Sunday, January 31, 2016

Promise the Night by Michaela MacColl

Promise the Night tells the fascinating story of Beryl Markham's childhood in East Africa. Beryl Markha was the first woman to fly solo from east to west, across the Atlantic Ocean in 1936.

Markham was born Beryl Clutterbuck in 1902. In 1904 her mother and father along with Beryl moved to Kenya to farm. Within two years her mother had abandoned the family and returned to England, leaving 2 year old Beryl and her father  in British East Africa. Beryl's father was a racehorse trainer and he allowed his young daughter to mingle freely with the African natives, learning their culture. MacColl's novel picks up the story when Beryl is ten years old, uneducated and mostly left to wander at will. The story is set on Green Hills Farm, Njoro, British East Africa which is now known as Kenya.

Beryl lives in a mud hut known as a rondavel only a short distance away from her father's rondavel. One night, her beloved dog, Buller, is attacked by a leopard who caries him off into the forest. When her father refuses to rescue the dog, the next morning Beryl goes into the forest to track and find him. In the bush she meets a native boy, Kibii who is from the Nandi tribe. Kibii was sent by his father, Arap Maina who works for Beryl's father, Captain Clutterbuck to find Beryl. Kibii locates Buller and together the two carry the severely injured dog back to her father's compound. Captain Clutterbuck tells Beryl she will be returning to England but when Beryl protests, Arap Maina offers to teach her the ways of the Nandi tribe as a means of keeping her out of trouble.

Beryl is taken to Kibii's village and meets his mothers and is told that she will help the Nandi women weave a thatched roof. However Beryl is not interested in women's work but instead wants to learn how to hunt. Arap Maina allows Beryl to train with the young boys learning "to track animals, wrestle and even throw a spear at a target." But she is not allowed to learn how to hunt. Later on Arap Maina's resolve weakens as Beryl insists that she wants to become a murani or warrior, something women are not allowed to do. Initially Arap Maina allows Beryl to watch the Nandi hunt a leopard.

Mrs. Emma Orchardson arrives at the Clutterbuck Farm along with her son Arthur, to keep house for Beryl's father. Beryl's father has built a new house, which Beryl notes might have convinced her mother to remain on the farm if it had been built years ago. Beryl however, continues to live in her hut. She doesn't take very well to Arthur whom Beryl considers to be somewhat of a sissy. Beryl's dislike of Arthur almost results in her and Arthur being seriously injured by Simi the baboon who is a pet on the farm. Simi viciously attacks Arthur leading Beryl to quickly intervene. She finds herself in a deadly battle with the baboon, whom she ends up killing.

That night Kibii takes Beryl to the Kikuyu village to watch the men dancing. However, when Beryl goes missing her father sends one of his Boer foremen to search for her and she is hauled home. Captain Clutterbuck is concerned about Beryl's knack for getting herself in dangerous situations, while Emma worries about her wild upbringing. Emma insists Captain Clutt hire a governess for his daughter, which he reluctantly agrees to do.

The next day Captain Clutterbuck takes the train to Nairobi. Beryl rides with him to the train station at Nakuru. On the trip Beryl's father attempts to persuade her that a governess will be good for her and that she must try to get along with Emma who is there to stay. When Beryl returns to Green Hills, she goes to visit the Nandi village. Arap Maina tells the young boys that the murani will hunt the lion who is endangering their cattle. When Beryl insists she be allowed to go on the hunt, Arap Maina agrees only if she promises to follow his orders. Both Kibii and another boy, Mehru are angry that Beryl is allowed to participate.

