Sunday, May 31, 2015

Love, Lucy by April Lindner

April Lindner has written a story about a young girl coming of age as she experiences her first love and struggles to make her own decisions about life.

Seventeen year old Lucy Sommersworth and her best friend Charlene Barr are backpacking their way through Europe, in the vacation of a lifetime. Lucy's father paid for their flights in exchange for Lucy enrolling at Forsythe University to study business. It's not a major Lucy would have chosen. She's a born actress having landed the leads in almost every school play and summer stage production and dreaming of a career as an actress. Lucy is not good at math and money but she's used to her father pushing his way on her. "All my life he's wanted me to be things I"m not. Like a sports star. Or one of those kids in the Gifted program."

So as to entice her to study something reasonable at college, Lucy's father has bribed her. Not wishing Lucy to travel alone, her parents agreed to pay for both Lucy and Charlene's airline tickets and Eurail passes. The novel opens two weeks into their trip with Charlene upset over their room at the Hostel Bertolini. As of lately, Charlene and Lucy have not been getting along, ever since Charlene left a boy she really liked in Munich. After Charlene marches down to the check-in desk to complain about the lousy view and gets their rooms changed, Lucy meets one of the boys who is forced to switch rooms with her. At first he seems rude and to be ignoring Lucy's attempts to apologize for her friend's behaviour. But when Nello the sweet boy at the check-in desk arrives, Lucy is dismayed to see that the boy, Jesse Palladino, is actually from New Jersey and speaks English. 

Il duomo di Firenze
While they wait for Nello and Jesse to move to another room, Lucy and Charlene meet Ellen who is a travel writer for a guide called Wanderlust. Charlene doesn't want to leave the hostel, so Lucy decides to go exploring beautiful Florence by herself. Although Lucy is grateful to have had Charlene travel with her, their relationship has grown strained over the last few days since they left Munich. Lucy wanders through Florence taking in the shops and the Arno, the river that winds through the city.  The next day while walking to Santa Croce, Lucy asks Charlene if she is still upset over leaving behind Simon, a British guy she met in Munich. When Simon left for Mittenwald, Charlene felt obligated to stay with Lucy despite Lucy telling her otherwise. This causes harsh words between the two girls and Charlene stalks off, leaving Lucy on her own. Lucy wanders through Florence eventually coming to a piazza where she sees Jesse busking. Once she actually talks to Jesse, Lucy realizes he is quite friendly and allows him to show her around Florence including the Piazza del Duomo.

The next day Jesse accompanies Lucy and Charlotte on a picnic at the Boboli Gardens where Charlene reveals that Lucy is a talented actress and singer who gave up her dream in exchange for this trip. Lucy is upset at Charlene telling Jesse this and worries that he will think she sold out because he has decided to forgo college. The following day, on a borrowed Vespa, they tour Florence, visiting the Bargello and the Piazza della Signoria. Jesse tells Lucy what her father made her do was not right. "He made you trade away your whole future? In exchange for this trip you're on right now? That's just not cool." Lucy tries to rationalize her decision but Jesse tells her she has given up on herself. This makes Lucy wonder "was Jesse right? Had she given up on her dreams too easily?" Jesse tries to tell Lucy that it's not too late but she is convinced the deal she made with her father is permanent. They go to Piazzale Michelangelo and then onto an underground club where Jesse plays in a band. He invites Lucy onto the stage to sing and is so impressed that he tries again to encourage her to reconsider the pact she made with her father.

The next day, their final one in Florence, sees Lucy along with Jesse and Charlene visiting Fiesole. In Fiesole, Jesse and Lucy share their first kiss, but the moment is ruined by Charlene and leads to a huge fight between the two girls. That night, their last together, Jesse tells Lucy that he has the rest of the week off and wants to go to Rome with her. They decide that Jesse will try to get on the train with her to Rome but if he's not able to he will take an later train. In Rome they will share a room together.  This means that Lucy and Charlene will go their separate ways and meet up at the airport in Rome.

In Rome, Lucy and Jesse make love and spend their last days together visiting the same sites as Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. They visit the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, Castel Sant'Angelo, Piazza Venezia and even busk together in the Piazza Navona.Their last night together sees Jesse try to convince Lucy to stay in Europe but when she tells him she does want to go to college he tells her to try to make her own choices. They say goodbye, exchanging emails and Lucy returns to the States.

In the fall, Lucy now enrolled at Forsythe University where she rooms with Glory, Britt and Sarah. Still pining over Jesse, Lucy meets a handsome freshman, Shane who also happens to be majoring in business. At the same time Lucy hears from Jesse that he is leaving the hostel and moving to Torre Annunziatia to live with Nello's family. Then one day Lucy sees an ad for auditions for the musical, Rent, "her all-time favourite musical". Her friends debate the ethics of Lucy going for an audition in light of the promise to her father but Lucy decides the next day to sign up for auditions and is stunned when she earns the part of Maureen in the play. Meanwhile things between her and Jesse begin to deteriorate fast when emails between them reveal that Jesse is probably dating Nello's twin sister. Angry over this Lucy sends him a nasty email and lets him know she is seeing someone new.

Lucy remains deeply upset over what has happened between her and Jesse, even more so after her makeup email is bounced back. Her relationship with Shane, who seems so perfect, begins moving faster than Lucy feels comfortable with. Added to this is her father's angry reaction when he learns she has a part in the musical. Can Lucy ever get control of her life and do what she feels is best for her?


Love, Lucy like April Lindner's other novels has some identical plot elements of another famous novel, in this case, E.F. Forster's, Room With A View. In Room With A View, Lucy Honeychurch is travelling with her cousin, Charlotte. Their room is unsuitable because of the poor view and one of the hotel's guests, Mr. Emerson, agrees to switch. Forster's Lucy is an accomplished pianist. Lucy has many encounters with Mr. Emerson and his son George, who boldly kisses Lucy after they witness a violent encounter in the Piazza Signoria. Even this event is mirrored in Lindner's story with the violent row between two lovers witnessed by Lucy and Jesse. When they travel outside Florence to the countryside, George again kisses Lucy, shocking her chaperone, Charlotte. The next day they leave for Rome and then return to Surrey, England. In England, Lucy agrees to marry Cecil Vyse but is surprised when the Emersons show up at a nearby villa. George successfully persuades Lucy that Cecil is not the man she should marry and she breaks off her engagement to him. Meanwhile, George's father tells Lucy that the man she really loves is his son, George. Marrying George will go against her family's ideals of class but Lucy decides to do so and she and George marry and return to Florence.

As in Room With A View, Lucy is still Lucy, Charlene takes on the part of Charlotte, Jesse is George and Shane is Cecil. In Love, Lucy, the contrast between Jesse and Shane is not as sharp but Lindner does make a distinction. Meeting Jesse opens Lucy's eyes. He tells her how he has traveled from Amsterdam to Prague, Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Rome and stayed in Italy for a year which amazes Lucy. His decision to live without any set plans amazes her. "No plans? Lucy thought. The idea struck her as peculiar -- how could a person not have plans? -- but also enticing."  Jesse later on openly admits that he's not doing what his parents want him to do (go to college). Lucy tells him that her parents would "flip out" if she did that. Jesse states, "Mine aren't exactly thrilled,"..."But it's my life...They wanted me to go to college, but I told them not to waste their money. They still don't get it. Not everybody needs to go to school. There are other ways to learn about the world."

Later when Lucy becomes involved with Shane despite him being "so gorgeous, so sophisticated, so perfect, really, in just about every way" she struggles in the relationship. Shane is the complete opposite of Jesse, well dressed and punctual.  Shane is obviously well off - he drives a "sporty, silver car" , shows up on time for their dates and is well dressed. Lucy notes his "suede jacket and expensive jeans that set him apart from the other guys she'd met..."  "He's the perfect guy, Lucy told herself for about the thirtieth time that night." And unlike Jesse, Shane's life is all mapped out for him; he's a business major because he's going to work for his father's import business. He tells her, "...I'm not one of those guys who has to rebel against his father just to prove a point,". Instead, having seen what such rebellion has done for his brothers, Shane is the type of guy who takes the easy path rather than doing what he wants in life.

Although Shane seems like the perfect boyfriend, Lucy cannot totally be herself with him. When after their third date and a week into rehearsals he asks her how the play is going, Lucy can't tell him her worries about freezing on stage. "Lucy considered telling him about her terror of freezing up onstage, then decided to let him go on thinking of her as talented and capable." When Shane tells her that he's proud to have a star as a girlfriend, she wonders if he would feel the same way if she turned out not to be a star.

Eventually, as Lucy deep conflict over Shane and Jesse leads her to realize she's not being honest with herself and with both boys. When she can't tell Shane the truth about their relationship she realizes that she's living a lie. "She acted for Shane all the time, trying to seem worldly, glamorous, adventurous, and perpetually upbeat -- all the things she imagined a guy like Shane would want in a girlfriend. She was acting for him now."  No matter what she throws at Shane he's always nice and understanding and this makes Lucy realize that he deserves better. She finally finds the courage to tell him the truth.

Like Room With A View, the main protagonist in Love, Lucy, is forced to grow up and assert herself, instead of allowing everyone else to make decisions about her life. After she clears up her personal love life,  Lucy gradually takes control in other areas of her life  - refusing to quit rehearsals for Rent, even when her father gives her an ultimatum. She finally confronts him, asking him, "I'm going to Forsythe and majoring in business, like you wanted. Why isn't that enough for you? I don't even like business. In fact, so far I hate it...Why do you have to control everything in my life? Why can't I keep this one thing that means so much to me?" Despite her father telling her she's only moderately talented, Lucy's belief in her own ability leads her to perform brilliantly and to eventually convince her father to allow her to continue acting. In the end they reach a compromise.

In keeping with the similarity to Room with a View, Lucy and Jesse return to the same hostel and rent out the same room, this time together.

