Thursday, June 30, 2016

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose

Blue Birds is a historical novel-in-verse that tells the story of the English who come to settle on Roanoke Island in Virginia in the 1500's. Written for nine to twelve year olds, the story is told from alternate points of view: twelve year old English settler Alis and thirteen year old Roanoke native, Kimi.

The novel begins in July 1587 with Alis, her family part of a group of 117 English settlers having arrived off the coast of North America after a three month journey. She's left behind her best friend, Joan, and the suffocating smells of rot and filth of London. The pilot of their ship, Simon Ferdinando has taken them to the island of Roanoke, miles from where they were supposed to land. Governor John White has done nothing about it, angering many of the settlers. As Alis, her heavily pregnant mother and father board the pinnace to travel from the ship to shore, she holds the wooden blue bird her Uncle Samuel carved and gave her years before. Alis expects her uncle to be on shore to greet them.

The English settlers are accompanied to the land which they have named Virginia in honour of the English Queen Elizabeth, by Manteo, a member of the Croatoan tribe. No one greets them, not even Alis's Uncle Samuel. After George Howe Sr. and Roger Bailie investigate, the Governor reveals that the settlement has been abandoned for some time and that they have found a building burned to the ground and the bones of a man. He decides that they will stay at the settlement through the fall and winter and in the spring sail to Chesapeake to establish the City of Ralegh. Arlis's uncle is no where to be found and eventually her father tells her that it's likely he has been killed by the Indians.

The arrival of the English is watched by Kimi a young girl belonging to the Roanoke tribe. She remembers the first white people who came, men only bearing gifts and tools and who took Wanchese and Manteo back to their country. The second group brought illness and drought, beheading Kimi's father, Wingina who was the weroance or leader of the Roanoke. The third group was killed by Wanchese. Kimi is surprised to see women and children with the English men. She quickly notices a girl her own age.

Kimi tells Wanchese about the women and children but he tells her it is not her concern. Kimi reveals that she misses her sister Alawa intensely. She knows the presence of women mean the English mean to stay and that they must force them to leave "before their roots take hold."

The English set about restoring the settlement which contains  a few cottages, animal pens, a barracks which was used by the English soldiers, a jail, a chapel, an armory and a forge surrounded by four earthen walls.  The few women, Mrs. Archard and Mrs. Dare who is the daughter of Governor White and who is also pregnant, want the Governor to sail to Chesapeake.

One day Kimi comes upon Alis who has stolen away from the settlement, in the forest. Seeing Kimi and the spiral markings on her bare arms, Alis flees in fear, dropping the bird carving of her Uncle Samuel which Kimi finds and considers to be Alis's montoac. George Dare, son of George Dare Sr. tells Alis he has seen the girl in the forest but Alis refuses to admit seeing her. Alis and Kimi meet again in the forest and this time they study each other before Kimi speaks angrily to Alis in a language she cannot understand. This causes Alis to run away a second time.

In the settlement Alis is assigned to care for Tommy and Ambrose, Mrs. Archard's children. Alis cannot trust anyone with her secret - meeting the girl in the forest. Meanwhile Kimi decides to bury Alis's montoac but later finds she needs to dig it up. After five days Alis manages to return to the forest and meets Kimi. Just as their friendship begins to grow  Mr. Howe is killed by the Roanoke Indians while digging clams on the shore. Can Alis and Kimi overcome the hatred and fear their people have for one another and develop the bonds of friendship?


Caroline Starr Rose has written a beautiful, touching story based on the tragedy that is known to history as the Lost Colony. The story centers around the disastrous attempts by the English to establish a colony on the east coast of America in the late 1500's. The land the English named Virginia was inhabited by Native Americans who at first found the English friendly. However, the cultural differences between the two races proved to be almost impossible to surmount. Murders by both sides created mistrust and hatred. Into this world stepped one hundred and seventeen colonists in 1587. The author, using the known details of this historical event has created a poignant story about two girls from two very different cultures meeting and forming a bond of friendship so strong that they both try to save the other from what appears to be the inevitable war between their peoples.

Starr Rose noted in her research that there were no girls listed in the names of the passengers from the 1587 voyage, so she decided to write about one girl who might have made the journey. That character, Alis Harvie is completely fictional as is the character of Kimi. Using these two characters, the author explores the events that are known from Governor John White who returned to England with Ferdinando and creates a plausible account of what the colonist's may have done after his departure.

Alis and Kimi are caught in the war between their two races. Both girls are deeply lonely and have lost someone dear to them. Alis's beloved Uncle Samuel was likely killed by the Croatoans while Kimi's much loved older sister Alawa was killed by the English soldier. Each has a gift from their lost beloved relative; Alis a carved blue bird and Kimi a piece of ribbon her sister was given by the English.

The author's free verse focuses on showing how each race, the Roanoke and the English misunderstand one another, leading to a bitter cycle of mistrust and murder. Eventually the two races can no longer coexist and the English must leave for Croatoan

At first Kimi feels that she has been tainted by Alis's presence.

I walk to the stream,
stoop to cleanse my feet,
wash off her strangeness
as an outsider does
before entering the village.

And she wonders why she feels like the stranger in her own land. But when they meet a third time Kimi feels Alis is daring and Alis believes Kimi to be beautiful. Alis admits "Something fascinating, fragile grows between us." They touch and Kimi realizes that Alis feels like any person would.

The two girls eventually talk in their own way about what happened before Alis and her family came to Kimi's land. Alis realizes,
The English,
my countrymen,
have brought upon the Roanoke
the same fear and horror 
we feel for them.

And Kimi realizes,
The English 
have wronged us.
But there is suffering
we have also waged.

Kimi knows Alis warned the Roanoke of the impending attack by the settlers.Kimi recognizes that the attack by the English need not destroy her budding friendship with Alis.

While weeding she notes the bean and the corn grow together.
I pat the soil around the bean
trace its growth from roots
to spindly stalk interwoven with the corn

These two plants thrive together
make my people strong.
There is no reason to let my anger
uproot something good.

This beautifully crafted novel is about friendship and openness to learn about those whose way of life may be very different. The author doesn't take sides and shows how both sides contributed to a situation that made life full of fear and intolerance.

Caroline Starr Rose has included a map of Roanoke Island 1587 and provides a Glossary of the now extinct dialect of the Croatoan and Roanoke peoples as well as a detailed Author's Note explaining the history of the attempted settlement of Roanoke Island by the English.

Book Details:

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose
New York: G.P. Putnam's Son's   2015
393 pp. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Last Star by Rick Yancey

Note: those who have not read the novel should NOT visit Rick Yancey's website as there is a major spoiler by a fan on his home page.

The Last Star begins with Cassie, her little brother Sam (Nugget), the human-alien Evan Walker, Ben Parish (Zombie), Dumbo and Megan hiding out at Grace’s well stocked house. Cassie furiously confronts Evan telling him she doesn’t understand WHY the aliens killed off the human population using such cruel methods when they could have done it differently. Evan tells her that they could have lived with humans indefinitely, sharing their knowledge and bringing peace and order to the world. He tells her he wanted to do it differently but they wouldn't listen. He tells her that for ten thousand years they have had immortality. “An existence without pain, without hunger, without any physical needs at all. But immortality has a price. Without bodies, we lost the things that come with them. Things like autonomy and benevolence. Compassion.”

Ben Parish (Zombie) tells Cassie he doesn’t buy Evan’s explanations, that Ringer was right, that there is something that doesn’t add up about all this. “Ringer was right Cassie. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. He kidnaps a human body so he can murder all the unkidnapped human bodies. Then one day he decides he’d rather murder his own kind so he can save all the unkidnapped human bodies. And not just murder one or two of his kind…All of them. He wants to destroy his entire civilization, …For a girl. A girl!” Ringer didn’t understand why aliens who don’t have bodies need a planet and why they came for ours.

Ben wants to go with Dumbo to the caverns to find Ringer and Teacup. However both Cassie and Evan think he should wait until Evan blows up the mother ship. Evan tells them he needs to blow up the mother ship because on the spring equinox the ship is set to unleash bombs over the entire world that will destroy every city on Earth to complete the cleansing. This is the last step before the launch of the 5th Wave. Before the bombs are unleashed all the Silencers will be brought on the ship.

Meanwhile Ringer (Marika) who has now been enhanced with the 12th System, a nanotechnology that allows her superhuman abilities is allowed to escape the military base. Razor killed Teacup because he knew that Ringer would never leave her. He wanted her to be free to do what she needs to do. When Vosch does not come after her Ringer goes back because she believes that she needs to kill Evan Walker. Ringer knows that Vosch is human and he tells her that he is necessary to facilitate the radical intervention to save mankind. "...we were doomed to destroy ourselves and our home. The only solution was radical intervention. Destroy the human village in order to save it." Vosch tells Ringer that it wasn't enough to just destroy all of humanity, but that it had to change human nature.

