Saturday, October 31, 2015

DVD: Testament of Youth


Violets from Plug Street Wood
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head:
It is strange they should be blue.)

Think what they have meant to me -
Life and hope and Love and You
(and you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay
Hiding horrors from the day;
Sweetest, it was better so.)

Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory
Knowing you will understand

Roland Leighton April 1915

Testament of Youth is based on the memoir of the same name written by Vera Brittain, who became a prominent peace activist in the twentieth century as a result of her experiences during the First World War. The movie focuses on Vera's life just prior to and during the war years and the devastation war wreaked upon her life and the young people of her generation.

Vera Brittain was born on December 29, 1893 into a well to do family in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Her early life was comfortable as her father, Thomas Arthur Brittain, was the owner of several paper mills. Her family moved several times during her younger years, eventually settling in the town of Buxton. She boarded at St. Monica's in Kingswood, Surrey when she was thirteen years old.

As portrayed in the movie, Vera was very much a rebel who went against the social conventions of the time. Education was not seen as a valuable undertaking for women, who were expected to marry and run a household. Vera was determined to become a writer, to have and higher education and wasn't interested in marrying. When she learned about women being allowed to study at Oxford, she begged her father to allow her to sit for the Oxford exam.

In the movie her father at first refuses, partly because although women could study at Oxford, their efforts were not recognized in the form of a graduation or the conferring of a degree. Despite feeling that education is a waste of money, Vera's father reconsiders after her cause is taken up by her younger brother, Edward. Vera diligently sets out to prepare for the examination, applies to write the exam in 1913 and is astonished to learn that despite not knowing Latin, she passes.

In 1913 she also met one of her brother's friends, Roland Leighton, and they immediately fell in love. In 1914 all three planned to be studying at Oxford. Their world is portrayed in the movie as somewhat idyllic; Vera, Edward and Roland are shown swimming in a pond in the forest, there are long walks and their biggest worries are the choices they will make about their futures.

However, world events far away on the continent are set to change the course of their lives forever. In response to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Austria declares war on Serbia,  Germany declares war on Russia, and on August 4, the United Kingdom declares war on Germany. Edward, Roland Leighton, and two other friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, all enlist believing that it will be months before they are called up. In the movie, Vera and Edward's father will not allow him to enlist so he asks Vera to convince their father, which she does. The young men believe that the war will be over by Christmas and that they will be back at Oxford in the new year.

Vera feels unsettled and worries about Roland being sent to the front, but he assures her that this will likely not happen. However, he does get sent into the trenches and when he returns home after three months at the front, it is evident that the war has had a profound effect on him. He's withdrawn and depressed.  He accuses Vera of not understanding what is really happening.

Roland Leighton
Image © The Vera Brittain Fonds,

Although she initially begins her studies at Oxford, Vera finds she cannot continue while her brother and her friends are overseas. In 1915, Vera decides to leave Oxford to train as a voluntary aid detachment nurse. Roland asks Vera to marry him the next time he is home on leave and she agrees. However, on their wedding day, Vera receives a call from Roland's mother telling her that Roland has been killed at Louvencourt, France. It is December 23, 1915. Roland was only twenty years old.

Completely devastated, Vera seeks out any information about his death, from the military and eventually from a man who survived the battle and who lay in the bed next to Roland. Although the military claimed that Roland's death was quick and painless, Vera learns it was anything but. The soldier tells her that Roland was shot in the stomach by a sniper while attempting to cut the wire. He was operated on. There was no morphine available at the time of his death.

Through her nursing, Vera hopes to save her brothers and his remaining friends. She decides to volunteer to serve overseas and is sent to Malta and France. When she arrives in France she is sent to a hospital to care for the wounded - all German soldiers. It is during this experience that Vera realizes that the German soldiers are men suffering just as terribly as the British soldiers. They lose limbs and eyes, and die in agony just like the British do. Ultimately Vera loses all those she loves dearly to the machine of war.

Postwar, Vera returns reluctantly to Oxford, where she struggles to cope with a life so profoundly different than the one she had before. The final scene shows her speaking up at a rally about seeking German reparation to argue that revenge only breeds hatred and war. And in war everyone loses.

Swedish breakout actress, Alicia Vikander gives an outstanding emotional portrayal of Vera Brittain capturing her courage and determination. Viewers experience the horror of war through Vikander's remarkable performance, as she suffers through the anxiety of not knowing what is happening to her fiance Roland and through her work at the war hospitals. Kit Harington as Roland Leighton, captures some of the havoc wreaked by the trauma of trench warfare in scenes where he returns home - a completely changed man, clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Testament of Youth offers a powerful remembrance, one hundred years after, of the horror and futility of war, but especially of World War I - a war meant "to end all wars". The poetry of Roland Leighton, an example of which begins this post, is an evidence of the talent and gifts lost because of war. Director James Kent captures some of the brutality of war through the hospitals scenes and the suffering of the soldiers.  One memorable shot, just before Vera discovers her badly injured brother, shows rows of wounded men awaiting treatment at a hospital completely overwhelmed.

Testament of Youth is an intense movie that will leave viewers wanting to know more about Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. Like the memoir, it provides insight into and epitomizes the experiences of the women of the "Lost Generation" - the label given to those who came of age during World War 1.

For more information on Vera Brittain please visit the learn peace website.

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive - Roland Leighton Collection.

Oxford University World War 1 Centenary  - Roland Aubrey Leighton

Amazingly Vera Brittain's archives are held at my alma mater, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario Canada.
From Youth to Experience: Vera Brittain's Work For Peace in Two World Wars

Friday, October 30, 2015

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Chasing Secrets is a historical fiction novel about an outbreak of the bubonic plague which began in the city of San Francisco in March, 1900 and continued for a number of years. This novel is set in the year 1900, at the very beginning of the outbreak.

Thirteen-year-old Elizabeth (Lizzie) Kennedy lives in San Francisco with her sixteen-year-old brother, William (Billy) and her father who is a doctor. Lizzie's mother died five years ago from stomach cancer. She attends Miss Barstow's School for Young Women which is a finishing school for young girls. The girls learn how to run a household and how to attract and marry a wealthy man. Unfortunately, they do not study science and math classes stop after the third grade. Lizzie was enrolled in the school on the advice of her Aunt Hortense when she turned eleven. But she hates the dancing, etiquette and entertaining classes and much prefers to accompany her father on his house visits.

Lizzie is driven to and from Miss Barstow's by their Chinese cook, Jing, who also cares for their garden, horses and chickens and their cat. Lizzie has a strong attachment to Jing, who makes a special cake on her birthday. Lizzie's home is next door to her Aunt Hortense and Uncle Karl Sweeting's house which is on Nob Hill. Her aunt and uncle are extremely wealthy as Uncle Karl has made a great deal of money in the sugar business. Unlike her sister, Lizzie's mother married a doctor who often doesn't charge for his visits if people cannot pay.

The novel opens with Lizzie taking the next three days off from school as she accompanies her father on his house calls, something Aunt Hortense doesn't approve of. Their first call is to attend Mrs Jessen who is in labour but discover that her daughter, Caroline is also in need of medical care as she has broken her arm. Lizzie's father assigns her to set Caroline's arm, while he delivers the baby. However, Lizzie find this is easier said than done because Caroline won't let her near. Lizzie realizes that Caroline is frightened for her mother so she works on allaying her fears. Lizzie eventually sets the arm and helps her father deliver the Jessen baby, a healthy boy. When Mr. Jessen, who is a policeman in San Francisco, returns in the morning, he mentions about the enormous number of dead rats found in the walls of a restaurant in the city. Later when Jing picks up Lizzie and her father from the ferry, he tells them that Chinatown is under quarantine for the plague. Dr. Kennedy tells his daughter that there was an outbreak in Hawaii but no confirmed cases in San Francisco. As a result of the quarantine, Aunt Hortense asks Lizzie's father not to take her on any more calls. He agrees to this much to Lizzie's dismay.

Stuck at home with their maid Maggy Doyle, Lizzie decides to investigate the third floor after hearing strange sounds. On the third floor she discovers a Chinese boy who identifies himself as Jing's son, Noah, living in Jing's room. Noah tells Lizzie that he lives in the house unknown to everyone. Noah is worried because his father has not returned and he believes he has been caught in the quarantine when he went to Chinatown to work as a translator. Lizzie promises not to tell anyone about Noah's presence and to help him find his father. When she brings Noah dinner, Lizzie tells him she will ask her Uncle Karl about getting Jing out of the Chinatown quarantine.

That evening when Lizzie visits her uncle's home, she learns that many doctors do not believe the plague has come to San Francisco. Uncle Karl who owns the evening newspaper, the Call, has refused to publish anything about the plague, unlike his rival, Randolph Hearst. Karl believes that Hearst is publishing the reports of the plague so he can sell more newspapers. Uncle Karl tells Lizzie not to worry about Jing but that he will make some calls in the morning.

The next morning Lizzie tells Noah that her Uncle Karl will try to find out about Jing. Lizzie learns that Noah's mother still lives in China giving them something in common - they both miss their mothers. Noah tells her that he was living with his Uncle Han but came to live with Jing before the quarantine set in because his father was afraid he would starve.

Next Lizzie attempts to enlist Billy to take her to Chinatown. Lizzie notes Billy's black eye but he simply tells her he ran into a door. When Billy refuses to help her, Lizzie harnesses their horse, John Henry, and tries to leave without Aunt Hortense noticing. Of course she does, but Billy rescues Lizzy and together the two of them travel to Chinatown. During their drive Lizzie learns that Billy has been fighting but she promises to keep his secret since their father would never approve. At Chinatown, they find the area roped off and guarded by the police. Even Lizzie dropping Karl Sweeting's name doesn't help. As they drive around the area, Lizzie overhears two police mention about "waiting on the monkey". Desperate to find Jing, she asks for Officer Jessen but he too is unable to help.

