chinese  and she has also been learning about the ancient Korean kingdoms - all for this forbidden by the Japanese. Instead they are forced to worship at the Shinto temple and to pray for victory over the "White Devils" - the Americans.

In the backyard of their home is a large wooden shack which was built by the Japanese and serves as a factory making socks for the Japanese soldiers. Sookan's cousin, Kisa is a mechanic who greases the knitting machines so the "sock girls" can churn out the required quota of socks for the Japanese. Captain Narita comes daily to inspect the factory and the workers. Sookan is friends with many of the girls including Haiwon and Okja. Sookan, her mother and Aunt Tiger work with the sock tubes, cutting them and turning them in to tube socks.

In June, 1945, Sookan's mother returns from a visit with Theresa with a small Christian book as a gift for Haiwon's birthday. The next day during her birthday party and before the workday starts, Captain Narita arrives earlier than usual. He takes Haiwon's birthday gifts as well as Sookan's mother's brass dishes.Aunt Tiger is certain this is not the end of it when Narita leaves. That afternoon two Japanese-trained Korean police arrive and chop down Grandfather's pine tree that he meditates under. This is so devastating to Grandfather that he never leaves his bedroom and eventually dies. Before he dies he asks his daughter, Sookan's mother to tell them about their family.

Sookan's mother tells how Grandfather was a scholar before Japan occupied Korea. Once occupied, all Koreans were encouraged to dress like the Japanese and to speak Japanese. Sookan's mother tells them that after the Japanese cut off Grandfather's topknot, they burned their village, resulting in the death of her two brothers and her mother. They escaped to Manchuria where her grandfather and Sookan's father  where part of the independence movement and where they published a newspaper in Hangul. She met Sookan's father in Manchuria and they were married there and had the four oldest children then. Only Inchun and Sookan were born in Korea. Father Carroll an American priest said Mass for all the Korean Catholics who were forbidden to go to church. He baptized all of Sookan's family but eventually he was discovered and had to leave Korea.

Grandfather's death is not the only terrible event to happen. Several days after his death, Captain Nakita comes to inspect the factory and tells Mother that the girls are not working hard enough and that they will be sent to "help the soldiers fight better". Sookan does not know what this means but her mother his horrified as are Haiwon and Okja. Sadly this comes to pass, and one night Captain Narita shows up with a truck and the girls are forced into the truck and taken away.

Sookan is sent to school after this only to discover that it is nothing more than indoctrination and a work camp. She is not allowed to use her Korean name, speak Korean or help other students. However, her time at school is shortlived and Sookan is quickly expelled.

In August, with the defeat and surrender of the Japanese, they begin to leave Korea. It is an anxious time for Sookan and her family as they await the expected arrival of the Americans and hope to hear about husbands, fathers and sons. They soon learn that the Americans and Russians have divided Korea at the 38th parallel with the Russians taking the northern part of the country.

At first the Korean people welcome the Russians, however, Sookan's mother is skeptical. Sookan remembers Grandfather's distrust of the Russians who he felt wanted to "own Korean just as the Japanese and the Chinese had."  Mother learns from the nuns at the convent that many Koreans are now attempting to flee to the south.

As the Russian Communists settle in and begin indoctrinating the local Korean population, it becomes evident that Sookan's family must leave. With the help of Kisa they make arrangements to flee to the south. Kisa tells Sookan's family that their father and brothers have fled to the South safely and that they will meet them there. Arrangements are made and tearful goodbyes made to Kisa and Aunt Tiger who must remain behind to deflect suspicion away from Mother, Sookan and Inchun. Will they be able to make the treacherous journey south across the 38th parallel to freedom?

Choi's short novel for children effectively portrays life in a country long under foreign occupation. The children suffer just as the adults do from privation, lack of education and destruction of their culture and their links to their past. In spite of this, Sookan's family secretly tries to preserve their culture, teaching the younger children their language and history and hiding important keepsakes and heirlooms. The Japanese however, make this increasingly difficult by starving the Korean population so that eventually all of their most precious links to their past are given up in order to survive.

A strong theme throughout the novel is perseverance. All of Sookan's family persevere through the  terrible living conditions and the loss of family and the sock girls. This perseverance is demonstrated most admirably at the end of the novel when Inchun and Sookan are abandoned by the "guide" who is supposed to lead them across the border. Despite losing their mother, and desperate to get to freedom, they overcome starvation, physical exhaustion and injury, and emotional trauma, against enormous odds.

The themes of faith and forgiveness also permeate the novel. Sookan's mother is Catholic and she has continued to pray for the safety of her husband and sons. When Kisa tells her they are safe, Mother states, "I knew my God would not desert me. I knew He was listening to all our prayers."  Despite the terrible things done to them, Grandfather and Aunt Tiger manage to forgive. Grandfather tells Inchun and Sookan "I do not feel bitter about what happened. I am not angry anymore." after what happened to his beloved pine tree. It is more important that his grandchildren learn about their family and their past. Aunt Tiger tells Sookan's mother that when she came to her house she was bitter and angry but with the help of Sookan's mother, she has been able to move past her feelings of revenge and to help others, "to do some good".

Written from Sookan's first person point-of-view, Year of Impossible Goodbyes is a poignant, stirring account of events that happened a world away during the early twentieth century. Most young people study World War II from the perspective of events that happened in Britain and Europe and only rarely learn about events that occurred at the same time in other parts of the world such as Asia. Although the book is not autobiographical, the events that happened to Sookan in Year of Impossible Goodbyes are likely very similar to what Sook Nyul Choi experienced as her family fled North Korea.

 
http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/korea/maps/images/establishing.gif
Korean culture has been strongly influenced by China. Many parts of Chinese culture, including its writing, political systems and architecture were adopted by the Korean people and made their own.  It is this ability to adapt foreign ideas and make them their own that is a defining characteristic of Korean culture. Korea's neighbour to the west, Japan, annexed Korea in 1910 and began to force Japanese culture and language onto the Korean people. As Japan continued to solidify its rule over Korea, gradually all forms of Korean culture were prohibited. By World War II, As Sook Nyul Choi writes in her novel, it was forbidden to speak Korean and Korean's were forced to worship at Japanese Shinto temples. Much of the country's cultural history was either destroyed or removed to Japan. During the war, men were conscripted to fight in the Japanese military and women were taken from villages to be used a "comfort women", a Japanese euphemism for sex slavery which was gently alluded to in Choi's novel.

