Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian is the riveting story of one man's struggle to survive on Mars after he is mistakenly left behind when his crew mates are ordered to abort their mission. Filled with technical details that are presented in a easy to read style, we follow astronaut Mark Watney as he develops plans to survive against all odds for the next four years on the red planet.

A mission to Mars takes about three years. This includes the fourteen unmanned missions which land advance supplies on the planet including the  MAV or Mars ascent vehicle which is soft-landed and ensured to be in working condition. The MAV is used to leave the surface of Mars and rendezvous with Hermes, the spaceship that takes the astronauts back to Earth.

On day six of the Ares 3 mission on the surface of Mars, the crew led by Commander Lewis is hunkered down inside their living quarters called the Hab. A brutal sandstorm with winds of 175 kph has been blasting the Mav, which is not designed to withstand this kind of abuse. NASA orders Ares 3 to abort the mission and the crew to take to the Mav and leave the surface. As the crew made their way to the Mav, the communications dish and the reception antenna array crash into astronaut Mark Watney, piercing his suit and slamming him onto the surface. Watney awakens some time later on to find himself impaled with the antenna and facedown in the sand. The Mav is gone. He is alone on Mars.

Once Watney deals with his injury - a puncture wound in his side, he quickly takes stock of his situation; the Hab is intact and the Mav is gone. He has enough food for 300 days, six EVA suits, two rovers, two hundred square meters of solar cells. The Hab seems to be fully intact with both a functioning oxygenator and water reclaimer. Since he has no way to communicate with Earth Watney decides to try to fix the radio first.When that doesn't work he decides that he needs to figure out a way to supply himself with food for the next four years - the time when the next Ares mission arrives on Mars.

Watney who is a botanist and has a second specialty of mechanical engineering, was the mission's fix-it specialist. In order to grow food, Watney begins filling the floor of the Hab with Martian dirt and fertilizing it with his fecal waste. In the food supplies he has found peas, beans and potatoes that he can plant. In order to provide enough food for 1412 Martian days, Watney decides that his best bet is to grow potatoes using the floor, bunks and tables of the Hab as well as the two pop-up tents from the rovers. But he needs to figure out how to make water.  He does that by scavenging the hydrazine tanks from the abandoned MDV. However, his plan goes slightly awry when he discovers that during the process the air in the Hab becomes filled with hydrogen which is highly flammable. He manages to get the hydrogen content down but not before creating a small explosion. Luckily that does not damage the Hab nor injure Watney.

Meanwhile as the crew of the Ares 3 is on their journey home, on Earth, Mindy Park, a mechancial engineer who is monitoring the system of twelve satellites in orbit around Mars makes an astonishing discovery. Images appear to show activity on Mars; the two rover pop tents have been deployed within twenty feet of each other, the solar cells on the Hab have been cleaned and there is no evidence of Watney's body. Mindy reports her findings  to Dr. Venkat Kapoor, Director of Mars Operations. Shocked at the possibility that Watney is alive, Kapoor meets with Annie Montrose, Director of Media Relations and Teddy Sanders, Administrator of NASA. Venkat reveals that in addition to the above, the MDV has been taken apart and the fuel plant on the MAV has been removed.

Teddy decides that they will not inform the Ares 3 crew who still have a ten month journey ahead of them, that their crew member, Watney is alive on Mars. They will however, have to let the public know since they will have access to the satellite images after 24 hours. Like Mark Watney, NASA knows that he does not have enough food to survive on Mars for the next four years when Ares 4 arrives and he has no way to communicate with Earth.

While NASA considers its options to help him, Watney has plans. He knows that not only does he have to grow enough food to last him four years but if he wants to be rescued he has to travel to the Schiaparelli crater, where Ares 4 will land in 4 years time. Schiaparelli crater is 3200 km away and if Watney's going to travel there he will need to modify the rovers to help him. Determined to survive, Watney begins planning and improvising. Little does he know how much Mars will test his ingenuity and his will to survive!

The Martian is very much in the same genre as the movie, Gravity; a lone astronaut struggling to survive in cold, dark space, this time on a barren planet tens of millions of miles away. At the center of this thriller is Mars astronaut, Mark Watney whose indomitable spirit and can-do attitude saves him time and time again. Watney's time on Mars is rife with problems, some more serious and deadly than others, but all requiring a level of innovation that would put MacGyver to shame. He figures out how to make water, fertilize soil, grow crops, repair various systems, take a hot bath and mend a space suit. Although the solutions to all the problems Watney encounters are interesting reading, because there are so many problems and they come hard and fast, it's hard to maintain focus on the detailed descriptions. So sometimes, I found myself skimming details to get to the next part of the story. The relief is supplied by chapters detailing the efforts of many at NASA to rescue Watney and the eventual collaboration with Chinese space officials.

Andy Weir based his story on the actual plans for a Mars mission called Mars Direct which can be accessed at the Mars Direct website . The mission as described in The Martian is essentially the same as outlined on the website, with NASA sending a ship to Mars years earlier to make fuel for the crew's return journey to Earth, a habitat building and rovers. Weir states that he calculated all of the orbital paths mentioned in his story and that the science is accurate.

One complaint I do have with this novel is the fact that it is so NASA-centric, a tome to American  know how and ingenuity. By the time manned missions to Mars are to be a regular occurrence and based on the global nature of space exploration at this time (the International Space Station for example), it's likely that both a mission to Mars and should it ever be required, the rescue of a marooned astronaut on Mars, would be a global effort, not limited to the expertise at NASA but drawing on the wealth of ideas and resources from other agencies like the European Space Agency, and the Russian and Chinese. The Chinese do eventually supply a rocket to help out, but only after NASA has exhausted all other options.

Readers will enjoy the character of Mark Watney who seems to fit the hero image of astronauts; he's courageous, highly intelligent and remarkably adaptive under enormous stress. Watney's narrative is witty but realistic. He's working hard to stay alive and the reader knows this through the easy to understand explanations of science involved. His narrative is believable because of the range of emotions Watney experiences during his time on Mars, his happiness at securing Pathfinder and talking to NASA, his devastation at the loss of the Hab, the boredom he experiences waiting for the solar panels to recharge and his dislike of disco music.

How this will make as a movie remains to be seen. The novel is quite suspenseful and I think seeing all the tricks Watney works through, plus the tremendous obstacles he must overcome to survive will make it an exciting movie. The movie adaptation of the novel is scheduled for release in November, 2015 and will star Matt Damon as Mark Watney.

Overall The Martian is an enjoyable novel for science fiction fans; a great storyline, wonderful characters and chock full of science. These elements all combine to make this a satisfying read.

Book Details:
The Martian by Andy Weir
New York: Crown Publishers     2011, 2014
369 pp.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Killer Instinct by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Killer Instinct is the sequel to The Naturals, a sort of teen Criminal Minds. This time The Naturals must confront a killer who seems to be a copycat killer following the MO of Dean's father. Can they catch the killer before he strikes again?

After surviving an attempt on her life, seventeen year old Cassandra (Cassie) Hobbes is back at the house in Quantico, VA that serves as headquarters for the rest of The Naturals that include Dean Redding, Lia Zhang, Michael Townsend and Sloane. Special Agent Veronica Sterling, daughter of Director Sterling, arrives at the house to replace Agent Lacey Locke, the rogue agent and UNSUB (unknown subject) the group never recognized and who wreaked havoc only six weeks earlier. Agent Sterling is now responsible for ensuring this group of special teens obeys the directives of the program. She has also been sent by the Director to evaluate the top secret Naturals program.  Also present is Judd Hawkins, an ex-military man who is caretaker to both the Naturals and the house and who appears to know Agent Sterling very well.

Agent Tanner Briggs who is Sterling's ex-husband,  tells her that The Naturals program has solved two cold cases in the past month, however Sterling remains dubious.