Beryl is taken on the hunt and given a bodyguard named Tepli who is very reluctant to have her in his care. When the lion charges Arap Maina, Beryl courageously diverts the lion so he can be killed. Arap Maina tells Beryl she did well because like a warrior, she did not run. When Beryl returns home she finds her father has been given the pelt of the lion killed in the hunt. Her father is furious that she has been involved in such a dangerous event. Beryl finds her father has brought back a governess,Miss Le May. Not surprisingly, Beryl and Miss Le May do not get along. Their relationship turns into one of full out war with Miss Le May whipping Beryl in an attempt to get her to learn math. Beryl eventually flees to her hut and is locked in by the governess. She is able to escape to the Nandi where she stays for two weeks. When her father returns, Beryl is able to show him what's been happening and Miss Le May is fired.

Things change drastically when Beryl is attacked by Mehru and is forced to fight him. When Captain Clutterbuck comes across the two fighting, he beats Mehru badly, believing he tried to violate Beryl. This creates much tension between the Nandi and Captain Clutterbuck who doesn't understand the Nandi culture. Beryl's bad luck continues when she is attacked by a nearby farmer's pet lion. Seriously wounded Beryl is rescued but her father warns her he's had enough.  Beryl's father decides to send her away to be educated in Nairobi, telling her he has no choice. Thrust into the British world of boarding schools and regulations, Beryl must adjust to her new life. Will things every be the same for Beryl when she returns to her beloved Green Hills?


Discussion

Promise the Night is probably Michaela MacColl's best novel to date. It is a richly crafted novel that explores the themes of friendship and identity in culture within a coming of age story.

MacColl brilliantly captures Beryl's headstrong personality even though at times Beryl is a genuinely difficult, unlikeable character. As a ten-year-old she refuses to follow any of the social norms of civilized society. She insists on living in a mud hut and on going barefoot. Her hair is uncombed, her face dirty and she does not wear the dresses and hats common to young girls of this time period. She doesn't go to school and places no value in education. Instead Beryl is allowed to roam freely on the farm and to mingle with the East African natives. Exposed to their culture early on she is determined to become a murani and is desperate to participate in the hunts.

However this immersion in native culture inevitably sets Beryl up for much internal conflict. She fears growing up because it will mean the loss of her friendship with Kibii. Beryl's relationship with Kibii will change when he is initiated into manhood in the Nandi and as Beryl grows into a young woman. Emma asks Beryl to confront the reality of her life by recognizing the changes beginning in her own body. Beryl tells Emma that she doesn't want to grow up because it means she will have to give up the very things that she has in common with Kibii, hunting, wrestling and running. Emma forces Beryl to confront the reality of her situation: "You could kill every lion in the highlands, but you will still be a white girl. You're the daughter of a respected landowner, his heir." Emma also tells her that because of her father's unusual situation of being abandoned by his wife and because she is still married, her father is ostracized by the other settlers.

However Beryl comes to understand that even though she's gone away to school and returned and even though Kibii is now murani and known as Arap Ruta their friendship still endures. At first when she returns to the farm, Beryl believes that Kibii doesn't want to have anything to do with her. But Arap Ruta comes to see her after Beryl has helped her horse, Coquette birth a colt. When they meet Beryl tells him that much to her surprise the stars looked the same in Nairobi as on the farm. And that it was she who was different. Even though they are different now, Kibii is now a warrior and Beryl is growing into a young women, they are still the same people and still friends.

MacColl tells Beryl Markham, nee Clutterbuck's story by weaving together two narratives: the main story is that of a ten year old girl struggling to find her identity as the daughter of a white farmer in East Africa interspersed with the narrative of a daring young woman determined to fly across the Atlantic from England to New York in 1936.

Promise the Night also conveys to young readers what life was like in East Africa in the early 20th century. There is some portrayal of culture which MacColl based on the Masai tribe because information was more readily available for the Masai than the Nandi. Readers are given a glimpse of the rigors endured to build a railway in East Africa when Beryl takes the train home from Nairobi. And of course, the social conventions common to England were still strictly adhered to in British Africa.

MacColl was motivated to write this historical novel after hearing her mother, an amateur pilot talk about Beryl Markham's memoir, West with the Night. With such a personal connection to flying, it's no surprise the MacColl was able to capture the essence of Beryl Markham's character.