Unfortunately the end of World War II did not bring a reprieve for Koreans living in the north. They now faced a new occupying army, the Communist Russians.When the Japanese retreated from the Korean pennisula, the two occupying armies, the Americans in the south and the Russians in the north divided Korea into two temporary zones. However, as the superpowers of the Soviet Union (Russia) and the United States could not agree on a government for Korea, it became impossible to set up a new government for all of Korea. The Korean War was instigated when the North attacked the South. The war ended in a stalemate in 1953 with the Communist North supported by the Soviet Union and China and the South gradually adopting a free-market democracy towards the end of the 20th century. North Korea has been in the news in the past decade because of the restrictive regime of Kim Jong-il who has led the country to brink of starvation and the implementation of large scale work camps. There is little doubt that the Korean people have suffered terribly over the past century.

Author Sook Nyul Choi was born in North Korea in 1937 and emigrated to the United States to attend college. Year of Impossible Goodbyes is the first book in a series, followed by Echoes of the White Giraffe and Gathering of Pearls.

Book Details:
Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyui Chol
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company            1991
169 pp.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Here And Now by Ann Brashares

Ethan first saw the girl on April 23, 2010 when he was fishing. The air over the river seemed to change, to shimmer and quiver. Ethan was sucked into what seemed like a vortex and then thrown to the ground. After this was over, a girl, his own age was standing naked, wet and shivering on the river bank. She has what appeared to be a bruise but was in fact a number, 51714. Ethan offered her his sweatshirt and she walked away towards the bridge.

For the next two and half years Ethan thought he imagined what happened. "Until the first day of his sophomore year when the very same girl walked into his precalculus class and sat down one seat behind him."


Prenna James along with a thousand other people arrived on April 23, 2010 from the future - the year 2098. On the fourth anniversary of their arrival, April 23, 2014, sixteen year old Prenna is in a church, with the rest of her community, reciting the twelve rules they have had to learn and that are critical to their survival. Their community consists of nine leaders who make policy and twelve counselors who pass on those policies. They are refugees from future filled with blood plague - dengue fever that was spread by mosquitoes and which has decimated the world.

Prenna came here with her mother, both of them immune to the blood plague.Her father did not time travel with them, refusing at the last minute. Prenna's two younger brothers died in the third dengue fever epidemic, known as the blood plague, the year before they arrived in 2010. In this new time, Prenna is amazed by the lushness of the world around her with the variety of animals and birds.

After the ceremony Prenna and her friends, Katherine, Jeffrey Boland, Juliet Kerr, and Dexter Harvey get together in Central Park where they relax. Prenna feels alone and isolated. No one ever talks about life in Postremo or how they came to be here, what really connects them together. Instead Prenna feels more like an actor in a large stage production.
'Sometimes I only hear what we don't say. I only think the things I shouldn't think and I remember what I should forget. I hear the ghosts in this room, all the people we lost in our old life who are crying out to be remembered. But we never do remember them. The whispers of things we feel and don't say -- I hear them too."

I want to feel something. I really do. But it's only the absence I feel, just the wishing and wanting where there is nothing. I just feel lonely."
When she dances with one of the boys from her own time she thinks of Ethan Jarves. Prenna knows that Ethan suspects there is something not right about her. He has this expectant look like they have met before. Prenna suffered amnesia and does not remember the time immediately before or after her time travel meaning that she likely does not remember her brief encounter with Ethan in 2010.

One day after a false bomb scare at her school, Ethan tells her that the homeless person he knows, affectionately dubbed Ben Kenobi, wants to meet her. Ben tells her that soon there will be a "moment in time when the entire path of the future shifts" and that she may need to act. He doesn't know all the details but he knows when it will happen. He tells her there is a murder about to take place this year, on May 17, 2014 and that this one event will change the course of history and create the future that she comes from - a future in which the planet is dying and its inhabitants are succumbing to a horrible plague for which there is no cure. The man who commits the murder told Ben about it before he died but in 2014 he is still alive and planning to murder. At the time of his death, he knew what he had done, the harm that resulted and he asked Ben to prevent him from doing it. Ben tells Prenna that her people say they are here to do something to help the future be better, to prevent the plagues but in fact they are doing nothing. They are hiding here, in this time, enjoying the life they have here. Prenna now understands the significance of the number that was written on her arm when she arrived in 2010.

Prenna believes that the glasses she wears record all her conversations but they must wear them since without them their vision is poor. Since Ben removed her glasses during their conversation, the counselors have no idea what they spoke about. Mr. Robert meets with her the next day to find out waht they spoke about and to warn her away from him. Prenna tells her friend Katherine about meeting the homeless man and then Ethan tells her the strange experience he had when he was thirteen and fishing by the river. Both of these events result in another visit and warning from Mr. Robert but also the removal of her friend Katherine.

Prenna receives a phone call from Ben telling her that he traveled through the time path, twenty-four years after Prenna's group and arrived in the same place at the same time. He urges Prenna to tell Ethan who he says knows more than he's letting on and to stop wearing the glasses and taking the pills. He tells her that the rules she must follow are not for protecting the time natives (people in 2014) but for controlling Prenna's people. When Prenna tries to seek out Ben once more, she witnesses his murder and realizes his true identity.

Prenna acknowledges the truth of what Ben has told her to Ethan and they decide they need to act. But first Prenna needs to speak with her mother. This results in her being kidnapped by the counselors and taken to a farm to prevent her from acting on May 17. The reader is never really given a reason for why this is happening, but no matter, Ethan springs Prenna from her prison and they head to the storage locker where they discover the information that tells them that a key scientist, Mona Ghali, whom Ethan interned with the previous summer, is murdered by a man named Andrew Baltos at her lab in Teaneck. Ghali it turns out is working on wave energy and her work has all been stolen. Prenna and Ethan must work to prevent Mona's murder and save the future from the scourge of a deadly plague brought on by climate change.