Briggs and Sterling are called away to investigate a new case, but do not provide any details to the Naturals. Instead Cassie and her fellow Naturals learn from a television news broadcast about the murder of a girl from nearby Colonial University in northern Virginia. The young female student was bound and tortured before being strangled and then secured to the hood of her car which was placed on the lawn of the University President. A professor at the school, George Fogle, who teaches a class on serial murder is considered a suspect. After a video of the body is leaked online, The Naturals watch it, using their innate profiling skills to learn as much as they can about the killer.
"Bodies were like messages, full of symbolic meanings that only a person who understood the needs and desires and rage that went into snuffing out another life could fully decode."

The Naturals are puzzled as to why the FBI has been called in, but Dean tells them one of the serial killers that Fogle lectures about is his father,  Daniel Redding whose modus operandi (MO) is "Bind them. Brand them. Cut them. Hang them." Redding murdered at least a dozen women after his wife left him. Briggs and Sterling were the original agents on his father's case and are familiar with his MO. Dean is certain that the murderer of the Colonial University student is a copycat of serial killer Daniel Redding. This makes Cassie disturbed and she feels it is strangely coincidental that "six weeks ago, Locke was re-enacting my mother's murder, and now someone's out there playing copycat to Dean's dad?"

Dean begins to reveal to Cassie about what his life was like with his serial killer father. His father made Dean watch him torturing and murdering his victims, after Dean discovered what his father was doing. He tells her about how his father gradually attempted to involved Dean in the murders.

In an attempt to learn more about the Colonial U. murder, Sloane recreates the crime scene in the basement of the Naturals home. However, this is quickly discovered by Agent Sterling who tells them she will shut down The Naturals program if she finds them working on active cases. The Naturals was developed to solve cold cases, but Briggs has been using Dean on active cases, resulting in him almost losing his job. However, Cassie wonders if The Naturals can make a difference in active cases such as the one Agents Briggs and Sterling are now working.

After overhearing an argument between Agent Sterling and Dean who insists she tell him the name of the murdered girl, Cassie learns the girl's name is Emerson Cole. In an attempt to uncover information about Emerson's murder, Michael, Lia and Cassie attend a frat party at Colonial U. There they meet four people with connections to Emerson, none of whom really appear to be suspects.

Meanwhile, Sterling assigns Dean and Cassie to read a book on criminal psychology which outlines the characteristics of organized and disorganized killers. The former  are charming, articulate, confident and socially adept people who have little empathy for others. They stalk their victims and are difficult to catch. Disorganized killers are impulsive and tend to attack from behind.  This leads Cassie to realize that Dean's father is an organized killer.

Briggs and Sterling tell Dean that based on the similar modus operandi, it is likely that Emerson's killer has written to Dean's father in prison. They want to interview his father, but Daniel Redding has agreed to cooperate on one condition - that he talk to his son only. Dean agrees and accompanied by Briggs they visit Daniel Redding in jail. They learn that Professor Fogle interviewed him a few times and that he did most of his writing at a cabin in the mountains. He also tells Dean that "the only  truly remarkable letters he'd received were from a student in that class."

Unknown to Dean, Sterling and Cassie watch the interview from an observation room. Later Sterling confronts Cassie about sneaking out of hte house the previous night she tells her that she's worried about Cassie becoming too involved in the current case, especially since she has feelings for Dean. Sterling also reveals her connection with Dean.

Based on the information from the interview with Daniel Redding, Briggs follows up on locating Professor Fogle, but they learn that the professor has been found dead. This results in Director Sterling becoming personally involved in the case and he orders The Naturals to scour social media to learn whatever they can about the three hundred and seven students enrolled in Fogle's class and who are now suspects.

As events continue to unfold, the Agents and The Naturals begin to realize that Daniel Redding has more than a casual connection to the case. In a race against time, they must unravel how he is connected to the murders and what the next move will be. Can they discover the identity of the serial killer in time to prevent the next murder?

Killer Instinct has all the ingredients of a great story - an interesting plot with many twists, conflict between the major characters and a disturbingly creepy villain. There is a gentle love triangle that never overwhelms the overall storyline of the novel which is a group of teens helping their FBI mentors solve a series of murders. The gentle drama of the love story contrasts with the intensity of the hunt for the copycat killer.

Barnes further develops her main characters in this sequel, particularly Dean Redding, as we learn more about his disturbing relationship with his psychopathic father, Daniel, and come to discover that Dean keeps a tight rein on his emotions out of fear of losing it and becoming like his father. Each of the characters is involved in some kind of conflict, some more than others. There is the romantic tension between Dean, Michael and Cassie, conflict between Lia and Cassie who struggle to get along, and between Cassie and Sloane who wants to be included in the group. Cassie also struggles to get along with Veronica Sterling, who threatens to have a ankle monitor placed on her for disobeying orders.

One of the more fascinating conflicts in the story is that between Dean and his father. Dean is determined to prove he's not his father's son, but Daniel Redding is hoping to demonstrate otherwise and he tries very hard to provoke Dean. Their series of meetings gives Barnes the chance to demonstrate the character of an organized serial killer; Daniel is articulate, smooth and manipulating, but like many killers his ego gets in the way. Readers will particularly enjoy the psychological sparing between Agent Sterling who was a victim of Daniel Redding but who managed to escape and  and her revelation to Redding about what really happened and Dean's role in her escape.

Barnes ties in the plot in her previous novel, The Naturals to that in Killer Instincts, wrapping up the novel with a suspenseful ending that effectively ties together all the loose ends. Overall, Killer Instinct is an exciting, fast paced novel that fans of crime thrillers will enjoy.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes is a professor of psychology who has advanced degrees in psychology, psychiatry and cognitive science. 

Book Details:
Killer Instincts by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Los Angeles: Hyperion            2014
375 pp.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

Tallgrass is a historical thriller set against the backdrop of World War II and the incarceration of Japanese Americans in internment camps during the war.


In the late summer of 1942, the Japanese came to the town of Ellis, Colorado, to the old Tallgrass Ranch, a mile and a half from town. Thirteen year old Rennie Stroud, like many of the locals, went to the Ellis train depot to see the arrival of the first Japanese to be detained at Tallgrass, now a detention camp. People of Japanese ancestry from all over California were being rounded up and incarcerated in camps like Tallgrass  and the townsfolk were not very happy about this. While some like Lum Smith "don't see nothing wrong with them", others like Mr. Rubey were convinced they are dangerous. But Rennie "expected them to look like the cartoons of Hirohito in the newspaper...was disappointed that they didn't appear to be a 'yellow peril' at all. They were so ordinary."

Rennie's father, Loyal Stroud arrived at the depot, disappointed that she had come to see "the Japs". He reminded her and the other townsfolk there to gawk,  that these people are "unlucky Americans". When's Rennie's father was approached by a reporter to comment on the "Japs" coming to Tallgrass, he declined, even though his friend Redhead Joe Lee who runs one of the drugstores in Ellis told him he should speak out so people will know some don't hate the Japanese.

Rennie and her parents live with her mother's mother, Granny on a sugar beet farm less than a mile from Ellis. Her older brother Buddy had been attending Colorado A and M in Fort Collins before he enlisted while her older sister Marthalice recently moved to Denver to work in an arms plant after graduating high school.Rennie's best friend is Betty Joyce Snow, whose parents run the hardware store.

When the government bought the old Tallgrass Ranch, the people of Ellis didn't think much about whether or not it was right or wrong to detain those of Japanese ancestry, many born in America and therefore citizens. Tallgrass was going to help the town of Ellis by providing jobs and customers to local businesses. But as the construction workers were drafted into the war, the partially constructed camp was left for the evacuees to finish building the barracks and the feelings about Tallgrass changed. Rennie's father was sad and troubled by what he saw when he visited Tallgrass; he finds the barracks are crowded, dusty and hot, the camp surrounded by bobwire and watchtowers manned by US troops. There is no hospital, no library and not much of a school.