When they arrive home, Billy and Lizzie discover that Aunt Hortense is moving into the spare room because their father will not be returning until the following week due to a smallpox outbreak. With Aunt Hortense's eagle eye on everything, Lizzie wonders how she will feed Noah and how she will ever manage to locate Jing and bring him home. Her attempts to find Jing lead Lizzie to uncover the truth about the plague in Chinatown and San Francisco and to reveal many secrets both in her family and the city.


Chinatown circa 1900
Chasing Secrets is a well-written historical novel about life in early 1900's San Francisco. Choldenko fills her story with interesting details about what life was like for a young girl from a reasonably well off white family. Well-to-do young girls like Lizzie lived in large, clean homes with servants and good food, had access to what medical treatment existed at that time, and attended dances such as the cotillion (a kind of debutante social event). Although young girls received some schooling, their teen years are spent preparing to run a household. Noah life would have been very different from Lizzie's, partly because he was a boy but also because he was Chinese. He may very well have had just as much difficulty attending college as she would. At the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese were restricted in where they could live in cities including San Francisco, and the general population did not like the Chinese.

In Lizzie Kennedy, Choldenko has crafted a courageous, determined heroine, intent upon forging her own destiny. She is determined to find her family's beloved missing Chinese servant. Without betraying Noah's secret, Lizzie continues to search for his father, Jing, even if it means breaking social conventions of the time. She harnesses the family's horse and buggy, preparing to drive herself to Chinatown until Billy intervenes to help her. When that fails Lizzie even attempts to pass herself off as a nurse to gain access to Chinatown. At the cotillion, Lizzie sneaks into the bar in an effort to learn more about what it happening in Chinatown. Later on she even dresses as a boy and attempts to ride her horse into Chinatown at night to warn Jing and Noah that people are intent upon setting the area on fire.

One of the themes in Chasing Secrets is that of friendship. Through Noah, Lizzie learns the meaning of friendship. At Miss Barstow's, Lizzie has not made many friends. "Now I'm thirteen, and my friends are the cook, the maid, our horse, and my father." When she meets Noah, she confesses to him that she doesn't have any friends because she's different and she seems to say the wrong thing. Noah advises Lizzie to pick out one girl she likes best and to start with her. When Lizzie declares that they are friends now, Noah points out to her that outside her home, they cannot be friends but Lizzie tells him "We decide if we're going to be friends. Not them." Noah helps Lizzie learn to dance and he crafts her a "button-head lion", "so you'll remember to be brave...With everyone. Be your best true self. That's what Baba says." After the quarantine is lifted, Lizzie worries about whether she will ever see Noah again. She considers him her best friend. Eventually Lizzie does make friends at Miss Barstow's by following what Noah told her. She becomes friends with Gemma Trotter and her twin brother, Gus, who it turns out has a crush on Lizzie.

Another prominent theme is the Kennedy children's struggle to forge their own path in life. Lizzie's father wanted his son Billy to become a doctor. Even though Billy shows an aptitude for medicine as evidenced by his ability to stitch his shoulder himself, he wants to be a fighter. It is something he likes to do but his father is horrified. Billy tells his father, "I don't want people to take advantage of me. I need to be able to back up what I say. Otherwise it's just talk." Billy believes his father does not have much respect in the community because he doesn't stand up for himself when people don't pay him for his services. When Dr. Kennedy tells him he doesn't want his son fighting for a living, Billy states, "I'm not going to live my life as 'your son.' I'm going to live it my way. Make my own decisions. Think for myself." One of those decisions is to not get vaccinated against the plague.It is a decision that has profound repercussions for the Kennedy family.

In the same way, Lizzie finds herself at odds with the life her Aunt Hortense wants her to have. She had enrolled Lizzie in the finishing school with the idea that she will eventually marry and manage a household. Aunt Hortense She doesn't like Lizzie accompanying her father on his medical trips. But with the death of Billy things change. Eventually even Aunt Hortense comes to realize that young people want to live as they choose. When Lizzie tells her that she wants to go to college, she is shocked when her aunt agrees. " 'I wanted a different life for you. Your father wanted a different life for Billy. But that didn't work did it? You'll have to' --she can hardly get the words out over the welling in her throat--'live your life your way.' "

The theme of "chasing secrets" is woven throughout the novel. Almost every character is keeping secrets or as Billy states, "Everybody has secrets...even Orange Tom."   Lizzie is keeping Noah's presence in her house a secret as well as her friendship with him which would not be considered appropriate for a girl her age or social status. Billy is keeping his fighting a secret because he knows his father disapproves. Uncle Karl and his friend Peter are keeping secret the efforts of Dr. Kinyoun (who has injected the plague pathogen into a monkey, a rat and two guinea pigs) to prove the presence of bubonic plague in the city. Dr. Roumalade is keeping secret his triaging of patients based on their social status and his unethical use of a vaccine known to kill those already exposed to the bubonic plague. Jing's secret revolves around the existence of Noah and his work in Chinatown, while the Chinese in Chinatown and the city officials are keeping secret the deaths from the plague by hiding the bodies in barrels and sneaking them out of Chinatown.

Fans of historical fiction will enjoy Chasing Secrets. Choldenko captures the atmosphere of San Francisco at the turn of the last century with strong, well developed characters and an exciting mystery.

Choldenko provides her readers with a wonderfully informative Author's Note at the back that provides information on the city of San Francisco, Chinatown, medicine in 1900, the plague and the plague epidemic of 1900 in San Francisco. There is also a map at the front of the novel so readers can understand the setting of the novel.
Dr. Joseph Kinyoun

These websites may provide valuable information on the bubonic plague in San Francisco:

A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: Bubonic Plague Hit San Francisco  

Bubonic Plague in Chinatown from the Library of Congress.

A Forgotten Hero of Public Health Now Remembered  (about Dr. Kinyoun)

Book Details:

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko
New York: Wendy Lamb Books     2015
278 pp.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Islands At The End of the World by Austin Aslan

Set in Hawaii, The Islands At The End of The World tells the story of a father and daughter trying to survive in world devastated by the presence of an alien entity.

Sixteen-year-old Leilani Milton lives with her parents and seven year old brother Kai in Hilo, on the big island of Hawai'i. Her father who was originally from New Mexico, is Dr. Michael Milton, a professor of ecology at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo and white. Her mother is pure Hawaiian and also a professor of ecology at UH at Hilo too. They have only lived on the island for three years.

The story opens on Sunday, April 26 with Leilani surfing with her best friend, Tami. On their way to get ice cream afterwards, Leilani and her father hear the siren warning of a tsunami. A few hours earlier, there was a meteor strike in the northern Pacific, eight hundred miles south of Alaska. Eventually the threat is downgraded.

Leilani, whose name means "Flower of Heaven", is leaving at six the next morning with her father for Honolulu, on the island of O'ahu. She will undergo special tests and a drug trial for her epilepsy. It was epilepsy that resulted in her being dropped from the gymnastics team when she was twelve. That was the age Leilani had her first grand mal seizure. She had been having petits mals for years. Once at O'ahu, Leilani will stop her meds, then started start a trial medication. If the medication works and she has no grand mal she will continue. If she has a grand mal, the trial will stop. All of this is making Leilani very nervous.

Before she leaves though, her grandpa arrives that evening so he can see her off in the morning. Leilani's grandpa is determined to keep alive the cultural practices of his Hawaiian ancestors. He was in the navy and then become a cop on Maui. Now retired, grandpa is Leilani's kahuna or spiritual adviser.  Grandpa tells her that Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of lightning, lava and volcanoes is her guardian spirit.

Their forty-minute flight on Monday, April 27 takes them over Maui, Lana'i, Moloka'i to O'ahu. In Honolulu, they drive to the clinic where they meet Dr. Makani who tells them more information about the trial. Meanwhile, bizarre things begin to happen around the world. Leilani and her dad learn that the U.S. President is recovering from surgery for appendicitis. At the clinic while some tests are being done on Leilani, they learn that the stock exchange has been shut down, the Vice President is missing as is the Prime Minister of Japan, Congressional offices have closed, the Euro has collapsed and several British banks have failed. Trying not to worry, Leilani and her father check into their fancy hotel on Waikiki Beach.

While talking with her mother and Kai, Leilani and her father also watch the President of the United States as he addresses the nation. However, the transmission dies as does their internet connection with her mother and Kai. All they know is that president was trying to tell them something very important and to warn them about something. Leilani experiences a petit mal seizure during which she hears a voice saying strange things in what seems like a dream. "These islands and their sacred tides call me forth." and "Come drift upon me, and spread. Bring me the means of life." Later on Leilani recalls these words and finds them to be strange, since she never dreams or hears things during seizures.

The next morning they awake to a power outage, satellite networks and electronics inoperative and flights grounded. At the clinic, Dr. Makani tells them that his neighbour with NOAA indicated that there is some kind of geomagnetic storm or something that is interfering with the Earth's magnetic field. That night from her room at the clinic they notice "a hazy green knot dominates a quarter of the night sky". The next morning a local astronomer indicates that there seems to be a correlation between the green light seen at night and the blackouts and malfunctioning electronics. By Thursday morning, all the equipment at the clinic is not working and the newspaper has dubbed the green cloud the "Emerald Orchid". They also learn that tsunami struck O'ahu's Kailu Bay earlier on Wednesday as well as the area around Hilo on the Big Island. The tsunami's are believed to be due to the Emerald Orchid. Leilani's dad decides that they need to get home and they need to begin looking for ways off of O'ahu now.

Leilani is released from the clinic however, their attempts to leave Waikiki are hampered when Leilani has another seizure. Again she dreams and hears a strange voice, "These islands are here for me, and I crave what they will offer. It is a good thing...I am Leilani. Spellbound, I blossom." By Friday chaos reigns. There are gasoline shortages, the National Guard and coast guard have been deployed, there is no way off the island for tourists, and no communication with the outside world. The government decides to send tourists to the Marine Corps Base at Kaneohe Bay to be evacuated by navy ships to the West Coast. First they try to leave via one of the smaller island airstrips, Kalaeloa Airport, but discover they can't book a flight until the following Tuesday. Talking with people at the airport, Leilani and her dad learn that the military is simply shuffling people around. Leilani's father decides to try to find someone to take them to the Big Island by yacht or sailboat. This too is unsuccessful. Leilani witnesses the brutal murder of a man who is caught stealing a boat and this brings on yet another seizure. Again Leilani dreams and hears a strange voice. "This is right. I am here. It is time. And this one spits fire. It oozes heat. This one has not warmed before. I will linger, then as I have done on other shores, and we both shall have our fill."