He assigns another woman, Lieutenant Constance Pierce whom Ringer hates to accompany her to find Evan. In a briefing with Vosch and Pierce, Vosch reveals that a reconnaissance flight has discovered that Dumbo, Poundcake, Sullivan, Nugget, Walker and Zombie are holed up in a house about fifteen miles southeast of Urbana. However, two nights ago two people left the house heading towards the caverns. Ringer tells Vosch they are heading to the caverns to look for her. He tells Ringer that she and Pierce will be dropped in ahead of their arrival and that Pierce's job will be to bring back Evan Walker. Vosch wants Walker because his program is no longer functioning and he wants to know why. He tells Ringer once he has Walker she and her friends will be free to go. Ringer knows however that Vosch intends to kill all of them. He gives her a green capsule - a modified bomb similar to the one the child in wheat carried but six times more powerful. She refuses this at first. When Vosch asks Ringer what is the lesson of the child in the wheat, Ringer tells him that it is to kill trust and love in humans. No one can trust anyone, not even a child. "Without trust there's no cooperation. And without cooperation there's no progress. History stops." Vosch states "The answer to the human problem is the death of what makes us human."

In the C-160 Ringer tries to explain what is happening to Pierce who believes she is an alien. "Everything you think is bullshit. Who you think you are, your memories,all of it. Before you were born, they embedded a program in your brain that booted up when you hit puberty...You've been infected with a viral program that literally rewired your brain to 'remember' things that didn't happen. You aren't an alien consciousness here to wipe out humanity and colonize Earth. You're human. Like me. Like Vosch. Like everyone else. " Ringer tells Pierce that if she believes she will return to the mother ship and the 5th Wave will finish off humans she is mistaken. Instead she will be fighting the army she's created until there are no bullets to fight with. Without trust and cooperation, a perpetual Stone Age will be born which mankind will never progress out of because no one will ever trust anyone else. Constance's refusal to believe her leads Ringer to decide she has to kill Pierce and she has to kill Walker too. They are dropped in near a farmhouse and Ringer and Pierce quickly separate. Ringer experiences nausea - her second bout since returning to Vosch and she wonders if there's something wrong with the 12th System. Outside the farm, Ringer meets a priest who seems kindly enough at first. But when Ringer tells the priest she's a Silencer he attacks her. Ringer realizes that Constance was here to neutralize a Silencer. He beats Ringer and is able to penetrate into her mind discovering what happened to her, Razor and Teacup. He also tells her there is another and asks her if she knows of its existence.(This is a reference to her unborn baby.)

Back at the house, with Zombie and Dumbo gone, Cassie's little brother Sam takes an M9 Beretta he has found and hides it in the belt of his pants. Sam decides he will watch over Megan and also Evan. Evan and Cassie make love.

Meanwhile Zombie and Dumbo reach Urbana where Dumbo is shot in the back. Zombie manages to get him to a safe place, pack his wound and then sets off to find the killer. He discovers an old lady living in a boarded up room with cats. He wants to shoot her but it isn't until she attacks him that Zombie realizes he's found the Urbana Silencer. He barely survives the encounter - a cat eating old lady silencer who's been enhanced. Zombie returns to Dumbo and tells him has to leave him but promises to return.  Zombie arrives at the welcome center buildings outside the caverns where he sees a priest. After setting off a grenade, Zombie falls into a pit containing hundreds of decomposing bodies. In the pit someone calls his name and tells him to play dead. The priest peers into the pit and tells him to not be afraid, to climb out not knowing that Constance is also in the pit. She pulls the priest into the hole and blows his brains out. Out of the pit Zombie meets Constance and Ringer. Ringer lies to Zombie about how Teacup died and about who Constance really is, telling him that Constance was in the caves and that the priest began to kill people. Eventually she realized that the priest was a Silencer.

Zombie fills her in on what happened to the squad. Although Zombie is leery of Constance she wins him over by pretending to be vulnerable. They travel into Urbana and find Dumbo who has crawled out of the building Zombie left him. Dumbo dies and Zombie buries him.  Zombie wants to kill Constance but Ringer doesn't allow him even though she knows what Constance is. The three travel back to Grace's house where Constance almost immediately attempts to kill Walker. She grabs Sam when she offers him her hand to shake but takes him hostage. However Constance is killed by Sam who uses the gun hidden in his pants. Ringer wants to kill Evan but Zombie refuses and she shoots him in the thigh.

Since Constance was being tracked, Vosch knows their location and the group finds itself attacked by a Black Hawk helicopter firing hellfire. Zombie, Cassie, Sam, Megan and Evan head to the basement but Evan decides to surrender because he knows Vosch wants him. The helicopter removes Evan while three hundred meters from the house, Squad 19 is waiting to move into the house. However Ringer takes each of the kids who belong to the squad down.

Zombie watches Ringer bury the young kids and asks her what happened to her as she is no longer the person her remembers. She tells him that she is enhanced like Evan, Constance, the priest and the cat lady and that she is also pregnant - which she asks him to keep secret. Zombie brings Ringer into the basement to Cassie, Sam and Megan and tells her that Evan got on the chopper and that Ringer has killed the strike team. Ringer explains to Cassie and Zombie (Ben) what she believes has happened. She tells them that the mother ship is possibly automated and that the aliens may not even be on it and maybe never were. It's also possible that the aliens who sent the ship might even be extinct.

Cassie is not sure she believes what Ringer has told them; that alien probes found earth a few thousand years ago. After observing humans they decided that we are harmful to both ourselves and the planet and they built a mother ship. The mother ship contained bombs, drones and a viral plague. This along with the use of humans infected with a computer program would be used to wipe out ninety-nine point nine percent of Earth's population. Ringer tells her that her Silencer theory - that a computer program was downloaded into fetuses and activated at puberty to make them believe they were aliens is true and was confirmed by Vosch. What Ringer doesn't understand is why Vosch wants Evan Walker whose Silencer program malfunctioned. The next stage will be the unleashing of bombs to destroy all the cities on Earth but before that pods will be sent to pick up the Silencers. Ringer doesn't know if the pods will actually come, but she does believe that all the cities on Earth will be bombed as cities hold the memories of human civilization. A culture without memories is a dead culture.

Cassie and Ben and Ringer must now decide what to do. Cassie believes that they are now at the point where they are likely to die and that their death should be meaningful. They could flee into the wilderness, but they know eventually the 5th Wave will find them. Ringer tells them that the Black Hawk chopper will be returning to pick up the strike team. Cassie wants to hijack the Black Hawk, fly to the military base and rescue Evan Walker. She also notes this will give Ringer the chance to kill Vosch. They work out a plan, taking the uniforms from the dead strike team and their trackers so the Black Hawk will zero in on them. Before they leave, Ben finds Ringer ready to drink antifreeze to cause her to abort Razor's baby, but he refuses to allow this. He tells her he will be there for her. As the chopper returns, Ben, Sam and Megan hide under blankets so the Black Hawk won't detect their body heat and Cassie and Ringer trick their way onto the chopper. They force the pilot, Bob to fly all of them to the Ohio caverns where they leave Ben, Sam and Megan. Bob flies Cassie and Ringer towards the military base so they can be captured as planned. Ringer knows that Vosch will now be aware of the dead strike team and the commandeered chopper. Cassie and Ringer's plan is the only one that seems to offer any hope to mankind. But what will the cost be? And can they succeed in turning the tide in the war against humanity?


The Last Star is an exciting finale to the 5th Wave series by Rick Yancey. Like the previous novels in the series it is detailed, lengthy and intense. It presents readers with the fate of all the remaining characters in the novel. In the Last Star, although the cast of characters remaining has dwindled, the main characters are Cassie and Ringer. It is Ringer who learns what is really happening and who understands how the alien program has functioned, but it is Cassie who out of love for her brother Sam, makes the ultimate sacrifice. And that's the main theme of this novel, the mystery of human love and how it is humanity's most redeeming quality. It turns out, love is the one thing the aliens who were observing Earth could not understand.

Ringer's theories about what is really going on are confirmed when Evan is captured and Vosch reveals to him the truth of the alien invasion. He tells Evan that a mechanical owl visited his mother when she was pregnant with him and installed the program into his developing brain and then returned when he went through puberty to give him the 12th System. Vosch also reveals that there are no aliens on board the mother ship nor inside of him. He brags to Evan about the carefully constructed program designed to save Earth.   "It is completely automated, like your old friend here, designed by its makers after centuries of careful study and deliberation and sent to this planet to wean the human population to a sustainable level. And, of course, to keep it there indefinitely by changing human nature itself...A flawless, self-sustaining loop, an immaculate system in which trust and cooperation can never take root." The goal was to change human nature so that it would be indifferent to the suffering others.