Interestingly, the most likeable characters in Love, Lucy are the two guys, Jesse and Shane, who although very opposite, are kind and thoughtful towards her. In fact, both boys encourage Lucy to stand up to her father or at least try to talk to him.  Lucy however,  is not a likeable protagonist; she's selfish and very immature as evidenced by how she treats both boys. She sleeps with Jesse after she's known him for less than a week, making it difficult for her to turn down Shane despite her conflicted feelings towards him. Her father is equally annoying, pompous and overbearing, manipulative, rigid and controlling.

Lucy's situation with her parents is not an uncommon one. Some parents who are able to pay for their children's university, and within certain cultures, there is an expectation that children will study what the parents choose for their child. As a librarian I've seen situations where a young person wants to work as a photographer or an artist, but are told no funds will be forthcoming unless that child studies medicine or a science discipline. It is not the job of parents to choose their children's occupation in life. It is our duty to guide them and advise them.

There are lots of other themes to explore in this novel, for example the choice between love and duty. Lindner makes several references to the 1953 classic film, Roman Holiday, where a European princess spends 24 hours with an American reporter and falls in love with him. She has to make the choice between her duty to her country or to follow her heart.

Love, Lucy will appeal to those readers who enjoy a romance mixed with travel. And who doesn't love a romance set in Italy!

Book Details:

Love, Lucy by April Lindner
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2015
290 pp.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Blank by Trina St. Jean

Blank is a novel about a young girl's attempt to come to terms with her life after a brain-altering injury leaves her unable to remember who she is.

Fifteen year old Jessica Grenier wakes from a coma having no memory of who she is or how she happened to be in the hospital. Jessica describes her parents as the Woman and the Man and her younger brother, ten year old Stephen, as the Boy or  Little Man. Jessica refers to herself as the Girl. The day of Jessica's accident, April 26, is designated as the Very Bad Day, the day she was attacked by a bison bull named Ramses on her family's bison farm. She spent eleven days in a coma and has been awake now for nine days.

In the hospital Jessica looks at the pictures her mother brings in but they stir no emotion in her. She states, " old life is a long blank that my brain no longer fills for me." She understands what she is told but she feels nothing. "I may finally be awake, but I am hollow."

Jessica's doctor, Dr. Lavoie whom she nicknames Super Doc because he saved her, tells her although most people with her type of injury regain their memories, but he has no way to be certain this will happen to her. Dr. Lavoie encourages Jessica to continue on with her rehabilitation. A day or so later Jessica does have a few memories of the accident but these upset her so much that she becomes enraged, breaking a cup and stamping on the pieces. As a result of this, Dr. Lavoie arranges for Jessica to see a neuroscientist, Dr. Kirshbaum, who will help her manage her impulses and her anger. She's already receiving physical therapy from Ruby, who is teaching her to walk again. Super Doc encourages Jessica to give herself time to heal.

One day Jessica decides to pay a visit to the TV lounge at the end of the hospital wing. There she meets a girl with dark purple hair and a nose ring whom she dubbs Nose Ring. When she returns to the lounge, she and Nose Ring watch a soap opera about a woman who has amnesia and doesn't remember her fiance. When Nose Ring asks Jessica the reason for her stay in the hospital, she doesn't tell her about the accident. On another visit, as they are watching the soap opera, Nose Ring remarks that it would be nice to have amnesia. "Think about it. How many people get a chance to start fresh like that?" This leads Jessica to ask what she's done in her life that she would want her "whole miserable past erased". At this point Nose Ring tells Jessica her name is Tarin and she is visiting her grandmother who had a stroke.

Jessica gets a visit from her three best friends whom she knows are called the Pink Posse from their get well card. The visit is awkward though because although Jessica can remember their names, Cybil, Kerry and Megan, she cannot really remember her friendship with them. All of this makes Jessica feel deeply lonely.

After another CT scan, Dr. Lavoie announces that Jessica is ready to go home. He tells her and her parents that her memory loss is not only due to emotional trauma but also due to some physical damage to her brain and that it might be permanent. Although this makes Jessica feel relief, her mother seems to have difficulty with the fact that Jessica might not return to her old self some day.

When Jessica returns home she struggles to come to terms with the person she is now compared to who she was before her injury. Her room is filled with her collection of porcelain frog figurines which she hates and eventually breaks. None of this feels familiar to Jessica who wonders, "If I lie here long enough, ... will her soul slip back into this empty shell I'm walking around in?" As Jessica struggles to put her life back together she wonders about the person she was and the person she is now. Can she come to terms with the fact that her past is gone but more importantly can she learn to live in the present, accepting who she now is?


Blank focuses on the very personal struggle of the main character, Jessica, to restart her life after a serious head injury. When Jessica returns home, her room feels like that of a stranger. This leads her to try to understand who the Girl was by going through her cell phone texts and facebook posts. But although this leads Jessica to determine that the Girl was someone who liked animals, artsy photographs and motivational sayings, she finds the Girl's life remarkably bland. To Jessica, a picture emerges of the Girl as a "goody-two-shoes" and this annoys her. Jessica is also worried that as she learns more about who she was, she may not like that person. It is because of this fear that she delays looking at a personal journal her mother gives her.

It is obvious though to Jessica that her behaviour is different from before her accident; she's more impulsive and is interested in different things. She's rude towards others and she misses the comfort of having her life figured out. "I want to be her little girl again, have her take care of me and tell me everything is going to be all right. But the sad truth is, I am not her daughter at all. I'm a rude, crazy stranger who is posing as her darling Jessica."

With the help of Dr. Kirschbaum, Jessica is asked to focus on the positive things in her life. Jessica also begins to tackle certain things head on - she goes to visit Ramses, she meets Tarin again and tells her the truth about what happened to her, and she also asks her father to tell her about the accident. Ultimately it is Jessica's desire to understand what happened to her that is the impetus for her coming to accept her life as it is now. Part of that acceptance comes from learning what really happened during the accident and coming to realize that she needs to give herself a chance to make a good life for herself.

St. Jean realistically portrays Jessica's journey towards understanding what happened to her and her struggles to cope. The story feels realistic as to the effects of the injury on Jessica, her family and her relationship with her friends. Jessica also realizes that although there are some things from her past she no longer likes, she is willing to restart her friendship with her best Megan and to reconsider going to a support group.

Blank is part of the extensive canon of young adult literature on teens with amnesia that seems so popular these days. At times the pacing is slow but the mystery of Jessica's accident and her determination to discover why the seemingly good Girl did such a stupid thing are what keep the reader engaged.

Overall, Blank is a good debut novel for Trina St. Jean, who hails from the lovely hamlet of Wandering River in northern Alberta. Look for more well written stories from this bright, new Canadian author!

Book Details:

Blank by Trina St. Jean
Victoria, BC: Orca Book Publishers    2015
301 pp.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

Seventeen year old Gretchen Muller lives in Munich with her mother and her older brother Reinhard. Gretchen and Reinhard have grown up in the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) believing all its ideology. Her father was a member of the party but was killed in the Munich Putsch of 1923. After the failing to take over the city, the National Socialists had marched through Munich with Hitler in the lead. Her father had been in the front, when the city's police officers opened fire and he had jumped in front of Hitler, saving him from the bullets.

After her father's death her family was left impoverished. With the help of  Hitler and the NSDAP her mother was put in charge of running a boarding house, where Gretchen now lives.She's always been a favourite of Adolf Hitler whom she affectionately calls Uncle Dolf.

The novel opens with Gretchen and her friend Eva Braun and Reinhard and his friend Kurt, on their way to meet Adolf Hitler at a cafe. Gretchen is shocked as Kurt tries to run down a Jewish man crossing the road and then stops the car to confront him. Knowing that Reinhard and Kurt are about to beat the man, Gretchen yells at them to stop, fearing a brawl will contribute to the further bad image of the Party. Fortunately, the commotion draws a policeman who tells Reinhard and Kurt to get moving. Left alone, the Jewish man thanks Gretchen, who doesn't know what to think since Uncle Dolf has told her "Gratitude from a Jew was a poisoned gift..." After the man leaves, Gretchen is confronted by a mysterious boy calls her by name and then vanishes.

Eva and Gretchen, now disinvited by Reinhard, walk to Eva's home. Although having grown up in the Party, Eva and Gretchen are very different. Eva wants to get away from her strict father who does not approve of her friendship with Hitler and become an actress, while Gretchen wants to become a doctor.

Gretchen's life is a mixture of confusing opposites. She is haunted by the terrible death of her father during the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. He's considered a martyr for the party. At home, Gretchen struggles to deal with her cruel brother, Reinhard, whom she is certain will attempt revenge for her stopping the beating of the Jewish man. She lives in fear of him, sleeping at night with a chair wedged under the door handle and is always on the alert for one of his cruel tricks. Although Gretchen has been brought up with National Socialist ideas, she finds it difficult to follow the Party teachings on Jews. Erika Goldberg is a funny, happy classmate who also happens to be Jewish. Gretchen is supposed to despise Erika but instead she admires Erika's ability to do Latin, and her funny jokes.

The day after the incident with the Jewish man, Gretchen receives a letter from the mysterious boy who briefly spoke with her in the alleyway. The letter contains an enigmatic message; "Your father did not die a martyr to the Nazi cause, and your family's precarious position within Hitler's party is predicated on a lie." She meets him outside her home and learns he is a reporter. Knowing Gretchen is a Nazi party insider, he suggests an exchange of information. He tells her that with Hitler poised to become President of Germany, the truth about Hitler must be revealed to the German people and he hopes that Gretchen as a party insider can provide him with information. In exchange he tells Gretchen that her father did not die saving Hitler but was in fact murdered by a National Socialist comrade. He tells her to meet him at the Golden Phoenix nightclub the next evening.

