Thursday, December 31, 2015

Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider

"At Latham House, we were asked to believe in unlikely miracles. In second chances. We woke up each morning hoping that the odds had somehow swung in our favor."
Extraordinary Means is a moving novel about two teens whose lives are changed forever when they contract a (fictitious) deadly form of drug-resistant tuberculosis and are sent to a sanitarium in the hopes that they might get a second chance at life. Life goes on whether you are sick or not until sometimes it just doesn't anymore.

Seventeen year old Lane Rosen was going into his senior year of high school and had his life all planned out. He was enrolled in Advanced Placement courses before he got sick. He'd taken AP Physics Lab, volunteered at the health clinic, participated in Model UN, done SAT prep courses and started a Carbon Footprint Awareness Club to boost his application. His marks were good enough so far to potentially guarantee him a spot at Stanford. His plan was "to land a summer banking internship at twenty, graduate in three years, and recruit straight to Wall Street." By the time he was twenty-three, Lane hoped to have all his school loans paid off and then attend either business or law school.

However, all this seems to be on hold now that Lane has been diagnosed with an incurable strain of tuberculosis known as TDR-TB (total drug resistant-TB). As a result he's  sent to Latham House, a sanitarium in the Santa Cruz mountains in the hopes he can recover. Latham House used to be a private school but has now been converted into a sanitarium.  "The eight cottages were arranged in a half-moon, around a gazebo in desperate need of a paint job...Each cottage had around twenty residents...The first floor was a lounge area with dilapidated plaid sofas, a long study table, and stacks  of board games." All the residents at Latham House are teens and all wear medic wrist bands that monitor their vitals.

Expecting to be met by his "First-Day Ambassador, Grant Harden", Lane finds himself on his own, navigating the showers, the breakfast line and classes. In the breakfast line he meets Nikhil Patel (Nick) who tells him to fill his plate when he goes through the line to avoid getting a "strike". As he goes through the line a second time, Lane spots a petite blond girl named Sadie who doesn't care if she only has a mug of tea and who seems familiar to him. Not knowing where to sit he ends up at a table with a girl named Genevieve and her friends. Meanwhile, Nick has gone to sit at Sadie's table. The dining hall at Latham is filled with kids eating and talking but also coughing, "like a symphony of sickness."

During his first day, Lane notices Nick and Sadie along with two others taking off into the woods during the after-lunch break.  Later on he sees her return with her group and remembers Sadie being in summer camp with him before going into grade eight. He remembers her as a loner who was always taking pictures with her camera. Other than that, Lane doesn't remember much more about her.

Lane is checked over by Dr. Barons at Latham House. Barons tells Lane that he has two lesions on his right lung that they need to watch and that Lane needs to stick to his schedule which means breakfast at 8am, nature walks and yoga, rest periods in his room and bedtime at 9pm. Barons wants Lane to concentrate on getting well but Lane wants to get back to his life. A life that weeks ago meant he "was a straight shot to the college of his choice." He decides that he will work hard in his room doing the work he brought from home rather than resting.

Sadie Bennett is also seventeen years old. She has spent the past fifteen months at Latham House. In her sophomore year, Sadie fainted in phys ed and was told at the ER that she had an active case of tuberculosis. In the woods with Nick, and her friends Marina and Charlie Sadie reflects on seeing Lane and on being a Latham House. A loner in her old life, at Latham House she has a group of friends with whom she breaks the rules and spends her time on her photography.

Sadie doesn't want to meet Lane who she believes remembers her as "the outcast girl who sat alone in the arts and crafts tent making friendship bracelets for her American Girl doll." However the inevitable meeting happens at the end of Lane's first night at dinner. Lane remembers that they attended Camp Griffith and is nice to Sadie which only infuriates her.  Sadie remembers that summer - the year her parents were in the middle of divorcing. Taunted by a group of bullying girls in her cabin. Then she saw Lane in the woods looking at her when she was taking pictures with her camera. After asking one of the girls about him, and before the seniors dance at camp, Sadie is given a note supposedly penned by Lane along with his sunglasses. The note asks her to the dance. However the night of the dance, Sadie waited in vain, filled with hope and excitement. Until she was given a note by one of the girls written by Lane saying he wasn't coming. She was humiliated and saddened.

Lane meanwhile, is puzzled by Sadie's reaction to him. After talking to his parents he calls his girlfriend Hannah who requests that he read her admissions essay. In French class the next day Sadie is mean to Lane when they have to perform short skits in front of the class. Sadie tells Lane that he has only a little bit of TB but that he is lucky to live in France where there are drugs to treat it. Mr. Finnegan is furious with Sadie and explains to the class that the drugs which work on other forms of TB do not work on the TDR strain and actually kill the patients. After French class Lane is furious with Sadie but only for throwing the assignment.

Lane spends his first week suffering through the companionship of Genevieve, studying in the library and watching Sadie and her friends take off into the woods. However one day when Sadie and her friends Marina, Charlie and Nick come to the library to "steal" internet access Lane saves them from being discovered by the librarian. When Sadie doesn't thank him, Lane asks her what her problem is. She tells him about what happened to her at camp three years earlier. Lane explains to Sadie that he never wrote the notes to her and his sunglasses were stolen.

The next morning Lane wakes up sick, running a fever and coughing up blood. Things go from bad to worse when he breaks up with Hannah over her admission's essay which was about him. Upset, Lane sits in the gazebo outside the cottages. Sadie sees he's very miserable and decides to talk to him. He tells her what happened between him and Hannah and they talk about how their lives have changed now that they have an incurable illness. When Lane goes in to see Dr. Barons for a second check-up, he finds his health has deteriorated as a result of him trying to keep up with his school work. He's lost weight, running a fever and sleeping poorly. Lane eventually confesses what he's been doing and promises to follow his treatment plan.

Lane becomes part of Sadie's clique, joining her and her friends at their lunch table and in the evening for movies. As time passes Lane begins to fit into Latham House, sneaking off the grounds and into nearby Whitley, and skipping Wellness. Lane and Sadie's friendship deepens. They begin calling each other on their room phones and spending time together in the library. Just when Lane finds himself part of Latham, the possibility of a new cure is presented. It will take some weeks before the treatment can begin. A cure means the hope of a future but what will that mean for Lane and Sadie?

Discussion

Extraordinary Means is a deeply touching novel about two teens trying to live their lives in spite of a serious and potentially incurable illness. The two main characters, Lane and Sadie, who narrate the novel, are very different. Lane is organized and focused. He knows what he wants in life and has planned everything accordingly. By his own admission he's "a head-down-and-grades-up sort of guy." At Harbor, Lane was one of those students teachers loved - "We were going somewhere in life, the teachers said, handing us extra-credit assignments instead of detention, study guides instead of busywork." Being sent to a sanitarium was not in his plans and has completely disrupted his life. He can't wait to get out and get back into the swing of his life. "But I could see that I wasn't getting through to Dr. Barons about how important it was for me to stay on track. I'd have to show him that Latham was working. That I was improving. And then he'd send me home."

Sadie on the other hand, has no such plans and has sees herself differently. She's been at Latham House for a long time, in fact, longer than anyone. Outside of the sanitarium, Sadie had been an outsider; the girl not involved in school, a loner with three friends who were always dating boys and going on group dates without her. Latham has made her part of a clique; finding "friends who hated the exact same things about it, mocking the rules and the teachers and Dr. Barons until we were laughing so hard we could barely breathe." She also views identifies herself as the disease. "Where I once was, there was now an active case of TB. Everything of who I was and who I wanted to be had been evicted to make room for the disease."

Initially Sadie's view of Lane is marred by a falsehood - the belief that he stood her up years ago at camp. The fact that she has never gotten over this incident demonstrates how little she has in her own life. Once this lie is uncovered, Sadie is able to recognize what really happened and move on. This leads them to begin to develop a friendship. Lane states that talking with her began to change his perspective on his situation and opened his eyes to the reality of his life.For the first time in months Lane feels understood and not alone.


Lane's time at Latham sees him change his perspective on his illness and his outlook on life. At first he feels like being at Latham is "like I was living someone else's life because this couldn't be mine." When his health declines further after working on his AP courses and Lane is forced to follow Latham's schedule he realizes "that just like everyone else, I was a patient here." His view of the other patients who crowded the TV room, read graphic novels and ransacked the DVD shelves changes. He originally viewed Sadie and her friends as trouble makers, "But now, the idea of getting in trouble sounded appealing...I was sick of being perfect, and maybe it was okay not to be, just for a while, just at Latham.
Maybe I could be a different version of myself here, one who didn't feel enormously guilty for watching a movie on a school night. Someone with a hobby that did nothing for my resume. Someone with friends, not just a friend group."

Lane realizes his approach to life at Latham was wrong and he becomes determined to fix it. In French class when at a dare from Sadie, he takes on the role of the instructor during the teacher's absence, Lane is reminded of his love for drama class and improv. "I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed stuff like this, how fun it was to step outside myself."

After a trip to Starbucks in Whitney to get butterbeer lattes with Sadie, Nick, Charlie and Marina, Lane realizes how much he's missed. "I'd always told myself that there was plenty of time to goof around later, after I'd gotten into Stanford. But if the past month had taught me anything, it was that the life you plan isn't the life that happens to you."

After a month of being at Latham, Lane notices that his facebook is dead, no comments, no contact from his friends. He's missed his high school's homecoming dance, something Lane has always skipped. Because he's a senior, there will be no more homecoming dances - he's missed all of them which he now regrets. He also sees that his ex, Hannah has moved on and is now dating another guy. To Lane it feels like he is a ghost, that he's been "deleted from my old life."  Lane now admits that his life before TB was not a good life because all he did was study. He felt that life in high school wasn't important because the only thing that mattered was college. But Sadie tells him that this new life he has matters, that he's "still leaving your mark, you're just doing it somewhere else."