However, unexpectedly Evan reveals a fatal flaw in the alien's plan. Evan's Silencer program, installed in him when he was still in utero seems to have failed as he did not complete his mission of killing Cassie when he found her. Vosch captures Evan because he needs to find out the cause of the failure. After running tests on Evan, Vosch realizes that love - Evan's love for Cassie is what overrode his Silencer program. "She may be right: Love may be the singularity, the inexplicable, ungovernable, ineffable mystery, impossible to predict or control, the virus that crashed a program designed by beings next to which we are no more evolved than a cockroach." And so Vosch decides that his answer to Ringer's claim will be to erase what Evan loves so that he will kill. He will remove Evan's human qualities, erase his memories of Cassie and turn him into a Silencer he was meant to be. He will be a human indifferent to the suffering of others.

Later, when Ringer is lying broken after her encounter with Evan who is now a Silencer, Vosch finds her. He tells Ringer he's been on the mother ship and that he agreed to work the program in exchange for having his consciousness preserved aboard the mother ship. He also tells Ringer that these aliens have "saved" other planets besides Earth. Vosch admits that there was no flaw in Evan's programming, that the aliens simply had no understanding of love and therefore could not develop an algorithm to deal with this factor.

When Cassie and Ringer break into the military base, they find the room where memories are downloaded into Wonderland, a program that stores memories and winnows out the weak soldiers in the 5th Wave. They hope to locate Evan by finding his memories which will tell them what happened to him here. But sifting through all the millions of downloaded memories to find Evan's will take too long, so Cassie courageously has all the memories of people downloaded into her mind including those of Evan before Vosch erased him. From his memories she learns that the aliens had no answer for love, no solution for love. She sees what Vosch told Evan: "They thought they could crush it out of us, burn it from our brains, replace love with its opposite - not hate, indifference. They thought they could turn men into sharks." This was a reference to the alien's belief that in order to save humanity they needed to make men like sharks. Studying Earth they discovered rule the ocean because "their complete indifference to everything except feeding, procreation, and defending their territory. The shark does not love. It feels no empathy. It trust nothing. It lives in perfect harmony with its environment because it has no aspirations or desires. And no pity. A shark feels no sorrow, no remorse, hopes for nothing, dreams of nothing, has no illusions about itself or anything beyond itself."

The major symbol of the mystery of love in the novel is Sam's teddy bear, named Bear.  Sam Sullivan's bear is a symbol of the indomitable force that is love. Cassie marvels that of all the things mankind has accomplished, from inventing poetry to designing rockets to take man into space, the "most wonderful thing of all stuffing wads of polyester into an anatomically incorrect, cartoonish ideal of one of nature's most fearsome predators for no other reason than to soothe a child." Sam's bear motivated Cassie to continue to fight after Sam goes missing in the first novel. She hung onto his bear as a sign of hope and her love for her little brother.

In The Last Star, Sam refuses to take back his teddy, Bear, after having given him to Megan. He is a soldier now and done with toys. Megan has renamed him Captain, but Sam tells her his name is Bear and that he can't have a new name like the rest of the squad because he isn't a part of it -an oblique reference to what Bear really stands for. Bear is love and love has no part of a soldier. However, when Sam tries to give Bear to Cassie before she and Ringer leave for the military base, Cassie refuses. She tells him to keep Bear, that he's very important. "So hang on to him, understand? You take care of him and protect him and don't let anybody hurt him. Bear is very important to the grand scheme of things. He's like gravity. Without him, the universe would fall apart." This is Cassie telling her younger brother that love is the most important thing of all because it is what keeps us human and what holds the world together. He needs to remember what love is and how he was loved by their parents, by her.

This is an important message for Sam because he's lost the ability to trust people - exactly what the alien program wants. At the house Sam feels he cannot trust anyone any more. "There's no way to tell who's human anymore. Evan Walker looked human but he wasn't, not inside, not where it matters. Even people like Megan, who are human - maybe- couldn't be trusted, because you can't know what the enemy has done to them. Zombie, Cassie, Dumbo... you can't really trust them, either. They could be just like Evan Walker." Sam has also lost his faith in God. "He used to pray every night, all the time, and the only answer God ever gave was no...You can't trust God, either. Even God is a liar...All the people who died must have prayed too, and God said, No, no, no, seven billion times, seven billion nos, God said no, no, no." But what is the antidote for a lack of trust in others? Unconditional love.

The fates of all the remaining characters are sorted out in The Last Star. Perhaps the most interesting is that of the character Vosch. Vosch turns out to be the facilitator of the entire cleansing of Earth. He tells Evan, "I have been entrusted with the greatest mission in human history: the salvation of our species. Like you, I've known since I was a boy what was coming. Unlike you, I knew the truth." This suggests that Vosch was given a program that would make him the manager of the cleansing. He also reveals his loneliness to Evan and that only a few knew the reality of the invasion. He sees himself as much a victim as Evan is.

Ringer whose real name is Marika is the one character who seems to have grasped the reality of what is happening. The strategy of the alien programing was to wipe out most of humanity and reset it in order to save the planet and humans. Ringer states, " 'Not enough to level what we built. We'll repopulate. We'll rebuild. To save the planet, to save our species, they have to change us.' She touches her chest. 'Here. If the Others can take away trust, they take away cooperation. Take away cooperation, and civilization is impossible.' " Ultimately it was a battle over the heart of humans, but the aliens were at a disadvantage because they couldn't understand the human heart and its ability to love. The proof of the power of love is in the relationship that develops between Ringer and Ben. She reveals that she can't go on but Ben tells her he will carry her.

The Last Star ends hopefully despite the tragic end of one of the main characters. However the reader is left feeling that this was not a senseless loss because it leads to a turn in the war. The Last Star is well written, filled with sequences that are both thrilling and terrifying. It is a study in human nature, what makes us human, and challenges us to define the purpose of our existence in the universe.

Book Details:

The Last Star by Rick Yancey
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons       2016
338 pp.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Girl I Used To Be by April Henry

Seventeen year old Olivia Reinhart's life is suddenly drawn to the past when Detective Campbell and Chaplain Farben arrive at her apartment to tell her that her missing father has been located. Olivia's real name was Ariel Benson and her parents were Naomi Benson and Terry Weeks.

Fourteen years ago her mother's body was found in a forest in the Southern Oregon Cascade mountains. The family had gone into the forest to find a Christmas tree when a terrible tragedy unfolded. Her mother had been stabbed nineteen times and had desperately tried to fight off her killer. It was widely believed that her father killed her mother and then drove to the Salem Walmart where he dropped three year old Ariel off. His car was later found abandoned at the airport.

Detective Campbell who is from the Portland police tells Olivia that her father's jawbone was recently found by a woman walking her dog. His remains were identified through DNA testing and they now believe her parent's killer probably was the one who drove her to the Walmart. Police are still struggling to determine a motive as robbery was an unlikely motive because Olivia's parents did not have money. It's likely Olivia was left alive because she was considered too young to tell police what she had seen.

Olivia remembers the episodes that carried her mother's murder on America's Most Wanted. The first episode helped police located her when she went missing. After her mother's murder and her father's disappearance, three year old Ariel was taken to live with her grandma who soon died. Ariel was placed in foster care and then adopted when she was eight years old by Tamsin Reinhart who was an orthopedic surgeon in Portland. She changed Ariel's name to Olivia. Olivia was lonely and scared but began acting out because of her anger. Eventually Tamsin gave Olivia up.

Olivia decides to attend her father's funeral in Medford but first stops to see her grandmother's old home. This house will be hers when she turns eighteen; Olivia receives rental income from tenants but the house has been vacant for the last three months. At the home she meets her old neighbour, Nora Murdoch who doesn't recognize Olivia. Nora was friends with Olivia's grandmother, Sharon and she tells Olivia about what happened to Sharon's daughter Naomi and her little girl Ariel. Olivia offers to take Nora to the funeral in Medford. At the service, Olivia sees pictures of her father and meets  some of her father's relatives, although they do not know Olivia is his daughter. In attendance is Sam, her father's ex-girlfriend, her Aunt Carly and her daughter, Richard Lee a friend of Olivia's father, his best friend Jason, Heather who was best friend to Olivia's mother Naomi. Olivia also meets a cute guy named Duncan, whose parents know Olivia's father. Olivia tells Duncan that she's from Seattle because she wants to keep her identity secret.