Although Beryl Markham was known for her solo transatlantic flight, this feat is really secondary to young Beryl's childhood in Promise the Night. Young Beryl's narrative is filled with references to her future flying career. When she is with Kibii she tells him that she would love to fly over the valley like and eagle. Later on when Captain Clutterbuck is attempting to convince Beryl that a governess might be good for her, he tells her the story of Icarus and Daedalus who escaped the island of Crete by flying. Although it's a foreshadowing of Beryl's own dangerous flight years later, the Captain is warning her against being reckless.

Overall, Promise The Night is a wonderful novel, engaging and well written. Fans of historical fiction and those wanting to learn more about famous and unconventional women will be delighted with Michaela MacColl's retelling. There is an excellent Author's Note at the back and a list for further reading as well.

Book Details:

Promise Of The Night by Michaela MacColl
San Francisco: Chronicle Books       2011
262 pp.



Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Little In Love by Susan Fletcher

"We all leave something behind us. A bird in flight will lose a snow-white feather, and flowers in the hedgerows will drop their petals. And people? We leave memories. Footprints in the dust and fingerprints on everything we've touched, warmth in every hand we've held. We become stories that are spoken of, for always. And in this way, we carry on."

A Little In Love tells the story of Eponine Thenardier from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Fletcher's story is loosely based on the events in the novel, although they occur in a somewhat different manner. The character of Eponine is one of the more popular in both the novel and the various musicals performed in recent years. She is often considered Hugo's most interesting.

The novel opens on the Rue de la Chanvrerie. It is June 5, 1832. Eponine lies in front of the barricades, having been shot in an attempt to save Marius from being shot.  With blood everywhere, she knows she is dying. She's remembering Marius and the first time she saw him. She's also remembering her childhood in Montfermeil, a small village outside of Paris.

Eponine was born in 1815 in a hayfield to Madame Thenardier while her father Luc fought in the Battle of Waterloo. Because Eponine's mother likes girls she decides to keep the baby.  When her father returned home from war he was rich off the money and items he plundered from the dead. With that money her parents bought the damp inn on the ruelle du Boulanger in Montfermeil, naming it the Sergeant of Waterloo.

A sister Azelma was soon born. Eponine was protective of her younger sister.  She loved to watch the rain from her bedroom window. Lots of rain meant their inn was full of customers and a chance for her parents to get rich. Eponine's mother sends her to the main room to rob their patrons who won't suspect a small child of picking pockets.  When Eponine returns with jewelry, coins and a ruby ring her mother is pleased and tells her she loves her.

A day later the Thenardier's take in a young girl named Cosette whose mother pays for them to care for her daughter. Cosette is a beautiful little girl with blonde hair who believes that her mother will one day return for her when she has enough money. Feeling sorry for Cosette, Eponine places her in her and Azelma's bed. However her mother is furious at her for doing this and orders Cosette to sleep under the stairs. Madame Thenardier tells Eponine that they will use the money from Cosette's mother to pay for nice dresses and meat while Cosette will wear rags and eat crusts.

Cosette's life is very hard as she does all the dirty, hard jobs: plucking chickens, scrubbing vegetables, cleaning windows and washing the floors. Eponine tries to be kind to Cosette but her mother tells her kindness will not help her in life. Because of this Eponine decides to be cruel to Cosette. After a trip to Paris by her mother, Eponine is given a new petticoat and a white fur muff, while Azelma receives a cape with green velvet trim. Eventually their money runs out, Cosette's mother stops sending the Thenardiers money and they must return to thieving as a means of living. Eponine steals too, because she wants to make her mother happy. However, Cosette makes Eponine feel guilty for stealing from a blind man.