But people in Ellis were not happy; Mr. Elliot who ran the other drugstore in town, put a sign in his store window mocking the Japanese saying "No Japs Served." Shortly afterwards the Elliot drugstore was robbed and later on the train trestle was set afire. Many townsfolk blamed the Japanese at Tallgrass.

To quell dissent and rumours, the government decided to hold a meeting about the camp. Mr. Halleck who ran the camp explained to the town about the security guards with rifles, but people complained about everything including the fact that the Tallgrass school has a science lab and that the food is better. With Buddy at army camp, Rennie and her family struggled to harvest their sugar beet crop. This leads Loyal Stroud to ask if he can hire the Japanese from Tallgrass to harvest his sugar beets. Mr. Gardner, another farmer, also wants to hire Japanese men for the harvest. But their efforts were thwarted by the prejudice of the Ellis townsfolk who considered Stroud's request "un-American".  Mr. Spano, whose son Danny had been released by the US Army after injuring his foot, wanted to know who will protect the women if the Japanese men go to work on the farms. In the end, the sugar beet harvest in 1942 was taken in by Mexican workers.

By the fall of 1942, the war in Europe and the Pacific was going poorly. This led to shortages of gasoline, farm equipment, clothing and food, although Rennie's family was luckier than most because they could grow their own food.  Rennie's mom went to visit Marthalice in Denver for two weeks because she wasn't feeling well and when she was better Marthalice moved out of Cousin Hazel's home and into her own room in an old mansion.

Over Christmas, Buddy arrived home on leave. During his time home, Buddy and Rennie experienced first hand the prejudice towards the Japanese by the people of Ellis. At the Lee Drugstore they met three young Japanese boys who sneaked out of Tallgrass. Buddy was kind towards the boys, but in doing so was mocked by Jack Beaner and his friend Pete.  They learn later from Sheriff Watrous,  that the Japanese boys were attacked by three men on their way back to the camp without the youngest being injured by a rock which was thrown by three men. Rennie is certain it was Beaner, Danny and Pete. Dad tells them that there have been many rock-throwing incidents. Dad and Buddy disagree on the whether the Japanese are truly American or still loyal to Japan. When Dad questions his son about whether or not he's concerned that the Japanese Americans have had their rights taken away, Buddy says "No, sire. They're not the only ones. Besides, their rights are only being suspended. Our boys who've been killed, now their rights are gone for good."

Then one night a huge snowstorm hits Ellis, the wind howling and pushing the snow through the slats in the house.The next morning, Sheriff Watrous stopped at the Stroud farm with devastating news: young Susan Reddick who had been slightly crippled after contracting polio was raped and murdered and left dead in a haystack outside the barn. Horrified at the brutal crime, Rennie's parents and the Sheriff consider possible suspects including local troublemaker, Beaner Jack and possibly the Japanese from Tallgrass. After a visit to Tallgrass Loyal and the Sheriff feel that the Japanese are not involved in the murder of little Susan.

When Rennie and her parents visited the Reddick's to comfort them, Rennie noticed details about Susan's bedroom. She questions Sheriff Watrous as to why Susan would have left the house during a blizzard instead of using her chamber pot.  This convinced Sheriff Watrous that someone entered the Reddick farmhouse and then killed Susan.

After the funeral and into February of 1943, Loyal Stroud hired three Japanese boys, Carl Tanaka, Emory Kuruma and Harry Hirano to help with the sugar beet planting. The boys are polite and hard workers and became like family to the Strouds. Soon after, Mr. Gardner also hired a Japanese crew.  But all of this merely made some in Ellis downright mean. The Strouds were ostracized; one of the quilters refused to meet at the Strouds, manure was put into the bed of their truck, a dead cat was hung on their farm gate and Rennie was bullied at school.

With the murder of Susan Reddick unsolved, the hatred towards the Japanese grows leading to more trouble and culminating in a deadly confrontation at the Stroud farm that uncovers a terrible family secret.

Discussion (some spoilers)

Tallgrass is a murder mystery set in the American Midwest during the Second World War. It touches on many themes including the nature of prejudice, identity, betrayal, forgiveness and family secrets, of which there are plenty in this novel. Although I enjoyed the beginning chapters of Tallgrass, the story of a community struggling to cope with the location of a Japanese internment camp on its doorstep is lost in the overwhelming drama that follows. This drama culminates in the terrible murder at the Stroud's farm and the shocking revelations that come to light. Up until and including the murder of Susan Reddick, the story was realistic and believable. After this point,  Dallas simply heaps on the drama, the rape of Daisy which is not revealed until the end of the novel but which readers will quickly surmise, the drama surrounding Betty Joyce and her morphine addicted father, Buddy missing in action in Europe, the death of Harry Hirano, and the health problems of Rennie Stroud's mother. Tallgrass is a novel that tries to do too much. The murder of Susan Reddick and how this affected the small community of Ellis in relation to the internment camp would have provided more than enough themes to explore. Instead the Sheriff seems completely lost when investigating the murder of Susan and is helped more than once by thirteen year old Rennie Stroud who seems to have more sense than the entire town of Ellis combined.

Despite this, Dallas has crafted several outstanding characters in Loyal Stroud and his daughter Rennie as well as Mary Stroud. Reminiscent of Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, Loyal is the honorable, tolerant man who stands up to the bigots in the town of Ellis, providing a fine example of charity towards others to his younger daughter whom he affectionately calls "Squirt".

Tallgrass is a coming of age story, in which Rennie starts the story as an innocent young girl who quickly comes to learn that life can be complicated. She learns first hand about hatred and prejudice just by watching how the people from Ellis react towards the Japanese who are so different from them.  From the beginning Rennie is able to put herself in the place of the evacuees at Tallgrass, wondering how she would feel if she were forced to move to a camp.
"...I suddenly felt sorry for the Japanese. What if the government had taken over our farm and sent us far away on the train, and nobody would tell us our destination"
Despite this, Rennie realizes that "...the people at Tallgrass were different from us, and they still scared me."

By the end of the novel Rennie is a fourteen year old girl who has witnessed a murder, had two of her best friends raped, learned of young men who were killed in the war and is trying to cope with a sick mother and a brother in a German POW camp. She learns that life is filled with betrayal, lies and the keeping of secrets. Her mother tells her about her sister's baby but Rennie is not allowed to speak about it.

Dallas excels at creating detailed settings, providing her readers with a true sense of prairie life during the war and the attitudes that prevailed at the time about who was a true, loyal American. Small town America's attitudes towards outsiders of any kind and those who didn't agree with them are also accurately portrayed.

Overall this was an exciting novel with plenty of drama and rich in detail about the rural town life in America. Readers won't learn much about World War II nor even about the Japanese internment, but they will learn how American's felt about their fellow Japanese citizens and how they were viewed as a security risk during the war.

Book Details:
Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas
New York: St. Martin's Press     2007
305 pp.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

My Name is Blessing by Eric Walters

"We are each given more of some things and less of others."

My Name Is Blessing is based on the true story of a little boy, Baraka who lives in the Mbooni Region of Kenya in East Africa. In the picture book, a little boy named Muthini, which means suffering, lives with his Nyanya or grandmother and her eight other grandchildren. In Kenya, the name given to a person has important meaning and sadly Muthini's name means suffering. He was given his name by his mother because Muthini was born without fingers on his left hand and only two fingers on his right hand. While his grandmother doesn't seem to notice, Muthini bears the taunts and whispers of children and adults alike. When he questions his grandmother about his missing fingers she tells him that he has other qualities that make up for his lack of fingers. He is smart and she tells Muthini he has a big heart.

Sadly Muthini's grandmother is very poor and feeding and caring for nine grandchildren is difficult at best. So one day she comes to Muthini's school and tells him that they are going on a long walk. During that walk Mumo tells Muthini that she cannot care for him, that she loves him but that she is taking him to another home. That home turns out to be with a man named Gabriel. But Gabriel will only take Muthini on one condition. That condition will mean a huge change in how Muthini thinks about himself and his disability and will influence how others think about him too.