Olivia makes arrangements to rent her grandmother's house without revealing her identity, convincing Richard Lee who is the property manager she is able to pay the rent. She also manages to get herself a job at Fred Meyers. At the house, Olivia is visited by Duncan who reveals to her that he knows she is Ariel Benson. This is because of a scar on the palm of her hand due to an accident that involved the two of them when they were children. When he questions Olivia as to why she never told her family at the funeral, she denies she is Ariel and then insists that he not tell anyone her true identity. Olivia is concerned that whoever killed her parents may still be interested in knowing what she remembers and may try to find her. She is certain the killer is someone who lives in Medford.

Duncan then shows up at Fred Meyers and tells Olivia that he understands why she doesn't want people to know her true identity, but insists that she will  need his help to learn what really happened to her parents. Olivia reluctantly agrees to let him help her and together the two begin to dig deeper into what happened that day. It's only when Olivia returns to the site of the murders that things begin to heat up, placing Olivia square in the sights of the real killer.


The Girl I Used To Be is a quick read for those who like a murder mystery. Although the story takes some time to ramp up, Henry builds to a heart pounding climax. Readers will likely be able to figure out who the killer is, but Henry rounds up the usual suspects; a mentally ill man, a former girlfriend, and a classmate whose life seemed to abruptly turn around after the murders.

Scattered throughout Olivia's first person narrative are flashbacks to the crime, but none really reveal much - as one would expect from a person who is trying to remember an event that occurred when they were three years old. Olivia is a determined, resilient protagonist who must rethink her past, her parent's relationship and how she thinks about her father whom she assumed was a murderer.  To solve the crime, Olivia in a sense, goes under cover in Medford. People don't remember who she is because Olivia left when she was a child. Her relationship with Nora, friend and neighbour to Olivia's grandmother and mother,  allows Olivia to attend her father's wake unrecognized. A touch of romance is added with the inclusion of childhood friend Duncan who is not fooled and who quickly suspects Olivia's true identity.

A good, easy read for those who like their novels short and sweet.

Book Details:

The Girl I Used To Be by April Henry
New York: Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company    2016
229 pp.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

"Well, there was a quote I couldn't quite recall, and I just found it.Listen." He began to read, very slowly. 'Music is the hidden arithmetic of the soul, which does not know that it deals with numbers. Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.' That's exactly what I was talking about."

Jimmy Kerrigan to his daughter Dewey as they eat lunch together, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The Green Glass Sea is a story of family, friendship and loss during World War II. The lives of two girls, Susan Gordon and Dewey Marie Kerrigan intersect as their families are brought to Los Alamos in this narrative about the Manhattan Project and the American effort to develop the atom bomb.

The story begins in 1943 with ten year old Dewey Kerrigan being picked up on the steps of her neighbour, Mrs. Kovack's house in St. Louis. Dewey had been living with her nana but she had a stroke and had to go into the hospital. Her father is in Chicago helping with the war effort and Dewey hasn't seen him since the Fourth of July.

Dewey is picked up by friendly Corporal Margaret Beckwith who tells her that her father is no longer in Chicago but at a location in New Mexico so secret that even she doesn't know. She is placed on a train to Lamy, New Mexico and a porter is assigned to care for her. On the train, Dewey discovers there is an observation car and she takes her magazine, Boy Mechanic, and her radio set to the car to tinker with.

In the observation car Dewey meets a young man, who looks like a bum but who knows about radios. Coincidentally, the man who gives his name as Dick Feynman is also traveling to Lamy, New Mexico and he knows Dewey's father Jimmy Kerrigan. Dick tells Dewey that they will be living at a place called the Hill. When they arrive in Lamy, Dick waits with Dewey until she is picked up by Sergeant Prager who takes her to get a pass to the Hill from Dorothy McKibbin. Finally Dewey is reunited with her beloved papa who drives her to their home in Los Alamos. Her father has been sent to Los Alamos to work on creating a special "gadget" that will win the war for the Americans.

The story then jumps to August of 1944. Susan (Suze) Gordon is playing cards with her mom in their house. Suze and her mother and father, who were both professors at Berkeley arrived on the Hill in the fall of 1943. Suze's father is a metallurgist, her mother a chemist. Although eleven year old Suze wants to be friends with girls like Judy, Barbara, Betty and Joyce, she finds herself unable to break into their clique. In an attempt to win their approval, Suze tells the girls that she knows a shortcut to the Tech PX so they can get cokes.

Meanwhile Dewey who has finished a picnic lunch with her papa, decides to go to the dump for parts for her latest project. At the dump she meets her friend Charlie and his little brother Jack. Dewey is in Charlie's eighth grade math class. The boys are there looking for wood for their secret treehouse while Dewey finds copper tubing and a broken typewriter. The three help each other with their cumbersome load of "finds" and make their way back.  On their way they encounter Suze and the girls she is with. When Suze sees Dewey she ridicules her by calling her "screwy Dewey". Instead of playing with the other kids, Dewey is always working on her radio or some other project at recess. Suze's bullying of Dewey doesn't have the result she expects, as Charlie defends Dewey and even offers to buy her a coke.

A few days later, Suze's mother Terry takes her to visit a friend in another part of the Hill called Morganville. That friend turns out to be Jimmy Kerrigan, Dewey's father. When Suze realizes this she is not friendly towards "screwy Dewey".

The story then moves to March 24, 1945 with Dewey's father telling her he has to meet with General Groves and his committee who have arrived from Washington. After he leaves Dewey is visited by Suze's mother, Terry Gordon who is looking for her father and becomes interested in Dewey's "time machine". On Sunday Dewey and her father have a picnic in Bandelier National Monument. Dewey notes that her father seems very sad and troubled. During their time together he tells her that before the war he worked with a German mathematician, Josef who lived in Berlin. Before the war they "were trying to understand how the world works, and borders didn't matter. But they do now."  Now Josef and Dewey's father are in a race to solve the same problems.The General has asked Dewey's father to help them understand papers published by German scientists and this means he has to go to Washington. Terry Gordon offers to take in Dewey for the time Jimmy is away but Suze is not happy with this. When she expresses her displeasure at "Screwy Dewey" coming to live with them, Suze's mom becomes angry and tells her never to use that name again and to

Moving in with the Gordons turns out to be the least of the many challenges Dewey will face as the war moves towards its devastating conclusion.


This was a fascinating look into life for a very specific group of people during World War II: the children of the scientists who worked on creating the first atomic weapon. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan which resulted in the nation's surrender and the end to war in the Pacific were the first weapons of mass destruction ever used. The Green Glass Sea portrays the scientists who worked to develop the atom bomb and their families as highly intelligent people who were determined to help their country win the war in Europe and the Pacific.  The scientists were the top researchers in their fields of physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering and metallurgy. Their family circumstances were similar to those of most Americans and their children had the same problems all children face growing up.

The two main characters in the novel are two girls who do not like one another but who eventually are drawn together to form a bond of friendship. Dewey and Suze are very different yet they face a common struggle to fit in and be accepted. Dewey is brilliant and interested in creating machines. But her intelligence is not the only thing that sets her apart from the other children at the Hill: she has one leg shorter than the other requiring her to wear a special shoe and she wears very thick glasses. Suze is also highly intelligent but in a different way than Dewey: she is very artistic. Like Dewey Suze's physical appearance sets her apart from others: she is big and strong. But while Dewey is quiet and thoughtful, Suze is loud, unkind and a bully. Dewey doesn't care about fitting in but to Suze, fitting in is so important that she is willing to make fun of Dewey in the hopes the other girls on the Hill will include her.  When the two girls are thrown together when Dewey comes to live with Suze's family, Suze is determined not to welcome her in any way - she doesn't want Dewey to have the top drawers of the dresser, she draws a line across the room dividing their space in two and marks the days off the calendar that Dewey is at her house.

Dewey takes it all in stride; she feels sorry for Suze because the other girls never ask her to play. Over the span of the following two months Suze's view of Dewey undergoes a radical change.  After the death of President Roosevelt, Suze begins to warm to Dewey, apologizing for damaging her cigar box and the two girls share secrets about their names. When Dewey struggles to find the right pieces for her gadget, Suze decides to help her and in the process discovers that she can make works of art from the nuts, bolts, screws and other metal pieces Dewey has collected. Suze introduces Dewey to superhero comic books. But it is a trip to the dump to look for a drawer to hold Suze's next collage that cements their friendship. When the two girls are confronted and bullied by Barbara and Joyce they both stand up for the other. And when Dewey is orphaned Suze shows deep concern for Dewey and is determined that she continue to live with them. "If anyone had told her two months ago that she'd be asking to let Dewey stay with her, she's have told them they were nuts. But it felt right."  The two eventually form their own club, naming it Shazam.