Lane sees the reality of his old life. "I realized then that I hadn't had a life, I'd just had a life plan. And it wasn't that I didn't still want all those things -- Stanford, summer internships, graduate school -- I just wasn't sure I'd gone about achieving them the right way." Lane decides that he doesn't want to shut out life around him when he goes through college. "I didn't want to rush through all the moments that I wouldn't know I wanted until they were gone." 

At this point Lane isn't even sure he wants his old life back. He'd sacrificed drama class which he loved for AP Art History to help his application. He was determined to be the best in high school without really understanding what being in high school meant. "I'd made high school into a race toward the best college, as opposed to its own destination."

Meeting Sadie and being at Latham has changed Lane; he was "waiting for everything to be different." The announcement of a potential cure by Dr. Barons leaves Lane filled with relief. When Sadie breaks up with Lane after the death of Charlie, Lane is devastated. Lane wants Sadie to be in his life because she reminds him of who he's become at Latham and he wants to take that with him when he returns to his life. "...I liked the Latham version of me so much better than the Lane I'd been before. I wanted to be the Lane who kissed a girl in a bedsheet toga and stole internet and wore a tie to a pajama movie night. I wanted to be Sadie's Lane, not the Lane who ran the Carbon Footprint Awareness Club just so I could put "club president" on my college resume." Lane feels scared that he may not be able to be "Sadie's Lane" without her.

But in the end Lane does have to learn to live without Sadie and live in the world again. However, his experience at Latham House and with Sadie has changed him forever. He decides that he will learn to enjoy life because it's all that is left to him since he can't have what he really wants in life at this point - Sadie. His biggest lesson learned is that he focuses now on the path rather than the destination. Proof of that is when he drives home from the coffee shop, Lane takes a different route home.

In contrast to Lane, Sadie is conflicted about the cure. She is cautious in accepting the reality because of previous false claims. In a way this is a foreshadowing of what will happen to Sadie. "We were no longer incurably ill, and for so many of us that had been our defining thing for so long. It had hurt to accept what was wrong with me, but it hurt even more to have hope." For Sadie returning home doesn't hold the promise that it does for others because she believes she will be held back in school, she doesn't have her driver's license, she hasn't taken the SATs and her father is now gone from the family replaced by her mother's new boyfriend. And leaving Camp Latham means she and Lane have only a few more weeks together. Sadie's doubts she'll see Lane outside of Latham.

Sadie gradually accepts that Latham won't last forever. But when a tragic series of events leads to her being attacked and her condition worsens, Sadie decides to go for the extraordinary means of treatment - the medication for the multi-drug resistant TB which has a twenty-five percent chance of killing her. Where Lane had never accepted his mortality and his being sick from TB, Sadie has. So when the treatment doesn't work, she knows her miracle was the second chance, and not the cure others will get in three weeks time.

Schneider has crafted a very gritty and realistic portrayal of teens dealing with a life and death situation, that sometimes seems unnecessarily crass. The situation surrounding the character Charlie, while humorous almost feels this way. Charlie, is a homosexual and is caught in an embarrassing situation in his room. He's a truly wonderful character, filled with teenage angst and uncertainty. He knows he's dying and is attempting to finish as much of his music composing as he can in the little time he has left. This makes him all the more endearing.Charlie demonstrates the reality of life; that the seriously ill struggle with the same things as healthy teens do. In an attempt to soften this harsh reality, Schneider interjects much humour around the situation.

Despite the strange premise of the novel, (a fatal form of TB), Schneider's characters are realistic, diverse and interesting. The setting of the novel, while realistic for the circumstances (set in a sanitarium), feels irregular at best. The group of teens in the novel appear to have little meaningful supervision and little contact with their parents. If in fact, 280,000 cases of TDR-TB exist, as the novel states, one would like to think that the facility would have restricted access and some sort of protection preventing patients from entering the town and infecting local residents, as Sadie did with Michael.

I've included the United Kingdom cover of this novel because in some ways it is so much more appealing than the one for US release. Schneider has a lengthy Authors Note that explains about tuberculosis and how she came to write a novel with such an unusual premise.

Overall an excellent novel, well written, with a tragic ending. Highly recommended for fans of John Green.

Book Details:

Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider
New York: Kathering Tegen Books 2015
324 pp.



Wednesday, December 30, 2015

All In by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The third installment of the Naturals series, All In, sees the teen profilers brought together to solve a series of murders which seem to suggest several perpetrators.

Cassie who has told her family that she's been with a special government-sponsored gifted program, is home celebrating the holidays. This interlude with her nonna and her Uncle Rio is interrupted when her father arrives to tell her that the body of her missing mother is believed to have been found. Cassie's mother has been missing since she was twelve years old. Her father tells her that they are trying to do a positive ID based on dental records. Cassie tells her father that she wants to see the place where her mother's body was found.

Cassie is picked up by Judd Hawkins, the burly security guard who protects the five teens who make up the Naturals. Cassie reiterates her desire to see pictures of the crime scene where her mother was found. Judd understands her request because he lost his daughter, Scarlett to the serial killer known as Nightshade. Judd agrees to request the files from the agents they are working with, but tells her she won't be viewing them alone.

Boarding a private jet, Cassie meets up with Agents Tanner Briggs and Veronica (Ronnie) Sterling who recruited her after her mother's death, along with Dean Redding, Lia Zhang, and Sloane Tavish. Michael Townsend, the only missing member of the team, is at home visiting his abusive father. Twenty minutes into the flight, Briggs and Sterling tell the Naturals that they are to help out with a serial killer case. There have been three murders in three days at three different casinos; Alexandra Ruiz found floating facedown in the rooftop pool at the Apex Casino, Sylvester Wilde a "modern-day Houdini, illusionist, hypnotist and jack-of-all trades" found burned to death at the Wonderland Casino, and Eugene Lockhart a seventy-eight year old regular of the Desert Rose Casino who was shot in the chest with an arrow. Each of the victims have been marked with a set of numbers; Alexandra with 3213, Sylvester with 4558 and Eugene with 9144.

They fly to Las Vegas where the FBI has been given a complimentary suite at the Desert Rose. However, Michael who has joined the group, arranges for them to stay in the Renoir Suite at the most luxurious hotel in the city, the Majesty. For Sloane, staying at the Majesty is upsetting because her father, Grayson Shaw owns the hotel which is managed by her half-brother, Aaron. As the group settles in, Agent Sterling gives Cassie the file on her mother but tells her not to look at them alone.

The FBI has identified five persons of interest in the murders, all except one are participants in a poker tournament at various Las Vegas casinos: Thomas Wesley who has created three internet start-up companies and has been playing professional poker for a decade, Tory Howard who is a stage magician, Camille Holt an actress in her second major poker tournament, Dr. Daniel de la Cruz who is a professor of applied mathematics and Beau Donovan, a twenty-one year old dishwasher who won the qualifying tournament two weeks earlier.

Reconsidering the numbers engraved on each of the victims wrists, Sloane determines that the UNSUB is marking his victims with numbers from the Fibonacci sequence, "a series of numbers, derived from a deceptively simple formula where each subsequent integer is calculated by adding together the two previous numbers in the series." She explains that the Fibonacci sequence is found throughout nature in various biological structures such as nautilus shells, flowers and the arrangement of pine cones.

Lia, Michael and Cassie decide to check out the casino in the hotel but when they arrive, they are told that the area they are in has just been closed for maintenance. The arrival of Agents Sterling and Briggs suggests something serious is happening. As they wait to hear from the FBI agents, Cassie looks at her mother's file with Dean. Her mother, missing for the past five years was buried  wrapped in a blue shawl with a necklace around her neck and a flower pressed into the bones of her left hand. Cassie puzzles over who would have buried her mother in this manner.

The Naturals learn that there has been yet another murder, this time at the Majesty. Camille Holt has been found dead, strangled after a vicious struggle Sloane correctly predicts the number on Camille's arm as 2333 explaining that UNSUB is using the Fibonacci pattern, mid-sequence. Briggs tells them that Aaron Shaw is a suspect and that they will be interviewing Tory Howard as well. The Naturals are able to listen in on Briggs and Sterling's questioning of Tory, who admits to going out to dinner with Camille whom she didn't know very well. When questioned about where she was after dinner Beau Donovan, comes forward to state that he spent the night with Tory. However, Lia who can detect lies, believes that Beau is lying. Beau reveals that Tory is his foster sister and tells them that Camille made him feel welcome once he joined the poker tournament. He informs them that Camille was worried about Thomas Wesley. Briggs and Sterling go to interview Wesley at the Desert Rose.Once they enter his suite however, the video feed goes dark so Lia, Michael, Cassie and Dean decide to head to the pool area where they pick up the feed and listen to Wesley tell the agents that he has an alibi for each of the nights of the murders and that Tory Howard's real talent is hypnosis. Unfortunately, Michael gets into an altercation with an unknown man in the pool area after his behaviour towards his small son triggers him to act out.

Meanwhile Sloane believes that they have only thirteen hours before the UNSUB strikes again - if he is killing every day. However, when the Naturals return from the indoor pool area, Sloane has determined that the locations of each murder to date are part of the Fibonacci spiral with the killer spiralling in from the Apex casino. All of the remaining potential murder sites will be situated at the Majesty casino which is in the center of the spiral with next murder to be in the Grand Ballroom. This leads to the FBI staking out the ballroom but nothing happens for three days.