The real Baraka also lives in Kenya at a residential school run by The Creation of Hope an organization which works to meet the needs of the many orphans in the Mbooni District. The Creation of Hope was founded by Canadian author, Eric Walters and the Kyatha family and continues to offer assistance to many young people in Kenya, providing them with housing, the necessities of life and most importantly, an education. Readers can also learn more about The Creation of Hope and Baraka from the note at the back of the picture book titled "Baraka's World" There are plenty of wonderful photographs showing Baraka living at the Rolling Hills Residence.

My Name Is Blessing has colourful illustrations done in acrylic on paper by Eugenie Fernandes which bring to life this touching story about how a name can influence how we see ourselves and how others view us. More importantly My Name Is Blessing is a story about the importance of family and how sometimes love is best shown in hard sacrifices made by those who love us.

Book Details:
My Name Is Blessing by Eric Walters
Toronto: Tundra Books       2013

Thursday, January 15, 2015

In The After Light by Alexandra Bracken

The third and final installment in the Darkest Minds series sees the Psi children finally force the people of America and the rest of the world to acknowledge the truth of the camps what the government has really been doing to the IAAN children. The truth about the source of IAAN is finally revealed as well as a potential cure.

The novel opens with the events right after the bombing of Los Angeles by the American Government. President Gray attacked the Children's League and the Federal Coalition of former politicians after the possible involvement of both organizations in the assassination attempt on him. The Children's League had a headquarters in Los Angeles and this led to the city being bombed by the government. Following the bombing, the US Army and National Guard  have created a secure "perimeter around downtown Los Angeles using the elaborate freeway system." so as to prevent the rogue agents and the Psi children from leaving the city. Ruby, sent out on her own by the former Children's League agents, has ambushed a soldier,and using her abilities has searched through her mind, discovering gaps in the freeway's defenses.

The Los Angeles headquarters has been badly bombed, but many have survived including Cole, Liam, Vida, Chubbs and of course Clancy Gray.  Ruby believes they now need to leave LA as quickly as possible. Internment camps are located throughout the city with government troops picking up anyone they can find. Cate Connor and other agents are now missing, possibly having fled LA or possibly being held in one of the camps.

What's left of the league has moved location every few days and must search constantly for water and food. While preparing to return to their hiding, Ruby comes across three agents, Ferguson, Gates and Sen who are eating the food they found rather than bringing it back to the seventeen kids in hiding. Ruby overhears them talking about turning in the kids when they get out of LA to get the reward money to fund their next attack on President Gray. Ruby realizes that she must tell Cole.

In the warehouse where they are hiding, Liam, Cole, Vida, Chubbs, Nico are there waiting. They meet Anabel Cruz who is the Federal Coalition's International Liaison and who was meeting with Amplify, a underground news organization, when the attacks on Los Angeles began. Cole took her in after the reporter she was with was killed. Senator Cruz is interested in helping them and Cole believes she can help them get the truth out about the camps.

Ruby informs the group that not all the freeways are actually manned and that some have been set up with empty vehicles and floodlights. After Ruby marks their locations on a city map, Sen and Gates try to stall the group from leaving, but Cole is insistent that they leave early in the morning.  Ruby tells agent Cole Stewart, about the other agents plans to turn over the kids. Cole who is an agent who has kept is Psi abilities a secret, tells Ruby that he has had two Greens commit to memory the details of the research into IANN. He has been unable to read the research because he is concerned that the other agents might suspect his secret abilities. Cole tells her that they need to separate from the agents; they are going to the Ranch but she must enter the minds of each of the rogue agents and convince them that the Ranch is indefensible and that they are going to go to Kansas HQ.

They divide into four teams and split up between three different exits. Team A has Cole, Ruby, Liam, Vida and Clancy Gray who because of his ability to influence the minds of others will be with Ruby. Senator Cruz and Nico travel with other groups leaving the city. They manage to slip through the perimeter and hot wire two vehicles to travel to Lodi, south of Sacramento. One vehicle contains Cole, Ruby and Clancy while the second SUV Ford Explorer carries Liam, Chubbs and Vida. In Burbank, Liam's SUV is hit by a military Humvee which causes it to roll over. Cole destroys the Humvee with fire, killing one soldier and badly beating the other. Liam has a dislocated shoulder while Chubbs has his prescription glasses mangled.

They continue on, placing Liam, Chubbs and Vida into the bed of the red pickup truck. At this time Ruby realizes that Clancy probably knows that Cole is a Red (only Ruby knows) because he will have recognized the tell-tale physical tic Cole often exhibits. She also realizes that Clancy manipulated Cole into destroying the Humvee and killing the soldier. When she sees that Clancy begins to manipulate Cole again, she physically knocks him out. Cole begins to understand what happened and is so furious he drugs Clancy. He is also concerned that if the others discover that he is a Red they will never trust him but Ruby tells him they must keep Clancy drugged until they reach the Ranch and then keep him segregated.

In the small town of Mojave, the group notices "road code" a system of graffiti providing directions to  travel safely which the kids from East River developed. The crescent moon shape meant a safe place to rest or sleep. Then names are those kids who have passed through the area. Eventually Ruby clues in that letters are those of Kylie, Lucy, Zu and Hina from East River and she follows the road code to a deserted overgrown mountain home. There they find Zu and a large group of children who have been hiding out in the home for some time. Zu is so traumatized by what has happened that she doesn't speak. Ruby, Cole and the large group continue on to Lodi.

In Lodi they discover that the Ranch is a series of deep underground tunnels  as well as some above ground garages and buildings. They learn that most of the agents at the Ranch, with the exception of Cate, left to move to the Kansas HQ when they were contacted by the Los Angeles agents  (the ones Ruby influenced). They not only left but took most of the food and other supplies with them including the servers. They also learn that the flash drive with the research from Leda Corporation about the causes of IAAN was destroyed when the EMP hit Los Angeles. Cate decides to go after the agents who left but Cole and Ruby believe this is not a good idea.

The kids settle into the Ranch and Clancy is placed in isolation where he is only to be seen by either Cole or Ruby. He begins provoking Ruby, asking her if she knows what's happening at Thurmond. He tells her that the cure is merely another way to control the Psi children.
"It's not some magic bandage that's going to heal all wounds. It's not going to erase the stigma of what we are in their minds. If there aren't side effects, they'll always be waiting, watching, praying that we don't relapse..."

Life is tense at the Ranch for many reasons. Ruby is frustrated at the loss of the flashdrive and the research on the cause of IAAN and begins sleepwalking. Liam and Cole struggle to get along, each keeping secrets from the other. Nico manages to access Clancy's server after Ruby seemingly tricks Clancy into revealing the password and they discover that Thurmond is slated to be closed with the kids being moved out. Cole tells Ruby they need to hit the camp before it is shut down if they are to prove to the world that they are not for rehabilitation but for abuse and mistreatment. They decide in order to prepare for the liberation of Thurmond, they must do a hit on a smaller camp to make sure the plan is workable.  Cole decides on Oasis, the camp where Senator Cruz's daughter Rosa is being kept.

Senator Cruz arranges for gas and ammunition to be brought in from Canada while Ruby and Cole continue working on the plan to attack Thurmond before the beginning of March. They decide to send several kids into Oasis ahead of the actual attack so they know the layout of the camp. Nico who has been monitoring online videos learns that Cate as well as Sen and Johnston have been captured by the US military. The video of Cate's capture has been put out by Amplify and this leads Liam to begin leaning towards putting out videos of the camp situation rather than using the children to attack the camps.