When Gretchen returns home her mother tells her that she will no longer be able to attend school but must find a job due to their financial situation.  Filled with disbelief and shock, Gretchen decides to seek out Uncle Dolf who is speaking at the Circus Krone that night. At the event is Geli Raubal, Hitler's half niece, whom Gretchen knows very well. Seeing the mysterious boy she questions Geli who tells her that he is Daniel Cohen, a Jewish reporter for the local Socialist newspaper, the Munich Post. Hitler is not sympathetic to Gretchen's desire to continue her studies and instead tells her that she can work for Ernst Hanfstaengl who is the NSDAP foreign-press chief. Outside the Circus Krone, the NSDAP members are confronted by the Communists and a brawl begins. SA chief Ernst Rohm sees to it that Kurt drives Gretchen home. The confrontation between the National Socialists and the Communists brings back memories of her father's death and leads Gretchen to check his old Great War uniform he was wearing at the time of his death. She discovers a bullet hole in the back of his shirt with grey powder around the edges indicating that this bullet was fired at close range. Gretchen realizes that this means someone shot her father in the back and that it must have been another National Socialist because they were the only ones behind her father. She now believes Daniel was right about her father's death.

The next night Gretchen sneaks out to meet Daniel at the Golden Phoenix. Daniel accuses Gretchen of setting the SA thugs on Stefan Dearstyne at the Circus Krone to preserve her family's reputation but Gretchen has no idea what he's talking about. As they dance, Gretchen learns from Daniel that Dearstyne grew curious about the Munich putsch after reading his brother Lars's diary. Unfortunately before she can talk at length with him, Reinhard shows up with Eva Braun looking for her.

The next day when she goes to the Braunes Haus, headquarters of the National Socialist Party, to begin work, Gretchen overhears that Reinhard has been selected for some special assignment. Her work with Hanfstaengl provides Gretchen with the opportunity to question him regarding what happened to her father during the putsch. Hanfstaengl reveals to Gretchen that her father seemed very upset when he arrived at the beer hall. She also realizes that the version she's been told doesn't make sense; her father was at the front of the marching SA with Hitler when he should have been at the back and she wants to know why this was.

Daniel meets Gretchen to show her Stefan Dearstyne's diary but tells her that Dearstyne is planning to kill himself because he believes the SA are after him. Daniel tells Gretchen they must retrieve Stefan's brother's diary before Rohm and his men do so. In Stefan's apartment, Gretchen finds a picture of her father taken just before he was shot dead and they also find Dearstyne's brother, Lars's diary.After barely escaping before Rohm and his men arrive, Gretchen and Daniel head to the Diana Temple where they read the Dearstyne diary entry. This entry notes what Gretchen has already noticed that her father was shot in the back and the force of the shot knocked him in front of Hitler, inadvertently saving Hitler from the bullets that were meant for the Nazi leader. Gretchen tells Daniel that she needs to learn what really happened to her father and he advises her that this may mean her family will lose its privileged status.

When Gretchen returns home she decides to search Reinhard's room hoping to find more clues about her father, but his room is empty with white walls and nothing significant. Startled by her mother coming upstairs, Gretchen doesn't have time to relock his door. The next morning Gretchen attends a picnic on the Chiemsse with Uncle Dolf, Herr Hanfstaegnl, Heinrich Hoffman and his daughter Henny and Geli Raubal. For the first time Gretchen begins to notice that Hitler seems attracted to the very much younger Geli. After the picnic Gretchen returns home to find her cat dead, its neck broken and she is violently assaulted by Reinhard who continues to beat her until she tells him why she was in his room. Badly beaten and finding no help from her mother, Gretchen flees their home and goes to Uncle Dolf's apartment in Munich. However she finds no comfort or support there. Instead, Hitler tells her that Reinhard is the man of the house and is right to discipline her. For the first time, Gretchen begins to see that the image she had of Hitler is false. The next morning she leaves his apartment and is turned away by Herr Braun as well. With no where left to go, Gretchen seeks out Daniel who takes her to a Communist doctor.  Daniel takes her in despite opposition from his cousins Aaron and Ruth. During her short time with Daniel, Gretchen learns about Hitler's real plans for Germany and the Jews. Understanding what Hitler really is Gretchen decides she must return to her home if she is ever to learn what really happened to her father.

The more Gretchen uncovers about the putsch and her father's movements, the more questions she has about her father, his relationship with Adolf Hitler and what really happened on the day he was killed. Gretchen's questions lead her and Daniel to uncover a startling secret about Hitler that places them both in grave danger.


Prisoner of Night and Fog is an ambitious undertaking by author Anne Blankman. Set in 1931, it features Adolf Hitler prominently prior to him coming to power in Germany. Blankman was inspired to write her novel after she learned about Geli Raubal who shared his Munich apartment.

The novel is divided into four parts; Part One A Girl of Wax which is Gretchen who simply follows what she's been told by the adults in her life, Part Two The Great Magician, a reference to the mesmerizing Hitler,  Part Three On Desperate Defiance which tells about Gretchen's defiance of both what she's been taught and the cultural norms of Munich society in the 1931 and Part Four The Infernal Machine which portrays how the National Socialist Party has already become a machine of terror, murdering all who stand in the way of it achieving total control.

Having Hitler as a major character could have easily backfired but Blankman is careful in how he is portrayed and the dialogue she assigns to him. At first Adolf Hitler is portrayed as the doting "uncle" who has taken Gretchen's family under his wing, providing them with a home and lots of perks for Gretchen and Reinhard. At the beginning of the novel Gretchen describes Hitler in positive ways describing him as "No one else had such a lovely voice, dark and warm and rich, like melted chocolate." He is a man who affectionately called her "Gretl", or "sunshine" his pet name for her, and often kissed the back of her hands. He is a man who talks to her about music and painting and Gretchen feels proud that "he had chosen her to mold into that perfect girl" "a golden shining example of womanhood for the other German ladies to emulate."  However, as the story evolves, Gretchen begins to discover the true Adolf Hitler, a complex man who is a psychopath. When she hears him talk at the Osteria Bavaria, Gretchen realizes what Hitler is proposing. "The man she had loved as a father was a fraud. He kissed the backs of her hands and advocated war; he ruffled her hair and preached death; he had played with her on the carpet with toy soldiers, and all along he had been planning the extinction of an entire people."

Underpinning the mystery in this historical fiction novel, is the journey of Gretchen as she comes to discover the lies she's been taught about the Jewish people, her own history and the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP).

In the beginning of the novel when Gretchen tells her brother not to hurt the Jewish man she remembers what she has been taught in the National Socialist Party of Adolf Hitler. "The Jew is my eternal enemy. These words had guided her heart for twelve years, thanks to her honorary "uncle" Dolf." Her motives are not concern for the Jewish man but, for the image of the Party. She notices the man is a young Hasidic Jew and recognizes the fear and pain in his voice. This goes against what she has been taught about the Jewish people. Afterwards she thinks, "What had she been thinking, defending a Jew? She must be going mad." When Reinhard mocks her the next morning, Gretchen recognizes the truth about what she did. "Her original intention had been to prevent an illegal street beating that might reflect poorly on the Party. Once she had seen the Jew lying on the ground, helpless...She had seen a person. Not a monster."

After finding Dearstyne's diary and being in close contact with Daniel on his bike, Gretchen notes that,
"Until she had seen the Hasidic man in the alley, she hadn't looked at a Jewish male, not really looked at him...
They were nothing like she had been taught.
If she and her people were mistaken about the Jews,  then they were mistaken about everything...Uncle Dolf and Papa couldn't be wrong. Could they?"
When Gretchen seeks out Daniel after being badly beaten by Reinhard, he openly welcomes her to his home. She notes "He was nothing like the monster she had been taught about. He was human." Eventually Gretchen falls in love with Daniel and tells him she accepts everything about him including the fact that he is Jewish.

But Gretchen's journey isn't just about her change of heart regarding the Jews, it is also her discovery about the true nature of the National Socialist Party and their plans for Germany, and about Hitler's frightening mental illness. Blankman does refer to Hitler having suffered from hysterical blindness, a claim that continues to be disputed to this day. For further reading please check out Hitler's Hysterical Blindness: Fact or Fiction. as well as Hitler: Diagnosis of a destructive prophet.

Reinhard also undergoes a personal journey but his is one that leads him deeper into mental illness. When Gretchen confronts him in the alleyway as he is about to beat a Jewish man Gretchen is not scared of Reinhard hitting her because he never got his revenge that way but in other subtle ways. The morning after the altercation with the Jewish man, Reinhard places a string across a step on the stairway in an attempt to trip her. Gretchen notices that her brother often has a blank stare and seems unable to feel emotions. His transition is complete when he brutally beats her without emotion in an attempt to learn why she entered his bedroom. This only leads him to more brutal acts of violence including the cold blooded murder of an elderly man.

There are many other characters in Prisoner of Night and Fog who are quite interesting, for example Geli Raubal and Eva Braun. Geli's mysterious death has been the subject of many articles through the years including Hitler's Doomed Angel by Ron Rosenbaum for Vanity Fair while Eva Braun has been the focus of much study as she was Hitler's mistress and wife.

Blankman's emphasis is mostly on her characters and their relationships to each other but she does manage to contrast the ambivalence of most citizens towards Hitler while demonstrating his growing support within the city of Munich and in Germany overall. More than once Gretchen remarks on how oblivious people are to the coming disaster. After she and Daniel overhear two party members discussing how the Jews will lose their businesses and have their families broken apart, Gretchen notes,
"Bluesy jazz music cascaded from a nightclub, and men in fancy suits and women in satin frocks strolled the street, arm in arm, smiling, out for a night on the town. Everywhere the city was alive, all these sweet, simple lives twining together. How blind everyone was, rushing into the restaurants, laughing at the comedians' jokes, smoking and dancing and singing. Without the slightest inkling of what Hitler and his men were planning."

If you love historical fiction, Prisoner of Night and Fog is not to be missed. Blankman so named her novel after Goethe's poem, "Der  Erlkonig", the Alder King in which a young boy attempts to warn his father that he is being attacked, but his father assures him it is only the fog. It is an allegory for what happened to the German people with regards to Hitler.

The sequel to Prisoner of Night and Fog is Conspiracy of Blood & Smoke which is set in 1933.