As they get to know each other, Suze's view of Dewey changes. She recognizes that she is different just as Dewey is different but while Dewey seems comfortable with herself, Suze is not. Dewey teaches Suze to accept herself as she is. Suze realizes that she can be herself with Dewey who accepts Suze as she is. "She'd never had a conversation like this with another kid. She didn't feel like she had to be funny, or try to show Dewey how smart she was..."

Historical fiction succeeds if it instills in readers an reasonably accurate understanding of the time being portrayed. Many scientists working on the Manhattan project did not know exactly what they were working to create. Because the project was so secret, only a small group of scientists knew what they were working towards. Once the testing of the bomb was successful and the immensity of its power was realized, many of the scientists who had worked on the bomb were strongly opposed to it being used.  Klages succeeds in realistically portraying this opposition in her novel.  Dewey's father appears to recognize how powerful the "gadget" they are attempting to build will be and for that reason he hopes the Germans have not progressed as far as the American scientists.

 After the test at Trinity, and realizing the immense power of the bomb, Terry Gordon expresses serious reservations to her husband, Dick Feynman and Dr. Teller about what they have done and the possibility of using the bomb on civilians. Dewey overhears their conversation:
"She heard Dick Feynman talking, and stopped in the doorway to listen. 'Well, yes. We started for a good reason, and we've been working so hard. It was pleasure. It was excitement,' he said. 'But you stop thinking about -- you know? You just stop. And now..."
And now that we've seen what it can do. My god,' Terry Gordon said, her voice raised, sounding angry. 'They can't use it. Not on civilians. Not on anyone, for that matter. I mean, maybe as a demonstration, but--'
'That's not realistic, Terry,' said Dr. Teller in his Hungarian accent. 'It's no longer an experiment to be demonstrated. It's a weapon, to end this terrible war once and for all.'
'At what cost, Edward? At what cost? Look, Chicago's drafted a petition. If enough of us sign it, they'll have to listen, and --'

Readers learn via a short radio clip what the American government eventually decided to do and today we know that two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Klages states in the back of her novel that she chose not to focus on the bombing of the two cities because the massive loss of life resulting from the atomic bombs is very hard to comprehend and beyond portrayal. She notes that readers experience the difficulty Dewey has with coming to terms with the death of one person - her father. However, the atomic bombs killed approximately 140,000 people in the initial blast with many tens of thousands dying of burns and radiation sickness in the weeks and months that followed. Death on such a scale in incomprehensible.

The title of the novel is a reference to green glass found after the Trinity atom bomb test on July 16, 1945 near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Temperatures generated from an atom bomb explosion were so high that the sand at the Trinity test site was metamorphosed into a new rock called trinitite. Trinitite has a green colour and most of it is mildly radioactive.

The Green Glass Sea is an excellent work of historical fiction about a unique period in history. Few novels have been written for young people about the Manhattan Project and Klages has done an excellent job in making this time come alive for young readers.

Klages wrote a sequel to this novel,  White Sands, Red Menace which continues the story of Dewey and Suze in the Cold War era.

For information on the Los Alamos site, check out this webpage at Atomic Heritage Foundation.

The US History website has a page devoted to the Manhattan Project.

An article from Spartacus Educational on the ethics of dropping the atom bombs on Japan.

This video shows three different newsreels of the Trinity bomb test which happened in The Green Glass Sea.

The second video is from the 2005 PBS Special, Dr. Teller's Very Large Bomb.

Book Details:

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages
New York: Puffin Books     2006
318 pp.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Movie: Concussion

Concussion tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian neuropathologist working at the Alleghany County Coroner's office in Pittsburgh under the direction of Cyril Wecht and his discovery of CTE - Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Omalu was assigned to Mike Webster, a former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers when he was brought into the morgue. Webster, only fifty years old, had died after suffering from depression, amnesia and other problems. Omalu wanted to know why a man whose CT scans showed normal, had behaved so bizarrely.

The movie begins by showing Dr. Omalu working in the Alleghany County Coroner's office, focusing on his rather eccentric mannerisms including talking to the dead bodies before doing autopsies. He is not disrespectful but assures them that he wants to learn the truth about them and asks for their help. We also see Pittsburgh Steeler great, Mike Webster, behaving bizarrely. He is seen by Dr. Julian Bailes, former doctor to the Steelers who tries to calm him. Webster has no idea what is wrong with him but he knows something is wrong; he can't sleep and he hears voices. He begs Bailes to help him. Days later Webster dies and his body is taken to the Alleghany County Coroner's office.

Initially Omalu's colleagues tell him to leave the body alone and not to do an autopsy. However, Omalu is intrigued and puzzled as to why a man with a normal brain should have acted so bizarrely. Before his death we are told Webster was pulling his own teeth and superglueing them back in. The autopsy shows nothing seriously wrong with Webster so Omalu decides to order sectioning and slides of Webster's brain. He does this to strong opposition by his colleagues and is told he must pay for this out of his own pocket. His mentor, Dr. Wecht endorses the tests that Omalu requests even though Omalu reveals he has no idea what he is looking for. Omalu is shocked at what he finds - Mike Webster's brain shows serious damage. He discovers plaques of protein have formed around areas damaged by violent blows to the head. These plaques disrupted Webster's brain function affecting emotion, mood and cognitive functions.

Believing Webster to have dementia pugilistica common to boxers who received numerous blows to the head during their careers, Omalu watches football games on television and even attends various practices. What he sees are numerous instances where athletes receive blows to the head. These "hits" are rated and lauded during the games. Finally Omalu decides to talk to another doctor, Dr. Ron Hamilton who brings in Dr. Steven DeKosky. DeKosky is also shocked by the slides of Mike Webster's brain. Omalu tells him Mike Webster's position as a center was the most dangerous in football, exposing him to a constant barrage of blows that eventually permanently and seriously damaged his brain. Omalu tells Dekosky he believes there are more injured players whose doctors incorrectly believe they have early onset Alzheimers.  DeKosky decides that this research should be published and tells him to find a name for the condition he has uncovered. Omalu comes up with the name CTE - Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.  However, the NFL refuses to accept Omalu's research as legitimate science stating there is an "absence of clinical information." They want Omalu to retract his statements.

While Omalu's superior, Dr. Wecht supports him, he warns Omalu that he is taking on the Goliath of sports in America, the National Football League. Considered America's national game, he will face grave difficulties in having his discovery recognized and accepted by the NFL because it is a corporation with 20 million people who are addicted to the fame of football. Omalu is shocked as he naively believed that the NFL would want to know that players were being seriously injured. Omalu confirms that a second Pittsburgh Steeler player, Terry Long who committed suicide also had CTE. They decide to go public with Long's results and Omalu warns that there are many other players at risk. At this point Omalu begins to receive threatening phone calls and his house is watched. Despite this he remains undaunted in his quest to get his discovery accepted by the NFL.

It is at this point that Dr. Julian Bailes contacts Omalu and tells him he wants to help because he knows of at least twelve Steelers who have died young. He tells him the NFL has known about the concussion injuries for years but has hidden it through faulty research. Bailes tells Omalu he has uncovered the NFL's dirty secret but that he must keep going. Since CTE does not show up on a CT scan, Omalu tells Bailes this means more men have to die in order for him to prove it exists. Working together the two not only find that evidence but eventually force the NFL to accept that CTE is a legitimate disease caused by repeated concussive and sub-concussive injuries incurred by playing football.


Concussion has received mixed reviews but this movie is really quite well done. The focus is not on the football players as many might have thought, but rather on the doctor who brought to the attention of both doctors and the NFL the serious brain damage being done to NFL athlete when they a vehicle for one of Will Smith's best performances. He is understated and convincing as Dr. Omalu whom he portrays as a dignified, intelligent and determined researcher who cares about the people who enter his morgue. They are not bodies but human beings whose bodies allow him to learn the truth about their lives and how they died.Smith is supported by a fine cast including Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Prema Mutiso who plays his girlfriend and future wife, Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes, Albert Brooks as Dr. Cyril Wecht and Eddie Marsan as Dr. Steven DeKosky.

The film seems to suggest that part of the problem Dr. Omalu had in getting his findings accepted were due to the fact that he was a black man and not an American citizen. It's probable this played a part but also that other factors as suggested in the film were more significant. Pro football in the United States is a hugely lucrative business and anything even hinting at the dangers of playing the sport would be considered a serious threat to a multi-billion dollar sports industry. In the end, Dr. Omalu is seen given a presentation at an NFL players meeting where he tells those in attendance that he understands the excitement and the power of the game but that there are also dangers that need to be recognized. To this day he remains convinced that the way America plays football is different from years ago and it is leading to serious head injuries. There's no doubt the much larger athletes in the sport have played a critical part in changing the nature of the injuries suffered from tackles.