Two days later, on Monday morning, Leilani wakes in the hotel room in Waikiki. Their hotel is now under attack by gangs who are after the tourists. Waikiki has been looted and buildings are on fire. The Emerald Orchid now dominates the sky at night, complete with lightning bolts and meteor showers. Their attempt to reach Kaupa Pond is thwarted when they are diverted by the military to the Marine Corps Base. Arriving by bus at Kailua, Leilani and her father are forced to surrender their backpacks and food and are eventually placed in a makeshift camp. They are told to they will be called when their turn comes to be transported by helicopter to their home on the Big Island. While waiting, Leilani meets a handsome soldier, Aukina. As conditions deteriorate in the camps, Leilani decides to induce a seizure in the hopes they can get out of the camp. But like the other seizures, Leilani continues to hear voices. "You are Leilani. I am Leilani. Suckle. Gather your strength...Time to linger and grow strong on the heat."

Leilani's father now becomes determined to break out of the camp. Aukina tells Leilani that people on the islands are breaking into factions according to race. The Sovereign Nationers want to secede from the United States. He reveals that all the military are taking potassium iodide tablets in anticipation of the radiation fallout after the nuclear reactors fail. He tells them that the military is out of fuel and that what is left is being conserved for a special action which he wishes he could take her with him. The only thing he can do is provide Leilani with wire cutters. After stocking up on food from the warehouse, which Leilani breaks into, they flee the camp into the night.

The first place they flee to is the abandoned home of the chancellor of UH Hilo. After cleaning up and getting some rest, they are warned to leave. They manage to steal a boat, but Leilani's father is shot during the escape. They head towards Moloka'i but when they run out of gas, Leilani and her father now risk being smashed against the rocks of the island. Leilani manages to jump onto a ledge and eventually pull her father to the safety. Then from the direction of Kalaupapa, an outrigger canoe comes to rescue them. They are taken to a clinic on the beach where Leilani's father is operated on and she receives stitches for a gash on her forehead. The older man who rescued her tells her that he is a healer. Identifying himself as Uncle Akoni, he abruptly questions Leilani about her epilepsy and suggests to her that maybe her epilepsy is an "opportunity". As they both recover from their ordeal, they find Akoni's community a refuge. Akoni begins dropping hints to Leilani, referring to the Emerald Orchid as a ship that likes the radiation or "hotness". After four days, Akoni indicates that he must go to deal with other factions on Moloka'i. Akoni indicates that things might begin to get worse and he offers Leilani and her father a way to get to Maui. He tells Leilani's dad that through a ham radio, they have confirmed that nuclear reactor meltdowns are occurring all over the world as power systems fail and there is no means to cool the reactors. These meltdowns will continue as more and more reactors fail. However the strange thing is that no radiation has been detected. Akoni tells them that they cannot even read normal amounts of radiation. It is at this point that Akoni reveals what he knows to both Leilani and her father; that the Emerald Orchid, whatever it is, is preventing a catastrophic nuclear winter from happening. He tells Leilani that people with epilepsy like himself and Leilani can "hear" the Emerald Orchid and he begs her that upon her arrival in Hilo, to go up the mountain, listen and try to contact them.

As life on the islands begins to unravel further, the military abandons the islands and Leilani and her father struggle through the last part of their journey, Leilani begins to understand what is happening to her planet and how they are tied to the Emerald Orchid. She realizes she may be the only one who can save her dying planet.


The Islands At The End Of The World is a story of journeys - human and alien. It is well-written piece of science fiction that uses the alien-comes-to-earth trope but with a twist. Instead of the aliens being highly intelligent beings, those of the Emerald Orchid are compared to sea turtles who follow their instinct to migrate to their ancestral breeding grounds. In this case that ancestral home is the atmosphere of the planet Earth. The first foreshadowing of this comes when Leilani and her father are on Moloka'i watching a sea turtle. Her father mentions that "some turtle species cross the entire ocean to lay their eggs...When the supercontinent of Gondwanaland was just breaking apart, the turtles would simply swim across a narrow strait, lay their eggs, and then head back home. Over the next hundred-or-so million years, the continents drifted apart, about an inch a year. The turtles went about their business, doing what they used to, what their parents used to do, each generation unaware of the imperceptible change. Now they cross oceans. And they'll be here still, following their ancient paths, inch by new inch, long after we're gone."

It is this exchange that helps Leilani to piece together the circumstances behind the Emerald Orchid five weeks after its appearance. It is while resting at a small plot of marijuana plants and smoking pot, that Leilani and her father have a detailed discussion of the "Emerald Orchid." They both notice that the Emerald Orchid has changed and seems to be made of two entities. It reminds Leilani of the jellyfish she's seen at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Remembering "those dark seizurescapes, the snatches of imagery, the voice, the echoes of thought flowing through with my own consciousness" results in Leilani realizing that the "Emerald Orchid" is alive and that like the sea turtles, it has come to Earth to give birth.

"I only put this together just now! But it is a ... cosmic sea turtle! It was born here. It's just returned to lay its eggs, or spawn, or whatever it does. It's feeding on the atmosphere. That's how it works!"

Leilani's father believes the "Emerald Orchid" may be the explanation behind the mass extinctions throughout Earth's history. For both Leilani and her father, this realization is overwhelming. "I catch a glimpse of my father's wonder: if our terrestrial turtles will cross oceans, unaware of the drifting continents, then how much grander are these creatures, who voyage between worlds?"

But the Emerald Orchid is different from Earth's sea turtle as evidenced by its response after Leilani makes contact and explains that they need it to stay and "to take up all the hotness until it is gone." Although the "Emerald Orchid" and its young one want to leave, they want also to help. "I want the depths, but I want to do the good thing more. The good thing is to stay." They decide to stay a feast on Earth's radiation, so that they can grow strong and so that Leilani can protect her young.

The story of Leilani and her father's journey back home is told entirely from Leilani's perspective. Her narrative is broken into five parts named after the Hawaiian islands. Fortunately for the reader, Aslan has provided basic maps both of the Hawaiian chain of islands as well as maps at the beginning of each new section that help to place the events for readers. At the beginning of their journey, Leilani and her father's world is encompassed by the Hawaiian islands. The islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean give the sense of isolation. By the end, they have a sense being apart of something much larger and much grander. In particular, Leilani has felt socially isolated because of her epilepsy; she was dropped from the gymnastics team and doesn't yet have her license because her doctor hasn't yet signed off on it. She's also of mixed ancestry on an island that prides itself on full-blooded Hawaiian ancestry. However, in this new world, Leilani's epilepsy is a gift that saves her world and her mixed blood is a call to all to co-operate in order to survive.

It's easy to recognize that author Austin Aslan lived on the Hawaiian Islands. The novel is filled with fascinating historical, geographical, cultural tidbits as well as some references to Hawaiian mythology. All are woven into the story seamlessly, both informing and engaging the reader.

One theme that appears early on is the conflict in Hawaiian society between the white and Hawaiian races. One group, whom grandpa refers to as "Sovereign Nation people" want the islands to be governed by those who are pure Hawaiians. While Leilani's grandpa acknowledges that "The seizure of Hawaii by the U.S. military was a despicable act." he is willing to recognize that people like Leilani's father who have married Hawaiians and now live on the island are just as much Hawaiian as he or Leilani's mother. This conflict becomes more dominant in the novel as conditions on the island worsen and civil authority collapses.

Overall, The Islands At The End Of The World is a debut novel well worth reading. Aslan has planned a sequel, ready for publication in 2016.

Book Details:

The Islands At The End Of The World by Austin Aslan
New York: Wendy Lamb Books      2014
358 pp.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass

Set in post World War II Germany, Graffiti Knight provides readers with a unique look at life in a divided Germany after the destruction of Hitler's Third Reich. Having lost the war, Germany finds itself a country divided into two areas: the American occupied west and the Soviet occupied east. Because of Nazi brutality and the tremendous losses suffered by Soviet troops during the war, every German is assumed to be a Nazi and the Soviets treat them accordingly.

Seventeen-year-old Wilhelm (Wilm) Tauber lives in what remains of Leipzig after extensive Allied bombing during World War II. He shares a bombed out apartment with his mother and father and his twenty-year-old sister, Annelise. Wilm's father was a German soldier who lost his leg during the war. Left for dead by his platoon, American doctors amputated his leg and sent him to POW camp.

Wilm, with his friends Georg Rohrbach and Karl, watches and listens from his hiding place as his father is beaten by four Schutzpolizisten (Schupos). The Schupos are German police who work for the occupying Soviets and are known for their brutality. Wilm and Karl feel they exist behind enemy lines with the occupation of part of their country by the Soviets. With the help of his friends, Wilm takes his father home in Frau Nikel's wheelbarrow as he is unable to walk. After a dinner of thin potato soup, Wilm's father sits down to drink and angry words with his son. That night Wilm sleeps on the rug in Annelise's room because he doesn't want to listen to his father rant about the war and the loss of his leg.

At school Wilm is a poor, unfocused student and his lack of effort is especially noticed in Herr Bader's mathematics class. He asks Wilm why his marks are so poor and suggests he learn what the problem is and fix it. For Wilm school means nothing because it will not alleviate his hunger nor get his family a larger apartment. After school one day, Wilm, Georg and Karl are challenged to a soccer game by a group of Schupos that includes Anneliese's old boyfriend, Ernst Weber. After the game, Johanna Fahr, a childhood friend of Wilm arrives. She has grown up now and is very beautiful and Wilm finds her attractive. Johanna tells Wilm she's meeting her boyfriend, Ernst, and this leads Wilm to wonder when Ernst started dating Johanna and the circumstances of his break-up with Anneliese. When Wilm questions Ernst as to why he broke up with his sister, he tells him "I like my women...untouched." Wilm has no idea what Ernst means.