Agent Sterling believes the killer is very organized and planned each of the attacks. Sloane insists that the killer MUST continue killing because the Fibonacci pattern is spiralling inward. She insists the ballroom must continue to be closed. To help her de-stress, Cassie and Lia take Sloane shopping, but instead she shoplifts and is caught by the head of the casino security, Victor McKinney. Aaron Shaw intercedes and reveals to Sloane that he knows she is his half sister. This conversation is interrupted by his father who throws everyone out of the security office except for Cassie and Sloane. Shaw tells them he knows about the Naturals due to contacts within the FBI. He warns Sloane to stay away from his new family and from his son Aaron.

Aaron Shaw sends the Naturals tickets to Tory Howard's magic show which the group attends along with Judd. At the show Tory hypnotizes a dozen volunteers including Michael. However, during the hypnosis, a girl who turns out to be Allison Lawrence, Aaron's girlfriend, begins yelling "Tertium" and says "I need nine." before collapsing. This leads to a fight between Beau who accuses Aaron of trying to entrap Tory.

Back at their hotel, Sloane tells Cassie that the killer will strike again in three days, on January 12th, when the poker tournament is slated to move to the Majesty. She states that she hacked into both the FBI and Interpol computers to search for murders committed on January 1 in the past fifteen years. Sloane discovers a series of nine murders, eleven years ago,  that began on August 1 and stretched into the following year on January 1 - the same Fibonacci sequence. Manipulating the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence, Sloane is able to create a pattern that not only matches their current killer's pattern but also that of the unsolved nine murders eleven years ago.

They now know that the killer murders "on dates derived from the Fibonacci sequence", nine victims at a time. This leads them to the realization that they are dealing with an expert, a serial killer who plans his attacks and then waits.  Cassie also believes that the arrow in the third victim which was inscribed with the word "Tertium" was a reference to this being the third set of murders. Based on Sloane's internet research, the Naturals now believe the casino killer is possibly on his third killing spree. As the Naturals learn more about the pattern of killings, they begin to uncover something more sinister than they cover ever have imagined.

Discussion

All In continues to see the Naturals develop their special gifts to directly help in solving a serial crime. In this installment, the focus is on Sloane Tavish, who it turns out is the half sister of Aaron Shaw, son of Grayson Shaw who owns the Majesty casino where the next murder is to be committed. Sloane's existence is supposed to be a secret to Aaron but he knows about her. Sloane is terrorized by the presence of her father who is cold and harsh towards her, and she therefore is afraid of Aaron too. Aaron however is not his father and he attempts to prove this to Sloane by acts of kindness.Because of this tragic relationship with her father, Sloane is perhaps the most fragile member of the Naturals. She is portrayed as deeply broken and at times barely functional. But her savvy with numbers breaks the case wide open - revealing the Fibonacci pattern that forms the basis for the murders.

Barnes packs a lot of punch in this novel, presenting the Naturals with three murders that seemed to be linked by virtue of their location in casinos and yet seemingly very different. It takes someone whose mind is fluid with numbers to recognize the Fibonacci pattern inherent in the murders. In this respect, All In bears some similarity to an episode from Criminal Minds titled Masterpiece in that the Fibonacci sequence played a part in how the victims were selected. Mathematician Robert Brigham, who writes murder mysteries, authored a novel, Murder By The Numbers which also incorporates the Fibonacci sequence. But Barnes also highlights the talents of the other Naturals, in particular, series narrator, Cassie.

As with the preceding novels, Cassie's narration is interspersed with short narratives by the killer which are titled YOU.  The YOU narrative reveals the killer's motivation for murder and confirm the Natural's ability to profile and uncover motives. Cassie's narrative demonstrates how the Naturals work together as they attempt to solve the casino murders. Although there is friction within the group - between Michael and Lia, between Michael and Dean, for the most part the group is now able to function relatively smoothly. Once again Cassie shows herself to be observant and intelligent, quickly putting together the pieces of the puzzle. She's also compassionate towards her fellow Naturals, feeling sadness at the abuse Michael suffers from his father and trying to understand Sloane's instability. One of the fascinating strengths of Cassie's character is the amazing profiling that the reader is allowed to experience as she works her way through solving the murder and getting into the mind of the UNSUB.

Barnes also unexpectedly links together the murder of Judd's daughter and the disappearance of Cassie's mother. The plot twists are completely unexpected and the hanging ending leaves readers breathless to see how Barnes will wind up her story.


In this novel the love triangle does not play a significant part, seemingly resolved. While in the safe house, and after Michael has been targeted as the next victim, Cassie tells him that he helped her begin to feel again, that he was her first ever friend.It is her attempt to help Michael come to terms with the fact that their relationship is one of friendship and not romantic.

Overall, All In was an exciting novel, engaging to the very end.

***
The following is a summary of the ending of the novel and contains spoilers. Since Barnes is planning a fourth novel, this summary can serve as a refresher for that book when it is published in 2016.

Sloane reveals the crimes they are dealing with to be extremely complex and unique. Based on her research, The Naturals determine that the casino murders are the work of a mysterious cult that connects the murder of Judd's daughter, Scarlett Hawkins and the disappearance of Cassie's mother. Judd's daughter, Scarlett was murdered on May 8, which is a Fibonacci date, by a killer known as Nightshade because he left a white nightshade flower on his victims. Scarlett was the final victim in a spree of nine murders, all committed on Fibonacci dates. When Agents Sterling and Briggs were assigned to Nightshade, the killer went after the FBI, killing Scarlett who worked in the FBI labs. Further research by Sloane reveals that there have been at least one hundred and eighty-nine victims from eleven cases going back as far as the 1950's in both America and Europe. But since she doesn't have access to every crime database and some may never have been recorded, the Naturals begin to suspect that the number of victims must be larger and that they are dealing with more than one UNSUB. They also uncover a predictable pattern in how the victims are killed. The Naturals conclude that there are a group of victims, usually nine in number, killed on Fibonacci dates with a three year interval between the sets of murders. There are seven different methods of murder which repeat every twenty-one years.

Earlier in the novel, when the Naturals were playing Two Truths and a Lie, Lia's statements were: 1. "I killed a man when I was nine years old." 2." I'm currently considering shaving Michael's head while he sleeps." and 3. "I grew up in a cult." Cassie knows that Lia lived on the streets before she was brought into the program. Lia's statements stick with Cassie and she begins to suspect that her first and third statements might actually be true. As the group works to profile the UNSUB Lia is able provide insights into cult life that lead Cassie to believe that she is revealing a part of who she once was and who she continues to run from. Since the current murders are a half a year early, Lia believes, "Whoever our killer is, I'd be a lot of money that he's not a part of this group. If he were, the cult would be monitoring him. And if they were monitoring him and they found out that he'd shared even one of their secrets?...He wouldn't be our problem. He'd already be dead."

They believe that the UNSUB is attempting to demonstrate to the cult that he is better than they are and that his writing the numbers on the victims he's sending them a message. Proof that someone has in fact noticed comes when the Naturals attempt to leave Las Vegas and are prevented from doing so. They know that at least Nightshade has noticed because of a letter Judd receives from him. Cassie believes that Nightshade is in Vegas to kill the UNSUB. Cassie recalls meeting a man when she was first brought into the program who seemed to know Judd. She now believes that man was Nightshade.

Sloane also programs a search of other sources including newspapers and finds that the murder pattern stretches back into the late 1800's. Michael is determined to have been the next target as the numbers 7761 show up on his arm. They determine that Michael was marked after he accompanied Lia playing poker and she left to cash in her chips. Michael wants to attend the ballroom because he feels this gives them the upper hand: they know the location, the method and the intended victim. But Judd believes that Nightshade will also be there because Nightshade sent him a picture of a white nightshade, something he sent each of his victims before killing them. They wire Michael up, put him in a bullet proof vest and take him to the tournament with plenty of agents. As the Naturals wait and watch from their safe house, Cassie puts together the identity of the UNSUB and discovers the real intended victim - Aaron Shaw.

However, she is too late to protect Shaw who is murdered by Beau Donovan. Donovan is arrested but they need to determine what happened to the murder weapon. The Naturals contact Tory Howard, Beau's foster sister who recognizes Beau in their description of the UNSUB's profile. Tory reveals that Beau had been found in the desert when he was six years old, half dead. No one knew where he came from and he did not speak for almost two years after. During questioning by Agent Briggs, Beau reveals that he was part of a cult consisting of  "Seven Masters" known as the Pythia - a reference to the priestess at Apollo's oracle in Delphi. He reveals to Briggs and Sterling a gruesome carving on his chest, of his own making, showing a "seven small circles forming a heptagon around a cross." Before he can tell them more however, Beau suddenly dies from poisoning.

The revelation of the heptagon is shocking to Cassie because this symbol was carved on the wooden coffin her mother's body was buried in, in the woods. But Cassie's mother's death didn't fit the pattern: her death wasn't on a Fibonacci date, she was attacked with a knife instead of poisoned. Cassie also recognizes that the picture sent Judd is not that of white nightshade but is an origami flower like the one she saw on a little girl at the fountain outside the Majesty casino. She realizes that the man she saw with the little girl was in fact Nightshade. Cassie's description is used to create a drawing and they manage to locate Nightshade. However, he injects Briggs with a poison and in order to give them the antidote he wants to see Cassie. Nightshade tells them that the poison is a rare snake whose venom is slow acting.

Nightshade tells her that the ninth is the bridge between the generations in the cult, the leader. Cassie believes that her mother was taken by the cult and made to fight for her life. The woman Cassie had seen at the fountain with the little girl was her killer and Nightshade tells Judd and Cassie they will find her in room 2117 at the Dark Angel Casino. In Room 2117 they find the young woman dead and the little girl sitting on a chair. She tells Cassie her name is Nine but her mommy calls her Laurel. She tells Cassie that the dead woman is not her mother and shows her a picture in the locket around her neck. The woman in the locket is Cassie's mother. Cassie's mother is alive and in the cult.