Book Details:
Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman
New York: Balzer & Bray, An Imprint of HarperCollin Publishers 2014
398 pp.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Pilot and the Little Prince by Peter Sis

This delightful picture book explores the unusual life of French aviator and author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Antoine was born at the turn of the last century on June 29, 1900 in Lyon, France. he came from a family filed with titled persons including counts, barons and archbishops. His father, Count Jean de Saint-Exupery died in 1904, when Antoine was only four years old. Antoine had two older sisters, Marie-Madeleine born in 1897 and Simone born in 1898 and a younger brother, Francois born in 1902 and a younger sister, Gabrielle born in 1903. After their father's death Antoine and his siblings were raised by his mother, Countess Marie de Fonscolombe and her family. Antoine was an unusual child, eager to explore and curious about the world around him.

In the early 1900's, France was the center of the newly developed aviation world. In 1909, Louis Bleriot was the first person to cross from France to England by plane. Captivated by the rapid developments in aviation, Antoine made his own flying machine when he was twelve years old. He even managed to get a pilot at a nearby air field to take him up in his plane.

His love for flying consumed Antoine; he studied at the Lycee Saint-Louis in Paris in preparation for the Naval Academy's entrance exam but he failed. In 1920 he quit his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Like his fellow Frenchmen over the age of twenty-one who were drafted into the military, Antoine began his service in 1921. He did not have a license to fly but eventually he did learn to fly through private lessons paid for by his mother. Throughout the remainder of his required military service he flew longer and longer distances. Antoine was discharged from the military in June, 1923. Despite various jobs his love of flying continued. He managed to get hired on by an airline company that specialized in delivering the mail. Eventually he was flying the mail from France to Spain and then throughout Europe and also along the West African coast. At this time aviators used landmarks as guides and therefore did not fly at night. Airplanes also often flew in pairs in case one crashed!

Antoine was placed in charge of the airfield at Cape Juby on the West African coast. With its solitude and simple lifestyle Cape Juby inspired Antoine to write. Desiring more aviation adventures, Antoine and other aviators began flying to South America and across that continent, establishing mail routes. While flying in South America, Antoine often worked on his latest book - this one called Night Flight as the pilots often flew at night. Antoine had many adventures prior to World War II; he received the Legion of Honor medal for his work at Cape Juby, Night Flight was published in 1931, he worked as a newspaper correspondent in the Soviet Union, Spain and Morocco and he even found time to marry. He even attempted to be the fastest flight from Paris to Saigon in 1935. Even more adventures and fame were waiting for Antoine with the start of World War II in 1939 and his call-up to military service once again. But the best adventure occurred during a two year interlude while living in the United States. During this time, Antoine wrote another book, The Little Prince which became a very famous children's book.

Peter Sis has written and illustrated this lovely picture book that will likely appeal to more to young adults doing a project on Antoine de Saint Exupery or adults rather than young children. While the text gives the basic facts of Antoine's remarkable life in a simple, direct way, the true appeal of this book is the elaborate illustrations that accompany the text. Readers will find themselves lingering over each of the illustrations, reading the small text but also attempting to understand the signifcance of the many images that make up each picture.  Each colourful illustration which takes up two pages, incorporates many fascinating facts about Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Sis's artwork, some of which is done in a pointillism style, elaborates on the text either below the artwork or preceding it. For example, the first two pages are about a Antoine as a little boy and the time he was born into. There are plenty of references to his life including a small drawing of a transparent hat with an elephant in it - a direct reference to the opening pages of  his well known boot, The Little Prince. These two pages are filled with drawings of various flying machines - a hint to the pioneers of aviation throughout history, and the exotic lands Antoine would visit in his lifetime. Some of the two page spreads are easy to understand; a landscape filled with faces after Sis tells us that Antoine was told by a fellow aviator to "follow the face of the land" or the last two page spread which shows a plane flying straight up into the heavens - a reference to Antoine's last flight from which he never returned. Others are more intriguing; the map of Long Island where Antoine wrote the Little Prince looks like a crocodile.

Peter Sis was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1949. He studied in Prague at the Academy of Applied Arts and later at the Royal College of Art in London. Originally a film maker, Sis defected to the West after the film he was making about the 1984 Olympics was cancelled when the Eastern Bloc decided to boycott the Los Angeles games. Thus began his second career as a author/illustrator. Peter's work as both an author and an illustrator has been prolific; his book Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei won the 1997 Caldecott Honor Book Medal, many thousands of his illustrations have appeared in Time Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic Monthly and Esquire.

If you haven't read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery take the time to do so. It's a delightful book and The Pilot and the Little Prince makes a great companion book to read afterwards.

Book Details:
The Pilot and the Little Prince by Peter Sis
Frances Foster Books      2014

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Unchanged by Jessica Brody

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:"

Unchanged is the final book in the Unremembered trilogy. At the end of Unforgotten, Sera is desperate to locate Dr. Maxxer and the antidote for the transessor gene which kills normal humans like Zen, the boy she's fallen in love with. Zen is at the home of Cody Carlson, now a scientist, and is dying as a result of the transessor gene. Sera and Kaelen manage to find Maxxer who has hidden in a submarine deep in the ocean. Maxxer explains to Sera the evil history behind the transessor gene and how she and Kaelen were designed to be promotional material "for a series of genetic modifications that were to be sold over the counter at virtually any store in the world."  But unlike the white fever vaccine, this product will have nanotechnology that will give Diotech the ability to control the entire human race. This is the reason Dr. Alixter is so determined to find Sera..

Maxxer asks Sera to help her bring down Diotech but Sera feels she's been manipulated and refuses.  Sera transesses to Kaelen and tells him what she has learned. Puzzled as to why Maxxer is still alive, since she obviously has the gene, they return to Maxxer and learn from her memories that there were three vials of antidote, one of which Dr. Maxxer used on herself, to neutralize the transessor gene but trapping herself forever in 2032. Kaelen tells Sera that he knows Dr. Rio is still alive in a guarded room at the compound's medical facility. Sera wants Kaelen to take her to the facility to try to access Rio's mind so they can locate the other two gene Repressor doses. They cut out their tracking devices giving them approximately one hour to search before they can be tracked again. They transess to the medical facility and after accessing Rio's memories Sera determines where the two doses are hidden. She finds the two doses hidden in a book, The Giving Tree in Rio's bookcase. However, the sickly Dr. Jan Alixter is waiting for them and he tells Sera that Kaelen has accomplished his mission of bringing Sera back to him along with the antidotes. Kaelen reverts back to being under the control of Alixter and gives him the vials sending Sera. Alixter reveals to Sera that Zen is Dr. Maxxer's son and that he created Kaelen to be her Adam, her "scientifically perfected match" - her soul mate. Sera is horrified and so is Kaelen, just enough that Sera manages to retrieve the vials and destroys the locket meaning she will never be able to transess again. In exchange she asks that Kaelen be allowed to transess to Zen in 2032 and administer the second dose to save his life. Alixter refuses but unknown to him Kaelen tricks the doctor by creating a distraction and transessing to Cody and Zen and giving the antidote to Zen. Kaelen shows Sera through their special connection that in fact in a few seconds he was able to transess to Zen and save him. Knowing Zen is cured and safe, Sera allows herself to be taken prisoner again by Dr. Alixter.

Unchanged picks up this story where Sera is once again a prisoner of Dr. Alixter at the Diotech Compound in the Las Vegas desert. Alixter orders that Sera be given a new treatment where she keeps her memories but these memories, when triggered cause her to feel tremendous guilt. A year later finds Sera convinced that Diotech is were she belongs and that her past with Lyzender was filled with lies. "I am strong now. A fully functioning member of the Objective. A soldier....That stupid girl is gone. I am the better version."

Out on a walk through the Diotech compound one day, she visits the cottage where she lived with Dr. Havin Rio, her creator and lead scientist of the Genesis Project. Dr. Rio brought her to life from an artificial womb on June 27, 2114 and she considered him her father. Sera's memories in the ramshackle cottage, now abandoned, overwhelm her."I can smell the scent of my own betrayal. My weakness is steeped in these walls. It makes me gag, but I force myself to breathe it in, allow it to settle in my lungs. The shame trickles through my body like a cold insect." Sera believes that focusing on her guilt will make her stay strong and remain loyal to the Objective.

The Diotech compound is divided into sectors, Residential, Agricultural, Medical. Director Raze is head of security, tasked with preventing breaches of security and guarding Diotech's secrets. If he fails, the Memory Coders led by Sevan Sidler specialize in removing memories of people who have broken either deliberately or otherwise, Diotech's security. Every so often Dr. Alixter (A) requests a random memory scan on Sera. Kaelen and Sera live in the Owner's Estate with Dr. A and his staff.

Kaelen, Sera's "Print Mate" also lives in the Diotech compound. Genetically engineered to be her match, Kaelen who was born December 19, 2115, is stronger and faster than Sera. While Sera and Kaelen are cavorting around the compound, they meet Rio who Dr. A has completely destroyed. Considered a traitor by Dr. A,  Dr. Rio's brain destroyed and replaced with "an artificial brain cobbled together with nanoprocessors and synthetic material." Dr. A has told Sera that they "have to punish our enemies...Otherwise, how will we stop more people from betraying us?" Rio had set Sera free and gave her the transession gene that allowed her to time travel and escape Diotech.

From inside the Diotech compound Sera learns of the opposition by Pastor Peder to Diotech's research. This makes Sera nervous because tomorrow she and Kaelen will be leaving on a publicity tour to market Diotech's genetic enhancements. At dinner that night, Dane who is head of publicity, shows Sera, Kaelen and Dr. A the final edit of the new Feed ad which hypes the ExGen Collection. Sera and Kaelen are ExGens, genetically perfect human beings but people will not be able to become like them. Instead they "will only be able to purchase a handful of self-administered genetic modifications that will each enhance one specific attribute. Like eye color, skin tone, muscle capacity, hair sheen, brain function, body shape." The ad will run after the Unveiling, which is when Sera and Kaelen will be presented to the public. Their role is to "show the world how Diotech products can improve their lives."  The Unveiling will take place on May 8, 2117 on world famous Feed journalist, Mosima Chan's show.After that will follow a twenty-eight city tour, the thought of which makes Sera terrified.