On Saturdays Wilm travels to his Uncle Bruno's farm in Engelsdorf where he works in exchange for food. His mother works as a Trummerfrauen or "rubble women", clearing the rubble created by the Allied bombing of Leipzig in exchange for extra rations. Over a lunch of fried onions, potatoes and sausages, Uncle Bruno tells Wilm to finish his education and that there is no future in small farms like his. When a thunderstorm comes up that evening, Uncle Bruno teaches Wilm how to fire the Luger pistol under the cover of the thunder.

At home things grow worse between Wilm and his angry, drunk father, who refuses the food Wilm brings back from the farm. Wilm retreats to the roof of the house and is soon joined by Anneliese, whom he questions about Ernst. Wilm tells Anneliese that she has changed since she broke up with Ernst. She wears boys clothes and creeps to work at a seamstresses shop. He tells her that Ernst claimed she cheated on him. Anneliese tells her brother about the day she went to the train station to meet Ernst who was returning from a British prisoner-of-war camp. Their mother warned her that it was not safe, but she went anyway. Anneliese tells him that she was raped by four Soviet soldiers and that Ernst saw the attack but did not intervene because he couldn't. When Wilm asks her why, Anneliese states, "Because they were Soviets. They attack whomever they choose. They kill whomever they choose. To interfere is to die. Where have you been these last two years?" When Wilm confronts his mother the next day she tells him that this is the way things are now and that they "must bear up under it." and that talking about it changes nothing. "...This is the world we live in now. Understand it. What happened was awful. But do you think Anneliese is the only woman to be attacked since the Soviets arrived? Far from it. the best we can hope is that they don't kill us or our men when they're finished with us."

The next day after scoring a ninety-two percent on his mathematics test, Wilm is pressured by Karl to prove his loyalty, considering they are "behind enemy lines" after he walked past two Schupos without doing anything. Karl tells Wilm he must go to the missing person's registry office to see how many Schupos are present. While Karl and Georg watch, Wilm sneaks up to two military trucks. Calmly Wilm stabs the front and back tires of a truck and then walks towards the Barthelshof archway as the tires explode. When the three boys meet up Karl tells Wilm what he did was dangerous as the Soviets jail those who resist. Wilm states he's not a "Wolverine" but that "Crazy is playing at being behind enemy lines but never sabotaging the enemy if you get the chance." Karl is furious at Wilm and the two begin to fight. They are pulled apart by an older man who identifies himself as Otto Steinhauer. Otto tells them he works for the SED (the German Socialist Party) as an engineer contracted to inspect bridges. Walking away from Otto, Karl asks Wilm why he vandalized the Soviet military trucks and Wilm tells him it is payback and justice. Karl knows about Soviet justice as his father is languishing in a Soviet prison camp but he's not sure what Wilm is referring to.

The following Monday after school, Wilm seeks out Otto who tells him about how he uses mathematics to repair bridges. Otto also reveals that he knows Wilm was responsible for the damaged Soviet trucks and warns him that the Soviets do not consider what he is doing a "game". Otto gives Wilm his gold engineering band as a token of his trust. When Wilm arrives home the following Sunday after spending the weekend at his uncle's farm he finds two Schupos at his family's apartment. They have received an anonymous tip that some Schutzpolizei beat his father in the street. After questioning Wilm and later, Karl, they leave. On Tuesday, Wilm, Karl, Georg learn that a crowd has gathered at the Bahnhof (train station) where a train full of prisoners of war is returning. However the Soviets will not let any of the men off the train, intending instead to send them east to the camps. This result in an angry mob confronting the soldiers. Wilm starts trouble by cutting off a metal service bar from Schupo next to him. As he backs away from the fight he also helps a veteran who starts singing the "Deutschland Uber Alles". When Karl learns what Wilm did, he's furious because with his father as a Soviet prisoner of war, he knows how the families in the square felt. It is this situation that motivates Karl to help Wilm in his plan to humiliate their Soviet occupiers.

At first Wilm's acts are simple; bitumen is used to write graffiti on "the light-colored stones of the SED headquarters near Augustusplatz". After an altercation between Ernst, Anneliese and Wilm, which sets Anneliese's recovery back, Wilm becomes determined to wage a "war or embarrassment."  He can't strike at Ernst personally "But every Schupo I embarrass will have his face in my mind." When Otto realizes he cannot talk Wilm out of his "war" he gives him the name of a contact in Munich. His next action is to paint a large white marionette on the side of the Schutzpolizei headquarters, indicating that the German police are the puppets of the Soviets.

Otto tells Wilm that the SED are furious and have increased the number of patrols. The next action is accomplished also with the help of Karl. He places a huge wasp nest inside one of the troop transport trucks. The following Saturday, Karl, Georg and Ruth tell Wilm that the rumour is that the Soviets have seized yet another shipment of butter. Furious at discovering this is true, Wilm with the help of his friends seized some of the butter back from the Soviets in a late night raid that almost sees him get caught.

Although Otto warns him about the dangers of his actions,Wilm becomes more determined than ever. He and Karl leave drawings of Wilm's "stickman puppet and and capital M on the doors of government buildings, including the Schutzpolzei headquarters." When a situation occurs at the theatre during a Soviet propaganda film, and Georg is arrested, Wilm decides to go to the police station to see if he can free Georg. Both Wilm and Karl are terrified that Georg will reveal their actions if he is interrogated by the police. This results in Wilm making a deal with Ernst that he will become a Schupo in exchange for Georg's freedom.

However a series of events are about to be set in motion when Karl shows Wilm his discovery of the rumoured secret cache of weapons at his mother's beer hall, the Stag's Horn. Wilm manages to sneak out a long grenade without Karl's knowledge. And he soon forms a plan to send a "message" to the Soviets during the visit of a Soviet general. Unfortunately, the action goes terribly wrong and as Otto once warned, Wilm's actions have implications that ripple out to many innocent people including his family and friends.


Bass paints a detailed picture of life in Leipzig; mounds of rubble from bombed out buildings, pharmacies lacking in medicine, food shortages in the city, (Wilm's family eat thin potato soup and rarely have meat.), brutal Soviet soldiers who beat men and rape the local women, and German police who instead of protecting their countrymen play a part in their subjugation. Bass uses various characters in the novel to present different aspects of life under Soviet rule. The characters of Anneliese, Wilm's mother, Herr Bader portray the fear experienced by the German people now occupied by the Soviets. Ruth and Georg are used to demonstrate the fierce hunger that many faced as the Soviets confiscate their food. Otto represents how some German's tried to work within the system yet not be a part of it. And Ernst demonstrates what happens when one actively participates in an evil regime and himself becomes corrupted.

Bass sets up the character of Ernst Weber as the antagonist early in the novel. When it is revealed what happened to Anneliese, it becomes apparent that Ernst is not an honourable man. Not only does he ditch his girlfriend after she's been raped but he lies to her brother implying that she was unfaithful to him, when in reality she was raped. Throughout the novel, the brutality and cruelness of Ernst becomes more and more apparent. When Wilm does a good deed in walking Ernst's girlfriend, Johanna home, he is threatened repeatedly by him. He believes Wilm will behave as other men have and try to take Johanna away from him. Later on, he forces Wilm to promise to join the Schupos in exchange for his friend, Georg's freedom. Ernst becomes so determined to hunt down Wilm that even when Wilm has crossed the Czech border into West Germany, he continues shooting. If it were not for the Americans Ernst would have crossed into West Germany and killed Wilm. The character of Ernst proves that Otto was right to warn Wilm about honouring his promise to Ernst to join the Schupos. Ernst fulfils Otto's predictions that those who side with evil eventually do evil and find themselves doing things things they never imagined they could do.

In contrast to Ernst is Wilm Tauber. When Wilm learns about his sister's rapes he is devastated and wants revenge. Feeling powerless he begins to strike out in small ways to embarrass the Soviets and the Schupos. But his mentor, Otto Steinhauer, a structural engineer is concerned for Wilm. During the war Otto passed secrets to the British, so although employed by the SED, he understands Wilms feelings. After hearing about the events at the train station, Otto tells Wilm he fears for him. "You think you are untouchable, yet experience is a cruel teacher." With Otto, Wilm can talk about what has happened to his family; the rape of his sister, his troubles with Ernst and his father. Otto tries to talk Wilm out of his plans, encouraging him to study engineering at the university in Munich where his friend works. He could learn to build bridges, he tells Wilm. "Building is much more satisfying than destroying." but at this point Wilm is bent on retaliation.

Otto also attempts to convey to Wilm the effects his actions are having on innocent people. When Wilm stole the butter from the Soviets, Otto tells him "Do you fancy yourself a folk hero? I hope not. Those railyard guards spent half the day in unpleasant interrogations because of you. Collusion. Do you know that word. It means they thought the guards were working with you." Otto explains that the result of the house search led the Soviets to discover a guard who has been selling boots on the black market. "But sometimes we don't see the ripples that flow out from our actions." Otto warns Wilm that his increasingly daring actions are scaring him. Wilm knows that this is because Otto sees him becoming like the Soviets and the Schupos. The trouble is Wilm is not sure he's afraid of becoming like them.

When Wilm tells Otto about his deal with Ernst it is because his conscience is troubling him.He tries to justify his choice by telling Otto he could learn about the police and use that knowledge against them. However Otto tells Wilm he is fooling himself, that some of the people he would be hunting down, would not be criminals. "Some of them would be young men like you, young men whose sisters were raped and who need to find some kind of justice, young men who want some freedom." Otto tells Wilm that his choice will turn him into an oppressor. "You will end up doing things you never dreamed possible. You should have trusted your friend more, and trusted that he would not betray you when they questioned him."