The Here And Now starts out with a unique storyline, time travelers on a mission to go back to when a plague that is ravaging their world, began, in order to save it. There's a forbidden romance and a heroine struggling to adapt to life in a different time, experiencing rebellion at all the rules and the totalitarian type of life they lead. However, Brashares fails to develop her premise to the depth it deserves, leaving plenty of questions unanswered as the story moves forward and employing multiple coincidences and contrived events that are neither explained nor developed properly. For example why would a thousand people need to travel to an earlier time to prevent the plague? Such a large number of people would almost certainly increase the chance that someone would inadvertently affect the future in a way that leads to "uncontainable changes". How did they determine that they needed to return to 2010 and not some other year? What is Postremo - a city, a country? How did the time travel work and why were there not more travelers after the initial thousand? Can they time travel only one way? When Prenna discovers the fork in time and goes to her community, one would think these people would want to investigate her claims and act. Instead they kidnap her to prevent her from acting. No explanation is given for their behaviour other than they have gotten comfortable in their new "time".

The novel also suffers from poor pacing; after Prenna and Ethan discover who is to be murdered, they take time out to go shopping, visit the beach and play cards. The reader has to wade through these chapters to get to the climax of the novel - Prenna and Ethan's attempt to prevent Mona's murder.

Because this is an action based novel and not a long one at that, characterization is shallow. We don't know much about Ethan in particular nor Prenna's mother.

Brashare's premise for The Here And Now might have worked has she developed her ideas over the course of two or three novels, taking the effort to more carefully craft her storyline, develop her characters and work out the science.

I have never read An Brashares's immensely popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. I was hoping this would be an exciting read based on the unique premise. Unfortunately, it is not. The novel's ending appears to leave open the possibility of a second book.

Book Details:
The Here and Now by Ann Brashares
New York: Delacorte Press      2014
242 pp.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Rules For Breaking by Ashley Elston

For those who might not remember:
In the first novel we learned why Anna's family has been in the witness protection program and why they have moved so many times, including their last move from Scottsdale, Arizona to Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Anna's family is in the program not because of her father but because of what she witnessed. Anna's father worked for Brandon Price's father in his accounting firm. Eduardo Sanchez whom Anna called Scar Face because of a nasty scar through his left eye, was a big client of their firm and Mr. Price was his CPA. For years the FBI had been monitoring Sanchez who appeared to have an import/export business. In fact, he worked for a Mexican drug cartel, smuggling drugs into the U.S and laundering the money through his fake business. Brandon Price's father was helping him launder the money. However, Mr. Price was in the process of making a deal with the Feds - "immunity for turning over all accounting records that could convict Sanchez of money laundering, and also showing them how the cartel moved drugs and money." Sanchez discovered what Price was up to and killed him. Price had arranged to turn over the evidence the next day but it never happened because he was murdered along with his son. Anna, hidden behind the couch in the Price home, heard the argument between Price and Sanchez about ledgers. When Sanchez killed Price, Anna's presence was discovered. In order to save her life she told him she knew where the ledgers were but he never had the time to collect them because the police arrived on the scene. Because of this Sanchez has been hunting for her and her family was been placed in the Witness Protection Program.

But Anna's memory eventually does return and she remembers where the ledgers are hidden. Before Sanchez entered Price's home office, she saw Price hide them in the stone wall behind his desk. With the help of her new boyfriend, Ethan Landry, who drives Anna from Louisiana to Scottsdale, and Anna's friends in Scottsdale, they return to the Price's home and locate the ledgers. Agent Thomas shows up telling them that Sanchez is dead and asks her to give him the ledgers. Anna tries to bluff him but when he tells her that her testimony will no longer be needed because of the ledgers, she gives them to him. However, they discover that Agent Thomas is a fake, and that Sanchez is alive. Anna tells Agent Williams how she came to know and trust whoever Agent Thomas is. Ethan placed a tracker in the bag with the ledgers and they soon learn that the tracker is found on the body of Sanchez. Williams says he doesn't know why Thomas didn't kill Anna and Ethan and he suspects that Thomas works for the cartel as a hitman. Anna and Ethan return to Natchitoches, Louisiana, just wanting to put all of this behind them. However, Anna receives one last visit from Thomas who returns her journal, leading Anna to suspect that this is not finished.

The Rules For Breaking picks up the story from the first novel. Anna's family has only been out of the Witness Protection Program a month. But Anna's obsessed with what happened after the Mardi Gras dance when the party moved to Ethan's best friend, Will's, house. She hasn't told anyone about how her journal was returned to her that night or the note left in it by Thomas. Why didn't Thomas kill her? When Will, his girlfriend, Catherine, Ethan, his sister, Emma, and Anna get together to plan a trip to the Gulf, Anna's journal falls out of her bag. Ethan is horrified and urges Anna to tell her father, which they do. Anna's father contacts the program and Agent Williams informs them that he will arrive in Natchitoches in a day or so. That changes when they discover later in the day that someone has broken into their home. Agent Williams, accompanied by Agent Parker, arrives quickly and based on what he learns tells them that he suspects that they have a mole in their program. Anna's journal is sent for testing and they learn that someone named Daniel Sanders was the one who returned the journal. They don't know why Sanders searched the house or why someone is still interested in Anna. All this results in Agent Williams arranging for Anna and her family along with Ethan and his father to travel to the Landry's hunting camp on a remote island in the Mississippi River in Arkansas.

However, the first day they are on the island, Anna, her younger sister Teeny and Ethan are kidnapped by Thomas and another man whom Anna nicknames Vader, and taken to the French Quarter in New Orleans although at first they don't know where they are. Thomas reveals to Anna that his boss was not happy that he did not fulfill his part of the contract and kill her. Now the cartel boss, Vega, has sent a replacement to finish the job, to kill Anna and Ethan as well as Thomas and his friend. That replacement is a man named Mateo and Thomas's plan is to use Anna as bait to lure him to the French Quarter so he can assassinate him.

Anna tries to find a way out of their prison, working away at the slats covering their window and confirming that they are in fact in the French Quarter of New Orleans in an old Ursuline convent. She also wants to know who Vader is because he seems familiar to her. When Anna confronts him, she manages to pull off Vader's mask and discovers he is Tyler Collins the boy she dated when she lived in Florida. Eventually Tyler tells Anna that he got close to her in Florida because Sanchez didn't believe that she had lost her memory and Thomas thought that if she had a boyfriend Anna might open up and reveal what she remembered. They wanted to get the ledgers back and when the boyfriend idea didn't work Thomas thought if they forced another relocation, Anna might talk.