Although the film has caused some to question Omalu's claim that he discovered CTE, there is no doubt that Concussion comes at a time when the seriousness of concussions is being re-evaluated. Doctors are discovering that concussions whether incurred in sports or in accidents have long term consequences. It is an area of research with many unanswered questions. There is significant recognition that the brain needs time to heal, that rest is imperative. Hockey player Sidney Crosby, ironically also a member of a Pittsburgh sports team, suffered two significant hits to his head in January of 2011 and was diagnosed with a concussion.  Crosby initially experienced no symptoms after the first hit, but a second hit coming four days later resulted in a serious concussion . He was off ice for three months but when he tried to return to train, he again suffered concussion symptoms and was forced to discontinue his training. Crosby attempted to return to play in November of 2011 but his symptoms returned and he was sidelined again. He did not return to regular play until March of 2012. Eric Lindros, considered a potential great in hockey never really lived up to his potential due to at least eight serious blows to his head. Lindros spoke about how the concussions affected his career and his life outside of hockey in this article from Macleans Magazine in 2011.

In 2016 we recognize concussions as the serious injury they are thanks in part to the work of doctors like Omalu. Trainers and coaches are required to follow specific protocols after a head injury and doctors now treat concussions seriously.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Broken Crowns by Lauren DeStefano

Broken Crowns is the final installment in the Internment Chronicles series by Lauren DeStefano. Narrated by Morgan Stockhour, this novel picks up where the second one left off. Professor Leander has passed away due to the sun sickness, Gertrude Piper (Birdie) has recovered from her serious wounds from the bombing and asks about her older brother Riles who died in the same bombing. King Ingram of Havalais along with Princess Celeste left six months ago by jet to visit Internment, the city in the stratosphere governed by King Ingram. At the beginning of each month, the king's jet returns to Havalais with a delivery of phosane taken from Internment's soil. The refinery built in Havalais works to process the phosane into fuel. Meanwhile the war between Havalais and Dastor continues.With the arrival of the king's jet, Morgan, Pen, Basil and Thomas speculate on any forthcoming news from the floating city.

The relationship between Morgan and her best friend Pen Atmus remains strained after Morgan revealed Pen's discovery that Internment's soil contained the much needed phosane which fuels Havalais's jets.Instead of the alliance Morgan and Princess Celeste hoped for, King Ingram held the princess hostage and forced King Furlow to supply Havalais with the soil containing sunstone as phosane is called in Internment. While they wait for news, Pen who is now a recovering alcoholic reveals to Morgan her astonishing discovery that Internment is sinking.Pen believes the jet traveling back and forth has disrupted the winds around Internment, causing it to sink. Pen suggests that King Ingram needs to be killed in order to save Internment. Nimble Piper is third in line to the Havalais throne; his father Jack is King Ingram's bastard son. Nimble loves Princess Celeste and he's concerned for her well being.  When they meet Nim later in the evening he tells Morgan and Pen that many people are unhappy about King Ingram. He also reveals that King Ingram doesn't know how to refine the phosane. Pen believes that it is unlikely Internment has given the king the knowledge he needs to process the phosane into fuel and that there may by civil unrest on the floating island.

Morgan suggests that they try to convince King Ingram to send them back to Internment under the guise of helping him. When Morgan tells her betrothed, Basil about her plan, he reluctantly agrees with her and asks to accompany her. That night Nim returns from King Ingram's castle and tells Morgan and Pen that he has arranged for a meeting with a special guest who has returned from Internment with King Ingram. That guest turns out to be Prince Azure who in this novel seems suddenly, strangely adept and not the immature heir to Internment's throne that he was in the first novel. Prince Azure is told about Internment's gradual sinking leading him to agree with Morgan and Pen that they must stop the jet from landing. Morgan tells Prince Azure that they want to be sent back to Internment to work to overthrow King Ingram and his men. But will the prince agree to help Morgan and Pen knowing they disobeyed Internment's strict laws?


The Internment Chronicles failed to live up to its potential hinted at in the first novel. In the span of the three novels that form the trilogy there was little in the way of character development or world building, the pacing often plodding. The main character Morgan Stockhour remains much the same character she was in the first novel; a girl determined to live her life outside the confines of Internment and unsure of her relationship with her betrothed, Basil Cowl. When she is unexpectedly kissed by Judas, Morgan experiences some conflicting feelings but generally insists that she still loves Basil. The same grit that led her to escape Internment also leads Morgan to murder King Ingram when he attacks Pen. The only character we really learn more about is Morgan's friend, Pen, whom we learn was sexually abused by her father. The many minor characters complicate the storytelling unnecessarily and we learn little about any of them. The two minor characters with the most intriguing story, Morgan's brother Lex and his wife Alice, are never really developed.

As for the history of Internment, how it came to exist, and the backstory of Havalais, the reader learns little. The chance to develop more of the backstory, especially with regards to Internment, was in the second book when Morgan and her group have arrived on the ground. The people of Havalais know little about Internment and this would have been a wonderful opportunity for details about the mysterious floating island to be revealed to them and to the reader. The same applies to Havalais, a new setting for the second novel. Instead all readers really know is that it has a weird 1920's speakeasy carnival type culture of Havalais and the main characters are conveniently (but boringly) kept isolated in a home. Of Havalais's war with Dastor we know little but the bare facts. Despite the nearby attack on the city, the Piper family seems largely unaffected by the death of Riles. We are only told how Gertrude feels and never get to meet this character again in the third novel. And as suspected, Morgan's dream of finding something unique and better than Internment is dashed to bits. She escapes Internment with its controls on marriage and births, its forced abortions and its laws against homosexuals to Havalais with its greedy king determined to win a war at any cost. Havalais is no better than Internment.

The trilogy's overarching story of two chaotic kingdoms ruled by two cruel kings both of whom are murdered is depressing, although the novel does conclude the trilogy with a hopeful tone. Broken Crowns is a quick read for those who like science fiction. Don't expect more than just basic storytelling here. DeStefano's concepts for stories are intriguing and unusual but never seem to be developed to their full potential.

Book Details:

Broken Crowns by Lauren DeStefano
New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers    2016
262 pp.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

Sixteen year old Nixie lives on the Temptation, "a striking caravel, her black hull copper clad below the waterline to keep out worms (and worse depending on what waters we traveled). She rode on a keel...carved with labyrinthine runes from stem to stern, and at the prow, a red-haired mermaid bared her breasts to calm the sea." Her father, Slate, is the captain of the Temptation and also a Navigator who uses maps to travel from one time to the next.

The story opens with Nixie and the Temptation in 1774 India carrying a two Bengal tigers in bamboo cages. Nixie's father is determined to return to Honolulu, 1868. There is a map on offer at Christie's auction house and the tigers will give him the cash to pay for the rare map. Slate is planning to sell the tigers to the leader of a Chinese gang who uses them to kill his rivals in 1981 New York.  They would then travel to New York 2016  to the auction sale to get the map that would take them to Honolulu 1868. Nixie has planned this route through the different time eras to see as much as possible because she believes once her father returns to Honolulu 1868 her life will be over. However, the map of 1981 fails and the Temptation with Nixie, her father Slate, best friend Kashmir, firstmate Bee and Rotgut arrive off the coast of Manhattan in late May 2016.

After a brief encounter with the US Coast Guard, they drop the tigers off at the home of a philanthropist wildlife lover in the Hamptons and then travel on to New York where they moor at Red Hook. While Nix and Kash repair the mast, Slate tells them the auction at Christies is in the morning.

Meanwhile Nix tells Kash her backstory which she learned from Rotgut. Her father was born in 1965 but arrived in Hawaii by using an old map "The Sandwich Isles" by Augustus Mitchell dated 1866. Slate met Nixie's mother in an opium den where she made pipes. She died after giving birth to Nix from an infection.  Nixie's father was at sea and did not know Lin was pregnant. He was away hoping to make money to marry Lin. He used a map of Hong Kong in 1850 to go to China to obtain opium and smuggle it back. And he had an 1869 edition of a map of Honolulu to return to Lin. However when he returned in 1869, Lin was gone and only Nix remained in the opium den. Slate took her aboard his ship and he's been looking for an 1868 Honolulu map ever since to try to save her. She tells Kash she has no idea what the impact will be on her life if her father arrives back in Honolulu in 1868 before she is born. "Some people think that reality would split into two versions, or that it already has split and I just don't know it. But others think that if the past is changed, I might just..."

Slate returns from Christie's having bought the map and tells Nix and Kash that they will leave in the morning after the map is delivered. That evening Nix questions her father telling him that even if he returns to 1868 Honolulu he will only meet a different version of her mother because it all depends upon the version of the map they obtain. But Slate tells her Navigation also depends on the belief of the Navigator.