When Wilm's attempts to burn the Soviet barracks turn deadly he is horrified that he may have killed men - even Soviets. But Wilm proves he is different from Ernst when they meet outside Bad Elster. Ernst mistakes Wilm's reluctance to shoot him as cowardice, but Wilm tells him, "No," I whispered. "I have the guts. But pulling that trigger, killing and unarmed man, would make me...just like you. And I refuse to become that."

Graffiti Knight is replete with the themes of redemption, honour and forgiveness. Wilm's father feels that his life after the war, with a missing leg is without honor. "Why didn't they let me die on the battlefield?" Father rapped his empty glass on the shelf beside his chair. "I was their enemy. They should have let me die...There's honor in dying on the battlefield...With tears clinging to his lashes, he whispered, "What honor is in this, Wilhelm?" He slapped the thigh of his amputated leg. "What hope for any honor at all?" In the end his father recovers his honour by attacking Ernst Weber during his interrogation. Instead of the reaction he is expecting, Ernst is thanked by Wilm for giving his father the opportunity to die honourably on the battlefield.

One of the subjects Bass tackles in her book is the widespread rape of German women by Soviet soldiers. It was recently revealed that around 400,000 children were conceived as a result of rape and love affairs by occupying troops.

Karen Bass's novel also drives home the realities war brings to mankind; destruction, famine, and great suffering on many levels. People do things in war that they might never conceive of in times of peace.

Graffiti Knight has a map of the setting for the story and the Historical Note at the back provides some background information for the time period of the novel. Well written, engaging, with realistic characters and a believable plot, Graffiti Knight is another fine novel from Canadian author Karen Bass.

Book Details:

Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass
Toronto: Pajama Press    2013
288 pp.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Devoted is a young adult novel that explores the lifestyle of a conservative Protestant sect, known as Quiverfull, and one teenager's repudiation of her life in the group. The Quiverfull movement began in the United States and observes a number of very conservative tenets. One of its main beliefs stems from Psalm 127

 "Lo, Children are a heritage of the Lord:
and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
As arrows are in the hands of a mighty
So are children of the youth
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them."

Couples who are part of Quiverfull trust in the Lord to determine their family size, leading to very large families by modern standards. Often the father, who is considered the absolute head of the household, either works from home or in a family business. The women dress conservatively - pants and male clothing is shunned while girls and women wear longer dresses and tops that have a high neckline. Perhaps the best known family who adheres to the Quiverfull tenets are the Duggars of 19 And Counting Fame, although they claim not to belong to the movement.

In Devoted, seventeen-year-old Rachel Walker belongs to a family of ten children that includes Faith who is married to Paul, older brothers Matthew, Andrew and David, thirteen-year-old Ruth, four-year-old Sarah, twins Jeremiah and Gabriel and two-year-old Isaac. Devoted to her faith and her family, Rachel is no longer being homeschooled but instead helps her mother teach her younger siblings and maintain the household.

At Calvary Christian Church in Clayton, Texas, Rachel along with her family and the rest of the Calvary congregation watch as nineteen-year-old James Fulton asks for forgiveness. He has returned from Journey of Faith, a camp where members who have committed serious sins are sent to be "rehabilitated". At dinner with her family, Faith's husband, Paul, mentions Lauren Sullivan who left her family and moved to the city a few years ago. Paul states that she has been seen at the drugstore and that she lives in an apartment complex near the animal hospital. Unlike James Fulton, Lauren Sullivan did not go to Journey of Faith - she left before she could be sent there. After dinner that night, Rachel's father mentions Lauren and warns his family that they must "avoid speaking with or interacting with those who have left the flock." Rachel is mindful that she is the same age Lauren was when she left Calvary and feels this is a warning to her from her father.That night while working on the computer for her father's business, Rachel types in "Lauren Sullivan Clayton Texas" but does not finish the search.

Rachel's mother who is pregnant suffers a miscarriage the next morning and is understandably devastated. Faith who comes to help out, tells Rachel that their mother suffered another miscarriage once before and that she was bedridden for a month due to serious depression. Their father refused psychiatric help for her. As the weeks pass by and Rachel's mother remains bedridden, the household chores and childcare fall to Rachel.

Rachel's biggest obstacle to completing her household duties is her obsession with her favourite novel, A Wrinkle in Time. Her father finds the book and questions how it came into her possession. Rachel explains that she purchased the novel while she was with her mother and that the author, Madeleine L'Engle was a Christian. Her father believes the book is ungodly and that the author is like many who pose as Christians but who do not follow the Lord. He forces her to burn the book.

Days later Rachel searches for Lauren Sullivan online but before she has a chance to read much, Ruth interrupts her. Her father brings in Faith to help her keep the house running. However Faith immediately pulls Rachel aside and admonishes her for wearing a top that shows the outline of her bra. This both humiliates and angers Rachel. Needing her mother, Rachel struggles to understand why her mother felt compelled to have another child when she already has ten "babies' who need her.

That night Rachel researches Lauren Sullivan and learns that she is working at Clayton Animal Hospital as a veterinarian technician, that she's vegan, has tattoos and that she has two cats. The next morning Rachel's mother attempts to be a part of the household by coming to breakfast in an effort to show that she's well enough for Rachel and Ruth to attend the girls fellowship about modesty. This event goes badly for Rachel when she is completely humiliated by Faith who asks her to share their discussion about her immodest dress and the vigilance required to achieve biblical femininity. Rachel begins to feel more and more confused about how she is living and what she actually believes.

Rachel's mother begins to heal when she learns that Faith and Paul are expecting a child. Faith tells Rachel that "our Lord is preparing your future husband. And He is preparing you to be his future wife and mother of his children." This only panics Rachel as she is not sure if she wants marriage and a large family for her future. That night Rachel reads Lauren's online account about her escape from Calvary. Despite the threat of a terrible punishment should she be caught, Rachel emails Lauren telling her that she cares about what has happened to her. Lauren responds quickly, warning Rachel to set up a private email, thanking her and telling her if she needs her to let her know.

Soon Rachel and Lauren are emailing one another. Lauren sends Rachel a poem by Mary Oliver which ends with the lines, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" For the first time in her life, Rachel asks herself what she wants in her life because that answer has always been given to her - to be a godly wife to my future husband and raise my children in the service of the Lord."

After Wednesday night fellowship, Rachel is surprised to find herself singled out by Pastor Garrett and her father for a special blessing. The next evening Rachel learns that her father has reset the password on the computer so that she is unable to log on. Desperate to contact Lauren, Rachel offers to take the humidifier over to Faith's home for little Caleb who is sick. However, this errand becomes the chance for Rachel to visit the Clayton Animal Hospital to meet Lauren. The following Saturday, Rachel is confronted by her parents who tell her they know she visited the Clayton Animal Hospital unchaperoned. Concerned about her computer usage, Rachel's father had the computer inspected and her emails to Lauren discovered. Her parents have decided to send her to the Journey of Faith camp. Pastor Garrett and his wife are prepared to drive Rachel directly to the camp. Panicked and in shock, Rachel manages to call Lauren while upstairs packing a bag. Lauren tells her she will come and get her and when she arrives, Rachel quickly slips out the door. Will Rachel ever be able to return to her family, to see her younger sister Ruth whom she loves so much?


Mathieu states that she did considerable research into the Quiverfull movement prior to writing her novel. Her sources include Kathryn Joyce's Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement and Vyckie Garrison's "No Longer Quivering" blog. She also spoke with many women who have left the movement as well as those who continue to live the Quiverfull lifestyle.

Mathieu is able to successfully weave much of the Quiverfull lifestyle into Rachel's narrative: early marriage, large families, extremely modest dress required of women so as to prevent boys and men experiencing carnal temptation, the chaperoning of young women in the community, homeschooling with a focus on women learning household duties and childcare, frequent worship and involvement in the church, and strict obedience to the father who is seen as the head of the household and who makes all decisions concerning minors. As a seventeen-year-old on the verge of adulthood, Rachel is approaching the time when she will be expected to live out the beliefs of the Quiverfull movement, which for her will mean marriage and a large family. But Rachel struggles to accept these beliefs and practices because they feel contradictory. It is this struggle that becomes the focus of Rachel's journey out of the Quiverfull movement.

At first Rachel feels she is a failure because she does not measure up to the ideals of femininity described by the Quiverfull movement. Mathieu sets up Rachel's older sister Faith as an example of a young woman who perfectly embodies the godly woman defined by Quiverfull. From the beginning Faith is portrayed as a supermom and a perfect wife. "It's early May in Texas and five hundred billion degrees, but somehow Faith isn't sweating, and her lavender blouse and knee-length denim skirt don't have a spot of baby puke on them."  Inspired by James's testimony, Faith who is described as "always been good at helping us think of others." enthusiastically suggests that they start a fellowship group "about modest dress. About helping the boys and the young men in their struggle to remain spiritually pure..."

Rachel is aware that how she feels and what she thinks is at odds with the Quiverfull definition of godly femininity. She is dismayed at her mother's pregnancy with baby eleven. Rachel has unkind thoughts about Faith's husband Paul who quotes scripture constantly, like he's a pastor.  Rachel feels guilty for reading A Wrinkle In Time because her "focus really should be on the little ones and learning how to be a wife and mother, a helpmeet with a cheerful countenance."

When her mother miscarries, Rachel's response is much different than Faith's which involves both prayer and acceptance of what has happened. Rachel recognizes "I haven't prayed for my mother or my unborn little baby brother or sister all day long, and the realization fills me with guilt...I hadn't even stopped to call out to God like Ruth did when Mom first yelled for us..." When Faith leaves, Rachel wants her to stay but doesn't say so. "Faith doesn't doubt God's will. Faith is a living embodiment of her name. Steadfast and resolute, unlike me who flounders." 