With Thomas gone for the day, Thomas's plans begin to unravel. It turns out that Anna was seen hanging out of the third floor window of the convent, fueling the myth that the convent is haunted by the ghosts of the French girls brought there centuries earlier. Tyler now needs to get Anna, Teeny and Ethan away from the convent because Mateo has arrived and suspects that the ghost girl is Anna. Tyler reveals that Thomas was using Anna as bait to lure Mateo and Senor Vega and he is planning to kill both and take over the cartel. Tyler reveals to Anna his past and tells her he did not know that his brother was a hit man, but he made him promise in Florida that he would not kill Anna.

Tyler tells Anna that Thomas gave him the journal upon returning from Arizona, as a keepsake because it showed that Anna liked Tyler. But Tyler wanted to return the journal to her so he slipped it into her coat in Natchitoches. He never thought Anna would tell the Feds about it. When Thomas learned that they were going to test the journal for prints, he had to get it back because the prints would lead them to Tyler whose full name is Daniel Tyler Sanders and ultimately to Thomas, his brother. When Vega found out Anna was still alive and that they could trace the journal to Thomas he cut Thomas loose and hired Mateo as a replacement assassin. Thomas has taken Anna, Elena and Ethan to one of his safe houses - the old Ursuline convent in the French Quarter of New Orleans so he could set up his plan for revenge. With the convent no longer safe, Anna, Teeny, and Ethan must find a way out of New Orleans.

They ditch Tyler but end up in a very unpleasant and violent encounter with Mateo. With Ethan badly injured and in need of medical attention, Anna calls Tyler who brings them one of Thomas's safe houses in New Orleans. Anna tells Thomas that she will help him but only if he gets Teeny and Ethan to safety. Thomas tells her that the reason there is a contract out on her is because can identify him and that makes Vega at risk too. Thomas has invited Vega to New Orleans under the guise of making amends. Instead he intends to kill Vega and Mateo using Anna as bait. Tyler and Thomas will disappear and Anna will be free to go back to her life. But after getting Ethan and Teeny to safety, Anna makes a startling discovery about the real truth behind Thomas's plans. Can Anna save herself from a deadly situation that changes minute by minute?

Elston has written a suspenseful thriller that incorporates numerous twists into the storyline, keeping her readers guessing until the ultimate showdown between two assassins.Suspense is well maintained by revealing only bits and pieces of the puzzle and creating many unknowns regarding the storyline and the characters. The author also manages to retell some of the story from the first novel into her narrative without it being too noticeable to the reader, at the same time refreshing her readers memories about what has happened up to this point.

Although the storyline is complex, Elston manages to tie everything together at the end, with a satisfying, believable resolution. She manages to convey the depth to which the cartel penetrated and affected Anna's family, almost destroying them - all because Anna was in the wrong place at the wrong time. To avoid the story becoming too dark, the romantic element between Ethan and Anna tends to lighten things, drawing the focus at times to their concern and affection for one another.

Anna is a courageous, intelligent protagonist who in the end bargains her friend's passage to safety and faces the possibility that she might die at the hands of an assassin. She uses the knowledge she's obtained from Tyler to play the two assassins against one another.

Thomas, so likeable in the beginning of the first novel, is gradually revealed as the cold-blooded assassin he truly is. Through Tyler, we come to understand how Thomas came to be like this and how he manipulates everyone including his own brother.

Elston has indicated she got the idea for her duology from wondering what it would be like to move around and never be able to reveal one's true identity.

This is a well written, fast paced novel, made enjoyable because it's a bit different from the usual offerings in young adult literature. Well recommended for fans of thrillers.

Book Details:
The Rules For Breaking by Ashley Elston
New York: Hyperion Teens       2014
309 pp.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus

This HBO Documentary presents the incredible story of a young American Jewish couple who traveled to the heart of Nazi Germany in 1939 to save fifty Jewish children from certain death.

 Using interviews from the Kraus's granddaughter and some of the children (now elderly adults) rescued or the children of  those saved, this documentary weaves a narrative that tells how the Kraus's came to save these children from certain death.

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus had a comfortable life in America, with a family of two young children, nine year old Ellen and eleven year old Stephen. Like many people around the world, they had watched the rise of Hitler and the growth of antisemitism in Germany and Austria.

Although American newspapers were filled with articles about the loss of basic civil rights German Jews  were experiencing. the United States government remained indifferent. It was nearly impossible to bring refugees, even children into America at this time.

from http://www.algemeiner.com
Gilbert Kraus was a forty-two year old business lawyer who was determined to save at least some Jewish children from the clutches of the Reich. Raised as a secular Jew, Gilbert and his wife, Eleanor, sent their two children to a Quaker school in Philadelphia. Liz Perle, a granddaughter of the Kraus's, says they do not understand the motive behind their actions, but they are still proud of what they did.

Gilbert told his wife of his intentions and then set out to find a legal way to bring the children to the U.S. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt was popular with the Jewish American population, he knew that a large influx of Jewish immigrants would not be popular with the American people. According to Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandes University, saving Jews was not popular with Roosevelt.

Gilbert met with George Messersmith, the Under Secretary of State and told him that they were prepared to go to Nazi Germany to rescue the children of Jews. The United States had a quota system for refugees and Messersmith told Gilbert that the number of people who had applied for asylum from Germany and Austria would fill the quota for the next five years.

As conditions worsened in Austria and Germany, approximately 10,000 Jewish children were sent to England in what came to be known as the Kindertransport.

Originally Germany was ambivalent about Jews leaving the country - after all that is what they wanted - to rid themselves of their Jewish population. But that attitude was gradually disappearing and it was becoming increasingly difficult to leave Germany.

Meanwhile, when Gilbert compared the lists of Jews applying for asylum and those actually being granted it, the numbers did not match. In fact, he discovered that the quotas were not being filled as people either did not use their visas due to illness, lack of money or the decision to travel to Palestine. Could these unused visas be used for Jewish children?

Gilbert approached Messersmith about this idea and while he did not say yes he also did not say no. In March of 1939, Eleanor began preparing affidavits from people who would sponsor the Jewish children and six weeks later she had fifty four affidavits.

This period of time in America was difficult because there was much antisemitism in the country. There were over one hundred organizations in the U.S. that openly promoted antisemitism including Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin whose talks often focused on the evils of usury. Because of popular resistance to Jewish immigrants, even the Jewish community in America did not support the Krauses mission to bring Jewish children to America. They feared a public backlash and a rise in antisemitism.