Later on when Sera and Kaelen are out on the grounds of the compound they witness a young woman who willing walks into a fire and is burned alive. Afterwards, this memory is erased from Sera by Sevan Sidler leaving her aware that she has had something significant erased and wondering  if Kaelen had his memories erased as well. The next morning before they leave for the Unveiling, Sera feels compelled to return to Rio's cottage and to the bench where she and Zen once buried items to show that Sera still remembered him. After digging a foot into the dirt she finds a cube drive, like the one Lyzender stored Sera's stolen memories on when they escaped. As she races back to the Residential sector, Sera encounters the drooling, mindless Rio who calls her Sariana and warns her to leave. Sera has no idea who Sariana is nor what is on the cube drive, which she hides in her shoe.

Sera can't risk finding out what is on the cube drive because everything she streams to the Lenses in her eyes is monitored. As she leaves her room to embark on the tour, Sera notices the plaque in the hallway that lists the history of the Genesis Project- all the failures before her creation Sequence: E/Recombination: A - June 27, 2114 or SERA for short. Before they board the capsule that will take them via the hyperloop to Los Angeles, both Sera and Kaelen are injected with a genetic disguise so no one will recognize them prior to the Unveiling. When Sera arrives at the Los Angeles hyperloop station she sees Kaelen has become insanely enraged by the paparazzi and has viciously attacked numerous people, seriously injuring them. Sera manages to calm Kaelen down but is shocked by his murderous rage.  Later on during dinner Sera learns that Kaelen killed two paparazzi and that the four who survived had their memories wiped.  She also learns that Alixter is very concerned  about someone named Jenza Paddok who is no longer able to be tracked by Diotech. Since their network is not up yet at the hotel, this provides Sera with the chance to access the cube drive. It contains a message from Zen seven months after she left him, Sept 23, 2032. Zen knows that she has been taken again by Diotech because she has not returned to his time. He encourages her to remember him and to stay strong and tells her that he will find a way back to her.

Unable to sleep, Sera overhears a conversation between Alixter an unknown person whom he tells "the girl just took a little bit longer than expected to adjust to the Memory Reassociation procedure..." and that Rylan Maxxer is no longer a problem. Sera doesn't know what Alixter is referring to but these statements remain in her memory.

The interview with Mosima Chan goes according to plan; Dr. A is amazingly charming and composed. Sera notes that his hatred of religion seems to have disappeared as he tells Chan that Diotech is "trying to work in conjunction with God" and he compares Seran and Kaelen to Eve and Adam. These lies cause Sera to question whether she should lie too. Sera and Kaelen dazzle Mosima with their personalities and beautiful physique. But during questions, Sera is completely unnerved by a question asked by someone with the handle SZ1609.. S + Z = 1609 was Sera and Lyzender's secret code. Could Lyzender really be out there?

That night after the interview, Sera's search for information online turns up some interesting results. First she sees in video footage of Dr.'s Alixter and Rio, a young girl with honey-coloured hair and honey skin. But then in a video of Jenza Paddok taken two years ago, Sera sees Lyzender. She also notices that Paddok has an unusual nanotat with a red crescent moon on the palm of her hand.

As the tour progresses, the protests become larger and angrier. In Atlanta, Sera learns from Dane that Dr. Rio had a young daughter, Sariana who died when she was eight years old after falling out of a tree.  She also has a scan done by Sevan who suddenly appears at their hotel. After the scan Sevan tells her that nothing unusual showed up, leaving Sera puzzled. Even more interesting is the nanotat, which is identical to Paddok's, on Sevan's palm

The next morning in Miami Sera never makes it to the Feed station. Instead a protest that turns violent sees her caught outside the station and kidnapped by the protesters. It is the beginning of a series of events that will change the fate of Sera and Lyzender forever.


Unchanged is a thrilling conclusion to the well written Unremembered trilogy. It is a story about technology and genetic manipulation run amok. Its central theme is technology used not to serve mankind, but to manipulate him. Unchanged demonstrates how new technology, without the proper oversight, can be manipulated by large corporations who own the patents to these new discoveries. A perfect example today is that of Monsanto which uses genetic alteration of seeds to create insect resistant crops, but which has moved to manipulate and litigate farmers into using only their genetically engineered products. Genetically modified crops or GMO's are largely untested and their effect on humans, animals and the environment is mostly unknown. While North America is largely accepting of GMO's, Europe remains resistant to their use.

In Unchanged Sera summarizes what we know: that Dr. Maxxer discovered a way to create time travel through genetic manipulation, what she termed a transession gene, DZ227. Fearing that this technology would be used for evil, she fled into the past. However, in the past she stumbled upon a secret organization, the Providence, that had been in existence for generations and that sought to control people. They invested in Diotech in an attempt to achieve that control, through the Genesis project. This research project saw two genetically altered humans created who were to be used as tools to promote genetic enhancements to the general population. However, what people did not know is that these enhancements piggybacked nanotechnology that could be used by the Providence to control people. From the beginning of the Unveiling when Sera and Kaelen are revealed publicly, Sera quickly recognizes that Diotech is lying to consumers by implying that normal humans (called Normates in the novel) can become ExGens (like Sera and Kaelen). But in fact, they will only be able to enhance one physical attribute, not their entire body. The ad is deliberately misleading but when Sera questions Dane he brushes her off by telling her that advertisers never give people exactly what they want. It is only through the events that follow that Sera comes to realize the truth of what Dr. Maxxer told her, of what Zen has told her and of what Sevan has restored in her memories. Diotech is being controlled by the Providence who intend enact this plan to control the entire human race. To try to stop the Providence, Sera decides she must go public with all the information she has, knowing that once the veil of secrecy is lifted, Diotech will be unable to sell the genetic enhancements.

Although the story in Unchanged is fiction, the technology described may not so far fetched. Scientists are diligently working on developing nanotechnology that could be used to administer drugs to patients via very small nanobots. Gene therapy is actively being researched today for a wide variety of medical conditions.While these discoveries can bring healing to many, they can also be abused.

These are the social implications of genetic modification but as the novel demonstrates there are also consequences for the individuals too. Sera spends most of the three novels knowing that she was created in an artificial womb from genetic material. But she doesn't seem to question where that genetic material came from or the identity of her mother and father. As many adults who are the product of in-vitro fertilization can attest, knowing one's biological heredity is important - it gives us a sense of identity and a link to the past. Eventually Sera, prompted by the dying Rio, learns who she really is. For most readers, Sera's identity will not come as a complete surprise as Brody does offer some hints through the novel.

Another consequence of the genetic manipulation undertaken in this story is the loss of the ability to choose certain things in one's life, like one's life work or who to love. This is especially seen in Kaelen who was engineered by Dr. A to be Sera's "print mate" - her perfect mate. This takes away Kaelen's choice to choose who to love because he is biologically engineered to love Sera and no one else. Whenever he tells Sera how beautiful she is or how he loves her she reminds him that he has to say these things because "It's in your DNA." This also affects Sera, who feels overwhelmingly drawn to Kaelen, at times against her will.

A dominant theme throughout the novel is the conflict that rages within Sera. This conflict is due to the procedure done on her to associate certain memories with specific emotions. Every time Sera recalls a memory of Lyzender she experiences "stabbing guilt, the despairing anguish, the fervent desire to crush my head between my hands until it bursts." She often refers to these emotions as "the sickness".  After she has been kidnapped, Sevan tries to explain to Sera what was done to her and that these feelings are the result of the Memory Reassociation procedure. "The idea behind it is that your brain can be programmed to associate a certain memory with any emotion we choose. It twists your recollection of events...We associate the desired emotion, your brain distorts the memory to make it fit. Do you want someone to feel guilty about a love that changed her life forever?...Done." But Sera refuses to believe Sevan. Sevan explains that in order for Alixter to make Sera feel loyal to Diotech he had to make her feel betrayal whenever she thought about what happened with Lyzender. To prove he's telling her the truth he triggers her memory of the woman walking into the fire.

All of this leads Sera to struggle with remaining loyal to Alixter and Diotech or believing what Sevan and Lyzender, Nico and Jenza Paddok tell her. She tells herself, "I can't believe everything. I have to choose. And I choose the Objective." It is a choice that will have devastating repercussions for Jenza Paddok and for Sera.

The novel does leave some questions unanswered: we never learn who the Providence is other than them being a secret society, we never know why Kaelen is subject to uncontrollable rages. But we do learn what happened to many characters from the second book including Dr. Rylan Maxxer, Cody Carlson, his son Reese and his grandson Nico, Dr. Havin Rio, and Lyzender.

Overall, Unchanged is a very good science fiction novel which fans of this genre will truly enjoy. Unchanged will challenge readers to think about genetic manipulation, nanotechnology and the implications of these technologies for society and individuals. Readers will be surprised at the unexpected twist at the end of the novel, which gives them what they want - sort of.
The Unremembered trilogy is remarkably well done and highly recommended.

Book Details:
Unchanged by Jessica Brody
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers    2015
417 pp.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is novel about a young woman who must deal with the aftermath of both her parent's divorce and the suicide of her brother. The story is narrated by eighteen year old Alexis (Lex) Riggs who lives with her mother in Raymond, Nebraska. Her family has collapsed with the divorce of her parents after her father moved out four years ago and the recent suicide of her younger brother Tyler. Lex's narrative alternates between the present and diary entries. Although the journal entries parallel some of the events in the present they also fill in the details of how Ty came to commit suicide.

Lex begins the diary entries on February 5 at the request of her therapist Dave. It has been 7 weeks since the death of  Ty and Dave wants her to write about when he was happy rather than how his life ended. Lex's journal entries cover a wide range of events, filling in the missing details and providing the backstory.  The journal entries reveal that Tyler tried to kill himself two years earlier by taking an overdose of Advil, the day after their parent's divorce was finalized. When their dad finally shows up at the hospital, Ty begs his father to come home. Significantly, their father did not respond at all to Ty's request. After the suicide attempt Ty saw a therapist and went on antidepressants and his life seemed to turn around. In the two years after Ty's suicide attempt, their father remarried and their mom became a licensed nurse. Ty joined the basketball team and became popular in high school, while Lex achieved a high SAT score and began to consider applying to Ivy League colleges including MIT.