At church, Rachel notices that everyone weeps for baby Joshua but there is little concern for her mother. Her simple prayer of "Lord, let my mother be all right" seems inadequate compared to "something Faith or Pastor Garrett might say."  Rachel wants people to grieve for Joshua. "But how I wish people wouldn't smile right now....I wish my family could have a few minutes to feel sad about it, at least. Would that have been too selfish?"  Her family's focus on hiding their grief for the loss of Joshua feels fake and leaves her once again feeling inadequate. "Faith smiles, the tears she cried during the service all gone now. Her trust in the Lord must be so strong. She glides easily from correct emotion to correct emotion, where I always have the wrong ones."

When her father discovers she's been reading Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and orders her to destroy it, Rachel silently questions his actions. "But there's another, deeper part of me that wants to jump up and cry out. To tell Dad that in the book, Mrs. Who quotes Scripture...And that Meg saves her brother because she loves him and light wins over darkness and isn't that something? Doesn't love of family count as good? As godly? And doesn't Proverbs say that the heart of the righteous studieth how to answer. Doesn't that mean that pondering, wondering, questioning is all right? That books that make us think should be allowed?" But at this point, Rachel is unable to question her father because "We must honor and obey our father at all times."

The increasing disconnect between her inner beliefs and her outward life, lead Rachel to begin questioning her beliefs, her future and to investigate the circumstances behind Lauren Sullivan's leaving her family.

Rachel questions why her mother wanted to have so many children to care for day after day - a thought that fills her with anxiety and causes her to give "my forearm a firm smack to snap myself out of it." She struggles to envision her life as a married woman with many children. It will mean giving up all other choices for her life. When Faith announces her second pregnancy and refers to this as Rachel's future, Rachel panics and has to leave the dinner table. She prays, "Please Father God, don't find my future husband, not now. Please, Father God, don't give me so many babies I can't find a moment's peace to read or think or watch the sunset." When she returns, Rachel notes "I'm not the only one in my family good at faking."

Even the thought of her life being like her mother's or Faith's causes her intense anxiety. "My mind seizes on an image of myself pregnant, my stomach swollen tight, and my chest contracts and I try to find my breath. I think of the years stretched out before me, and know I could have a dozen children, maybe more. The thought of it, of ending up like my mother, crying alone in a bed while her other children wait for her, makes me want to scream, not sing God's praises."

Learning the circumstances surrounding Lauren's flight from Quiverfull causes Rachel to question how her community has treated Lauren. "And this Lauren with the dyed hair and the strange tattoos seems different, even frightening, but isn't the Lauren of my childhood still this Lauren? and isn't this Lauren still someone we should love? Someone who should know we haven't forgotten her?"

The loss of her computer privileges, prompts Rachel to confront her father for the first time. However, instead of listening to her, he admonishes her for questioning his authority. She wonders why God would give her a mind that is inquisitive and that questions the world around her. The loss of the computer soon leaves Rachel feeling stifled. "I miss the ease of being able to quickly look things up that aren't even related to her at all. Like why do lunar eclipses happen and how do airplanes actually work and where is Mount Everest located?"

When Rachel does visit Lauren at the vet clinic, Lauren reminds her "You can make your own choices in this life. I promise you. You really can." At this time however, Rachel does not yet believe she has the power to make her own choices. "I can't make any choices. I can't even choose what to wear or what to read. I don't have a choice in the world, and I"m not like Lauren. I can't just leave home like she did."

But when she's threatened with being sent to Journey of Faith camp, Rachel does make her first real choice - to leave home. Diane Treat who provides Rachel with her first ever job, reiterates what Lauren told her. "My life was for me just like our life is for you, and you've got to live it like you want to, and that's why God gave it to you. Now you may look like you wouldn't bite a biscuit, but I know a girl who goes after what she wants. And you're that kind of girl, I think."

Rachel proves this later on, first when she decides to enroll in the Clayton Independent School when she turns eighteen and secondly when she and Lauren disagree over religion. Diane Treat invites Rachel to attend Peace Lutheran church with her family. Lauren attempts to convince Rachel that religion brainwashes people. Rachel tells Lauren, "I'm pretty sure I can...make my own decisions about what to think about this." Rachel considers that Lauren is doing exactly what her father was doing - trying to "protect" her from life and telling her how to live her life. But Rachel proves she is strong enough to make her own decisions about her life.

Rachel's journey begins as a confused seventeen-year-old who is not allowed to make decisions about how to dress or what to read to a young eighteen-year-old woman who makes her own decisions about jobs and her education. Unlike Lauren who has decided religion is not for her, Rachel still believes in God and still prays - but does so in her own way. That choice is hers and she doesn't allow herself to be protected or bullied. She feels God is saying to her, "What is it you plan to do, Rachel Walker, with this one life I've given you?"

One issue Mathieu takes time to deal with is that of shaming women for how they dress and how the sole responsibility for men's behaviour lies with women. In the girl's fellowship about modesty, Mrs. Garrett states, "We must remember that it is up to us to help men resist temptation,...We want our clothing to reveal a humble heart that loves the Lord and nothing more." However, Rachel finds the responsibility to protect men from lust overwhelming. "So much of a man's godly path is dependent on me and what I choose to wear, and the responsibility terrifies me sometimes."

Later on Rachel questions Lauren as to whether she feels guilt over tempting men when she wears a bathing suit. Lauren explains to her that men and women are naturally supposed to feel attracted to one another. That this is not a "temptation" but the way things work between men and women.
"The thing is, Rachel, that humans get attracted to each other," Lauren's voice continues as I try to pay attention to her words. "Our bodies attract each other. And girls can get attracted to guys, too...That's how it works, you know. That's why all of us are here...And the way you and I were raised, we were just handed these totally warped ideas about sex and our bodies, you know? Like girls can't feel attracted to guys and guys are just animals who can't control themselves, so we have to rein them in by wearing pillowcases on our heads, practically. It's body shame and guilt and all of that, and it pisses me off just thinking about it."

Devoted has an appealing protagonist in Rachel Walker and is a powerful expose of the Quiverfull movement. Strong, intelligent, resourceful, and willing to sacrifice her beloved family for the chance to live life on her own terms, makes Rachel a believable character. Young readers will identify with her struggle to forge her own identity, to discover her own beliefs about the world around her, and to define her own relationship with God.

Book Details:

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieum
New York: Roaring Brook Press     2015
328 pp.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Nowhere Wild by Joe Beernink

Nowhere Wild is the gripping survival story of two young people caught in a deadly post-apocalyptic world. Set in northern Manitoba, Beernink weaves two narratives together in a gritty, heart-stopping climax.Thirteen year old Isabelle (Izzy) Chamberlain and her older sister Angie have been living in Thompson when a influenza pandemic strikes. Fifteen year old Jake Clarke is alone at a lake in northern Manitoba, unaware of what's been happening to people in the cities and towns. Izzy and Jake tell their stories in alternating narratives. Izzy's story begins in the winter when Jake is struggling to survive with his dying grandfather, Amos. The two narratives catch up when Jake discovers Izzy the next summer on his journey to Laroque to look for his missing father.

When Izzy and her sister Angie are attacked in the house they are ransacking for clothing and wood, Angie yells at Izzy to flee. She escapes, unable to help her sister. Seeing Rick, the older man who has been helping them, Izzy tells him Angie has been attacked. Rick immediately goes to the house but after a series of gunshots returns and tells Izzy that her sister is dead and that they need to return to the bush to be safe. They travel through the north part of Thompson, where Rick and his wife Lois and son, Brian once lived. Rick and Izzy's families were very close; her father and Rick were close and Brian was like a big brother to Izzy.

Izzy's parents died four months ago from the flu; first her father, then her mother. Izzy and Angie were taken in by Lois who was divorced from Rick. But then she died and Rick returned to his ex-wife's home. Izzy and Angie had left Thompson in July with Rick. Food became scarce, so along with many others they had headed south to Winnipeg. Meeting survivors from Winnipeg heading north they learned of gangs who stole and killed. When their group was attacked by these gangs, Rick had already taken them into the bush where they remained for the rest of the summer. In September when the weather cooled and they ran out of food, Izzy, Angie and Rick returned to Thompson.

Rick grabs the cross-country skis, snowshoes and the deer carcass and they head out of town into the woods.Impatient, Rick blazes through the bush not caring whether Izzy can keep up. Sleeping in a thin tent, cold and hungry, Izzy and Rick make their way to a large lake which is now frozen over. In a blinding blizzard, Izzy almost becomes lost but the two eventually arrive at a dilapidated cabin that was once frequented by Rick's grandfather. While Izzy spends several days cleaning the cabin and gathering firewood, Rick sets traps and hunts for food. He begins talking about staying at the cabin permanently, referring to Izzy as Isabelle and then begins to make Isabelle a bed. However, to Izzy's horror the bed he makes is for both of them. Reluctantly Izzy agrees to share the bed not really realizing what is about to happen. Then one night as a storm rages, Rick rapes Izzy. As the rapes continue nightly, Izzy finds herself trapped in a cabin, in the middle of the bush, entirely dependent upon Rick for her survival. Devastated she realizes that when she and Angie were in the bush the previous year, Rick was raping her sister. She comes to the understanding that she will have to escape, otherwise she will be trapped for good.

To that end, realizing she will never be able to fire one of Rick's guns, Izzy makes herself a slingshot and becomes adept at using it. She is so good that one day she is able to kill a hare for dinner. However, when Rick returns to find her cooking the delicious hare and he has only a small ptarmigan, he becomes enraged. He beats Izzy, throws her dinner into the fire and burns the slingshot. This only makes Izzy more determined to leave. Izzy finally decides she can no longer go on when Rick murders a man who suddenly appears at their cabin and who knowing what Rick is, is determined to take Izzy to safety.