Meanwhile Ruby learns that Dr. Gray is still alive and that she is being held with the Children's League at an unknown location. When they learn where she is being held two teams are sent out, one to retrieve Dr. Gray and one to liberate the Psi children from Oasis. But these operations reveal more and more obstacles to overcome; freeing Dr. Gray's mind from the damage Clancy did and dealing with Reds who are now guarding Thurmond and who have attacked the Kansas HQs. When tragedy strikes one of the teams sent out to check on a camp of Reds, Ruby comes to the stark realization of what Clancy's been up to. Too late to save herself, Ruby enters Thurmond to take down the camp.

In The After Light, Bracken brings the Darkest Minds series to a satisfying conclusion, tying up loose ends and filling in missing details. The novel ends on a hopeful note, the children freed but still fighting for their right to live their own lives, in light of what was done to them.

The novel takes its title from a response Ruby gives Nico when he asks her what the future looks like. She remembers looking past the razor wire at Thurmond so she could remember that there was a world outside the camp. Cole said the future looked like an open road - a prophecy that is fulfilled at the end of the book. But Ruby tells Nico "'I see it in colors....A deep blue, fading into golds and reds -- like fire on a horizon. Afterlight. It's a sky that wants you to guess if the sun is about to rise or set."

Perhaps the greatest strength of the novel, besides its engaging story, is the wonderful characters Bracken creates and develops through the series. Ruby, Cole, Liam, Vida, Chubbs, Zu, Clancy and Nico are all fully developed characters whom the reader becomes totally invested in. There are several budding romances in the novel, strong conflicts between Cole and Liam and between Ruby and Nico, and the tragedy of Zu who is so traumatized she can't speak. All of this makes the characters and the story very realistic.

Ruby is a wonderfully strong protagonist who never loses her human side despite all the suffering she's experienced. She's determined to free the children from the camps, to understand what caused IAAN and to learn about the possible cure that Lillian Gray had found. Other than his mother, Ruby, more than anyone,  recognizes the danger Clancy Gray poses. And it becomes even more evident in the third novel why Lillian Gray was so determined to find a cure for her son.

Clancy Gray is the tragic anti-hero in the novel. He is manipulative and determined to retain his power to control people until the very end - even after he receives the invasive cure he so dreaded.  He tells Ruby, "...I can figure a way around this, how to deactivate the device she planted there. How to get everything back. I can do it. I'm closer to the right people than ever. I can find my father, wherever he's hiding. I can do it." This leads Ruby to act out of mercy, rather than how she knows Clancy would have behaved towards her.
Despite Clancy's desire to control others around him, his ideas about the Psi children and how the world will treat them end up being accurate. During one of their encounters at the Ranch, Clancy told Ruby that the cure will destroy who they are and that it is an invasive procedure. He told her that "Now isn't the time to change yourself to fit into the world...You should be changing the world to accept you. To let you exist as you are, without being cut open and damaged." When the camps are disbanded and the country begins its recovery, Senator Cruz announces that Dr. Lillian Gray will perform the live-saving operation to neutralize the Psi abilities, free of charge. However those  Psi-afflicted citizens who do not have it will have to live apart from society in special communities. This infuriates Chubbs, who is an advisor to Cruz, and he stands up for their rights as citizens and in light of what was done to them.

The novel is very long and sometimes tedious with its detail, but readers will be rewarded with a great story that has plenty of tragedy, a touch of romance, and some deeply touching moments. The novel explores the themes of identity, forgiveness and acceptance. The Darkest Minds series is one of the best dystopian young adult series since The Hunger Games.

In The After Light will likely be made into a movie, likely by 2016. If the movie adaptations are done in a manner similar to The Hunger Games series, faithful to the novels with good casting, they will be excellent.

Book Details:
In The After Light by Amanda Bracken
Los Angeles: Hyperion          2014
535 pp.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Cure For Dreaming by Cat Winters

This strange novel has the odd premise of a frustrated father attempting to hypnotize the free-thinking thoughts of women's rights out of his daughter's head so she will want to live her life as women are meant to - getting married and having children.


Olivia Mead is at the Metropolitan Theater in Portland, Oregon to celebrate her birthday, which happens to be on Halloween. She and her dearest friend Frannie Harrison, another friend Kate and their chaperone, Agnes are there to see The Mesmerizing Henri Reverie, a hypnotist. When Henri Reverie asks for a volunteer who is celebrating a birthday, Kate volunteers Olivia. Reluctantly Olivia takes the stage and is hypnotized by Henri who makes her body go so rigid that he is able to balance her between two chair and stand on her stomach.Olivia awakes from the trance but remembers nothing of what happened on stage.

After the show, Percy Acklen, son of Judge Acklen, whom Olivia has a crush on, asks to drive her home. Against the advice of Frannie, Olivia takes him up on his offer. Percy tells her that she is beautiful and that his father believes her to be "womanhood perfected....Silent. Alluring. Submissive." Shocked  Olivia questions Percy why he suddenly has shown an interest in her, especially since her father, Dr. Mead is a dentist with a reputation for enjoying seeing his patients suffer.  Olivia's father is happy to see Percy's interest in his daughter and tells Percy he's a fan of Judge Acklen's opinion pieces in the newspaper. Percy indicates that is father will be writing a new piece about the suffragettes protesting outside courthouse about their having no right to vote in next Tuesday's presidential election. Dr. Mead expresses his horror over the protest but is quite interested when Percy tells him that Olivia was hypnotized by Henri Reverie and that she did everything he asked of her.

After Percy leaves, Dr. Mead confronts his daughter, telling her that Mr. Underhill, the owner of  one of Portland's largest shipping firms, saw her yelling with the suffragettes outside the court building. Olivia tells her father that "...I would like to vote for president when I'm older." However, her father is not supportive, stating that it was his hope that she would "grow up to be a rational, respectable, dignified young woman who understands her place in the world." As a result of her participation, Mr. Underhill is no longer a patient of Dr. Mead's. But when a picture showing Olivia hypnotized  appears in the Oregonian, her father decides to hire Henri Reverie to cure her of her rebelliousness and her "unladylike dreams" of going to school. Olivia is horrified that her father believes her "future is to become a respectable housewife and mother." He tells her that "Women belong in the home, and inside some man's home you'll stay."

Olivia has been a good student and has been attending a progressive, coeducational high school with electric lighting, a library and a laboratory. At school Frannie warns her against being with Percy saying he's a "grabber". During choral practice, Olivia receives a note from her father telling her to come to his dental office after school. Olivia arrives at her father's office only to meet Henri Reverie whom her father has hired to help her accept the world the way it is." Fearing Olivia will be like her mother who abandoned the family and who also supports the right of women to vote, Dr. Mead decides to have Olivia hypnotized.

Henri hypnotizes Olivia against her will and tells her that she will say 'All is well' instead of arguing whenever she is angry. He also tells her that "she will see the world the way it truly is. The roles of men and women will be clearer than they have ever been before. You will know whom to avoid." When she awakens Olivia is shocked at what she sees; Henri looks incredibly delightful and someone she can trust but her father looks like a red-eyed fiend. As Henri instructed, when Olivia wants to scream at her father, all she can say is "All is well."

The hypnosis leaves Olivia seeing disturbing visions of people as they truly are. For example, the women opposed to women's suffrage are seen as caged and Frannie's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, appear as perfect. Olivia flees to Frannie's home where she tells her friend what happened to her and what she's been seeing. At first Frannie believes this is because her friend has read Dracula too many times. However, Olivia tells her the disturbing visions began only after Henri's hypnotism at her home. When she returns home Olivia gives her father the answers he wants to hear so he is not suspicious that her suffragette thoughts have not be removed. In fact, Olivia is more determined than ever to work for the right to vote especially when she sees a letter in the paper, written by Judge Percival R. Acklen, who is Percy's father. Judge Acklen claims that scientific evidence supports the notion that women are not capable of higher thinking and belong in the home, and that should they become involved in politics, they will abandon their roles as wives and mothers and destroy American family life. This motivates Olivia to write a letter in response which she signs as "A Responsible Woman" and which she takes the next day to the offices of the Oregonian.