The next morning, using the map from Christie's the Temptation travels back in time to Honolulu. As they travel towards the harbour Nix sees the flags on the Iolani Palace and realizes that the map did not work because in 1868 the Iolani Palace did not exist. Instead they find themselves in Hawaii on October 24, 1884, sixteen years ahead of the date Slate was aiming for. Slate is devastated because he believed this was the map that would take him back to the right date so he could save Lin.

Nix decides to walk through old Honolulu, walking through Chinatown where she meets a young man with blond hair with a horse. The man who likes to sketch in Chinatown shows her his drawings including a map of the city that includes some of the ancient ruins in the area. He introduces himself as Blake Hart. After they part ways, Nix finds herself at the Joss Happy House Apothecary. Nix tells Auntie Joss that she needs a cure for addiction but Auntie Joss seems to know who Nix is. She tells her that king has passed many new laws since her father was last in Hawaii and not to ask her about her mother. Auntie Joss tells Nix that her mother knew no one else on the island and that her father promised to take her away from the opium den that Joss once operated. Auntie Joss reveals to Nix that her name means nothing but spelled backwards is Xin which means happy in Chinese and that her lucky number is 5 or wu which means me and also not. She offers to tell Nix's future but she refuses. Auntie Joss also reveals that her mother's number was 4 which means death and her father's number was 7 which is the number for togetherness and ghosts. She also gives Nix a small serpent in a jar and when Nix tells her she's looking for maps Auntie Joss tells her she may have something for her.

At the ship a man arrives wanting to speak to Slate, offering a "treasure map" from 1868 in exchange for his help. Nix recognizes that this man was sent by Auntie Joss. Kashmir takes Nix to get fitted for new clothes so she fits into the late 1800's and after dinner they go to a saloon where they get into trouble. Back on the boat Slate recognizing that Nix has developed feelings for Kash, warns her not to get attached. Nix tells Slate about her meeting with Auntie Joss and that Joss has sent a man with an offer for a map.

The next day the man who goes by the name of Mr. D, returns and makes an offer to Slate. He presents a copy of a map of Honolulu dated November 1868 which has all the locations of the bars, brothels and opium dens from that time period. Joss's place had become Hapai Hale or Happy House because a woman working there had become the talk of the town. Nix does not know that Happy House is a play on the Hawaiian word, hapai which means to be pregnant and that this is a reference to her mother. Mr. D tells Slate that the artist of the map is now dead so there is now way to verify the authenticity of the map. He also informs Slate that in order for him to take possession of the map he must give them nine hundred thousand dollars - from the vault at Ali'iolani Hale, the Royal Hawaiian Treasury. Slate and Nix are shocked but Mr. D tells them that Hawaii requires a strong leader.

Slate wants to see the original map so Mr. D suggests that they meet at the home of the brother of the deceased artist, who is holding a soiree. At first Nix refuses to participate, then she wants Kash to steal the map in the hopes she can thwart Slate's involvement in Mr. D's scheme to destabilize Hawaii. Nix's efforts to obtain the map lead to an unexpected friendship, new revelations, her learning how to navigate and a daring plan involving time travel to the Emperor Qin's hidden tomb in the hopes that they can gain possession of the map and save the royal treasury.


The Girl From Everywhere is another young adult novel with the currently popular time travel theme.The story is told through the eyes of Nix Song, a sixteen year old girl who time travels with her father Slate aboard his ship, Temptation. Slate's goal is to return to the year 1868 to attempt to prevent the death of his beloved Lin. However, Nix, while wishing to help him save her mother, worries that he may undo her life and cause her to cease to exist. But in time travel fiction anything is possible!

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is the story line which is original from beginning to end. Because Nix and Slate have the ability to "navigate" to any era in history as long as they have a map, Heilig had many possibilities for her novel. The author chose many interesting eras for her story including 18th century India, present day New York City and Hawaii in the 1880s. Heilig also chose to have Nix, Slate and Kash travel into the tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. An archeological wonder, the largely unexplored tomb contains thousands of terra cotta figures of soldiers and took more than thirty-eight years to complete. A description of Qin Shi Huang's tomb was written by the Han dynasty historian, Sima Qian. As Nix mentions in the novel, once the burial rites were completed, all the workers and craftsmen were trapped in the tomb so the tomb's treasures and the measures devised to protect them would never be revealed.  It is also believed that rivers of mercury protect the tomb underground. These links might be useful for those wishing to learn more about the tomb:

Unesco website, Mausoleum of the First Qin Shi Huang

Livescience website: The Secret Tomb of China's 1st Emperor: Will We Ever See Inside?

The setting of Hawaii also seems to be popular in young adult literature these days. In The Girl From Everywhere, the setting is Hawaii in 1884. At this time Hawaii was still an island kingdom with a population of just over 80,000. When Nix and her crew arrive, the great-granddaughter of Kamehameha I, Princess Bernice Pauahi has just died. By this time in its history, much of Hawai'i's native population had been decimated by diseases brought to the islands by Europeans. Native Hawaiians did not have resistance to measles, smallpox and influenza. Many living on the islands were Americans and Europeans. During Kamehameha II's reign, many traditional Hawaiian cultural practices such as the hula dance were discontinued as a result of the christianization of the native Hawaiian population.  The Hawaiian League whom Nix and Slate encounter in this novel was not organized until 1887 but probably many were of the mind of Mr. D who is likely a reference to Mr. Sanford Dole who was a member of the group and as Heilig indicates in her Author's Note at the back of the novel, became president of the Republic of Hawaii. It was known also as the Committee of Safety and was a secret society composed of Americans (many of whom were descendants of the Protestant missionaries who came to the islands) and Hawaiians intent upon overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy and making the islands part of America.

Nix is a strong female protagonist, determined to live her own life. She wants to learn how to "Navigate", as this will be the one skill that will allow her to determine her own fate. From Aunt Joss Nix learns that Slate will never succeed in returning to Hawaii in 1868 as long as she is with him because she cannot exist twice in the same time. This knowledge gives her the freedom to make decisions about her future. But Nix also experiences a great deal of conflict; she wants to love her father but is hurt by his focus or more accurately, his obsession with saving Lin from her fate. Nix also begins to experience conflict over her feelings for Kash and later for Blake.

Heilig's novel ends happily although Slate's problem remains unresolved and leaves readers wondering what adventures lie ahead for Nix, Slate, Kash and Blake. Overall The Girl From Everywhere is a long novel whose concept was well executed by Heidi Heilig. Heilig has included maps of the settings for each of Nix's time travels and a detailed and interesting Author's Note at the back of the book.

Book Details:

The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
New York: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of Harper CollinsPublishers     2016
454 pp.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit

The novel begins at the start of World War II in 1939. Poland was invaded months earlier and operation Sonderaktion Krakau, targeting Krakow's intellectuals and academics is underway.

On November 6th, 1939, seven year old Anna Lania's father is summoned to a meeting of all the professors of the Jagiellonian University to discuss the direction of the Polish academy under the direction of the German occupiers. Professor Lania is an linguistics professor at the university. As a result, he spends a great deal of time speaking to Anna in many different languages. By the age of seven she has learned to speak German Russian, French, English as well as a bit of Yiddish, Ukrainian, Armenian and Carpathian Romany.

Anna has been left alone before by her father before and if he's to be away for a lengthy period, in the company of an adult. This time she is left with Herr Doktor Fuchsmann around eleven o'clock in the morning.  By the time it came to close the pharmacy,  Anna's father still had not returned.  What Anna does not know is that her father, like other Polish intellectuals will be taken away to a prison in Krakow, then to various internment camps in Poland and finally to the Sachenhausen concentration camp in Germany where he will die.

But in early November, all Anna knows is that after spending the day at Herr Doktor Fuchsmann's shop, she has no where to go and no father to return home to. Herr Doktor fuchsmann refuses to take her to his home so Anna spends the night sleeping beneath the counter of his shop. In the morning Anna is given something to eat and then taken to her father's apartment where she is abandoned by Herr Doktor Fuchsmann. The door is locked and so Anna is forced to wait in front of the apartment door. That evening she returns to Herr Doktor Fuchsmann's shop to wait for her father. It is outside the pharmacy that Anna first encounters the tall thin man whom she comes to know as the Swallow Man.