When Eponine is eight years old, Madame Thenardier gives birth to a boy whom she immediately abandons. Eponine with the help of Cosette care for him and he is eventually named Gavroche. At Christmas 1823 a strange man wearing a yellow jacket comes to the inn. When Madame Thenardier is cruel to Cosette, this man whose name is Jean Valjean, intercedes for her and buys her the expensive doll Azelma desperately wanted from the stall in town. He stays at the inn and buys Cosette from the Thenardiers on Christmas Day, taking her away. Eponine is jealous and sad because she knows Cosette has been saved and will lead a comfortable life with someone who loves her.

By spring the Thenardiers are destitute once again and Eponine and Azelma are forced to steal. Everytime she steals, Eponine tries to do something good to appease her conscience. However life for Eponine only gets harder when her father murders a man and the Thenardiers are forced to flee Montfermeil and head to Paris. The journey is exhausting and cold, with the family hiding in ditches along the way. They eventually find a boat, repair it and drift downriver towards Paris. However, Gavroche is left behind, much to the horror of Eponine.

In Paris the Thenardiers stay with Monsieur Thenardier's friend, Babet on the rue de la Charcuterie. Eponine is now fifteen years old. Although the area where she lives is poor, she soon discovers the Paris of her dreams. "The houses were grander than any I'd ever seen and the shops sold wonderful things -- soap, flowers, china, sugared confectionary laid out like stars. As for the men, they wore top hats and had neat mustaches, and the ladies wore white curled wigs with their skirts rustling behind them..." Fourteen year old Azelma however likes the dark side of Paris, the alleyways and the stealing. Madame Thenardier loves the gang of clever thieves,Patron Minette consisting of Babet, the enormous Gueulemer, the mute Claquesous, and Montparness who is young and well dressed. The Patron Minette ruled the Paris underworld. In order to escape the terrible house on rue de la Charcuterie, Eponine steals continuously. A key Eponine finds leads her father to rob a wealthy home allowing the Thenardiers to move to the Gorbeau tenement.

However, they continue to live in dire poverty. This leads Monsieur Thenardier to decide to write letters to wealthy Parisians begging for money. Eponine and Azelma go to the rue de Rivoli where they use the letters to solicit money. There Eponine meets Montparnasse whom she dislikes intensely. Fleeing from the troubling encounter with Montparnasse, Eponine runs into a handsome young man back at the Gorbeau. She learns from Madame Bourgon, who runs the tenement, that the man's name is Marius Pontmercy who rents Room four. It is this encounter that changes Eponine's destiny forever.

Discussion

In A Little In Love, Fletcher portrays Eponine as a girl whose basic character is good but because of her circumstances, often finds herself drawn into a life of thieving. This sets up an enormous source of conflict in Eponine's life which she must resolve. At first Eponine steals because it is what she's been taught from birth. "Before I could even talk, my mother taught me. When I was still a baby she showed me how to grasp a lady's collar and, like this, steal her diamond brooch. She told me to smile so that passersby paused to say, 'What a pretty baby!' "

Eponine soon recognizes that she is only praised and loved by her mother when she steals. Her mother tells her "How I love you when you bring me such gifts! When you steal so well!" Eponine longs to simply be loved by her mother as her daughter. This becomes even more apparent to Eponine when she sees how Cosette's mother loves her. "My sadness sat in my heart like a pebble -- hard and sore...It was that long, tight hug that Cosette's mother had given her, the way she'd pressed her face into the place between Cosette's neck and shoulders..." Eponine knows she is only "called pretty when I'd stolen things."

When Eponine wants to be kind to Cosette her mother tells her, "Kindness is a useless thing. Useless! Do you think that kindness stops the guillotine's blade or the gnaw of hunger in a belly...It is the kind people who are tricked and fooled and stolen from! It's the kind ones who are murdered..." This results in Eponine acting cruelly towards Cosette in an attempt to win her mother's "love" and it also leads to Eponine to focus on stealing to win that approval from her mother. However, when she steals the blind man's wedding ring, Cosette's surprise at Eponine's cruelty only serves to prick her conscience and she feels shame over what she's done. So she promises herself that she will go one day to Paris to find love and to stop stealing.