Cassie mission now is to find her mother, find the Masters and to protect Laurel. "...the cult needed to think we hadn't put the pieces together. They needed to think that I believed I'd buried my mother. They needed to thinnk that we hadn't read much into the fact that the woman I'd mistaken for Laurel's mother was actually a nanny, a disposable Las Vegas native Nightshade had hired earlier that week."

Book Details:

All In by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Los Angeles: Hyperion       2015
376 pp.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

***spoilers***

Opening to much hype and acclaim, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the latest iteration based on the stories created by George Lucas in the 1970's and brought to the big screen. This movie was co-written, directed and produced by J.J. Abrams who also directed the most recent Star Trek movies. Many of the actors who starred in the original three movies can be found in The Force Awakens; Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Anthony Daniels as CP30, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Tim Rose as Admiral Ackbar and Mike Quinn and Nien Nunb.

The movie's plot line invokes many of the original story lines from the original Star Wars movie in 1977: a young character who has lost his/her family is drawn reluctantly into a confrontation with the evil forces in the galaxy, only to discover their own innate ability to use the force. The person leading the evil is a corrupted member of a family who has used the force for good.

The Force Awakens is set thirty years after the destruction of the Death Star. The evil Galactic Empire has been overthrown and the New Republic governs the galaxy. However, the remnants of the empire have formed the First Order, a secret organization led by Snoke who is the Supreme Leader and who utilizes the evil side of the Force. Their main base of operations, Starkiller base is a frozen planet that has been made into weapon capable of destroying planets.

The First Order seeks to overthrow the Republic and regain power. Snoke has corrupted Ben, the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker's sister. Working against the The First Order is the Resistance which includes former members of the resistance from thirty years ago, among them General Leia. Luke Skywalker has disappeared and Snoke is seeking to locate Skywalker, the last Jedi, to destroy him. Ben who now goes by the name Kylo Ren, is being trained by Snoke in the dark side of the force and has been given the task of locating the last Jedi.

The movie opens with a member of the resistance being pursued by the First Order on Jakku. Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron is given a digital map of Luke Skywalker's location by an elderly villager, Lor San Tekka. Poe is quickly captured when Kylo Ren and his storm troopers raid Jakku, but Poe's droid, BB 8 escapes with the secret map safely stored within. After torturing Poe, Ren learns that the map is stored in a BB 8 droid. On board Ren's destroyer, a stormtrooper, FN 2187 finds himself unable to kill for the First Order. FN 2187 decides to free Poe and together they manage to escape in a TIE fighter. Their fighter is damaged and crashes back on Jakku. Believing he is the only survivor, FN-2187 who was nicknamed "Finn" by Poe, heads towards the nearest settlement.

Meanwhile that droid has been discovered by Rey, a young woman who is a scavenger in the deserts of Jakku. Separated from her family when she was very young, she waits for their return. Finn sees Rey with the BB-8 unit and approaches her. They fight when the BB-8 unit tells Rey that Finn is wearing a stolen jacket from his pilot. Finn tells her he is with the resistance and almost immediately they are attacked by Ren's stormtroopers. They escape the settlement when it is attacked by the First Order. Determined to leave Jakku, Rey and Finn along with BB-8 manage to escape in the Millennium Falcon. With the First Order after them, Finn manages to convince BB-8 to tell Rey where the resistance base is located. But getting to the resistance will prove far more difficult than they know. It is a journey that will lead Rey to uncover an amazing ability she never knew she had, one that could change the course of the war with the First Order.


Discussion

Star Wars: The Force Awakens represents a return to the franchise in a spirit faithful to the first three movies, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. This is represented by the iteration of several themes from the first movie and the return of several major characters from the first story. Of the actors returning, Harrison Ford gave an outstanding performance as Han Solo, getting better as the movie progressed. However, Carrie Fisher now the experienced General Organa, seemed at times to deliver her lines in a plodding manner. Fisher indicated that her character has had a difficult time and is under a great deal of pressure. She is still committed to defeating the re-emergence of the dark side of the force but she's tired and of course much older.

Although trailers for The Force Awakens seem to show the main protagonist as the character portrayed by John Boyega, in fact, Rey is the main character in this installment. Having a female lead in the Star Wars franchise is refreshing and long overdue. Ridley is a largely unknown actress with few credits but her performance in The Force Awakens is phenomenally fresh. With her emotionally expressive face and appealing physicality, she gives Star Wars a strong, intelligent, capable heroine. In captivity, Rey discovers that she is able to resist Kylo Ren's mind probe. Unlike Luke who required significant training by Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda, Rey is able to quickly and easily learn how to work the Jedi mind trick on the storm trooper guarding her and is also able to use her previously unknown kinetic abilities to grasp the lightsaber when fighting Ren.

Kylo Ren, Han Solo's son is being tutored in the dark ways of the force by Snoke. However, Ren admits he feels the call to the light side of the force but wishes to resist. He is told he must kill his father in order to overcome this call. Ren is not the calm, controlled evil villian his grandfather was but instead seems unstable and troubled, falling into rages that leave the storm troopers terrified.Played by Adam Driver, Ren is shocked to discover untrained Rey's ability surpasses his own. This of course sets the stage for a battle of epic proportions.

The Force Awakens has some moments of exceptional cinematography for example Rey's slide down an enormous sand dune on Jakku, and the scenes in the forest on Starkiller Base. In keeping with the special effects techniques that were used in the first three films, Abrams utilized scale models to create battle scenes rather than computer generated images.

Movie-goers will be left with lots of unanswered questions that the next installment will address. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun movie, with plenty of thrilling action scenes, some good acting, and lots of satisfaction in seeing some of the characters from the original movies we've all come to love.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Movie: Mockingjay Part 2

Mockingjay Part 2 begins with Katniss recovering from the attack by Peeta who has been brainwashed by the Capitol into believing that she must be killed. Numerous attempts to deprogram Peeta have so far been unsuccessful. The state of Peeta leads Katniss to reaffirm her desire to kill President Snow and end the war by taking over the Capitol.

At a meeting, President Alma Coin along with Gale and many others realize they need to take out the Capitol's weapons arsenal, a mountain stronghold known as "the Nut" because it is impossible to take out. Gale suggests to President Coin and her military advisers that since they are unlikely to capture the Nut, instead they bomb the mountain and seal it with rock slides, thereby rendering it useless. However, sealing the mountain will trap those inside, including many people from District 2 who are forced to work there. This is unacceptable to Katniss. They decide to leave the train tracks open so that a train carrying survivors can leave the mountain.

Katniss travels to District 2 with Gale to meet with rebels. After the bombing, Katniss and Gale, along with their team meet the survivors but Katniss is shot and wounded, placing her back in sickbay in District 13. She attempts once again to help Peeta, but his brainwashing remains too strong. President Coin refuses to agree to Katniss's request to be placed on a team that will be entering the Capitol as part of the attack. At Finn and Annie's wedding, Katniss takes up Johanna's suggestion; she sneaks on board a transport and arrives at District 2 where she meets up with Gale. Deciding not to bring her back, Coin has her assigned to a team headed by Commander Boggs. The squad also includes Lt. Jackson, Gale, Finnick, the Leeg twins and Cressida. Although they will be part of the invasion team, they learn that the Capital has been rigged by its gamers with pods designed to maim and kill. The Holo shows the location of most of the pods but not all of them. After encountering the first pod, Coin sends Peeta to join Katniss's squad. Although he seems calmer now, Peeta is handcuffed and watched closely by Finnick.

Unfortunately the group encounters an unseen pod that kills Boggs who as he is dying transfers command of the Holo to Katniss. The group triggers an even more lethal second pod which seals the area and releases a sea of black tar. As they are racing towards a building, Peeta attacks Katniss who fights him off. Peeta pushes a soldier into the tar and he is caught in ropes and feathers and strung up. The group manages to find safety in the building, but one of the Leeg twins has been mortally wounded. Her sister stays with her while Katniss and her crew leave just as the Capitol soldiers arrive. They watch from safety while the building is destroyed.

Jackson had tried to secure the Holo from Katniss but she lies to the group convincing them that she has a mission to kill Snow and therefore needs the Holo. In reality, this is her own plan. To avoid further devastating pods, which are everywhere, the group heads into the sewers. Pollux leads them through the sewers which he knows well from his time as a slave in the Capitol.

At first the Capitol and President Snow believe that Katniss has been killed and broadcast her death in the hopes of discouraging the rebels. However, she is soon spotted on a camera in the sewers and Snow orders the attacks to be moved underground.This leads to a horrific attack by mutant mutts. The survivors are sheltered at the home of Tigris where Katniss reveals that she has no mission to kill President Snow.

When Snow invites the citizens of the Capitol to come to his mansion for safety, Gale and Katniss, disguised as Capitol citizens join the exodus. However, just as they near the mansion, the rebels attack.  The ending of the war has devastating consequences for Katniss and reveals the true character of Gale and the real motives of President Coin.

Discussion

Mockingjay Part 2 is a satisfying conclusion to the Hunger Games movies, in general keeping with the  theme and atmosphere of the novels. As in the previous movies, Katniss, was well portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, as a young woman deeply traumatized by war and the loss of her community and her home. Despite this trauma, Katniss becomes determined to see the rebellion to its end and to assassinate President Snow.