The documentary interviewed Marsha Rozenblit, Professor of Modern Jewish History, University of Maryland. Rozenblit states that at this time no one in Germany or Austria believed that the Nazi's would outright kill the Jews. Many people thought that eventually this would pass.As we now know, it did not.

In April of 1939, the Krauses prepared to travel to Germany to see if they could get fifty Jewish children out of Austria. War seemed imminent. Eleanor was advised against traveling with Gilbert who needed someone to help him. In the end, they decided to ask their children's pediatrician, Dr. Robert Schless to accompany Gilbert. Schless would give each child a physical examination and help determine those children best suited to be assigned visas.

When Gilbert was in Vienna, he decided that he needed Eleanor to be there and she met him in Paris. They then took the Orient Express to Vienna where they met Schless. Using a list that the Nazi's obtained of all the Jews in Vienna, the Krauses began interviewing boys and girls who might be suitable to emigrate to the United States. Social and financial backgrounds were not considered. However complications with the affidavits arose, as the American consulate did not know about the plan to use the unused visas. In May, 1939 Gilbert went to the American embassy in Berlin to meet with Mr. Raymond Geist. Berlin was filled with Nazi stormtroopers. Geist would try to set aside fifty visas for the children. In addition to the visas, each child had to obtain a German passport from the Nazi government. The time when the German government was agreeable to allowing Jews to leave Germany was quickly passing. In the end, the Gestapo gave them the fifty passports.

The children and their families arrived at the Vienna train station. The faces of the fathers reflected their deep sadness, while the mothers remained hopeful. The parents were warned not to wave to their children as Jews were forbidden to give the Nazi salute and a wave misinterpreted as a salute could get them arrested.

The children traveled by train to Berlin to get their visas and then spent ten days on the USS President Harding, arriving in New York on June 3, 1939.

Since almost all Jewish children sent to Nazi concentration camps were exterminated, the pictures of some of the children the Krauses saved take on a special poignancy when we see them as elderly adults, knowing they likely would not have survived had it not been for Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. In fact, as the documentary relates, one of the children originally chosen, Heinrich Steinburger, fell ill just before the Krauses and the children left Vienna. He was too sick to travel and remained behind, his place taken by the brother of another child already chosen. Heinrich Steinburger perished three years later at Sobibor, an extermination camp in Poland.

The Krauses went back to their life in America and rarely spoke of what they did. The story became public when journalist Steven Pressman learned about it from his wife, Liz Perle, granddaughter of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. Perle had in her possession an unpublished manuscript written by Eleanor detailing their efforts to save the children.

Pressman began his research in 2010 and was able to collect a great amount of information from the families of the rescued children as well as never before seen film footage. 50 Children is narrated by Alan Alda and actress Mamie Gummer who voices Eleanor Kraus. The HBO documentary was aired on April 8, 2014, Holocaust Remembrance Day.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano

"Proof by contradiction! An indirect proof by which a proposition is proved true by proving it is impossible to be false." 
Nearly Gone is an exciting novel with an original story line involving a serial murderer and the efforts of a high school student with special abilities to solve the mystery of the murders.

Nearly Boswell has the unusual ability to "taste" other people's emotions when she touches them. She believes that emotion is an energy which travels between her and the person she touches.  "Maybe I was like a channel, someone other people's energies could pass through. I was somehow experiencing truths about people that others just couldn't."  Most people's emotions taste sour. As a result of this Nearly doesn't date, do sports or attend parties. She studiously avoids physical contact with others, including her own mother.

Nearly lives in Sunny View Mobile Home Village with her mother, Mona, who works as an exotic dancer at Gentleman Jim's. Their lives fell apart five years ago when her father simply left them one day and never returned. His wallet and gold wedding band were found in his car, abandoned at the airport. Many of the students at her high school live in Sunny View.

Nearly who sometimes goes by the more regular name of Leigh, is obsessed with finding her father. Nearly and her friend Jeremy Fowler used to scan the personal ads while their dad's played poker together at Belle Green. About a year after he vanished, Nearly found an ad that she believes was placed by her father. "N -- I'm here and I'm okay. I'll always be near you. I love you. D. Now she scours the personal ads in Missed Connections for any leads on her father. But she also checks the ads because sometimes she finds ones that express the loneliness she often feels.

Nearly who was so named because she was born premature and "nearly" didn't survive, is a math whiz who is competing against two other students, her girlfriend and chem lab partner Anh Bui and ex-varsity football player TJ Wiles for the $25,000 chemistry scholarship at West River High. Community service is a mandatory requirement for the chemistry scholarship and because Nearly has no car or bus money to volunteer in labs or the Smithsonian, she has to tutor students five days a week. One of her students is Emily Reinnert, a cheerleader. 

The morning that Mr. Rankin presents the Schrodinger thought experiment, Nearly notices an unusual ad in the Missed Connections. It reads "Newton was wrong. We clash with yellow. Find me tonight under the bleachers." This ad does not seem to fit in with the others in Missed Connections. That night Nearly also finds a dead cat placed in a box labelled "FOR NEARLY" under her porch stoop.This combined with the block letters on her chem desk at school that read DEAD OR ALIVE make Nearly scared.

The next day at school Nearly learns that a student she was tutoring, Emily Reinnert was assaulted and left naked under the bleachers in the gym. She had the number 10 painted on her arm. Nearly thinks back to the ad and realizes that it referred to what was going to happen to Emily who was painted yellow on one side and blue on the other - the opposing colours on Isaac Newton's colour wheel. Nearly was tutoring Emily as part of her volunteer hours. Emily is replaced by Marcia Steckler who is involved in the school play, Hamlet which will open this weekend.

The following Friday Nearly notices a second unusual ad that reads "Archimedes knew the play wasn't really the thing. Do the math and find me after the show." Nearly thinks back to her conversation with Marcia about her being in the school play and is certain she knows who the next victim will be. Nearly makes the decision to go to the police. She meets with Lieutenant Nicholson and tells him about the Missed Connections ads but finds that Nicholson suspects her of being involved. When she returns to the police station to retrieve her forgotten ID Nearly overhears Nicholson telling a woman that they need someone inside West River High to find out all they can about Nearly. That person turns out to be a boy named Whelan who was sprung from juvie earlier to help them bust Lonny Johnston.