Once in Paris things worsen because her family becomes involved with a gang of thieves. While the rest of her family admires the gang, Patron Minette, Eponine realizes that "I ached for something else. For something good." Eponine continues to struggle with her deep desire to live a good life in the face of extreme poverty and while living with a family made up of disreputable characters who place no value on honesty. This is particularly demonstrated when Eponine meets Montparnasse who is the youngest member of the Patron Minette. Eponine asks Montparnasse if he wishes for something better asking him, "Don't you ever want to live a kinder life?"

Eponine hopes to believe in something higher.
"All I wanted was to believe in better, just a bit. A little light and love and hope. I wanted to shake Montparnasse, to shout out that his heart might be missing but mine was still beating, and my conscience was beating too...How could he ever be happy, murdering?" But Montparnasse has been made hard by poverty and injustice. He tells her that kindness will only make her poorer. Just when she's lost hope in the ideals of love and beauty she meets Marius.

When Marius gives Eponine a five franc coin, Eponine's family can't comprehend his action. "He must be a proper fool, that boy," said Papa." But Eponine recognizes his action for what it is - an act of kindness. With the five franc coin, Eponine's family is able to eat well for weeks, proving to her that kindness does matter. It is her love for Marius and the death of her mother that motivates Eponine in the end to "...do all the good, kind acts I've ever wanted to. I won't steal. I won't lie. I 'll make people's lives better whenever I can manage it. And I'll never, ever do cruel things again." Eponine becomes determined to make amends for the harm she's done to Marius, Cosette and Jean Valjean even if it costs her everything she has. Her acts of kindness in locating Marius for Cosette and bringing the two of them together also serve to demonstrate that kindness matters.

The novel's themes of redemption and forgiveness play out in the final scenes of the story between Eponine and Cosette and between Eponine and Marius. In both cases Eponine asks the forgiveness of Cosette and Marius, bringing her peace and foreshadowing her death.

Fletcher does an admirable job of portraying life in France after the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution. After the Napoleonic Wars, France became a monarchy once again with the return of the brothers of King Louis XVI. This became known as the Bourbon Restoration and lasted until1830. While there were some positive changes out of the revolution, France continued to be plagued by widespread poverty, unrest and cholera outbreaks. The Thenardier family demonstrate the effect of poverty on families and on society in general. Poverty makes people vulnerable to disease and crime.

Fletcher's novel takes its title from a line in Les Miserables where Eponine mentions that she was "a little in love" with Marius. This novel has a wonderful cover, the title letters in the tricolours of the republic. A Little In Love is a dark novel whose themes of kindness, redemption and forgiveness balance out the dark characters who live for only themselves.
Fans of the musical, Les Miserables will enjoy this novel. Those who have never heard of Victor Hugo's story nor the musical which is based on the classic novel will enjoy this historical novel of unrequited love set in post revolutionary France.

Book Details:

A Little in Love by Susan E. Fletcher
New York: Chicken House 2015
227 pp.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Eighteen year old Madeline Furukawa Whittier suffers from SCID, Severe Combined Immunodeficiency or what has been referred to as "bubble baby disease".  She's allergic to the world around her and must live in a germ free world. As a result, she hasn't left her home for the past seventeen years. Her mother, Pauline is a doctor and cares for her, along with her longtime nurse, Carla Flores.

Things change for Madeline when a new family moves in next door.  From her window Madeline sees a mother and father, a young girl and a tall, lean boy dressed all in black. Madeline watches the new family, discovering that while everyone has some kind of routine, the boy in black does not. As it turns out, his bedroom is directly opposite Madeline's. This means she can easily observe him and one thing she does notice is that he likes to climb out of his bedroom window and sit on the roof. She learns that his name is Olly, although his father calls him Oliver and that his younger sister is Kara. Madeline also notices that the father drinks alot and yells at the family.