Katniss's distrust of Coin, whom she is warned about by President Snow after his capture,  leads her to correctly assess her situation in the new Panem - she is a liability to Coin.  Katniss shockingly decides to side with Coin on reconvening the games, this time using people from the Capitol, even though she recognizes this as a continuation of the brutality Snow instituted. Katniss knows that if she goes against Coin she will be murdered. Instead, she bides her time, and strikes at the most unlikely moment, thus re-directing the path of the rebellion towards peace and justice. It is an action that surprises even Haymitch.

Mockingjay Part 2 effectively shows the final journey of Katniss from reluctant rebel, to a warrior with a conscience, to war hero to mother and wife. Katniss reluctantly volunteered for the games to save her younger sister, Prim, from certain death. (Ironically, that sacrifice seems worthless in light of Prim's death in the final battle for the Capitol.) In doing so and winning the games with Peeta, she becomes a symbol of resistance against the Capitol, when all she really wants is to go home and live her life. However, Haymitch makes it clear to her, that the games will never, ever really be over. The only way is to depose Snow and stop the Hunger Games.  Katniss even tries to bargain several times with President Snow, but when he shows just how far he's willing to go to hold on to power, she knows he must be stopped. Eventually Katniss loses her connection to Gale who is willing to do anything, to sacrifice anyone, to stop Snow. Katniss does not share this belief.


With the unexpected death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played Plutarch Heavensbee the Capitol's gamesmaker who joined the revolution, the producers faced a huge dilemma: what to do about his character who was so integral to the storyline? Scenes already shot with Hoffman were retained, those not yet shot, were rewritten. Moviegoers will miss him but this was handled correctly.

There is plenty of action in Mockingjay Part 2 and some frightening scenes for younger viewers. But the movie ends on a hopeful note: Katniss and Peeta share a life together and the fact that they have two children demonstrates they believe in the future. Overall a great conclusion to an excellent book and movie series.






Monday, December 21, 2015

Hotel Ruby by Suzanne Young

Seventeen-year-old Audrey Casella and her eighteen-year-old brother, Daniel, are on their way from their home in Arizona to live with their grandmother in Elko, Nevada. The decision to have Audrey and Daniel spend the summer with their nearly eighty-year-old maternal grandmother was made by their father after the "raucous party" Audrey held at home.

Like the rest of her family, Audrey is having a hard time coping with the sudden death of her mother, who was a counselor at her high school. By her own admission she "was busy self-medicating with all manner of troublesome behaviors; Daniel was retreating into avoidance and denial." Meanwhile, her father seems to have stopped living the day of Audrey's mother died. 

However on their journey to Elko, their father stops at a mysterious hotel called Hotel Ruby, hidden from the road in the trees. Ornate iron gates lead to a driveway lined with trees, a "courtyard, a circle of stone benches and statues, low manicured shrubs with tiny lights brightening everything." The actual hotel is huge - "A white stone front, huge archway with ivy crawling up the walls." Inside is even more impressive: "The lobby is an explosion of grandeur: rich wood furniture, fringed velvet fabrics, and an impossibly large chandelier hanging above it all. Paintings and tapestries decorate the walls, which must be at least three stories high."

In the hotel they meet Kenneth, the concierge, who on the surface seems friendly. Audrey's father asks for three rooms just for the night. Kenneth tells Audrey's father that he and Daniel can have rooms on the sixth floor, while Audrey's room will be on the thirteenth floor. After learning about the various amenities available at the hotel, Daniel decides to join the ongoing Anniversary Party-1937 while Audrey and her father take the elevator to their rooms.

Audrey finds the atmosphere of the thirteenth floor mysterious and "heavy. Like the air is too thick." But her gorgeous room quickly removes any ominous feelings she might have. Audrey returns to the lobby and following the music discovers the grand ballroom where there is a large party in progress. Like the rest of the hotel, the ballroom is magnificent. "The room is three stories tall, with massive chandeliers, golds and yellows splashed through the room, heavy deep-red drapes framing the doorway. On the walls are panels of intricate tapestries, gold frames." At the party Audrey meets dapper Elias Lange whom she finds herself drawn to. However, it appears that Elias has a girlfriend when he is angrily confronted by Catherine, a beautiful but somewhat cynical woman of Audrey's age. Elias offers to take Audrey on a tour of the hotel, but that doesn't happen when Kenneth questions Audrey, telling her the party is invite only and firmly requesting she leave the ballroom.

Back in her room on the thirteenth floor, Audrey notices the faint but continuously playing background music which she cannot quite place. Investigation of the thirteenth floor only creeps her out with its chilliness and vacant rooms. In the morning Daniel comes to Audrey's room. She learns that he received an invitation to the ballroom party but hasn't gone yet. Instead, he spent the night with a beautiful but strange blonde girl, walking the hallways of the Ruby. That girl turns out to be Catherine, Elias's friend. At breakfast Audrey notices her father looking markedly better. Unexpectedly, he decides they will stay another two nights. As they are eating breakfast Audrey suddenly sees their waitress, Tanya, with blood oozing from her side. The vision is only momentary but very upsetting to Audrey who quickly brushes it off as her imagination. Later on Audrey meets up with Elias who convinces her to let him show her around the Ruby.

During their tour, Elias is vague about why he is staying at the Ruby. When they meet Daniel in the lobby, he complains that he can't get a cellphone signal. They also meet the housekeeper, Lourdes Fuller, who has just returned from leave. Lourdes is upset that Elias has taken Audrey to the basement, fearing that this will make Kenneth, who is in charge of the Ruby, angry and that she will be punished again. Lourdes seems upset when she learns where Audrey's room is located. Lourdes takes Audrey back upstairs and invites her to a party on the rooftop of the pool to celebrate her return to the Ruby.

At dinner that night, Audrey notes the remarkable change in her father. "His wavy salt-and-pepper hair is tamed with gel or mousse, making it flat and old-fashioned. He's clean-shaven, rosy cheeked. But strangest of all, he's interested in our lives again." Her father informs them that he has now "received an invitation to the party in the ballroom tonight."  Daniel plans to attend the party that night, but Audrey cannot as she still does not have an invite. The family dinner does not go well however when her father brings up Audrey's irresponsible behaviour that led to her and Daniel being sent away for the summer. Audrey and Daniel leave with Audrey going to the rooftop party with Lourdes. Many of the Ruby's staff are in attendance including the waitress, Tanya, the valet, Jerome, Joshua and also Elias. When she suggests that Elias skip the ballroom party, Tanya reminds Elias that there are rules they must follow to avoid being punished. Elias promises to meet Audrey after the party.

Lourdes tells Audrey the story of the Ruby and the fire that destroyed the ballroom on its first anniversary, killing sixty-seven guest who were locking in the ballroom to prevent the fire from spreading. The hotel was rebuilt and "In honor of those who perished, the Hotel Ruby holds a party every night in that ballroom." At the party Audrey learns that the workers have house rules: "No talk of work in the off-hours,...no talk of Kenneth, no talk of our lives outside of the Ruby." 

The group decides to initiate Audrey by scaring her with talk of ghosts and taking her to the memorial buried deep in the forest surrounding the Ruby. After the scary situation, Audrey notices her arm hurts again but she refuses to take the pills Lourdes gives her. Instead Audrey goes to the lobby and confronts Kenneth about not having an invitation to the party. He tells her to get some rest and then points out the bleeding gash on her forehead. Completely freaked by this, Audrey notices she can barely walk and sees the blood on the handkerchief. But once in the elevator, her head looks fine. This event completely unsettles Audrey.

The next morning at breakfast Audrey's father apologizes for his behaviour at dinner the night before and tries to assure her that things are now going to be fine. He tells Audrey that Daniel was also at the party but didn't want to be there and left early with Catherine. Daniel arrives for breakfast, disheveled and in obvious pain. He tells Audrey he blacked out after leaving the party and he now feels like his head is split in two. When Audrey looks at him, she is horrified at what she sees. Neither Daniel nor her father see what Audrey sees, further upsetting her. This experience along with her seeing Tanya bleeding from her side leave Audrey now questioning what exactly is going on. Little does she know the reality of what has happened to her and her family and what the Hotel Ruby really is.

Discussion

Hotel Ruby is a novel with a fascinating premise that almost works except for the fact that the clues to the mystery of the hotel and to what is happening to the Audrey and her family are easy to discover. The Casella family is struggling to deal with the death of their mother and wife; both children are acting out and their father is unable to function as a parent and therefore provide a base for them. Instead of seeking help, the father decides to place the children with their grandmother but nothing is revealed about what he plans for himself. On the trip to the grandmother's home, he crashes the car, fatally wounding everyone.

This sets the stage for the family to enter the Hotel Ruby, by all appearances a normal hotel but one with a ghastly history; the deaths of dozens of people deliberately sacrificed to save the hotel during a terrible fire. In fact, the Ruby is haunted by those who died during the fire of 1937. Even worse, the ghosts who work in the hotel are controlled by a very evil ghost, Kenneth, who runs the Ruby on their plane of existence and who has the power to punish them by returning them to the state they were in just before they died. While everyone else is willing to go along with this, the rebellious character of Audrey leads her to push back against Kenneth.

Unlike her brother and father, Audrey is not yet dead, existing on thirteenth floor, able to interact with the ghosts and able to see the living. However, Audrey doesn't remember the accident and believes that they are all alive and have simply stopped at the Hotel Ruby. As time passes, through Audrey's narration, astute readers begin to pick up on the many clues that are peppered throughout the front of the novel as to what really happens at Hotel Ruby.

The hints start early, when the Casella's arrive at the hotel on their journey to Elko. Audrey notices immediately that "There's a haggard desk attendant in the corner, tapping the computer keys while he surfs the Internet. He doesn't even life his head to acknowledge us. I clear my throat to get his attention, but when he still doesn't respond, I sigh..." This seems to suggest that the attendant doesn't actually see Audrey and her family.