At the school auditorium that night Nearly waits hidden to see what will happen but when nothing does she goes to her classroom only to find a note carved into her desk that states "You lost the gold crown. Better luck next time.' She realizes that Archimedes Principle tells about how the scientist determined the weight of a gold crown by measuring the volume of water it displaced. Nearly connects this to Hamlet by realizing that there is a floating body in the play - that of Ophelia. This leads her to discover Marcie's body floating in the school pool. She has the number ten written in permanent marker on her arm.

While the police are searching the school for the missing girl, Nearly escapes out the front door and is seen by Lonny Johnston's friend, a boy with a motorcycle.  The next day, Jeremy tells Nearly that Marcia was found in the pool and that like Emily she was drugged before she drowned.

At school, Mr. Rankin assigns Nearly a new student to tutor and that turns out to be the motorcycle boy, Reece Whelan, Lonny Johnston's friend. When Nearly balks, Reece gives her his phone number and persistently pursues her until she agrees to tutor him. Reece picks Nearly up on his motorcycle and they head over to a diner to have dinner together and study. Reece reveals to Nearly that he was kicked out of his old school, North Hampton and that he was busted on a drug raid.

Later that week Nearly comes to Reece's rescue in what appears to be a drug deal gone bad, when she sees him being beaten up by Oleska Petrenko, a Ukrainian student at her school who hangs out with Lonny. Reece claims Nearly is his girlfriend, but Lonny doesn't believe him.

That Friday another ad appears in Missed Connection. "We all fall down. The tower will point the way. It's 68 ft. higher than three times a side of its square base. If the sum of these two is 1,380, at day's end you'll know where to find me." Nearly sees the ad while on a trip to Kings Dominion. On the trip Jeremy reveals that the online searches he has done on Nearly's father, David Boswell, reveal he was a high stakes professional gambler who won a huge amount of money. At the end of the day, as they are leaving the park, Posie Washington, Nearly's Wednesday tutoring student, is found to be missing. Using the ad, Nearly discovers Posie in the park washroom with the number three on her arm. Still alive, Posie is rushed to hospital.

With all three victims connected to Nearly she realizes that she has to find the connection and the killer before there are more murders. As the messages continue, Nearly struggles to understand who among her friends might be the culprit and why them might be doing this. Not only that but she is struggling to unravel the mystery of her father, who he was and why he abandoned her and her mother. Complicating matters is her growing affection for bad boy Reece Whelan who doesn't seem to be who he says. Little does Nearly realize how all three mysteries are interconnected.

Discussion

Elle Cosimano has written a very different murder mystery that has a major plot line involving the murders of Nearly's classmates, with two subplots, the mystery of Nearly's father and the mystery of Reece Whelan. This intriguing novel will keep readers guessing until the very end as there are plenty of plot twists. While the resolution of the murders is not quite so believable the author nevertheless ties up all the loose ends.

The strength of this novel is in the development of the murder mystery which seems highly original and too sophisticated for a teen serial killer. The cleverly worded ads keep the reader engaged as Nearly tries to solve where the next murder will happen and prevent it.

There are plenty of interesting characters in Nearly Gone, from bad boys, Lonny Johnston and Vince DiMorello, the over achieving Anh Bui, Reece Whelan attempting to redeem himself, to Nearly's mother who we learn is brilliant but has wasted her life as a result of some bad choices.

I wish the author had taken the time to develop Nearly's use of her unusual ability to sense the emotions of others and to use this ability to solve the murders. 

For those readers who enjoy mysteries, the unusual storyline will be appealing.


Here's a video that explains (sort of) Schrodinger's cat experiment!



Book Details:
Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano
New York: Kathy Dawson Books 2014
386 pp.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Manor of Secrets by Katherine Longshore

There's little doubt Manor of Secrets is one of several young adult novels that are attempting to capitalize on the popularity and success of the British miniseries, Downton Abbey. With a cover model who looks remarkably like Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) that's were the similarity ends in this plodding, tedious novel.

Sixteen year old Lady Charlotte Edmonds lives at The Manor, with her parents, Lord Edmonds and Lady Diane. Charlotte is bored and unhappy with her aristocratic life. She wishes to be free of the constraints her social class places on her and dreams of escape and adventure, of being a writer and living in the Cote d'Azur with a handsome man at her side. Her desires are often described in her secret writings, hidden in a box in her room and preoccupy her thoughts.

Janie Seward is a kitchen maid. Her mother, Mrs. Seward is the cook for The Manor. Janie has never known her father, who left to join the Army and died in South Africa. Janie grew up with poor relatives and has only recently come to work at The Manor.

Fran Caldwell is Charlotte's best friend. She doesn't understand Charlotte's desire not to marry and to be a writer. Fran wants to marry one of Charlotte's older brothers, David, so she can have a life of ease.

At a lawn party Charlotte and Fran see Janie sneaking down to the Manor lake and find her sans stockings, dipping her feet in the lake. Fran orders the maid back to the house despite Charlotte not wanting her to do this. After Fran leaves, impulsively Charlotte decides to dip her feet in the lake, soiling her dress with mud. Minutes later, the new, handsome footman, Lawrence, discovers Charlotte at the lake and helps her sneak into the house through the servant's entrance at the back, a part of the house she's not supposed to enter.

The next morning, while the kitchen staff, including Janie, Molly the scullery maid, Mrs. Seward and Tess are preparing breakfast for the Edmonds, the butler, Mr. Foyle informs them that an unexpected guest has arrived. That guest is Lady Diane's younger sister, Lady Beatrice Smythe. Lady Beatrice had run away with a rich commoner years ago, living on his plantations in India and Malaya. After his death she had moved to Italy. She has been away from England for sixteen years. Because of her indecorous past, there is tension between Lady Diane and her unconventional sister.

Charlotte finds her Aunt Beatrice to be very different from her mother's cold, distant manner. Lady Diane tells her daughter that Beatrice's unexpected arrival will make things awkward at the shooting party which is to be held over the next few days. Charlotte's mother advises her to pay special attention to eighteen year old Lord Andrew Broadhurst who is heir to the Earl of Ashdown and therefore a desirable marriage prospect. And little attention to the mysterious Aunt Beatrice who will be leaving soon. But Charlotte is not interested in the seemingly dull Lord Andrew. She wants a dashing man full of adventure at her side. And she's determined to discover why her mother and Beatrice are estranged, what brought her aunt to the Manor and why her mother wants her to leave so quickly.