Meanwhile Olivia seeks out Henri Reverie and learns that his name is really Henry Rhodes and that his sister, fifteen year old Genevieve is sick with breast cancer.  At this time Olivia receives a birthday note from her mother who lives in New York, working as an actress. She sends Olivia a one-way ticket to the city and invites her to come stay with her. But before Olivia can leave Portland she needs to repair the damage done to her by Henri's hypnotism. Olivia wants to be free to speak her own mind and wants Henri to reverse what he did to her. She writes him a letter begging him to do this, asking him how he would feel if his sister were unable to cry out to protect herself or to protest when something harmful was being done to her.

When she meets Henri and his sister Genevieve, Henri reveals that her father has requested more hypnotism and he wants to demonstrate the ability of hypnotism in removing the desire for emancipation of women. He plans to show how Olivia becomes ill at the mention of suffragettes at a meeting of an organization opposed to women's suffragette, The Oregon Association Opposed To The Extension Of Suffrage To Women. He tells Olivia that in order to afford her treatments he needs the money her father will pay him for the second hypnotism. At this point Olivia explains how because of the hypnotism, she was unable to defend herself against the advances of Percy Acklen. Henri, now realizing the harm he has done to Olivia, promises her that he will help her. Can Olivia and Henri outwit her father, Mead the Mad, to restore Olivia's ability to make her own choices and to recover her ability to speak her own mind?


The Cure For Dreaming is a very original treatment of the early women's suffragette movement in the United States when women were fighting for the right to vote and to participate more fully in society. It is set in 1900 Oregon, in the very middle of what was the suffragette movement that began in the mid 1870s and continued with the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted female citizens who were twenty-one years of age and older the right to vote in all states, in 1920. At this time a woman's place, as so eloquently expressed by the educated upperclass such as Dr. Mead and Judge Acklen, was as a wife and mother, in the home. Her speech was supposed to be saved for supporting her husband and singing sweet lullabies to her children, not out on the street protesting.

However, Olivia has dreams and she wants to express those dreams and pursue them - something her father and his generation consider to be unladylike.  In the novel, Winters uses Olivia's hypnosis supposedly to demonstrate the world as it truly is. The women opposed to emancipation are seen as ghosts in cages, shadows of who they could be - the implication being that an unemancipated woman is not fulfilling her potential as a person. In contrast, the suffragettes are seen by Olivia as women illuminated by bright lights from within - women who believe they are equal are strong and vibrant people.

This sort of caricature continues with the male characters too. Those men who are more open minded and kindly towards women are seen by Olivia as beautiful and perfect. With the exception of Henri Reverie, most of the young men are portrayed as cads. Olivia's father is somewhat of a caricature of the men during this time period - many of whom were opposed to the emancipation of women. They felt it would upset the natural order of things and that women biologically were incapable of rational thought. Dr. Mead is immediately portrayed as a rather cruel, crazy man who seemed to delight in his patient's suffering. This sets the stage for his crazy idea that he will cure his daughter of her dreams which do not match his ideal of womanhood through the use of hypnosis. He hopes this "cure" can be used to stop the suffragettes. Because of this Olivia often sees her father as a vampire, even a fiend with red eyes.

Olivia is a strong protagonist, determined to forge her own path. She wants a career but also to be married. To do that she needs to outwit her father and with the help of Henri Reverie, who Olivia's "second sight" has shown to be a sympathetic man, she is able to prevent her imagination from being stolen from her. She never wavers from her goal, which is regain control over her mind and her dreams.

Winters succeeds in engaging her reader from the very beginning with an exciting opening chapter set in a theatre on Halloween night. She enhances her story by including interesting black and white photographs throughout the novel. For example, the cover and the opening picture are of a girl prone across two chairs. There are several images of dentistry in the early 20th century which fills in details on Dr. Mead and how he would have practiced his profession during this era. There are also pictures of suffragettes and women riding bicycles (considered a step towards emancipation by the suffragettes) which gives the reader some understanding of the women who were involved in the movement at this time.

The Cure For Dreaming is historical fiction with a paranormal twist, taking a genre that sometimes has a reputation for being boring, and making it more exciting.Overall this novel is an interesting story with a cover that makes the reader want to explore the story inside.

Book Details:
The Cure For Dreaming by Cat Winters
New York: Amulet Books      2014
352 pp.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Brief History by Stephen Hawking

My Brief History is just that - a very short autobiography of Stephen Hawking's remarkable life from his childhood in postwar London to his ground-breaking work in cosmology and quantum physics. It is a succinct, engaging story that begins in 1942.

Stephen Hawking was born in 1942 in Oxford, England. Hawking had three siblings, Mary, Philippa and an adopted brother, Edward, who passed away in early adulthood. Because the school he attended as a child did not believe in formally instructing children to read, Stephen did not learn to read until he was eight years old. When he was a young boy, Stephen loved model trains but did not have a good working one until after the war when his father returned from a visit to America with a new train. Stephen was interested in electric trains and with his friend, John McClenahan and later on with another school friend, Roger Ferneyhough, he built different working models of trains, boats, planes and games. Hawking writes that he had "an urge to know how systems works and how to control them."  Later on this urge to understand would be satisfied by his endeavours in theoretical physics.

When Hawking attended St. Albans school he was an average student. Stephen had a group of six or seven friends with whom he would discuss many topics, including "the origin of the universe and whether it had required a God to create it and set it going."
Stephen wanted to study mathematics and physics but his father, fearing there would be no jobs for mathematicians, wanted him to study medicine. To Stephen, "Physics was always the most boring subject at school because it was so easy and obvious. Chemistry was more fun because unexpected things, such as explosions, kept happening. But physics and astronomy offered the hope of understanding where we came from and why we are here."

In March, 1959, Hawking went to Oxford to write the scholarship exam and was admitted at age seventeen. At the time Hawking attended college, most were single-sex and responsible for protecting the morals of the students. Being caught in bed with a member of the opposite sex meant automatic expulsion from the college. The attitude in colleges at this time was to do as little work as possible, which Stephen Hawking managed to accomplish. He graduated Oxford and went to Cambridge. But before arriving at Cambridge Hawking journeyed to Iran with a fellow student, John Elder, who spoke Farsi. During this trip, Stephen travelled to Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Persepolis.

In 1962, Cambridge beckoned. There Stephen was to be supervised by Dennis Sciama. Although he originally wanted to study with the renowned astronomer Fred Hoyle, it turned out that the assignment of Sciama was a fortuitous one. Sciama had more time to devote to the young cosmologist. Hawking decided to study in the neglected areas of cosmology and gravitation. 

During Hawking's last year at Oxford he noticed that he was becoming increasingly clumsy and when this trend continued during his time at Cambridge he decided to see his doctor. Tests were ordered and it was eventually concluded that Hawking had motor neuron disease and that he had two years to live. Although this was depressing as doctors could do nothing to help him, Hawking continued to struggle on with his thesis work and even began to enjoy life. He also began to work hard at his studies and found he enjoyed this very much. He also fell in love and this greatly helped his outlook on life. He married Jane Wilde in 1965.  Two years later they had their first child, Robert and then three years later, Lucy was born.

When Hawking began his graduate studies in 1963, the principal question in cosmology was whether the universe had a beginning. The Big Bang theory and the steady-state theory were two possible origins. Around this time Roger Penrose had done some ground-breaking work on black holes and singularities. When a star dies it contacts in on itself and there is a point where time and space come to an end - known as a singularity. Hawking decided to apply this to formation of the universe and this became his thesis topic and led into his life's work. Hawking "has shown how quantum theory can predict what happens at the beginning and end of time"

From this point on Hawking provides short chapters on his work on black holes and time travel as well as writing his most popular work, A Brief History of Time.  Hawking writes, "I was sure that nearly everyone is interested in how the universe operates, but most people cannot follow mathematical equations. I don't care much for equations myself...mainly because I don't have an intuitive feeling for equations. Instead, I think in pictorial terms, and my aim in the book was to describe these mental images in words..." The book became a huge hit in both America and Britain where it remained on the best seller lists for months. Hawking has also written many other books that explain the science of black holes and the universe.