Like Anna, this unknown man speaks German, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish as he questions her about who she is and if she is alright. When she begins to cry, he summons a swallow with a series of chirps and whistles. Anna responds to all of the man's questions in the language he asked each in and then when he tells her to stay out of sight, Anna believes he is telling her to follow him. Anna follows the man out of Krakow and into the fields outside the city. After Anna warns the thin man and likely saves him from a Polish farmer, he tells her he will take her back to Krakow and find someone to care for her. He tells her "It is not good for a girl to be without a father, these days."  Anna asks the Swallow Man, "...But is it any better for a father to be without a daughter?"  This leads the Swallow Man to reconsider and decides that Anna will travel with him. However, he sets up several rules: she can ask him all the questions she has but only when they are alone, she must follow him as a river follows its riverbank. He also tells Anna that names are not safe because "Names are ways for people to find us,... If you keep a name, people know whom to ask after. ...We don't want to be found." The Swallow Man explains to Anna that the reason her father never returned is because someone knew his name and was able to find him. He tells her he will call her "Sweetie" and she will call him "Daddy".  He tells her when they are alone he is to be called Swallow Man and she can use her name, Anna.

As they travel around Poland, the Swallow Man begins to teach Anna how to survive. First he teaches her practical lessons like "People are dangerous. And the more people there are in one place, the more dangerous the place becomes."  and that "Human beings are the best hope in the world of other human beings to survive." He also begins to teach Anna a new language which he calls "Road". In "Road there's more than one way to say everything...It's very simple to translate something into Road, but it's very difficult to translate anything back."  An example of the language of Road is the Swallow Man's descriptions of the German and Russian soldiers they meet in their travels. He tells Anna that the soldiers look like young men but in reality the Germans are Wolves who are part of a cruel pack while the Russians are Bears who are solitary but proud. Both are determined to harm people. The Swallow Man also teaches Anna how to survive in the forest. "...the Swallow Man knew well which roots were good to eat, which berries were safe, what fruits yielded a good nut or seed, which leaves left a sweet taste in the mouth and which a bitter..."

As she follows him through forest, hills and plains and wetlands, Anna finally asks the Swallow Man "Where are we going?" He tells her they are on a "mission of crucial scientific significance" to save an endangered species of bird of which there is only one left.  "The Wolves and the Bears desperately want to find the bird, because it tastes delicious; and because it's the last, they think that whoever eats it will become very, very strong." The Swallow Man tells Anna that the Wolves and the Bears have eaten all of this bird but one and he's "going to make sure the last one stays safe."  through the use of their knowledge, observation, patience and time.

Although Anna and the Swallow Man do their best to avoid people, a chance encounter in the forest changes their situation in ways neither could have anticipated. Anna meets a man in the forest who appears to be kissing his rifle. When she asks him what he is doing with his rifle he explains to her that his "rifle" is actually a clarinet which he cannot play because the reed is cracked. Reb Hirschl "plays" his clarinet for Anna. The Swallow Man does not want to having anything to do with Reb Hirschl and takes Anna away from him. He admits to Anna that he does not want Reb Hirschl to come with them because he is a Jew. But Anna argues with the Swallow Man insisting that they should help Reb Hirschl who likely will not survive in the forest alone. When Anna attempts to sneak back to Reb Hirschl to bring him bread because she is worried about him surviving, the Swallow Man relents and brings the Jewish man to where they are camped.

Anna, the Swallow Man and Reb Hirschl travel throughout Poland and as the war progresses and Operation Barbarossa begins, the three struggle to survive. Mass graves, dead soldiers, unexpected death and the sickening of the Swallow Man force Anna to make difficult choices but in the end lead to unexpected redemption and rescue.


Anna and The Swallow Man is an unusual story that is much different from the usual fare offered to young adult readers.  as it offers a more interpretive than literal story.  Told in third person narrative, the novel on one layer tells the story of Anna, a seven year old abandoned when her father is caught in the Nazi net and who remains strangely unconcerned about her father's whereabouts. It is a fairy tale about surviving in an world filled with evil, as fairy tales often are.

Although Anna and The Swallow Man is historical fiction, the focus is not so much on events of history - although they are referenced and form the backdrop for the story - as it is about relationships. The main focus is on the relationship between Anna and the Swallow Man who refuses to share his true identity with her. While her name is important to Anna, the Swallow Man convinces her that names are dangerous because the lead to people being able to find other people during this dangerous time. This is the first the reader suspects that the Swallow Man might be someone of importance whom the Nazis may be searching for. Given the background information in the opening chapter about the German operation Sonderaktion Krakau and the description of the Swallow Man who is wearing a three piece suit and carrying a physicians bag, it is likely he is part of the Polish intelligentsia and therefore attempting to escape the Nazis.But for Anna, giving up her name is difficult because her identity is tied up with her name.

Because of the upheavals in Anna's life, she is skilled at speaking back to people in the language they speak to her whether it be German or Polish or French or Russian. So when she meets the Swallow Man, she finds his language to be "an erratic, shimmering thing" and that he does not say what he means. Anna quickly adapts, since she is versatile in languages and so when the tall thin man tells her merely to "stay out of sight...For as long as you can." Anna interprets this to mean that she is to follow him as he heads out of Krakow and into the forest. The Swallow Man eventually teaches Anna his language which he calls "Road" because "The world as it exists is a very, very dangerous place".  In "Road" there is no way to lie - it's a matter of interpretation and the words used. Just as the Swallow Man teaches Anna to survive in the forest, he also teaches her to survive in the wilds of a world at war. To that end he frames danger in wartime which comes primarily from soldiers by identifying them as predatory animals. The Swallow Man refers to Germans as Wolves who are part of a cruel, angry pack  while Russians are Bears who are solitary. He also tells Anna that they are on a mission to find an endangered species of bird which the Wolves and Bears wish to find a devour because "it's the last and they think that whoever eats it will become very, very strong." This bird is special because it flies and sings in a unique way.  Readers will have their own interpretations as to whom or what the Swallow Man is referring to in these passages. It would seem that the Swallow Man is teaching Anna who the prime threats are to her survival during war and how she is to stay alive during this dangerous time.

 Later in the novel the focus shifts to the relationships Reb Hirschl has with both Anna and the Swallow Man. Reb Hirschl is a character who brings some measure of delight into Anna's difficult life; he brings music, poetry and even play. Unlike the Swallow Man who is tasked with keeping them alive, Reb can afford to be a source of joy in a more open way. In the case of Reb Hirschl and the Swallow Man, although neither of them likes the other, they do develop a relationship of "cooperative understanding" - " which one of the two men would forgo his own strongly held way of being and embrace the others as if giving a moment of his life to his opposite in tribute." 

Not all the men Anna meets are as good-hearted as Reb Hirschl. The Peddler whom they encounter in the forest is a creepy man who attempts to convince the Swallow Man to let him use Anna sexually. For Anna's safety, the Swallow Man murders the Peddler later in the night when he is asleep. But he also admits that Reb Hirschl is correct that the Peddler may have recognized him and this is the main reason he was killed. The Swallow Man tells Reb Hirschl that if he is discovered, the world will burn. Reb Hirschl does not accept the Swallow Man's explanation and leaves them.

Anna and the Swallow Man spend most of the novel in the forest sequestered away from events happening in Poland and Russia. Their fears are confirmed when they meet the Peddler who provides them with horrific news of the ghetto liquidations and the camps that are killing Jews. After they are caught up in Operation Barbarossa which sees the Germans conduct a lightning advance into Russia, the full reality of war begins to confront them. Daily Anna, Reb and the Swallow Man encounter dead soldiers whom they scavenge so as to be able to survive. For Anna this is a fact of life which she quickly adapts to. "It was not pleasant to harvest from the dead -- particularly the recently dead, whose warmth thwarted Anna's efforts at stoicism -- but soon she learned not to look at their faces, and if she interacted with only their clothing and their kits, she didn't have to wonder about what their names had been..."  Anna learns from Reb to treat the dead bodies with dignity as she watches him look the dead in the face, apologize to them and pray over them.

When the Swallow Man becomes ill due to a lack of his medication and he is badly wounded in protecting Anna, she manages to walk him to a German field camp. Anna does so despite being taught the Germans are Wolves set on devouring the endangered species - a bird because she remembers what the Swallow Man taught her that  "Human beings are the best hope in the world of other human beings to survive." Overcoming her fear of the "Wolves" she begs for help, recognizing that they are also humans who can help. The doctor Wolf, so desensitized to the death of humans, he doesn't see the humanity of the Swallow Man - he's just a wound to him. "The soldier was only doing what he'd done a hundred times before -- treating the wound and ignoring the man."  Perhaps the endangered species is a human being who can see and feel the humanity of others.

Author Gavriel Savit identifies Anna and the Swallow Man as a fairytale "about the magical uncertainties of war and childhood, and it aims to ask more questions than it answers."   Savit certainly has accomplished this with his thought-provoking novel. Marketed as a young adult novel this can certainly be enjoyed by adults and older children, although there is some disturbing content for younger readers.

Book Details:

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit
New York: Alfred A. Knopf        2016
232 pp.