Other entries detail Lex's relationship with a fellow classmate, Steven, a boy much like Lex, who loves physics. Steven convinces her to date him as an experiment to see if there is chemistry between them. At the same time, Ty begins dating a cheerleader, Ashley, taking her to prom. However, Ty and Ashley's relationship ends in early December and Ty begins acting out, punching one of his friends in the face, breaking his jaw.  Journal entries also talk about when Tyler was born, what happened when their dad left their family "on a Tuesday morning in July", Ty's preoccupation with dying which began with the death of a girl from their church, Lex's break up with Steven and the details of Ty's last day. Lex's last entry is March 31 which she writes about December 20 from her perspective. For Lex and Steven it was their six month anniversary but it was also the day Ty killed himself.

In the present, Lex's mother is not coping well post divorce. She tells Lex that she senses Ty's presence in the house because she can smell his cologne. Later that night Lex also smells Ty's cologne and thinks she sees him standing by his bedroom door. Shocked Lex throws her phone at the image which vanishes. Lex is left with a cracked phone that thankfully still retains his last ever text to her. When she goes to see her therapist Dave, Lex decides not to tell him about the vision because she fears he will offer her medication, but she does tell him that she's stopped being involved with her friends. She suspects her friend Jill Beaker just wants her to cry on her shoulder so she can feel good about being her best friend who helped her. She's broken up with her boyfriend Steven, and her other friend Eleanor (El) is studiously avoiding  her. Dave considers this to be a very sad situation and encourages her to reach out to her friends who are trying to help her.

One night after returning home from dinner with her father, Lex again sees a vision of Ty, this time in the mirror, standing behind her. Terrified she runs out of the house but later on returns and discovers a letter addressed to Ashley in Ty's room. Lex is fairly certain that the "Ashley" Ty took to prom is a cheerleader known as Ashley Davenport. When she scouts out Ashley, she is certain she is not the right girl because she has copper red hair. At this time Lex runs into an old friend of Ty's, Damian Whittaker who used to be part of a trio that also consisted of Ty and Patrick Murphy.Ty, Damian and Patrick were very close friends but gradually drifted apart in high school.

Lex makes the first of several discoveries about some photographs in their home; a picture of Ty and his father (pre-Megan) is missing from its frame in the hallway. Her mother also tells her that her father's graduation picture is missing from its frame in the stairwell. Between the visions of Ty and the missing pictures, Lex wonders if Ty's spirit is still around and wants something. Inexplicably, her best friend from elementary school whom she hasn't been with in years, Sadie McIntyre, appears on her doorstep, inviting her out for a frozen juice. It's February and although it's freezing out, Lex agrees. Sadie's reason for reconnecting with Lex is that she saw her running from home and she now questions Lex as to what happened. Lex decides to confide in Sadie about seeing Tyler and it turns out Sadie has an interest in mediums and spirits. She also tells Sadie about the letter to Ashley and Sadie is able to confirm through social media that it is in fact Ashley Davenport.

At an appointment with her therapist, Lex attempts to get out of the journaling but Dave suggests that she choose a recipient for the journal- someone she is writing to, not someone she would actually give the journal to. After another appointment when her trusty little car nicknamed the Lemon won't start, Lex refuses to call her dad and instead calls Steven whom she broke up with months earlier. In response to Steven's question as to why she didn't call her dad, Lex tells him, "If my dad hadn't left us, Ty would still be alive." When Steven tries to help Lex, she pushes him away, refusing to consider Steven's offer to talk.

Life continues on for Lex and those around her; a fact brought home by her acceptance to MIT on March 3. However, Lex feels ambivalent and so she doesn't tell her parents, her therapist or her friends. She finally tells her mother when she comes home and discovers her mother an emotional wreck after a friend tried to get her to pack up Ty's room. But the joy of Lex's acceptance is destroyed by her mother's belief that her own life is over. As they are putting Ty's room back together, Lex and her mother look over the collage that Ty put together in the days before he died. Missing from the collage is a picture of Ty and his father, which her mother feels should have been in the collage but deliberately was not. Lex's mother tells her that her father was devastated when he saw there was no picture of himself in the collage. Lex notices that there is a picture of Ashley and Ty, suggesting that Ty wasn't mad at Ashley. Although she almost shreds the letter, Lex does end up giving Ashley Tyler's letter when she realizes that Ashley is basically a good person and that Ty broke up with her.

Lex's high school is rocked by another suicide, that of Patrick Murphy, a close friend of Ty's, who jumped in front of a train. Lex and her mother attend the funeral which brings back memories of Ty's funeral. At the wake, Lex notices the two collages similar to Ty's collage and when Stairway to Heaven is played, she realizes that like Ty, Patrick planned his suicide down to the simplest details. When Lex returns home she slips out to the backyard fort she and Ty shared as kids and finds the missing picture of her brother with their dad that was meant for the collage. She feels that despite the anger Ty felt towards their dad leaving, he would now want her to place the picture in the frame and tell their dad. But Lex has no intention of doing this because she cannot forgive her father for leaving and believes he is responsible for Ty's death. Instead she begins to focus on saving Damian Whittaker, the last remaining friend of Ty's group, whom she is convinced will try to commit suicide. Can Lex save Damian and learn to forgive herself and her father for all that has happened?

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is rich in themes of forgiveness, acceptance and guilt. It also presents, quite vividly, the effects of divorce on teenage children.

Lex's family has been struggling to come to terms with the breakup of their family.  When their father left, Lex was 15 and Ty was 13. The night he left, Ty and Lex go to the baseball field and smash all their father's bottles of cologne with a baseball bat. They vow never to forgive their father for what he has done. The day after the divorce is finalized Ty attempts to kill himself by overdosing and when his father finally shows up at the hospital, he begs his dad to come home. Their mother has also not done well, although she has managed to become a nurse. She self-medicates with alcohol and prescription drugs. Lex believes this inability to deal with the marriage breakup might have hurt Ty. "...But I wish that Mom was stronger. That she didn't cry. That she hadn't been so devastated when Dad left. That she'd done that woman-scorned thing and piled up his stuff in the yard and burned it all. Maybe, I think, if she hadn't been so weak, then Ty could have let go of the rage he felt whenever he saw her hurting like that. He could have moved on. And then maybe he would never have made that first attempt with the Advil. And maybe it would have occurred to him to fight back when life got tough."

As time passes and Lex continues her journal,  she comes to  realize in hindsight that Ty was seriously at risk for suicide; he had already attempted suicide once, he came from a broken home, he was male and he had recently suffered a breakup - all factors that contribute significantly to suicide.

The journal helps Lex begin to piece together how she feels and to understand what happened to her, to Ty and to her family. She is able to face her guilt and forgive herself - a big step towards healing.

In her narrative, Lex hints at the tremendous guilt that is eating away at her. In her journal she writes that when Ty was in hospital after his first suicide attempt, Lex visited him and made him promise that "if you ever feel like that again, like you want to --....But if you do, you have to tell me. Call me, text me, wake me up at three a.m., I don't care. I want to know about it. I'm here for you."  But she now feels that "In the end, I shouldn't have concerned myself with whether he'd keep his promise. I should have thought about whether I'd keep mine." Lex didn't keep her promise because that night when Ty called her she was making out with Steven and although she saw the text she ignored it. Later on at Patrick's funeral, the guilt over what happened resurfaces with the memories of Ty's funeral. She declined to speak at her brother's funeral. "I didn't speak, either, either. Mom asked me to, but I was afraid that if I got up in front of everybody I would tell them about the promise I had made to Ty, that I would be there for him when he needed me, when he called. The promise I had broken.
Then it would have been me on trial."

By the time she writes her final entry in the journal months later, Lex has come to realize some truths about what happened to Ty; that only Ty could save himself- he had to make the choice to live. She tells Damian when she intervenes in what she thinks might be another suicide attempt that she knows Ty wasn't calling her for help, but to say goodbye.  Her misplaced guilt results in her breaking up with Steven after Ty's death even though she loves him dearly.Lex feels Steven deserves the truth and she hopes he will forgive her.

Lex is also the one who moves both her parents forward. First she tells her mother, after their trip to Graceland that her life is not over and that she can be happy again. Secondly she decides to give her father the picture Ty never placed in the collage of himself and his dad. This takes a great deal of courage because Lex has to go to her father and Megan's home, something she promised herself she would never do. These are some of their unwritten rules.  "I don't call Dad at home. If I did that, it'd be like me saying it's okay, what he did. Like I'm accepting his new life, the one he built without us." She also lies to her father telling him that the picture was not deliberately omitted from the collage by Ty but possibly fell out and that Ty had forgiven his father for leaving. Her therapist tells Lex that this is a very positive sign for her, that she is moving towards acceptance of the divorce and her father's remarriage - both of which are realities to be faced.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye brings into focus two issues many young people today must face - that of suicide and divorce. Through her characters, Hand recognizes how difficult it is for teens to cope with these situations, acknowledging the pain and suffering young people encounter when a family breaks up but also recognizing that healing, forgiveness and acceptance are possible and necessary if life is to go on.  She also integrates some information regarding risk for suicide into the novel and also refers to the stigma attached to suicide when Lex notes that all of Ty's belongings were quickly brought to his house, that his name was stricken from the roster and that his school records were "expunged", "as if they could erase his existence altogether."

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is well written and deeply moving. Young readers will identify with Lex's realistic voice and her struggle to come to terms with her guilt as a suicide survivor and the anger she feels towards her parents. The author writes that she lost her younger brother to suicide in 1999 but that the novel is not autobiographical. Nevertheless, Cynthia Hand's personal experience with suicide has allowed her to write a novel that will touch many readers exactly in they way they need, whether it be to help understand, or to help heal.