The concierge hints that people rarely check out of the hotel suggesting it is something other than what it appears to be. This is also echoed by Joshua at the rooftop party when he states, "At the Ruby...where you can stay tonight. Or stay forever." These hints continue as Audrey is separated from her father and Daniel, in a room on the thirteenth floor - floor that often isn't acknowledged in hotels. The hotel does not seem to have clocks and they are unable to get cell service despite seeing others use their phones.

Audrey also begins experiencing various unexplained transient physical problems. When she gets out of bed the first morning she notes that her "ankle buckles under my weigh, and I stagger back onto the bed." Her arm begins to hurt at the rooftop party,"an ache starts in my arm, deep in the bone." Kenneth reveals to her the bloody gash on her head. She also begins seeing terrible wounds on various people; first her waitress,Tanya, who has a bloody spot on her side and then her brother Daniel, who has a ghastly head wound. Strangely Audrey never mentions these sights to anyone - even her family.

However, the single most important clue involves the invitation to the party in the ballroom. It's not subtle at all. First Daniel, then Audrey's father receive invitations to the ballroom. These invitations really mean they have died. Audrey has not received an invitation and when she presses Kenneth for one he tells her that only the hotel can get her one.

The assignment of their hotel rooms also foretells each of their fates: Daniel and their father are placed on the sixth floor indicating that they were close to death when they checked into the Hotel Ruby. Audrey however, is placed on the thirteenth floor where surviving souls eventually return to the living.

The reality of Hotel Ruby is revealed in Chapter 17 when Audrey finds herself dying on the road two miles from the Ruby. she realizes she has been in a car accident and becomes determined to save her father and Daniel. However, once back in the Ruby she comes to learn that this is impossible.

Eventually she does receive an invitation leading Lourdes to explain what is happening. "Your body is dying, and if you die here, you stay here forever. You'll be trapped in the Ruby with us. The invitation is symbolic. It's letting go." However, readers will already know this - Lourdes is merely confirming their understanding.

Tanya tells her that because she hasn't yet used her invitation, Audrey can still return home. She can live, but living will mean leaving Daniel and her father here to live on a different plane of reality under Kenneth's tyranny. Tanya tells her she and her sister experienced the same situation and that Daniel will understand if Audrey leaves.This leads Audrey to sacrifice her chance to live in order to help her family and those at the Ruby. She decides she doesn't want her life. To Audrey, staying at the Ruby with her brother and her father offer her the chance to be a family again and to heal from the loss of her mother. She feels her life is irretrievably broken, filled with guilt over falling out of love with her boyfriend Ryan and grief over her mother, Helen's sudden death at age forty-three. Audrey believes Hotel Ruby offers her hope.

"My father waits with Daniel, both looking heart-broken. Despite that, seeing them together overwhelms me with a sense of hope. Hope for us. Now that Kenneth is gone, there is no fear. I have my family. Those words are everything: I have my family."

The wealth of hints leads to a climax that is less than exciting; Audrey faces a choice that will either lead her to reclaim her life or to follow her family into eternity at the Ruby. In some ways, the ending was disappointing and depressing. A young girl so overwhelmed with the death of her mother and then the death of her father and brother, chooses reject all the possibilities a full life might give her and to die. She sees no hope in living instead finding hope in being a ghost trapped in a hotel, attending a party in perpetuity. What kind of existence is this?

Although Hotel Ruby is not as suspenseful as one might wish for, the novel is engaging, beginning with its appealing cover and the interesting hook to draw readers in. Recommended for younger teens who like a light paranormal novel.

Book Details:

Hotel Ruby by Suzanne Young
New York: Simon Pulse 2015
281 pp.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Road To You by Alecia Whitaker

The Road To You is the second installment in Whitaker's Wildflower series about fictional country music star, Bird Barrett.

Bird's debut album, Wildflower, has been out for two months and has been selling well. Signed by Dan Silver of Open Highway Records, Bird's days are organized by her publicist, Anita, who guides her through appearances. She also has a stylist, Amanda, a hair stylist, Tammy and a make-up artist, Sam traveling with her.

The story opens as Bird, her father/manager, her mother Aileen and her two brothers, Dylan and Jacob, jet to Omaha where Bird is the new opening act for country superstar, Jolene Taylor. During the flight Bird reads online that Kayelee Ford, who was signed by Randall Strong of Great American Music, has a hot first single. Just like Bird, Kayelee is a promising new country singer. She is also shocked to discover that a tabloid has done a side-by-side comparison of her and Kayelee, in an attempt to create a rivalry between the two singers.

In Omaha, Bird meets and practices with her back-up band. Grateful to have the opportunity to open for Jolene, Bird attempts to thank her but finds Jolene somewhat distant. Bird's best friend, Stella Crossley, shows up along with her mother, Shannon who has mentored Bird, to watch her set. Missing Adam, the guy she fell in love with back home and gave up in order to pursue her music career, Bird has Stella text him just before going on stage. Adam responds by wishing her well. Her first opening is a great success leaving Bird completely overwhelmed. As she's recovering backstage she briefly encounters a handsome roadie. Bird and her mother also meet a famous country singer, Bonnie McLain. Bonnie advises Bird about life as a star telling her "Everybody loves you, but nobody knows you....It's just very important that through it all, you remember who you really are."

The next day Bird meets the roadie again at lunch and learns his name is Kai Chandler. Bird and Kai immediately connect over their love of music. Kai's easy going manner sets Bird at ease. From Omaha Bird and her entourage head out as part of Jolene's Sweet Home Tour to Los Angeles. Kai who is from L.A. gives Bird a list of places to visit when she arrives.

In L.A. Anita suggests to Bird that she consider moving to the city for part of the year so as to open up more music opportunities. Later on both Dan and Anita suggest to to Bird that she consider hiring a real manager to replace her dad. Dan also believes Bird should move to L.A. so she can eventually transition from country to mainstream. Bird is reluctant to consider any of their suggestions though, becoming upset about replacing her father.

At her first red carpet event, a film premiere that features one of her songs, Bird meets the leading actors, Jason Samuels and Devyn Delaney. Devyn and Jason were an item until only a few weeks ago. Bird is star struck over Devyn and her knowledge of people in Hollywood and quickly begins to realize that LA is definitely not Nashville.

Bird's relationship with Kai begins to heat up and she begins to slip more and more into the L.A. scene. But with all the stardom, the sudden wealth and publicity can Bird still hold on to who she really is?

Discussion

While the first novel, Wildflower focused on Bird's attempts to break into the country music scene, the second novel focuses on her life as a blossoming country music artist and the good and bad that brings with it.

In The Road To You, Bird must learn how to navigate the world of stardom. Through the character of Bird, Whitaker portrays the life of a rising music star including the many difficulties young artists experience. Bird quickly begins to experience first hand how being in the spotlight impacts her life. When her new friend, actress Devyn Delaney takes a picture of Bird holding a glass of champagne and posts it online, it causes some fallout for Bird. Her father is upset, fearing it will hurt her image and her rival takes advantage of the picture to criticize her. Bird defends herself, knowing she did nothing wrong even though the photo seems to show her drunk. Bird tells her father, "I did make the smart decision not to drink and yeah, it looks bad and I'm sorry, Dad. I really am. But you can tell Dan and Anita and Mom and stupid Kayalee Ford and whoever else cares so much about my life that you know the truth. I didn't get drunk last night. I didn't."

Bird begins to realize how difficult it is to maintain a relationship with someone. Her relationship with Kai takes off very quickly when they are on tour together but once he leaves and she's home first in Nashville and then in Los Angeles, the distance and the difference in their lives and ages work against them. Complicating things is the realization that Bird still has feelings for Adam.

She also starts to realize how easy it is to be influenced by others. Devyn takes Bird shopping on Rodeo Drive. At first Bird is reluctant to buy anything. "I'm eager to join in the fun - hey, why not? -- until I see the price tags. Some of this stuff costs four times as much as we'd make for a Barrett Family Band gig...and that had to feed five people!...So I resist the urge to shop for myself and try to be a good audience for Devyn without admitting to her that my parents would go nuts if I dropped this kind of change on my wardrobe." However later on, Devyn convinces Bird to spend the money that she has earned. Devyn tells her "It's not about needing anything, Bird. It's about celebrating your success." When Bird tells her her parents would kill her for spending this kind of money Devyn tells her "It's your money...And you're working your butt off for it, too." In the end, Bird drops nine thousand dollars on clothing, shoes and purses, much to the shock of her parents. Bird must deal with her parents disappointment. 


Bird begins to experience the competitive nature of the music industry as exemplified by the tabloids creating a rivalry between herself and Kaylee Ford who was signed by the producer Bird turned down. Adam brings some perspective to the situation when he tells her that Kayelee is not responsible for what is happening and that her label has pitted the two of them against each other.  He reminds Bird that her parents have put enormous pressure on Kayelee and that this has created a strong fear of failing in her.  "And I just don't see how the bad blood helps either of you," he says, shrugging. "Seems like a waste of energy and a huge distraction to me." The situation is made worse by the fact that the one person she thought was her friend - Devyn sets her up for a confrontation with Kayelee at a friend's New Years Eve party.

One strong theme in this novel is that of friendship. Both Stella Crossley and Adam demonstrate that they are Bird's true friends. While Devyn gossips about Kayelee and manipulates Bird into a confrontation with her rival, Stella is there to try to encourage Bird to step back and to leave the party. Similarly Adam encourages Bird to "not get lost in it" referring to the constant scrutiny.

However, the novel closes with Bird beginning to regain her balance, setting the stage for a highly anticipated third novel. Look for Bird to restart her relationship with Adam, to become friends with Kayelee and to come to terms with her life as a celebrity.