My Brief History is a great read for those who are fans of Stephen Hawking and those who would like to know more about this famous physicist whose life was the focus of the bio-pic The Theory of Everything. Hawking devotes more time talking about specific aspects of his work like black holes and time travel.

There are lots of black and white photographs of Hawking during his lifetime, featuring his family, his first wife Jane, and his second wife, Elaine, his life as a student and even his recent travels and his experiencing zero gravity. Despite his severe disability, Hawking is a well travelled man, having visited many countries. He is probably the most famous scientist in the world partly because of his disability and partly because his work in theoretical physics has made black holes, time travel and quantum theory sexy.

The last chapter of the book is probably the most enlightening. Although Hawking initially felt he had been dealt a low blow, he remains satisfied with his life, having had two marriages, "three beautiful and accomplished children' and having been successful in his scientific career. Instead of hindering him, his disability has allowed him to focus solely on the theoretical aspect of his career and not having had to lecture. "I have had a full and satisfying life. I believe that disabled people should concentrate on things that their handicap doesn't prevent them from doing and not regret those they can't do." Ultimately, isn't that the point of it all - a life well lived with the satisfaction that perhaps he has "added something to our understanding of the universe."

Book Details:
My Brief History by Stephen Hawking
New York: Bantam Books      2013
127 pp.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Like Water On Stone by Dana Walrath

It's difficult reading about the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century when Muslim Turks systematically slaughtered millions of Armenian men, women and children in what was the first genocide of the 20th century. It's difficult to comprehend such atrocities. I'm convinced that it is necessary for second and third generation Armenians - the descendants of those who survived, to continue to educate the rest of the world about what happened within the Ottoman Empire during World War I.  This is especially important since Muslims and Kurds in the region of  what is now Turkey and Syria continue to insist that the Armenian genocide never occurred. Without some acknowledgement of the genocide, there can be no healing between Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims.

The story in Like Water On Stone mirrors the events of author Dana Walrath's Armenian ancestors. Her mother's mother (Dana Walrath's grandmother) Oghidar Troshagirian hid during the day and travelled at night with her siblings after their parents were killed, in order to escape the massacre. Like many descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide, Walrath knows little about what happened to her grandparents (her grandfather Yeghishe Mashoian was also a survivor) as this horrific event was something not spoken about. Walrath knows that once her grandmother arrived in Aleppo she and her siblings were able to emigrate to America because her maternal uncle lived in New York. She also learned that her family were millers in Palu and that several older siblings of her grandmother did escape as well.

In 1984, Walrath and her husband travelled to Palu where they asked people living in the area about the location of nearby mills. They eventually found a mill with buildings attached in the woods near a fast flowing stream. They met a woman whose family now owned the mill. "She said that the mill had been in her family for sixty years; before that, it had belonged to Armenians. With anti-Armenian stories running Turkish newspapers that summer, and all visible traces of Armenian inhabitants systematically denied or destroyed, I had kept my identity hidden as we traveled. But I told her the truth. We held each other's gaze as the water hit the mill wheel and the stone of the stream. The official Turkish policy of genocide denial evaporated for one brief moment on that rooftop."

 Like Water on Stone tells the story in free verse of the Donabedian family during the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1919.  The family consists of Papa, Mama, older brothers Kevorg and Misak, Anahid, thirteen year old Shahen and his twin sister Sosi and their younger sister, five year old Mariam who live in Palu, deep inside the Ottoman Empire. The Donabedian family are Armenian Christians who live in a country ruled by Muslim Turks and Kurds. Their Papa survived the 1895 massacre of Christians ordered by Sultan Hamid.

In Part I Palu 1914 the poems portray the everyday life in Palu in which the lives of Muslim Turks and Kurds and Armenian Christians are seemingly intertwined with one another. Yet there are signs that all is not well.  For example, Shahen's older sister, Anahid has married Asan, a Kurd. This makes other Armenian families reluctant to marry their daughters to the older Donabedian boys. Mama insists that they must marry their own kind- that is other Christians. Sosi is being taught by her Mama how to run a household, to cook, to dye wool, to weave and to bargain for fabrics. When they go to purchase wool they are insulted by the Turks they purchase fabric from. But Sosi's mother reminds her daughter that despite being ruled for miles by Turks, the land they live on belongs to the Armenians who planted the olive trees. Papa considers the Turks his friends; they make music together but do the Turks and Kurds feel the same way about the Armenian Christians?

The poetry also portrays life in Palu in 1914. Throughout the summer of 1914, Shahen and Sosi carry baskets of apricots from the trees that lined the river up to the roof to be dried. Meanwhile Shahen tried to convince his Papa to let him travel to America, but Papa wants him to study with Father Manoog so he can go to college in Kharpert. Papa's friends, his daughter's inlaws Palewan and her husband Kaban with his duduk and zurna and Mustafa Bey Injeli and his dumbek come to play music with him. Days later Anahid comes from the market with a poem written in the hand of Vahan, the son of Baron Bedros, a Turk, whom Sosi loves. As the summer passes, the olives ripen to black and the grapes are harvested.

The Donabedian family receives a letter from Mama's brother who lives in New York, warning them that war has begun and they must leave the Ottoman Empire. He asks them to at least send Shahen to America but Papa refuses saying that the Turks and Kurds he knows are his friends and that they will not harm them.  However, as summer slips into autumn and the persimmons ripen, the Turks fights the Russians and the Armenians are expected to fight alongside the Turks. Shahen begs Papa to send him and Misak and Kevorg to America. "Papa will not listen."

Part II Massacre 1915 opens with soldiers coming to the Donabedian mill searching for weapons.  When the family have no weapons to give the soldiers as they are millers, they are threatened with arrest. Armenians are sent to build the Baghdad Railway and Anahid's husband, Asan is sent to fight at the Russian front. While their leaders and men are imprisoned, other families go into hiding or leave. One such family is the Arkalian's whom Father Manoog blesses before they leave.

Despite Papa's assurances that they are safe, soldiers come to the mill and arrest Kevorg and Misak. Baron Kaban and Baron Mustafa vouch for Papa and his family and the Turkish soldiers leave but the family fear for Shahen who is in school. Shahen manages to sneak home and his parents dress him as a girl so he will not be taken away as his brothers were. Then at dawn one day, Papa tells Shahen to take his sisters, Sosi and Mariam to the highest field and not to return until they come for them. If they do not, he is to take them south to Aleppo to the Forty Martyrs Church where there is a priest who helped their uncle travel to America. Shahen, Sosi and Mariam run into the hills in the hopes of meeting their parents again. But the horrifying screams tell Shahen that probably Papa and Mama will not be coming to get them. And so Shahen begins the journey over the mountains and across the desert to Aleppo. It is a journey that will see their faith, their perseverance tested to the limit.

Part III  Journey 1915 and Part IV 1919 provide the details of Shahen and his sisters' journey to Aleppo and what happens when they arrive there.

The story of the Donabedian family is told in four voices, Shahen, Sosi, Mariam and the eagle, Ardziv. Ardziv becomes attached to the family when Sosi finds a quill from the eagle one day while dyeing wool. The feather will be used by her Papa to make music on his oud. The eagle feels that
"If my quill could pull laments
from the strings of an oud,
I thought, then
my heart might heal."
Ardziv had a mate and young birds in the nest before his mate was killed. The killing of Ardziv's mate by a Turkish man is a foreshadowing of the genocide. The killing is senseless in the eyes of the eagle, who hunts only for food. But as he watched the Turk and his son pluck the feathers from her wings and leave her carcass for the vultures Ardziv realized his mate's killing was done for her feathers and nothing else. Because of this Ardziv decides to watch over the three young people as they journey south through the mountains towards Aleppo.