To help her learn more about her Aunt Beatrice, Charlotte approaches Janie one evening in the downstairs of the household where the serving staff work asking her to keep her ears open for any information about Beatrice and to meet her regularly upstairs in her room. 

Janie is suspicious of Charlotte's motives, but the hall boy, Harry Peasgood, suggests that maybe Charlotte is lonely. Janie decides to meet Charlotte partly to befriend Charlotte and partly out of curiosity about the forbidden upstairs of The Manor.

All of this sets the stage for a tangled web of interactions between Charlotte, Janie, Harry, and Lawrence. Charlotte is infatuated with Lawrence with whom she shares a secret kiss, only to learn later he's also attempted to kiss Janie and another household maid. Harry's in love with Janie but she doesn't notice this. Charlotte and Janie's meetings are quickly discovered and ended leaving Janie to cope with the fallout of being upstairs. When Janie is caught in the arms of Harry Peasgood she is sacked by Lady Diane.

The aristocrats gather for the hunting party which is to run from Friday to Sunday at the Manor. Lord Andrew Broadhurst, Lady Fran, Lord Buckden, Lord Ellis, and three of Charlotte's five brothers, Stephen, David, Freddie and others will be staying at the Manor. Charlotte continues to be infatuated with Lawrence, dreaming of running off with him and being a writer. However, an unexpected encounter with Lord Broadhurst on their way to the dinner, reveals his penchant for travel, making his own way and running his own business and a desire to have more out of life than parties. Charlotte considers that she may have misjudged Lord Andrew.

At the ball Charlotte learns that Janie has been sacked and impulsively she confronts her mother. Lady Diane shows her the writings which she believes are Janie's but Charlotte admits they belong to her. Furious at Charlotte's lack of decorum her mother decides to send her to finishing school. Charlotte angry at her mother's lack of understanding returns to the servant's ball and is found in a compromising situation with Lawrence by Fran and Lord Andrew. Realizing that she has created an enormous, Charlotte flees from The Manor. Her actions set in motion the revelation of a long buried secret that will forever change both Charlotte and Janie's life.

The Manor is a tedious read that never quite lives up to expectations based on the novel's cover. There is no real hook to capture the reader's interest and things don't start to happen until well past the halfway point in the novel. There are plenty of small secrets at the Manor; Janie fancies Harry, Charlotte's forbidden kiss with the handsome Lawrence, Charlotte's writing and so forth. But none of these are enough to keep the story interesting and the reader wanting more.  The one interesting event, the mystery surrounding the arrival of Charlotte's Aunt Beatrice, is buried in the day to day details of manor living and the silly shenanigans of the impulsive and immature Charlotte. 

Based on a passing reference in the novel to the enormous ship being built in Belfast, likely the Titanic, this novel is set sometime between 1909 and 1911 when Titanic was launched (she did not leave dock for her trials until April 2, 1912). This would have been the end of the Edwardian period, a time when workers and women were becoming increasingly forward about obtaining rights that the wealthy enjoy.

It's therefore understandable that a young person like Charlotte, seeing the old order beginning to change, would want to have more choice in her life. The idea that young, wealthy women like Charlotte might want to cook for themselves, work and travel, and choose their own husbands would still be considered fanciful. This aspect of Charlotte's character is very well developed. Her desire to live her own life leads her to create an imaginary world which she expresses through her writing. However, events soon force her to face the reality of her life and see people as they really are. This leads her to recognize Lawrence for the cad he is, willing to risk her reputation for what he considers a bit of fun and to recognize Andrew as honorable and trustworthy.'

A puzzling omission in this novel is the absence of Lord Edmond during the scandal and the revelation of Charlotte's parentage. He's only a minor character in the novel, but while Lady Diane is railing against Charlotte, ordering her off to finishing school and while Beatrice is revealing her past, Lord Edmond is nowhere to be found. As Lord of The Manor would he not have a say in what is happening in his own home?

There are many characters in this novel and a cast of characters at the beginning might have been helpful, removing the necessity of repeating character's titles throughout the novel.

If you especially like the Edwardian period, this book might be for you. But I'm betting that there are plenty of other well written historical novels to choose from.

Book Details:
Manor of Secrets by Katherine Longshore
New York: Point        2014
321 pp.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman

This fascinating picture book tells the story of Paul Erdos, a mathematician known for his work in set theory, combinatorics, probability theory and number theory.

Paul was born in 1913, in Budapest, Hungary to parents who were both mathematics teachers. Their love of math helped foster Paul's love of numbers from an early age. He was fascinated by counting and often loved to tell people how long they had been alive in seconds based on their birth date.

When Paul was young, he did not care much for school, so his parents let him stay home. He spent all his time at home working on math problems. When it came time to go to high school, Paul found he enjoyed high school very much because he was able to meet people who were also very interested in math. Paul was so accomplished at math that by the time he was twenty years old, he was well-known for his abilities in the field of mathematics.

As an adult, Paul lived a very eccentric lifestyle. He traveled all over the world, living out of a suitcase. Whenever he arrived in a city, a fellow mathematician would take him into his home. Paul's only obsession was doing math and connecting mathematicians to one another to do math. People who worked with Paul on math problems got an Erdos number of 1, while those who worked with someone who worked with Paul were assigned the number 2. People were very proud of these numbers.

This unusual picture book not only tells Paul Erdos's story in text but also through the thoughtful art of LeUyen Pham. Pham incorporates much information about Paul and mathematics into his colourful illustrations. At the back of the picture book are detailed notes about the illustrations on each page providing information about the numbers, equations and even the people Pham has placed in his pictures.

This is a wonderful book for older epsilons (Paul's term for children!) who love math and who are able to have a parent read it to them and share the notes at the back of the book. The author was inspired to write this book as a result of her son Aaron's interest in math and Paul Edros. She was able to meet with many friends of Paul and even someone who has an Erdos number 1!! In her note at the back of the book, Heiligman relates that there were many facts about Paul's life that she could not incorporate into her picture book, for example that he had two sisters who died of scarlet fever who were also very very smart. Paul Edros passed away in 1996, while attending a math conference in Warsaw, Poland.

Those interested in learning more about Paul Erdos should watch the BBC Documentary N Is A Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdos. The documentary explores Paul's life and his contributions to the many different areas of mathematics.