Readers will enjoy Whitaker continuing to present Bird Barrett as a positive role model; she's honest, she cares about the people around her, she remains true to her belief that she wants to wait for the person who will be her life partner and she struggles to remain true to who she is.



Book Details:

The Road To You by Alecia Whitaker
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2015
337 pp.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

From the author of comes a well-written piece of historical fiction about the Berlin Wall. A Night Divided is set in 1961 East Berlin, which is under the control of the Soviet Union.

Background

Near the end of World War II, the West and Soviet Union had already agreed to divide the city of Berlin, which was the capital of the Third Reich and also its cultural capital. As a result of the Yalta Conference which took place from February 4 to 11, 1945, Germany and Berlin would be divided into four zones that included the Soviet Union, France, Britain and the United States.

Stalin raced Soviet troops to Berlin hoping to conquer the city before the Allied troops arrived. He was likely intent upon capturing the city so as to obtain key German research on the atomic bomb. The race to develop the first atomic bomb was between America, Germany and Russia.

The city itself had already been bombed to rubble by British and American warplanes as well as by the Red Army. When Soviet troops finally entered Berlin, they used raped over one hundred thousand women, including Russian women who were prisoners in Nazi camps. On May 2, 1945, Berlin fell and the Germans in the city surrendered to Marshall Zukhov.The Soviet army occupied all of Berlin at first but turned over the areas of the city that were agreed upon earlier to be controlled by the American, British and French. The four powers shared alternating control of the city but as time relations between the communist Soviets and the West deteriorated. This resulted in the Soviets leaving the arrangement they had with the West and implementing independent control over East Berlin.This was the beginning of the Cold War which started in 1947.

Eventually East Berlin was became the capital of East Germany - the portion of the Germany now under Soviet control and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) - a Communist nation was formed on October 7, 1949. West Germany was formed on May 23, 1949. A year long blockade by the Soviets of West Berlin in 1948 was an attempt by the communists to gain control over all of Berlin. Fortunately they did not succeed.

While life in western portion of postwar Germany began to improve, life in areas occupied by the Communists did not. There were food shortages and lack of democratic rights. Determined to stop the huge migration of people, many of them young professionals, to the West, the East German government decided to close the border and erect a wall separating East and West Berlin. The East German government began building the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. Named the "anti-fascist protection wall" the beginnings of the wall were initially erected during the night of August 12th, as a barbed wire fence. A concrete block wall was then constructed. The Berlin Wall was actually two walls separated by a large space known as the "death strip". Determined to leave the repressive regime, many tried to escape to the West. Some were smuggled out in cars, while others tunneled beneath the Berlin wall. This article in the British newspaper, Independent, tells about some of the tunnel escapes.

The Berlin wall was eventually dismantled in 1989 after a series of events that began earlier in the year in Hungary. After opening its border with East Germany, refugees began flooding into the country. This led to similar events in Czechoslovakia and more refugees leaving East Germany. Eventually protests brought about the dismantling of the wall, which began on June 13, 1990 and the reunification of Germany.


Below is a newsreel from Universal on the first anniversary of the Berlin Wall:
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall



The Battle for Berlin in World War II

Synopsis

Eight year old Gerta Lowe lives with her older brothers, fourteen-year old Fritz, ten year old Dominic and her parents in an apartment in East Berlin. Her father, Aldous, is a member of a resistance group fighting for democratic rights.On Sunday, August 13, 1961, Gerta and her family awake to find a fence of barbed wire has been placed between East and West Berlin. Her father and Dominic, have been in the west for two nights and are now trapped on the west side of the fence.

Their neighbour, Herr Krause who lived next door with his invalid wife, came to their house two nights earlier warning the Lowe's that they should leave for the west while they still were able to do so. People have been quietly disappearing, fleeing to the west and the promise of a better life. The Russians control the eastern half of Germany and the capital city of Berlin, with Britain, America and France control the west.  Gerta's family would have left for the west months ago if her mother had agreed. But Gerta's mother does not want to leave the life they have built in East Berlin, nor her ailing and widowed mother. She is angry that Herr Krause has put these dangerous ideas into her husband's head. But Herr Krause suggests that Aldous go to the west to find an apartment before they leave. Gerta's mama agrees to this and they decide Dominic will accompany Aldous. Now they are trapped on the other side.

People still continue to find their way out - sometimes running over the barbed wire, swimming the canals. Soon the government began putting up concrete topped with glass shards and building watch towers manned by guards. While Greta and Fritz are shocked, their mother encourages them to accept their life as it is now. For four years this is exactly what those around them did. But Gerta, now twelve has never stopped noticing the wall. And a visit by the Stasi, the German secret police, two years ago, made Gerta and her family nervous. In their hopes to discourage the Stasi from spying on them, their family did everything a good East German family would do.

One day while walking to school with her best friend Anna Warner, Gerta notices her brother Dominic standing "on a platform behind the wall in West Berlin." Overcome with joy, Gerta waves. But her happiness soon turns to dread when she and Anna are accosted by a border guard named Muller. Muller wants to know who Gerta was waving at but she doesn't tell him. At home that night Gerta tells her mama and Fritz about seeing Dominic. Instead of being thrilled at what happened, Mama tells Gerta that she's not supposed to be watching the wall. Later on Fritz and Gerta spend time in the bedroom talking about the wall while playing a Beatles album. Fritz informs Gerta that Anna's older brother, Peter, is planning to escape to the west that night. No one knows but Fritz and the group of students from the west who are planning to smuggle him out in their car.

On the walk to school the next morning, Gerta spies not only her brother Dominic, but also her father. And her father begins behaving strangely, pantomiming a favourite folk song he used to sing to Gerta when she was younger. The part of the song he acts out refers to a farmer working in his garden digging, except her father focuses on the farmer digging with a shovel. All of this leaves Gerta puzzled and struggling to figure out just what her father was trying to tell her. As her friend Anna points out, "He wouldn't have you take the risk just to show you a dance." Soon Gerta determines that her father wants her to dig. But she has no idea why or where.

That night Gerta learns from Mama that Anna's brother Peter was shot trying to escape. Fritz has not returned home from work and now Gerta fears for her brother. They learn from the foreman at his work that Fritz was taken away by the Stasi because they believe he was involved in Peter's escape attempt. The next morning Gerta awakes to see Fritz has returned home but he also reveals to her that their apartment must be bugged because he told no one else about Peter's planned escape. Later when they are away from the apartment, Fritz reveals that they Stasi showed him the huge file they have on their father as well as the file they have on him. He has been branded an "enemy of the state' and this means that Fritz will never be able to attend university nor get a good job. Instead he will be placed into the military. He also tells Gerta that they have a file on her too.

Peter's death breaks apart Gerta and Anna who believes that Fritz helped with his escape attempt. Meanwhile their neighbour, Herr Krause is attacked by the Stasi. When Gerta tries to intervene she is accosted by one of the Stasi but is saved by Fritz who recognizes him as a former classmate. That classmate is now cruel and heartless - an indication of the man Fritz will become if he is forced into the military. Determined to find out more about the idea of digging, Greta manages to send a message in sight of the wall, asking her father where the digging is to occur. Days later she receives a drawing of a building from Anna. It takes Greta time but she soon learns where that building is located; it is now part of the Berlin Wall with the front of the building inside the Death Strip. Knowing this is the place her father wants her to dig, Greta investigates the building, not understanding exactly why her father wants her to dig. Until she realizes that he wants her to tunnel beneath the Berlin Wall to escape. It will take all of Greta's resourcefulness and courage to undertake this task, one that will place her, her family and those who learn of the tunnel's existence in great danger.


Discussion

A Night Divided is very good historical fiction because Jennifer Nielsen effectively conveys to her readers what life was like in Communist East Berlin in the early 1960's. Since young readers today have no memory of the Berlin Wall or the Cold War, this novel could have benefited from either an Author's Note at the end to provide some detailed context for the story, or a brief prologue introducing the setting of the story. Their absence is all the more noticeable given that Scholastic Press is the publisher. The photographs at the front of the novel showing the Death Strip, the barbed wire fence that was the precursor of the Berlin wall and a map showing Berlin and the wall are wonderful introductions to the setting of the story.

Despite this, Nielsen does a good job of portraying what it was like to live under Communist rule in East Berlin and what the Berlin wall meant to those trapped behind it. Life in the Soviet controlled section of Berlin was not easy. Gerta mentions how people in the east noticed the growing disparity between the communist section of Berlin and West Berlin. "But Russia's promises of a better life under Communism weren't happening. As the west repaired its war damages, ours remained like unhealed scars. Their shops were full, and ours constantly faced shortages. They were growing stronger, while we leaned on Russia like a crutch, pretending to be every bit as strong."

Life in East Berlin is rife with rules and little freedom. After the death of Peter, Fritz determines that their apartment is bugged. They have no freedom to express even their thoughts in the privacy of their own home. If they resist, they can do so only in their minds.

Everyone watches everyone else and yet everyone pretends they are not looking. The neighbours become informants in the hopes of benefiting economically and socially. At twelve, Gerta is already keenly aware of this, as evidenced by her behaviour towards Frau Eberhart, "who patrolled the front of the apartment building better than most of the guards in the watchtowers."

Nielsen also manages to capture the terror the East German Secret Police, the Stasi, inflicted on the people of Berlin and their capacity to completely ruin those who opposed them. The Stasi held detailed files on enormous numbers of East Germans and had no qualms about killing those who opposed communism. Their treatment of people is exemplified by Herr Krause who is eventually murdered by the Stasi. And it is the situation of Herr Krause which eventually convinces Fritz that he cannot remain in East Berlin. Fritz begins to realize that his life in East Berlin will become unbearable, with no hope for a further education or a good job. He knows that once he is forced into the military he will become like his friend Viktor. He will think and act like the Stasi. He's so desperate to get out that he considers swimming the dangerous, fast flowing Spree River. We begin to see why a young person might become so desperate that they would risk their life to escape.