In the summer before winter sets in Jake Clarke sets out to learn what has happened to his father, Leland Clarke. Jake, his mother and his father, along with his eighty year old grandfather, Amos, had been flown in the previous June to spend a week at a cabin on a northern Manitoba lake. Their pilot, Jim Bridger, never showed up and the radio had been silent for days. Unusual for the start of the summer season. By late August they realized that no one was coming to get them. When Jake's mother cut herself while filleting a fish, her hand soon became infected and she developed sepsis. Jake's father decided to go for help - a journey of one hundred and fifty kilometers to Laroque. Leland told Jake he would return in three weeks but he never did. His mother died three days after his dad left. Amos, who is Cree, tells Jake that years of hard living after the death of his wife, Beth, have left him with little time left - maybe until spring. Eleven months later, having survived the winter, Jake is burying his grandfather and heading south to find his father.

Using maps and following the route planned out by Amos, Jake begins his journey remembering the advice of his grandfather not to travel too quickly. He explained to Jake that he will need to portage over land once the rivers turn north, to get to Sand Lakes Provincial Park and into the Churchill watershed. Fighting hordes of mosquitoes, the exhaustion of portaging, and a lack of food, Jake works his way slowly south. Along the way through ridges and small lakes, Jake remembers his father's survival checklist: shelter, fire, water, food and his grandfather's tips on traveling in the unforgiving northern wilderness.

Jake's travels on the river do not last very long however when disaster strikes. He runs into a log jam causing his canoe to sink. Without a canoe, Jake must now travel through the bush on foot which is not only more difficult but takes longer. One day in early summer, Jake hears gunshots which lead him to Izzy's cabin. Hidden in the bush,he witnesses Izzy attempting to escape using what Jake recognizes as Bill Six Rivers canoe. To his horror he witnesses Rick's vicious assault on Izzy. Unable to process what he's seen and unwilling to accept the possibility that he might have to kill a man, Jake decides to move on quickly. However, unable to get the memory of Izzy's beating out of his mind, Jake knows he has to return and help the girl whom he believes will not live much longer. When he reaches the cabin, Jake watches as Izzy tries to drown herself in the lake. Grabbing the canoe he quickly enters the lake, pulling a drowning Izzy to safety. Rick is not content to lose Izzy and despite shooting at Jake, the two manage to make it to safety. But they know Rick will not give up Izzy so easily. Can they make it back to Laroque before Rick tracks and finds them?


Nowhere Wild is an exciting story about the struggle of two teens to survive in the harsh post-pandemic Canadian wilderness. Jake Clarke must survive a 260 kilometer journey through the bush relying on his wilderness skills to find food and shelter. Jake's narrative is filled with detailed descriptions of bush skills, encounters with wildlife and travel. His ability to overcome the difficulties he encounters will determine whether or not he survives the journey back to Laroque. Jake draws on his Cree heritage and his experience working with his father's venturing business to help him survive. Until he meets Izzy, Jack has no idea what has happened to people outside the bush.

The situation with Izzy forces Jake to confront the possibility of having to kill a man in order to save someone's life. Jake has to make a choice between being home in Laroque in ten days time or going back and rescuing a girl he doesn't know. What he does know is that "His father had asked him, all those months ago, to do him proud --to do what needed to be done." and the fact that the girl knew what was going to happen to her if she was caught by the man, trying to escape. Despite this, Jake struggles with the possibility of having to kill a man. "Deer and bears were animals -- food. To be respected, no doubt -- but food just the same. Deer blood was no more disgusting to him than oil to a mechanic. But human blood - that blood would stain. It would leave a deep, dark patch on his soul."

Two weeks after their escape, Jake realizes that Rick has not given Izzy up. Not knowing all the details of Izzy's relationship with Rick he questions her as this will influence whether or not he needs to use his gun. Later as they are being pursued by Rick, Izzy asks Jake for the gun. Jake tells her "Even if you could handle this gun, shooting a man is not like shooting a deer, Iz." Jack wants to be the one to fire his father's gun but he still holds out hope that it won't come to that.

Izzy Chamberlain must survive the brutal abuse at the hands of Rick until the summer and she can make her escape. Izzy is a resourceful young girl but unlike Jake, because of what she has experienced she appears to have no qualms about the possibility of killing Rick. She realizes that he will never let her go.

Beernink builds his story to a heart-pounding conclusion. Not including a narrative by Rick places the reader in the same situation as Jake and Izzy; they have no idea where he is or if he's even following them. Yet the confrontation with Rick is not unexpected and in that regard he's a very predictable antagonist. Readers would have appreciated a map showing the location of Izzy and Rick's cabin and the route travelled by Jack south towards Laroque and Thompson. Details are never really given about the flu pandemic except that almost everyone who contracts the illness, dies, leaving a world that collapses economically and socially.

Beernink who is a software developer living with his family in Seattle, grew up in southwestern Ontario. Nowhere Wild is his debut novel.

Book Details:

Nowhere Wild by Joe Beernink
Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd       2015
296 pp.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

Finding Audrey is exactly as described on the inside flap of the jacket cover, a blend of "comedy, romance and psychological insight".  Finding Audrey is about a young girl recovering from a terrible situation that has left her with social anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder and depression.

Fourteen year old Audrey Turner lives with her mother and father, her brother Frank and her four year old brother, Felix on Rosewood Close. Frank is a gamer and he is obsessed with playing Land of Conquerors. So much so that their mother is holding his computer out of her bedroom window, threatening to throw it to the ground. Frank tries to convince his mother that he intends to enter the LOC competition and may win the six million dollar prize.

The story then backtracks one month earlier when Audrey is at home because of something that happened at school. She left Stokeland Girls School in February. It's now May.

Her mom reads an article in the Daily Mail about kids being addicted to computer games and is convinced Frank fits the profile. When her mother asks her about LOC, Audrey explains the game and that it often has gamers who are watched by others. One day Frank has his friend, Linus, who also attends the same school over to play LOC with him. Audrey remembers Linus as the boy who played Atticus Finch in the school play of To Kill A Mockingbird. Audrey's mom switches off Frank's computer, suggesting they play something else such as badminton, croquet or Rummikub. But when she discovers Frank and Linus playing online Rummikub she pulls them off that too. As the confrontation between Frank and his mother continues, Linus walks into the den where Audrey is sitting. Immediately Audrey has a panic attack when Linus says hello to her and asks her if she always wears dark glasses. Apologizing, Audrey quickly flees to her bedroom.

When Audrey meets with her therapist, Dr. Sarah McVeigh, she tells Dr. Sarah that she feels "stuck" and that she's not getting any better. Dr. Sarah tells Audrey that she will be well enough to return to school in September. Hoping to push Audrey to begin making eye contact with other people, Dr. Sarah assigns her to make a film about her family and eventually to move on to interviewing people. Dr. Sarah believes it might be easier for Audrey to make eye contact through the camera.

Audrey begins filming her family. Meanwhile, her mother in an attempt to divert Frank from computer games, insists he begin running with her. It turns out Frank can not only do press-ups but is on the cross-country team too. Since Linus will be spending a lot of time at their house as he's on Frank's LOC team, Frank wants Audrey not to freak out. Linus, upset at what happened the other day, sends Audrey a note. They correspond back and forth, with little Felix as their messenger carrying the "pocket paper" to Linus in the playroom. This correspondence leaves Audrey feeling "...kind of exhilarated. And kind of emptied out."

Still attempting to thwart Frank's gaming obsession, his mother takes the computer power cable with her when she goes out for her birthday. However, Frank has a spare but is quickly caught by his mom who suspects him of trying to bypass her efforts to wean him from the computer. They ban him from computer games for ten days. Frank tells Audrey she needs to get over her anxiety about Linus because after ten days Linus will be around a great deal to practice for the LOC tournament. The next night Frank brings Linus in to visit with Audrey. Immediately she turns away from him and sits at the end of the sofa. Linus however, is calm and understanding, accepting that Audrey finds eye contact difficult but that she can write notes. Linus encourages Audrey, "It won't be forever. You'll be in the dark for as long as it takes and then you'll come out."

The next appointment with Dr. Sarah sees her push Audrey to consider interviewing her family and perhaps outsiders too and to begin leaving the house.This causes Audrey enormous stress and she is resistant. However,help comes in the unexpected form of Linus. While her family is in crisis over the discovery that Frank has been playing online games for hours at night, Audrey finally voices her desire to get well again. Dr. Sarah suggests that Audrey take the next step by inviting Linus to come over to visit her. Determined to take that step, Audrey manages to convince her parents to give her a phone. While she can't bring herself to phone Linus, she does text him and they arrange to meet at Starbucks. Her time with Linus at Starbucks goes well until she suddenly has a meltdown. Will Audrey ever overcome her social anxiety and reclaim her life?


Finding Audrey explores a young girl's recovery from a serious bullying incident that leads her to develop a social anxiety disorder. Kinsella, the best selling author of the Shopaholic series, grabs her readers attention with the hilarious antics and funny dialogue between Audrey's mother and her brother, Frank. Audrey has been home for several months, in therapy and working on her social anxiety. Her mother believes Frank is a gaming addict and attempts to break him of his habit of playing computer games for hours at a time. The first hundred pages of the novel focus almost exclusively on this subplot, while setting the stage for Audrey's meeting of Linus and their developing relationship. It is this relationship and how Linus helps Audrey recover, that is the real story.

Kinsella never fully reveals the details of the incident that led to Audrey's predicament, but she does focus on her treatment and her recovery. Audrey's lost herself after a serious bullying incident, hence the title of the novel, Finding Audrey. Now she has to work to reclaim her life and her place. Like most people in therapy, Audrey finds each step of recovery challenging. For example when Dr. Sarah suggests Audrey begin leaving the house and she is met with resistance, Dr. Sarah tells her, "We've talked about exposure therapy. You can start with a tiny visit. A minute or two. But you need to gradually expose yourself to the world, Audrey. Or the danger is, you really will become trapped." Dr. Sara explains to Audrey that recovery isn't a linear process, but one with ups and downs, with progress and setbacks.