Book Details:
The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand
New York: HarperTeen    2015
386 pp.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Escaping Into The Night by D.Dina Friedman

Escaping Into The Night is a compelling story about the flight of Jewish residents of Nowogrodek, Poland into the nearby forest, in an attempt to flee from the murderous Nazis. The city which was part of Poland, was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. In June of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and occupied Nowogrodek. Almost half of the city's population were Jewish. As in other Polish cities, the Jew population living in Nowogrodek was forced into a ghetto and then subjected to repeated "actions". By the end of the war only five hundred and fifty Jews remained out of a population of ten thousand. Many Jews in the ghetto managed to flee into the nearby forest where they remained hidden until the end of the war. Friedman has written a fictional account of what that escape and living in the forest under such difficult circumstances might have been like. She was inspired to write this story after reading about Tuvia Bielski, who according Friedman's website "organized a network of encampments in the forests of western Belorussia that offered protection to over 1200 Jewish men, women and children who were able to escape from the ghettos.

Thirteen year old Halina Rudowski lives in the Nowogrodek ghetto with her Mama. Halina's family lived in Berlin, Germany before the war. Her family was sent to Poland by the Germans (who deported all Jews). They went to her mother's village but then  were made to move to Nowogrodek. Her mother's boyfriend, Georg Goldmann, has told them that the Nazi's are about to have another "selection" and he pleads with them to flee to the forest. But Halina's mama believes that as a member of the Jewish police in the ghetto, Georg can protect them. Halina doubts this because Georg was not able to save her friend Batya Rojak's brother, Yosl, who was taken away.

While her mother and the Rojaks work at the munitions factory, Halina works as a cleaner at the commander's home. The commander's wife is kind to Halina, often feeding her extra food. One night after returning home from work, Georg meets Halina at her apartment and tells her that her mother along with everyone else at the munitions factory has been taken and that the Germans are planning to "liquidate" the ghetto in three days. Georg tells Halina that the escape route is ready but they need to bribe the right people. Later on Batya comes to Halina's apartment and tells her that all the men including her father and brothers were rounded up and sent on trains while the women were shot next to a deep pit.Batya tells Halina she must be ready to escape the ghetto that night.

With the help of Batya, Halina puts on extra clothes as well as her mother's heavy black coat.Halina and Batya are led by Georg to the synagogue basement where a tunnel connecting to the sewer line has been dug. Georg does not accompany them as he has to try to help as many people escape the ghetto as possible. Halina and Batya are accompanied by three brothers, Abel, Max and Reuven Weissman who is Halina's age.  The tunnel, which is dark and smells of sewage and vomit, leads them out of town to a dirt road. The group walks all night and then hides in a grove of fir trees during the first day. When they arrive the next night at the farm that was supposed to take them in, they find it has been burned to the ground.

The next day Abel, Max and Batya decide to go into town to see what food they can find, leaving Halina and Reuven at the Orvatski farm. However, Batya and the older brothers never return and several days later Halina's group are found by partisans who are hiding in the nearby woods. Reuven wants to stay and wait for his brothers to return but the partisans tell him if the brothers are in the village they will find them. The group is taken by Grolsky and another man, along with an older couple, the Fiozman's to the partisan camp in the forest.

In the camp, which is run by Mr. Moskin, life is rustic; people sleep in a ziemlanka, a sort of dugout hidden by branches. Batya is eventually recovered by the partisans and tells Reuven his brothers were murdered by the German soldiers in the town.  Reuven begs Moskin to find his brothers but they tell him that the town was taken days earlier by the Nazis. For Halina, the camp offers her a chance to find peace and to rest after the traumatic events of the past months. Despite being haunted by Batya's revelation of her mother's murder, she willingly begins helping out in any way she can. Trapped between the Russian army to the east and the Nazi's who have overrun villages in the west, Halina, Reuven and the partisan's struggle to survive culminates in a battle that leaves them questioning the meaning of family and faith.


Escaping Into The Night is a well written novel about a little known aspect of the Second World War in eastern Europe - the escape of thousands of Jews who managed to hide from the Nazis in forests for the duration of the war.  Friedman realistically portrays the horrors of war without being too graphic for the younger readers the book is geared to. Batya's rape and torture is only hinted at and her description of what happened to Halina's mother is brief and simple. Nevertheless, Halina's narrative manages to portray the hardship of the partisans, the sense of loss and the fear of discovery that many of the Jewish survivors had to cope with.

Both Halina and Batya are strong female characters who show remarkable resilience and courage - characteristics common among Holocaust survivors. Thirteen year old Halina looks up to the older Batya who sets an example of courage and determination by volunteering to be part of a scouting party to search for food for the partisans. Batya did this even after witnessing Reuven's two older brothers, Max and Abel, murdered by the Germans and barely escaping herself. When Batya's request is dismissed, Batya argues, "I'm fifteen. According to religious law, if I were a man, I'd have full adult privileges...It's better for us young people to go. We're strong and healthy, and most of us are orphans..." Batya argues that she has been lucky, having escaped the Germans twice.

Escaping Into the Night is also a coming of age story. Halina meets the much older Eli Koussivitsky in the partisan camp. Eli plays the Russian Waltz, a song Halina had been singing, on his violin. His direct manner and his beautiful playing capture her heart, leading Halina to quickly become infatuated with him. "No one had ever looked at me so long and so hard."  Halina's first kiss is shared with Eli, whom she lies to about her age.  But Halina is stunned when she, Reuven and the severely injured Batya encounter Eli in the forest with his girlfriend. Despite the desperate circumstances, Halina is still upset and feels betrayed. However, Eli later explains to Halina that he didn't mean to mislead her, that her beautiful singing made him behave inappropriately and he begs her forgiveness. Eli wants this forgiveness because he is going on a dangerous mission which may cost him his life. As Halina struggles to come to terms with the fact that Eli's feelings are not those of romantic love, he gives her the gift of his violin, telling her to use her gift of singing and to one day learn to play the violin. Later on when Eli does not return from his mission, Georg explains to Halina his bravery and that it is dangerous time to love, that the German's manipulated anyone they knew had attachments to others. All of this helps Halina mature and understand the sacrifice Eli and others are making in the fight against the Nazis.

A strong theme throughout the novel is that of the role of faith in difficult times. Batya and Reuven represent opposite sides of the theme of faith; Batya, despite the loss of her family continues to practice her faith diligently while Reuven believes they have been abandoned by God.  Reuven asks Halina,
" 'Do you believe in God?' Reuven asked.
'I don't know. I'd like to, but I don't know.'

'I don't,' Reuven said. 'If there were a God, He would never have let this happen to us.' "
Halina notes that "Batya had lost her entire family, yet when we reached the barn, she had whispered her morning prayers under her breath. Was this just a habit, or did she still believe?'

When Reuven, Halina and Batya are rescued and taken to the partisan's camp, the commander of the camp, Moskin tells Reuven that there is only so much they can do.
"The commander gazed at Reuven thoughtfully. 'I pray that God delivers your brothers safely, and your friend Batya, too. We'll have to leave it in His hands."
'How can you even talk of praying after all that has happened?" Reuven choked as he spoke, trying to block the sobs. 'How can you trust God to do anything?'

Moskin tells Reuven that he is not a religious man, "But I've learned that there are times to fight, and other times where the only thing we can do is to pray."

When Reuven learns the fate of his brothers he concludes "God is dead." Reuven said. "God is dead and so are my brothers. I spent all day praying to a dead god." But Halina isn't having any of Reuven's self-pity, telling him that everyone has lost someone and that he must focus on the present.

In contrast to Reuven, Batya's life is centered around her Jewish faith. When Reuven asks Batya to tell him what happened to his brothers, she tells him that she recited Kaddish, a Jewish prayer said by mourners and at funerals. It is her way of trying to avoid telling Reuven all the terrible details of their fate. She repeatedly but unintentionally infuriates Reuven by exclaiming Baruch HaShem (Thank God) for their rescue by the partisans. However, after she is assaulted, she tells Halina that she is ruined and that her life doesn't matter anymore. In response to Halina telling her that she cannot expect to live by normal rules, Batya responds, "No. Without rules there would be nothing left. God is giving us a challenge, to see if we can follow the rules even when it's difficult. I failed the challenge." Eventually though, Batya's faith is restored and she prays for Eli and Reuven's safe return from their search for survivors of the attack by the Germans.

The novel also explores the meaning of family. Throughout the novel Halina questions her relationship with Reuven who is a year older. At first he is like a brother but near the end of the novel she begins to wonder if he is more than a brother. When Halina and Reuven are taken to the partisan's camp, they meet a woman Tante Rosa who tells them, "You are our mishpokha now, our family." There are almost a hundred people in the camp, most of them not related to one another. Under the circumstances, the definition of family has changed - it is not necessarily a blood relative anymore. This leads Halina to reconsider what family means and is demonstrated by her actions later on in the novel. After Batya is rescued from the German soldier by Halina and Reuven, as she slips into shock from her injuries, Halina asks Batya to be her sister. When Georg tells Russian medic that Halina is his "takhter" or daughter, Halina bristles at this. She wants to yell that he is not her father but then she questions how this is different from Batya being her sister. "Why shouldn't they be my family?"

Friedman has written a high interest novel, with strong main characters and interesting supporting characters, and the themes of love family and faith. A map of the area the novel is set in would have helped young readers place the events taking place in the novel, which although fictional, are based on real historical events. The dramatic cover will push younger readers to crack the cover.

Book Details:
Escaping Into The Night by D.Dina Friedman
New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers    2006
195 pp.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise by Matthew Crow

One trend in young adult literature is novels about teens with cancer, the most famous recently being John Green's, The Fault in Our Stars. But other recent offerings, such as Anthem for Jackson Dawes, are better written and more appealing. The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise is a novel that will touch readers deeply, giving them new perspectives on those who cope with serious illness.