Book Details:
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbably Life of Paul Edros by Deborah Heiligman
pictures by Leuyen Pham  
New York: Roaring Book Press     2013
37 pp.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson

The Captive Maiden is an excellent romance novel loosely based on the Cinderella fairytale by Melanie Dickerson.

The novel opens in 1402 when Gisela Mueller is eight years old. Her father has just died and she lives now with her cruel stepmother, Evfemia, and her two daughters, Irma and Contzel.  Dressed as a beggar and now delegated to nothing more than a servant girl, Gisela is sent to the stable to help stable hand,Wido, harness the horses. Gisela loves horses, especially her light brown destrier, Kaeleb. Gisela remembers meeting Wilhelm, Duke of Hagenheim, and his fourteen year old son, Valten Gerstenberg, Earl of Hamlin. At this time, Gisela thinks she will not like Valten because he had come to her father's home to purchase one of their fine horses for Valten to use in the lists. However, despite her attempts to dislike him she notes that he seems compassionate towards the horses

Nine years later, in 1412, Valten has just returned to Hagenheim after a two year absence. He is restless despite having been all over the Continent entering numerous tournaments. In his last tournament he had defeated Friedric Ruexner, a man who hated Valten and was determined to defeat him. As he wanders the Marketplaz dressed as a peasant,  he encounters the young woman he saw only few days ago racing across the meadow. When she is confronted by Ruexner, Valten comes to her rescue warning him to leave her alone.

Worried that Ruexner might continue to harass Gisela, Valten decides he will escort her until her horse is ready at the blacksmith. They visit his horse, Sieger, which unknown to Valten belonged to Gisela's father when she was a child. After wandering around with Valten for hour, Gisela is grabbed by her stepmother and forced to leave, but she manages to tell him her name as he tells her to come to the upcoming tournament.

Evfemia warns Gisela not to attend the tournament which is to take place in Hagenheim over a period of three days. However, Gisela has other plans. After Evfemia and her daughters leave for the tournament, Gisela puts on her mother's dark blue gown, mounts Kaeleb and travels to her neighbour, Ava von Setenstete's home. Ava, who is expecting a baby soon, gives Gisela a beautiful blue scarf and insists that she ride in her carriage to the tournament. Gisela is seated in the gallery with the other young maidens. The tournament champion will choose the Queen of Beauty and Love who will have the honour of bestowing the prize to the winning knight and of accompanying him to the banquet on the final night at Hagenheim Castle.

Gisela sees Evfemia and her stepdaughters seated farther back from her but she focuses on events at the tournament. The grand marshal of the field, Duke Wilhelm announces that the first day of the tournament will see the knights participate in the joust. The knight who is champion of the day will have the honour of crowning the Queen of Beauty and Love and the winner of the second day's battles would be the overall champion. The first day of jousting sees Valten defeat all his competitors during the first half including his arch-rival, Friedric Ruexner, who behaves brutishly. During the intermission, Gisela uncovers an attempt by Ruexner to poison Valten's horse and she is once again accosted by Ruexner. Valten returns to the lists wearing Gisela's colours and wins the first day, choosing Gisela as the Queen of Beauty and Love.

Gisela is offered accommodation at Hagenheim Castle where she meets his sisters, Margaretha and Kirstyn. All the wealthy attend a banquet given that evening at the castle including Evfemia, Irma and Contzel as well as Rainhilda, a young woman who wants to marry Valten. When Valten and Gisela have a few moments together Valten reveals to Gisela that he used to enjoy the tournaments but that now he finds them a waste of time while she reveals to Valten that she has no idea what will happen to her.

The second day of the tournament sees Valten win, despite a vicious battle with Ruexner, who badly injuries Valten's left hand. The day ends with Gisela being forced to come home with her stepmother, even though she knows this is probably not the safest thing to do. As Gisela suspects, Evfemia does not intend for her to attend the ball the following day. Instead, she locks Gisela in her room and sells her to Ruexner to be married to him. Desperate to flee from Ruexner, Gisela manages to escape with the help of Ava's servant boy and she makes her way to Ava's home. There Ava prepares her for the tournament ball. Gisela arrives at the ball, telling Valten what her stepmother has done to her. But while Valten goes to inform his father, the Duke of what has happened, Rainhilda and Irma trick Gisela so she is captured by Ruexner.

Realizing she is in the clutches of his enemy who wishes revenge on him, Valten must try to save the young woman he's gradually grown to love dearly.

The strength of this novel is Dickerson's use of the Cinderella theme to create a very romantic novel that includes a handsome chivalrous hero, a cruel villain and a gentle maiden.  The author realistically incorporates the Christian values that permeated both personal beliefs and social norms of the Middle Ages into her characters. For example, Gisela resorts to prayer numerous times both for herself and for the protection and safety of Valten. Valten also prays for Gisela's safety and whenever he faces mortal danger in a tournament. Ruexner, on the other hand, despises God whom he does not fear.

Valten is chivalrous, helping the weak, always trying to do what is right and rescuing damsels in distress. He's spent the last ten years participating in tournaments throughout Europe, winning the majority of those competitions. But he feels empty, his life lacking a purpose. He needs something more in his life, not something that feeds his ego. Although Valten has trusted in God to protect him during tournaments, he has relied on his own physical prowess. But when he tries to rescue Gisela, he is unable to help her and he is forced by circumstance to place his trust in God to protect her.  Friar Daniel reminds Valten of this when they are fleeing from Ruexner.

...You are trusting your own strength to get the lady to safety. You must entrust her to God, who is the One who will ultimately  make us safe, if we are to be safe."

Ruexner is typical villain, coarse and delighting in offending fair maidens. Typically he seeks his revenge by kidnapping the fair maiden Valten has taken a liking to. He's godless and quick-tempered - the complete opposite of Valten.

Dickerson incorporates the bare minimum of the Cinderella story line in her novel; a handsome royal who meets a poor maiden living with her cruel stepmother and ugly, spoiled stepsisters. The maiden is taken from the ball, dropping a white slipper behind.

The ending is quite predictable, with a happily-ever after that sees Gisela getting her prince. Fans of romance will enjoy this light-hearted novel.

Readers who want more of Valten's family, should look for The Princess Spy which is due to be published in November, 2014.

Book Details:
The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan    2013
281 pp.