One of the most beautiful aspects of this novel is how Audrey has the courage to open up to Linus about even her most private thoughts and feelings and how Linus, in his own way helps Audrey to take those first steps. He's there even when those steps are not one hundred percent successful.  For example, after racing home from their first meeting at Starbucks , Audrey is stunned to learn Linus is outside pushing notes through the letter slot. When she writes, "I was thinking, 'I'm a total failure, I shouldn't exist, what's the point of me?' " LInus has no difficulty coming up with a list of why Audrey matters and he seals it with a kiss. In this way, Linus is a remarkable character, the kind of guy every girl dreams of having as a first love. But Kinsella doesn't make him perfect; he too wants Audrey to get better - fast.

Once she's started on the path to healing, Audrey begins to gradually loosen the focus on herself and begins to notice for the first time how what has happened to her has affected others in her family, particularly her mother. "Mum is a freelance brand consultant, which means that she does projects all over the country...she's cool. Her job is cool. Only now I"m looking at this photo I'm wondering: When did she actually last work?" "I feel like I'm slowly coming out of a fog and noticing things I didn't before. What Dr. Sarah said is true: you get self-obsessed when you're ill. You can't see anything around you. But now I'm starting to see stuff." Audrey realizes that her mother has given up a job she's really good at, and that she's waiting for Audrey to get better. Audrey decides that "It's up to me to get better." With this, Audrey begins to go out more and even reconnects with her once-best friend, Natalie Dexter.

But while Audrey believes she's "cooked" or cured, Dr. Sarah points out that she's still on medication, she still wears her dark glasses and she hasn't yet returned to school. Audrey is determined to have a straight-line graph, with no valleys, no peaks. "...I'm in charge of my graph. Me. And if I want a straight graph, I'll have a straight graph." Convinced she's better, Audrey lies at her next meeting with Dr. Sarah, suddenly stops taking her medication and even tries to meet with Izzy Lawton, the girl who was the cause of Audrey's troubles. However when things do not go as planned, Audrey is forced to face the reality of her situation and recovery.
"But, I"m sick of this bloody jagged graph," I said in frustration. "You know, two steps up, one step down. It's so painful. It's so slow. It's like this endless game of snakes and ladders."
And Mum just looked at me as if she wanted to laugh or maybe cray, and she said, "But, Audrey, that's what life is. We're all on a jagged graph. I know I am. Up a bit, down a bit. That's life."

Kinsella charts Audrey's journey not only her prose, but also through the film transcript of Audrey's home movie, My Serene and Loving Family. At first Audrey hides safely behind the camera filming kitchen cabinets, bedrooms and her parents. She records family arguments, even Frank explaining the benefits of gaming, and eventually Linus and Felix playing chess. Finally she moves onto actively speaking in the home movies and is eventually filmed by her father playing LOC with Linus and Frank.

Kinsella's witty dialogue and humorous scenes never allow the heavy subject matter of Finding Audrey, bog the novel down. Audrey's mother is the main origin of the humorous dialogue as she struggles to come to terms with her son, Frank's computer addiction. Playing off her is Audrey's father, with his deadpan remarks. This is what makes Finding Audrey so enjoyable, while also sending the message that life has its ups and downs for most everyone. We just have to learn how to deal with them.

Book Details:

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
Toronto: Doubleday Canada 2015
286 pp.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel

Charlie, Presumed Dead is a psychological thriller with a twist that leads to a shocking ending.

Nineteen year old Lena Whitney and seventeen year old Aubrey Burroughs discover each other at the funeral, in Paris, France, of their mutual boyfriend/lover, Charlie Price. Charlie died when the Cessna he was piloting crashed into the North Sea off the coast of Durham. Charlie did not have a license to fly and no one knows why he took the plane out. No body was recovered and only Charlie's bloodstained jacket was found.

With her parents currently in Marseille, Lena has no problem attending Charlie's funeral but for Aubrey who is from the United States, she had to get permission from her parents to fly over for the funeral. Aubrey doesn't know anyone at the funeral and has never met Charlie's parents either. The only person she's met from his life is Adam, his roommate from his senior year in Mumbai. Aubrey's been dating Charlie for a little over a year. In contrast, Lena is the girlfriend Charlie's family knows as they've been dating for three years.

After the service, Lena confronts Aubrey about being the other woman and they go to a cafe to talk about what's just happened in their lives. The two women soon discover that they man they supposedly know is very different. Lena reveals that Charlie told her Aubrey was the "good family friend" while Aubrey did not know about Lena. Lena knows Charlie as a jazz musician while Aubrey found him "hopeless with music". Comparing notes leads Aubrey to wonder if there is more going on than they know. Lena decides to return to London to track down Charlie's past as she believes there's a possibility he faked his death. At first Aubrey declines Lena's invitation to join her but eventually changes her mind. Aubrey wants to recover something of hers that Charlie took, but she doesn't tell Lena.

In London, Lena and Aubrey are taken by Xander, a former friend and "weed hookup" of Charlie's to a club called Fabric where Charlie partied. Aubrey knew Charlie as a gamer who tried weed but hated it, whereas Lena states that he "probably never played a video game in his life". Xander reveals that Charlie lost a brown leather journal he was obsessed about a few months ago in Mumbai. Xander shows the two women a picture of the journal, which Aubrey recognizes as hers. The journal was lost at the Taj Hotel in Colaba, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai. Aubrey tells Lena the journal is hers and she needs to retrieve it even if that means traveling to Bombay. Lena agrees, offering to pay for their trip. At this time it becomes apparent that both girls are keeping secrets from one another. Both girls acknowledge that it now seems odd that Charlie told neither of them that he had returned to Mumbai a few months ago. Lena fills Aubrey in on his backstory, telling her that Charlie spent middle school in Paris, but then was moved to Mumbai for his freshman year of high school. When that did not work out well, he was moved to London for his sophomore and junior year and then returned to Mumbai for his senior year. He traveled to New York for the summer which is when he met Aubrey. That fall Charlie started at Oxford. Both Lena and Aubrey admit they found Charlie beginning to act strange this past year, which they attributed to exam stress.

At the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel the front desk has no journal. While Lena's asleep, Aubrey decides to hook-up with Adam, Charlie's old roommate from Bombay who still works for an NGO. The next day Lena, Aubrey and Adam meet up to discuss Charlie. Adam admits to not knowing Charlie had two girlfriends. He tells them that Charlie had a friend, Anand, in Kerala who owns a tourist boat and who would supply Charlie with weed and booze. From Aubrey and Adam's behaviour, Lena realizes that they are lovers. When confronted later on by Lena, Aubrey tells her that she only cheated on Charlie once and that she told him three months ago when he visited her at her parents home in Illinois on May 19th.

Lena and Aubrey locate Anand and arrange to go out on his boat at night. On the trip Lena divulges that Charlie wrote a suicide note to his mother dated May 20 which she found in his drawer. Anand tells the two women that Charlie owes him money. He also reveals that Charlie has a half brother, Dane. Both Lena and Aubrey grow increasingly suspicious of Anand and it turns out their fears are very real when he drugs them, steals Lena's credit cards and rips their passports. Lena's parents are furious with her and insist she return home to Boston immediately. However, Lena is now determined to travel to Bangkok and she convinces her father's secretary, Cara, to book them a flight. Little do Lena and Aubrey know that this decision has sealed their fate as they have fallen for the trap Charlie has set for them.


Charlie, Presumed Dead is a psychological thriller told by the three main characters; Lena, Aubrey and Charlie. Lena and Aubrey's narratives alternate, while Charlie's occur at specific points in the story.

The premise behind Charlie, Presumed Dead involves two young women who discover they have been dating the same man. Suspecting he may have faked his own death, they set out to learn the truth. Clues lead them from Paris, to London, to Bombay and ultimately to Bangkok. Each woman is hiding a secret motivation behind wanting to find Charlie. However, in a terrible twist, not realizing Charlie's true character, the two women fall into the deadly trap he has set for them. This twist takes the unsuspecting reader completely by surprise, although Heltzel does begin to lay the pieces out for her readers, especially with the second person narratives of Charlie.

The premise would have been more believable as a young adult novel, if the women were older, perhaps in their mid-twenties. Heltzel partly gets around this by having Lena as the rich girl who is able to jet-set to the multiple locations in the story. This allows Aubrey, who is from a middle class, small mid-west town to play her part. Nevertheless, two young girls with an unlimited supply of money, who simply disappear from their families, to follow Charlie's trail through four countries, just doesn't seem plausible.

Despite this, Heltzel does a wonderful job of drawing her readers into the story, dropping hints here and there that suggest hidden motivations for each girl wanting to find Charlie. Initially the reader doesn't really know the full motivations for each girl's desire to track down Charlie. Lena admits "Grief isn't what's driving me to London, though. It's anger. If Charlie's alive, he needs to pay for what he's done to me." Aubrey is more interested in recovering her journal, which we learn later on, Charlie stole from her. In that journal, lies Aubrey's terrible secret which is revealed during a drugged-induced dream in Kerala. It is a secret she begged Charlie to keep.

These narratives reveal Charlie to be a very disturbed man, struggling to juggle his life with two women. As his life begins to unravel, Charlie plots revenge which he doesn't reveal until the later narratives. His sick enjoyment of each step of the revenge which involves the murder of one girl and the false imprisonment of the other are graphically portrayed. "You'll lead them right to it. Lambs to the slaughter; one lamb, anyway...Sometimes you don't care which one suffers, knowing one of them will. You go back and forth about which one it should be and it gives you a thrill...It's not the destruction itself that thrills you the most --though you're looking forward to it -- it's the exhilaration of watching them as they learn that you're alive and in control. It's their inevitable terror. It's perfect." The extent of Charlie's revenge is revealed in one of his last narratives. Charlie is revealed to be completely enraged over Aubrey's betrayal and her subsequent break-up with him. "You've made simple plans for Lena. She was a burden to be discarded. But Aubrey is going to suffer. For Aubrey, you've planned a fate far worse than death."

The novel's open ending leaves readers wondering if there will be a sequel. Is Lena really dead especially given the last narrative? If not, where is she? Will Aubrey be left to rot in the Thai prison? Thai authorities have her passport so they know she's American. Will they inform the US consulate of her imprisonment and the charges against her?

Book Details:

Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt       2015
263 pp.