Shortly after moving in, Olly comes to Madeline's home, bringing a Bundt cake as a gift. However, Madeline's mother must refuse the cake and doesn't offer an explanation. This of course, makes Olly very upset. But it also results in his father becoming enraged The father throws the cake at Olly, causing the plate to break but leaving the cake undamaged. Two days later, Madeline hears pings at her window and looks across to see the Bundt cake wearing googly eyes. Olly pushes the Bundt cake to its "death" and what follows is a series of evenings involving the cake recovering from its "jump", making another suicide attempt, on life support and finally "dying" as evidenced by Olly dressed for a funeral. Olly leaves his email contact on his window for Madeline and the two begin to talk, first via email and then by chat.

Eventually Madeline and Olly's friendship deepens and Madeline finds herself wanting to actually meet Olly, something she's not allowed to do because of her illness. However, after begging Carla to allow her to let Olly visit her inside her own home, Madeline and Olly do meet in the sunroom of her house after agreeing not to touch. Olly stays on the opposite side of the room. The meeting leaves Madeline thrilled because she really likes Olly, but she also feels conflicted for keep their meeting a secret from her mother.

After a week without any serious medical repercussions, Madeline and Olly meet again and Madeline is certain she's falling in love. She spends her nights instant messaging Olly leaving her tired and resulting in Madeline skipping movie nights with her mother. Olly reveals details about his family and how his father became abusive towards him and his mother. This leads to Maddy's mother noticing that she's changed and questioning Carla about those changes.Carla tells Maddy she can't keep seeing Olly, that he will eventually return to school and forget about her. But Madeline insists that she keep seeing him and promises to spend more time with her mother.

Olly and Madeline continue to meet, moving from touching one another to kissing. Still Madeline remains healthy. Things drastically change when one night Madeline and her mother witness a violent altercation between Olly and his father on the front lawn of their house. As Olly attempts to protect his mother from being assaulted, his father punches him in the stomach. Without thinking and to her mother's horror, Madeline races outside and intervenes, preventing Olly from being further assaulted. Madeline's mother realizes that Madeline intervened because Olly is no stranger. The repercussions of Madeline's actions are swift and devastating. Her mother discovers that she has been seeing Olly and fires Carla for her part in bringing the two together. Madeline loses her internet priviledeges and her mother takes a week off work to care for her while interviewing for a new nurse.

Although Madeline and Olly continue to communicate through their bedroom windows, Madeline becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her isolated existence. Three weeks later, Madeline makes a decision that sets in motion a chain of events that change her life forever.

Discussion

Everything, Everything is part sick lit and part romance. Readers will probably quickly figure out the twist in the story early on partly because unlike the real "bubble baby", Madeline is not in total isolation. SCID is now curable if caught immediately after birth and many jurisdictions test newborns for this serious condition.

Everything, Everything's strongest theme is that of identity and self-determination. Madeline's entire existence is defined by her illness. Her life is a series of missed events driven home to her even more when she has her eighteenth birthday.
"Another whole year of being sick, no hope for a cure on the horizon. Another year of missing all the normal teenagery things -- learner's permit, first kiss, prom, first heartbreak, first fender bender...This year is a little harder than the previous. Maybe it's because I'm eighteen now...I should be leaving home, going off to college. My mom should be dreading empty-nest syndrome."


Meeting Olly for the first time results in Madeline thinking about her place in the universe, outside the confines of her home, and to acknowledge what she really wants. This is something she hasn't really allowed herself to do until this point.
"And it's not just Olly that I see. I keep picturing myself floating high about the earth. From the edge of space I can see the whole world all at once. My eyes don't have to stop at a wall or at a door. I can see the beginning and the end of time. I can see infinity from there.
For the first time in a long time, I want more than I have."