Overall, A Night Divided was a fascinating tale that informs readers about an era almost forgotten - the start of the Cold War and the closing of Eastern Europe behind what was soon to be called the Iron Curtain. It's good to see historical fiction being written about events not normally the subject of a novel.


Book Details:

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
New York: Scholastic Press      2015
317 pp.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The Marvels begins as a graphic novel - a story told mainly through the use of beautifully crafted pencil sketches.

The story begins in 1766, with a ship, Kraken, on the sea. A young girl tied to the mast is saved from a dragon by an angel brandishing a sword and a glowing lantern. It is part of a play, The Angel and the Dragon performed for the sailors by two young brothers. However, during the performance, the sailors do not notice a terrible storm overtaking their ship. The Kraken is struck by lightning and the ship sinks. The older brother is badly injured in a fall from the ship's rigging. The two boys and their dog survive the sinking and wash up on an island where the older brother dies from his injuries. After burying his brother, the younger one lights a bonfire on the island. However, this causes the trees on the island to catch fire. Terrified that this would be his end, the younger brother is shocked to see a ship on the horizon. The twelve year old boy whose name is Billy Marvel is brought to London where his story is the talk of the town. Watching the construction of the Royal Theatre, Billy tells the workers his story and inspires the young man painting the ceiling to paint his brother as an angel on the dome.

Billy stays on as a worker at the theatre, growing into a young man. After the tenth anniversary celebration at the theatre, Billy discovers a basket left outside the theatre's back doors. The basket contains an abandoned baby boy with a note to raise him to be a good man. Billy adopts the baby who is brought into the theatre community and eventually becomes a child actor. His name is Marcus Marvel and he grows up to be a famous theatre actor. On June 10, 1800, Marcus marries fellow actor Catherine Vine and in 1801 they have a baby boy, Alexander.

Alexander Marvel too becomes an accomplished actor, but his career is filled with brilliant performances as well as many unplanned antics including jumping offstage during a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream to punch the father of a crying child. His grandfather, Billy passes away in 1829. In 1835, Alexander returns to the stage after a stint in jail for the attempted murder of a stage manager.

In 1836, his illegitimate child his left at the theatre by the mother. Named Oberon Marvel, he too becomes a great actor. Oberon and his wife Eleanor become famous, he especially for his role as King Leontes in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. On November 10, 1888, Eleanor gives birth to a son, Leontes Marvel. Meanwhile, the baby's grandfather, Alexander Marvel who is believed to be insane, has disappeared. Many people believe he is living beneath the stage at the theatre. Unlike the previous generations of Marvels, Leontes is not interested in performing. He misses his cues and loves to draw, all the while enraging his father. This eventually leads to Leontes being banished from the theatre. Leontes discovers his grandfather, Alexander alive and living beneath the Royal Theatre stage. He tells Leontes about his family's past and gives him a medallion with a nightingale on it. After this Leontes decides to run away and writes his parents a letter telling them and asking them to care for Alexander. However, as he is leaving, the Royal Theatre catches fire. Realizing Alexander is trapped in the theatre, Leontes rushes back to save him and is himself trapped. The story panels end at this point and the prose narrative begins.

It is 1990 and a few days after Christmas. Joseph Jervis has run away from his boarding school,  St. Anthony's. He is trying to find his Uncle Albert Nightingale's home at 18 Folgate Street in London but the wind blew the map he and his friend, Blink, made for him to use. On the streets of London, Joseph encounters a boy chasing his white dog. The boy tells Joseph that 18 Folgate Street is near where he lives. Joseph agrees to help the boy find his dog in exchange for him helping to bring Joseph to Folgate. Along the way Joseph learns the boy's name is Frankie. When he loses Frankie and believes he is lost, Frankie yells to him to follow the ship. This turns out to be a ship weather vane on the top of a house - his uncle's house on Folgate.

Peering into the house Joseph sees a home done up like something out of the nineteenth century. Frankie reappears chasing his dog and together they watch hidden while Albert Nightingale clears his walk of snow. Joseph eventually introduces himself to Albert and asks if he can stay with him. Albert refuses but tells Joseph to go into the house, change his wet clothes and warm himself by the fire. Joseph does this and sees rooms in the house set up in a tableau format - a small picture of a ship named Kraken, the dining room table set with a half-eaten meal, a room with a Christmas tree and opened presents, toys on the stairs, candles in the windows.

In the bedroom, Joseph finds a small box with a photograph and a drawing of an angel. Exhausted he falls asleep.  In the morning Joseph asks Uncle Albert if he can meet his wife and children. Albert tells him he lives alone with a cat named Madge. Albert tells Joseph he called St. Anthony's and his headmaster is very angry with him because he sets fires. However, Joseph tells Albert the fire was an accident. He was writing a letter to his best friend "Blink" who left St. Anthony's several months ago after his father came to get him. Joseph wants Albert to help him find Blink. Albert makes Joseph promise he will not set his house on fire.

The next morning Joseph comes downstairs to find that Frankie's dog has darted into Albert's house and made a big mess, breaking glasses and plates. Instead of cleaning up the dishes, Joseph is astonished to see Albert replacing the broken plates, filling the glasses and returning a dropped napkin to the floor. The presence of ships all through the house including a tattoo on Albert's arm, as well as the unusual rooms leave Joseph with many questions.

Joseph stays with Albert, helping him clean and set up his rooms each day. One night Albert dresses in a faded tuxedo and goes out for the night. He is driven in a nineteenth-century horse-drawn carriage. Frankie surprises Joseph at the house and in his attempts to get him to leave, discovers that Frankie is a girl and also causes some of the dishes on the table to break. Frankie asks Joseph about his uncle and also why he ran away from school. She also tells him that she believes her older brother, Marcus Matthew Bloom is somehow connected to Albert and his house. She tells Joseph that she has found some of Marcus's things in the attic. While cleaning up the mess they've made the two children find various items that lead them to question who Albert is and who lived in the house. Joseph's attempts to uncover the secrets of his Uncle Albert's life lead him to understand his own life and what that what he might want.


Discussion

The Marvels is a beautiful book, complete with a gorgeous cover in blue and gold, exquisite illustrations that form over 400 pages of this massive novel and an engaging story. Selznick has successfully created this type of format for juvenile fiction - stories told separately in illustrations and then in text.

The dominant theme in The Marvels revolves around what constitutes a family. Most of the regular families in the prose part of the novel are seriously flawed - a theme that's hinted at in the artwork in the first part with Leontes troubled relationship with his father. Joseph Jervis's parents are wealthy and occupied such that they rarely have time for their only child. Joseph set fire to his toy chest which led to his parents sending him to boarding school in England. Lonely and unable to fit in, Joseph runs away to find a long-lost uncle, Albert Nightingale who lives in London.

Early in Joseph's narration the reader learns, "Joseph's parents didn't really  know anything about him. They lived their lives of great privilege, with their servants and their money and their travels that didn't include him." When he enters Uncle Albert's home, Joseph remembers fondly a visit with his grandfather when he was younger. After returning home from that visit, Joseph attempted to recreate the warm fire they shared at his grandfather's home, except he did this with matches and his toy chest. His parents, not taking the time to listen nor to understand that this was done over the loneliness and sadness he felt at the death of his beloved grandfather, punish him and ship him off to boarding school in Switzerland. Joseph recognized that his situation is unusual when he acknowledges that "He was the youngest boy the school had ever taken." All of these statements show that Joseph is unloved and has a dysfunctional relationship with his parents. All he wants is a family who loves him. This is never more evident than when he walks across the rooftops of the connected houses and sees a girl (who is Frankie) reading in her bedroom. "Her room looked cosy and warm, and Joseph wondered if her parents were awake downstairs, reading side by side in their bedroom or preparing tomorrow's lunch for her."

Likewise, Albert and his sister Sylvia, Joseph's mother, had their family break apart when their mother left their father. This left Sylvia with many family responsibilities and Albert retreated to a dream world made up of stories. Sylvia was determined to find a wealthy man to marry so she could have a life of comfort and ease. She was able to accomplish this. Albert, however was more than just eccentric - he was a homosexual. Albert created his own family, first taking in Frances's older and wayward brother, Marcus, helping him to straighten out his life, and then with his partner, Billy Marvel. With Billy, Albert recreated his stories in their home, telling them to Billy every night and eventually recreating them in the various rooms . Billy died of AIDS, leaving Albert to live in a house of filled with memories and his stories unfinished. His new definition of family gives Joseph the hope that someday he too can make his own "family". And in fact this is just what happens as Joseph is shown at the end living happily with his friend Blink and a baby.

It's unlikely this massive tome will appeal much to children. The first part of the novel told in pictures is quite lengthy. There's absolutely no doubt that Selznick is a gifted artist - his drawings are simply beautiful. However it takes a long time for Selznick to get into the second part of his story, although once he does, he weaves all the lose ends together. The Marvels is more likely to be read by parents who will enjoy the artwork, the clever writing with its use of Shakespeare themes, the beautiful cover and gold embossed pages. Whether they accept the messages the book promotes will depend largely on their values and beliefs. And one of those messages is that family is a fluid concept not defined by blood relatives but by any set of individuals who come together and who love one another. In The Marvels, the presentation of this view of family is done subtly and as such, the book is a brilliant piece of marketing.

Book Review:

The Marvels by Brian Selznick
New York: Scholastic Press       2015
669 pp.