It is Ardziv who first sees the movement of soldiers faraway.
"In distant lands
lines of soldiers
moved locust-like.
across  the earth,
their bodies clad
in identical
greens and browns,
rifles up like antennae."

And later on Ardziv sees the truth behind the Armenian men who are marched along.
"I followed the soldiers
with every fit 
Armenian man....
They walked them
in a line
along the river
for miles,
and poking
with guns,
their hands tied.
They stopped.
They stripped them.
They turned them.
They shot them.
They threw the bodies
into the river."

When Papa realizes his mistake too late, he reaches up towards Ardziv stating "No land is worth a child's life. Protect them. Please."
Ardziv states,
"I made a promise
to the empty sky.
These three young ones
would not die."

When Shahen hides with his sisters on the hilltop, Ardziv circles watching them and as they leave Palu, he follows the three young people as they go high up into the mountains to be safe. When Ardziv sees that Mariam is starving he begins to hunt for the three bringing them rabbit and snake to eat. And when a brown bear begins following them after catching the scent of blood, Ardziv leads her away from Shahen and his siblings. And when Shahen and Mariam are hurt after falling into a crack in the rocks, the eagle leads Sosi to where she can find food. The eagle accompanies them across the desert to Aleppo. Again and again, he comes to the children's aid.

Ardziv serves as the one narrator who is not in danger and who can protect the children. The eagle sees the full extent of the genocide from his vantage point in the sky. He knows the danger the Turks present because he has experienced it himself. Through the eagles eyes the reader experiences the horrors of the genocide, the murder of the men by the river and the mutilation and death of Papa and Mama. He is a the one character through which the author can express the feelings of terror, horror and anger that the mass killings evoke.

Walrath's poetry is eloquent and deeply touching. Though simple and even sparse at times, the beautiful poems in this novel express the true horror of the Armenian genocide. After setting up in detail the way the Christian Armenians live - their strong family life, the dyeing of wool, harvesting of apricots to be dried on the rooftops, the picking olives and grapes, the pruning of grape vines, the work in the mill, the music of the oud- as the story moves forward, the poems portray the terror, suffering and the overwhelming sense of loss the Armenian community experiences as first their men are rounded up and then family after family are butchered, some burned alive in their homes, others raped, mutilated and beheaded.

Sometimes it is what is not said by Walrath's poems that conveys the horror so effectively. After months in the mountains, the realization  that Mama and Papa will not meet them in Aleppo and that Misak and Kevorg are likely dead, comes to thirteen year old Sosi, Despite this awful revelation, the novel ends on a hopeful note - a future in America where they can be free, something that 1.5 million Armenians never had a chance at.

Demonstrating that not all Muslims cooperated in the genocide, Walrath includes numerous honourable Turks, including Mustafa who binds his wife, Fatima, so she will not reveal what she knows about the Donabedians, Kaban, Palewan and Mustafa who wash and bury Papa and Mama and the kindly Bedouin who takes the three Donabedian children into his care in the desert, making sure they get safely to Aleppo.

Sadly the conflict between Muslims and Christians continues in the part of the world today, over one hundred years later with the destruction of the Armenian Holy Martyrs Church in Der Zor, Syria. This church was set up as a memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide and was brazenly destroyed by the militant Muslim group ISIS.

There are many excellent resources online and in print about the Armenian Genocide. Dana Walrath has included a long Author's Note, a Glossary, a map, and a detailed list of Resources for readers to explore in her novel.

Those interested in history, especially World War I, and who wish a more personal touch to their historical fiction will find Like Water On Stone to be engaging. Although deeply tragic, the element of hope and thankfulness permeates the ending.  Shahen knows what could have been his and his sisters' fate - a death march or a forced conversion to Islam. There's no sugar coating what was done. Like Water On Stone is historical fiction at its best - vivid, realistic and factual.

Book Details:
Like Water On Stone by Dana Walrath
New York: Delacorte Press     2014
353 pp.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Movie Review: If I Stay

If I Stay is the movie adaptation of Gayle Forman's popular YA novel of the same name. If I Stay is about a girl, Mia Hall, who loses her entire family in a car accident. Caught between life and death, Mia sees what is happening beginning directly after the accident, through her time in the hospital and up to the time where she must make a decision to die or return to the living, knowing she is an orphan.

In the movie, Mia in her in-between state wanders the halls of the hospital listening to her grandparents, her friends, doctors and nurses and her boyfriend, Adam Wilde, as they struggle to cope with the tragedy. She learns about her parents death and eventually the death of her little brother, Teddy.

Through flashbacks we watch as Mia and Adam meet and their unlikely friendship develops into tempestuous love affair.  They first met when Adam saw her playing cello in the band room at school. Adam is an older guy who is the lead singer in his band while Mia is a classical cellist.

In Mia's senior year, the two begin to be pulled apart by life's circumstances. After Adam's band is signed to a label and begins to tour, Mia wonders if there will be room in his life for her. Her grandfather suggests that she audition for Julliard, that she is good enough to get in and at first Mia rejects this idea. But gradually she decides to apply to Julliard - a decision she does not tell Adam about. When she is selected for an audition in San Francisco she decides to tell Adam when he returns from tour. He is furious with her for applying and not telling him and as Adam sets off on another tour they part on angry terms. Although they love one another, it seems that if they are to stay together one must sacrifice their music for the other.

Mia is accompanied by her grandfather to her audition in San Francisco where she plays brilliantly. All that remains is to wait now for the adjudicators decision. When Mia meets Adam again, she tells him that there is a good possibility of her gaining admission to Julliard and that if she does, she will go. This leads to them to break up.

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Mia Hall and Jamie Blackley as Adam Wilde. Moretz gives a solid performance as the dying Mia who must decide to live or die. At first Mia doesn't understand what it happening until she sees herself lying on a stretcher and realizes that she is having an out-of-body experience. Moretz manages to convey the shock and isolation Mia feels when she realizes what is happening. Because she cannot talk to any of the characters in the movie, Mia often narrates what is happening. Through her narration we experience her frustration and loneliness, and the fear that she experiences over her situation.

The flashbacks are very well done, filling in the back story of Mia's life with scenes from her family and her relationship with Adam. We learn that Mia's parents, Denny and Kat, were once rockers who decided to trade in their spontaneous lifestyle for one more favourable to raising a child. Her father quit his band and got a regular job. It is the scenes of a warm and close family life that make the viewer realize just how much Mia has lost and how she might not want to live. Unlike many parents in YA novels, Mia's are concerned, happy and even a bit funky. They are involved with their children and they care. Mia also has a special relationship with her Gramps who encourages her to pursue her music more seriously and who believes in her abilities. The scene where Mia is visited by Gramps played by Stacey Keach, is one of the most touching moments in the movie. Mia's grandpa tells her that he loves her but that if she wants to go it is fine.

Mia's decision is a difficult one. After hearing her Gramps give her permission to die, Mia decides she does not want to live. It is when Adam plays cello music through a set of headphones and tells her that she has been accepted by Julliard, that Mia realizes she does have something to live for. It's not an easy decision - "dying is easy. Living is hard." Viewers may not realize that Moretz cannot play the cello but the young actress does an excellent job on screen portraying a classical cellist.

I was disappointed with Jamie Blackley as Adam Wilde. His performance seems uninspired and his connection with Mia doesn't feel romantic or special in any way. He tells her with words that he loves her but his facial expressions and body language do not convey that love and the chemistry is only barely there.

Directed by R.J. Cutler directed If I Stay is romantic drama that for the most part will leave viewers tearful at the end and wanting more. I am hopeful that the sequel to If I Stay, which is titled Where She Went will also be adapted for cinema. But if it isn't, read the book to find out what happens to Mia and Adam.