The loss of Olly after their relationship is discovered by her mother results in Madeline's perspective on her life gradually changing. Although she describes herself as "two Maddys", in reality Madeline is growing up and beginning to make her own decisions about the risks she will take and how she wants to live her life. "Ever since Olly came into my life there've been two Maddys: the one who lives through books and doesn't want to die, and the one who lives and suspects that death will be a small price to pay for it... The second Maddy knows that this pale half life is not really living."

Her decision to travel to Hawaii with Olly leaves Madeline conflicted but not enough to cause her to not follow through on her plan. The trip opens her to new experiences - travelling in a car and a plane, wearing a swimsuit for the first time and going to the beach, snorkeling.

Madeline meets Zachariah, Olly's gay friend who wants to be an artist,  but who won't tell his parents because he knows they would make him choose. He wonders perhaps if "Maybe growing up means disappointing the people we love." At this time it something Madeline doesn't really have an answer for but will eventually come to understand.

After recovering from her illness on Hawaii, Madeline comes to discover the truth about her situation. Yoon does a great job of chronicling Madeline's journey towards forgiving her mother for what she has done. The novel doesn't become bogged down in details but shows Madeline taking the initiative to discover the truth about her health, confronting her mother and beginning to set boundaries while still living at home. Although Madeline will never know "the moment that set my life on this path", she learns to forgive her mother, understanding that what she did was out of love. Unlike her mother who tried to protect her from the "dangers" of life, Madeline accepts that life and living have its risks. "But anything can happen at any time. Safety is not everything. There's more to life than being alive."

Despite the serious subject matter, Yoon never lets it overwhelm her story. The episode involving the Bundt cake is quite funny and well written. And over Madeline's serious illness is a sweet coming of age story that involves two lonely teens struggling to deal with serious issues. Olly, the caring boy whom Madeline falls for, is a believable character with real life problems who unwittingly motivates Madeline to risk all in order to live more fully.

Readers interested in something a bit different with a touch of humour will enjoy Everything, Everything.


Book Details:

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
Toronto: Doubleday Canada     2015
306 pp.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Their Fractured Light by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Their Fractured Light is the final installment in the Starbound Series by Kaufman and Spooner. Like its predecessors, it features a new couple in their battle against LaRoux Industries, but this time brings together the couples from the previous two novels. It is set in Corinth, the capital of the galaxy.

Seventeen year old Sofia Quinn is in the holosuite at LaRoux Industries Headquarters where she's supposed to meet up with Sanjano Rao. Sofia's here for one thing and that's to hopefully gain information to help her take out the president of LaRoux for what he did to her father on Avon.She's been chasing LaRoux for a year, changing identities, moving from place to place and attempting to remove her gentag. Sofia knows that there is supposed to be a large protest today against LaRoux Industries.

The hologram projects a beautiful scene, green grass dappled with brilliant sunlight and blue skies. Sofia knows the holosuite is part of Roderick LaRoux's new outreach program designed to make people forget Flynn Cormac's broadcast from Avon a year ago. Sofia is in the holosuite waiting to meet up with Sanjano Rao.

Sofia notices a young man in a LaRoux uniform seated on the floor in the holosuite watching her. It appears that after doing something on his laptop the hologram crashes revealing a large upright metal ring in the middle of the room. Sofia knows this is not a projector. The boy quickly changes his top so that he looks like the others in the room as security announces that there has been a security breach originating in the holosuite. Sofia knows she has to get out of the holosuite because her gentag tattoo will reveal her as being from Avon, linking her to the protesters.

As the security guards begin funneling people out of the room, Sofia desperately tries to find a way to escape. She approaches a guard and pointing to the boy, she asks him to help her fiance who has a "condition". Just at this time the boy collapses to the ground, foaming at the mouth, catching both the security and Sofia off guard. At this time the metal ring in the center of the holosuite begins to turn on. The people become quiet as they watch "little flickers of blue light" around the ring's edge. Quickly the metal ring becomes covered in blue light. With everyone distracted by what is happening Sofia and the boy begin to make their way to the unguarded emergency exit. Sofia looks back to see the center of the ring now filled with brilliant light. The people around the ring begin to collapse to the floor. In the middle of the ring, on the other side of the curtain of energy, Sofia can see the empty faces of people, their eyes black.