Fifteen year old Francis Wootton is part of a family with a story. He lives with his mother who is a teacher. There was a time when Francis's mom and dad lived together but his dad began to leave, eventually for longer and longer periods of time until he simply never returned. He has an older brother Chris, who is gay and who worked as a graphic designer. Chris lives in a flat with several roommates including Fiona whom Francis adores. Francis's twin sister Emma, died after being run over by a truck when she was very young.

Francis's health problems first began with headaches. Thinking the problem was his eyes, his mother took him to the optician who discounted this possibility. Then came the nose bleeds - great big ones with lots of blood. Francis began feeling unwell and his mother tried to diagnose him herself thinking first he had the flu, then allergies, then depression and then anemia. But when Francis passes out at school, he ends up in hospital with blood and bone-marrow tests and a diagnosis of cancer. For the first time he faces the possibility of death.
"One of the first things we learn is that people die. Then we start to learn why. Old age is the starting point. It's more or less palatable, something everybody can just about stomach; the Soup of the Day to mortality's grand buffet...
Then we learn more. Guns. War. Disease.
The big words. The bad words. The words that never end well."
Francis's feelings about having leukemia are mixed; he worries that people will remember his death by cancer and not his life, he's overwhelmed by the thought of having cancer, but he's also excited "that things were going to change, to become different and focused. And on me, which was a plus."

Francis moves into a specialist unit that treats teens with cancer where he meets the head nurse, Jackie and his carers, Marc and Amy. At first there are three patients in the unit, Francis and another boy named Paul, as well as a girl, Kelly. Francis has trouble relating to either of them, describing Paul as "pasta" and "Everyone thought they loved him because they had never been forced to experience the true blandness of him on his own. Paul was surface all the way to the bone." Kelly is similar to Paul, little substance on the inside, a girl who wears makeup in the unit to whom outward appearances matter most.  Although Francis's brother Chris encourages him to make friends with Paul and Kelly, Francis cannot relate to either and feels alone.

On Francis's fourth day in the unit, Amber Spratt arrives with her oddball, ecofriendly mother  Colette and her younger sister, Olivia. From the beginning Amber is eccentric, like her mother, and very outspoken. In group therapy with Christian their soft-spoken counselor, Amber is openly hostile towards Kelly who accuses Amber of being afraid of dying just like the rest of them. After this confrontation the unit is divided into two groups, Paul and Kelly in one and Amber and Francis in another.

Francis and Amber begin to form a friendship that eventually turns romantic with the two sharing their first kiss and leading Francis to wonder if Amber is now his girlfriend. As treatment progresses, Francis, like the others, has good and bad days. "The whole world would stop mattering to us. All we had to occupy ourselves with was firstly, trying not to throw up, and then perversely, trying with all our might to throw up,..."

When Francis begins loosing his hair, his brother Chris comes to the unit to shave Francis's head. In a show of solidarity with his brother, Chris wants Francis to shave his head too but Francis is unable to, so Amber does the shaving. Later that night Amber and Francis sneak into the bathroom and Francis shaves her head. Despite her being bald, Francis still feels she's beautiful and what is better is that she doesn't care. This helps him cope with this outward sign that he is seriously ill.

While Francis gradually improves, Amber still has many days were she does not feel well. When her flaky mother brings crystals to the hospital to try to help heal her daughter, Francis's mother, Julie, tells Colette that her daughter needs something like having her nails done to make her feel good about herself. After this confrontation, Julie offers to drive Colette to the hospital visits, beginning a sort of friendship between the two very different women.

Eventually Francis is well enough to return home, but not back to school. He is seen by a nurse once a day for treatment at home. Soon his cancer begins to respond to treatment. His first visit to the unit to see Amber finds her still very sick. Subsequent visits find her sometimes better, other times very sick. Throughout this time, Francis tries to be upbeat and positive while her return home to receive some of her treatments continues to be delayed. When Francis is not allowed to visit her one day because he doesn't feel well, he laments that "even breathing hurts when I'm not with her..."

Finally Amber is allowed to go home and Francis manages to convince his mother to let him visit. At Amber's home they listen to music and have sex, but by the following evening Amber is back in the unit. Amber is in and out of the unit for weeks leading up to Christmas.  Because they live so far away from each other and because their "Good Days" don't line up, it's difficult for Francis and Amber to see one another. Eventually before Christmas, Amber is released and her family spend Christmas with Francis and his family. But the joy of the holiday is ruined when Amber reveals to Francis that she is going back into hospital after Christmas. When Francis promises to visit, Amber tells him not to - that she needs to be on her own this time.

Not really understanding what is happening, Francis struggles to understand Amber's distance. He gradually comes to realize that while he is recovering, Amber may not be. When you are fifteen and in love, where does that leave you?


The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise is an irreverent look at teenagers coping with cancer. At it's core is the romantic relationship between romantic nerd Francis Wootton and the realistic, practical Amber Spratt.

As in life outside the hospital, in the cancer unit, Francis finds himself a social outcast.  Then along comes Amber Spratt whom Francis likes  - partly because she makes friends with him immediately. He also likes her because she is able to deal with Kelly and Paul, whom Francis considers to be superficial. Francis states that "In school Kelly would have had the upper hand. No matter how much she spat and snarled, Amber would have been torn limb from limb by Kelly and her crew, like a wildebeest calf faced with a pack of lions. But in the real world she had Kelly over a barrel. Every time she said something stupid, which was always, Amber was there to set her straight. " 

While Francis believes their little group in the cancer unit is analogous to the group of students in detention in the 1985 movie, The Breakfast Club  (Paul is Andy Clarke, the popular athlete, Amber is Allison Reynolds the social outcast and "basket case") Amber thinks she and Francis are like Bud and Fran in the Apartment, a 1960's Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine movie. In the movie, Bud, "a nervous geek falls in love with a loud mouth harlot" named Fran. Amber tells Francis "you won't have an trouble identifying".  Francis, however, tells Amber that she is like the star in John Keats love poem, Bright Star - "she's like a star...not because stars are shiny and stuff, but because they're always there, always looking down and that sort of thing."  But Amber prefers realism over Francis's romanticism. She tells him stars are like looking up at a million different memories" - referring to the science of stars. Amber tells Francis, "It's real, and that's what's important."

Crow continues this romance versus realism in other parts of the novel. Francis and Amber's first kiss is not romantic like in the movies. Instead, Francis states "our teeth clacked together and I could hear it magnified in my head. Teeth never seem to clack in films; it's all smooth running there." 

The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise is more about living than dying. It is not so much about dying from cancer as being about living life to the fullest despite being dealt a bad hand. Hence the reference to the final line in The Apartment. At the end of the movie, Shirley MacLaine's character, Fran, has a famous one line response, "Shut up and deal.", when Bud (Jack Lemmon) professes his love for her.  After all Bud and Fran have been through, they know the truth about each other and yet they still love one another. Life is full of "bad hands" and we must learn to accept and deal with it. This becomes Amber's final message to her romantic friend, Francis.

The tragedy of their relationship is hinted at early on when Amber's release from the unit is repeatedly delayed. Although Amber puts on a brave front when her treatment is not going well, Francis recognizes what she feels. "Those awful days when she'd joke for me but her eyes looked like they belonged to someone else, looked like they knew something the rest of her body wasn't yet willing to acknowledge." When Francis is released from the unit he wonders how he will cope:  "Already I knew that my days would be wasted without her. She was my strongest limb; without her I would be lost."

When Amber tells Francis she's going back into the unit after Christmas, he refuses to accept the reality that she must do this part alone and that he shouldn't text her.  Ever the romantic, he sends her numerous texts, concerned that not doing so would be a sign he doesn't care. But he begins to suspect that something is seriously wrong. When he confronts his mother she tells him the painful truth about Amber. This leads Francis to sneak into the unit to see her, hoping to convince her to live. Shocked at her condition  he tells her  his deepest fear. "The thing is, Amber, I need you to get better because I'm getting better, and the problem is I can't really remember what I ever did before I knew you. Before we were us. I know you must feel scared about being ill, but I'm starting to feel scared about getting better...about having to do anything without you." Sadly, Amber is too ill to help Francis and he leaves realizing that everything that will now follow is a mere formality.

Francis is scared to lose Amber because she's taught him how to live and he's not sure he can do life without her. Earlier in the novel,  Amber stated that in spite of death, life goes on around them. When Kelly insists that Amber is afraid to die, Amber tells Francis later on that she is not. Her father died of a heart attack when she was ten years old. Although she misses her father, she tells Francis about the reality of  death; "I know that it's just one less person at the dinner table, and they don't take the whole world with them; it carries on like it always has, only a bit sadder for a bit..." 

Amber's final message to Francis reveals that she accepts and acknowledges both his romantic view of life as well as her own more realistic approach. The envelope she leaves for him is filled with tiny gold stars - a nod to the poem he loved, Bright Star. Her message "Shut up and deal." - is a request to live life fully in her memory. She hasn't taken the whole world with her and there's more remaining for Francis. He does just that as he states in the chapter titled After. "Everything was how I'd always imagined it would be, but better. I spent my nights talking to interesting strangers about interesting things. I discovered friends who made me a better person. I read books that changed my life and watched films that left me so breathless that I would still be stuck to the seat long after the credits had finished rolling. I saw parts of the country, parts of the world, that at one point I couldn't even spell. I fell in and out of love on an almost daily basis, and said yes to any opportunity that came my way.  I lived."

The witty narrative of the socially inept, nerdy Francis Wootton makes the heavy topic of cancer, with its frightening possibilities, lighter and the novel wonderfully readable with his laugh out loud humour.  Crows characters are real, full bodied and interesting. The cast of supporting characters, Francis's mom, Julie, his grandmother, and Amber's mother, Colette, are all equally well formed.

Expecting The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise to be another The Fault in Our Stars novel would be to not do this book justice. It is different, better written and more subtle. It's "sick lit" and yet it's not- it's a story about living life to the fullest and appreciating every day, no matter our circumstances.

The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise was previously published in the UK under the title In Bloom.

Book Details:
The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise by Matthew Crow
New York: Simon Pulse        2015
295 pp.