As Gideon and Sofia race down the hallway they introduce themselves to one another, although Sofia tells Gideon her name is Alexis. For a diversion, Gideon makes the building believe there is a fire in the stairwell, hoping that people will move to the opposite side of the building. The two puzzle over what they've just seen in the holosuite. In the stairwell they run into more security who fire on them as they leave the building, wounding Gideon. Sofia manages to convince a taxi driver to take them to the Regency Towers where they abandon the cab without paying and flee to her apartment in Camelot Heights.

In her apartment, Sofia mends Gideon's wounded arm and they share information about themselves. Gideon tells Sofia his name and she tells him she was at LaRoux because of her father. They discuss what happened to the metal ring with Gideon telling her that he has seen a metal ring like the one in the holosuite before. Sofia tells him she has seen people who look like those on the holosuite, people with "Eyes like darkness. People whose minds have been stolen, turning them into those...those husks."  However they both hide information from each other too. Gideon doesn't tell Sofia that he was at LRI to try to track down Commander Antje Towers, the woman who helped LaRoux conceal what happened on Avon. Gideon was first involved by a request for security assistance from Lilac LaRoux. He knows that LaRoux has exported his experiments to three planets: Verona, Avon and Corinth. When she won't tell him where she's seen the people he knows that it was likely on Avon. He tells her that he knows the metal ring was on another planet but he doesn't mention that it was on Verona. When Sofia asks what it is for, Gideon does not tell her that it is a device that imprisons creatures from another dimension. He only tells her that it is a rift on Corinth.

Sofia refuses Gideon's suggestion that they work together. Gideon asks her if she's heard of the Knave of Hearts and tells her that the stories she's heard are mostly not true. Sofia doesn't realize that Gideon is the Knave. In payment for fixing his arm, Gideon leaves her with a way to secretly contact him. A few days after this, Sofia is attacked in her apartment by LaRoux's men and kidnapped. But before she is taken away, she manages to get a coded message to Gideon asking her to help him. He realizes that she's been taken by LaRoux's men. He contacts his friend Mae to help him track where she's been taken.

It turns out Sofia's been taken to LaRoux's headquarters where she is interrogated by his men about Gideon. She refuses to reveal what she knows so on orders from LaRoux they prepare to start up the ring and open the rift to turn her into one of the husks. Fortunately, Gideon is able to rescue Sofia and the two escape to his hidden high security den located in the slums on the lower level of Corinth. In Gideon's den, Sofia offers to work together with him although their objectives are very different. She requests that he not tell the Knave of Hearts, who has been pursuing her for months, not knowing that Gideon is the Knave. She also reveals her real name is Sofia.

Sofia knows that LaRoux will not stop hunting for them since they know about the rift in LRI. She remembers the Avon Broadcast in which Flynn Cormac spoke about "creatures" they called "whispers" who are from another universe and who can affect people's minds. the creatures come from hyperspace and closing off their universe would mean destroying the ability to communicate and travel between the different planets in this universe. Gideon tells Sofia that they need to fight LaRoux and not the whispers. "There's nothing we can do against being that can reach inside your head, but we can stop what they're being used to do. Whatever it is." He also believes that the survivors of the Icarus encountered the "whispers" when they were stranded.

While Gideon wants to remain quiet for several weeks Sofia tells him they need to act. She indicates that while at LRI she learned they intend to fix the rift within the week. This coincides with the grand opening of the Daedalus museum commemorating the Icarus tragedy, which will be attended by the planetary envoys at the peace summit. She believes that LaRoux wants to gain control of the senators in the same way he did to the people on Avon. This would allow him to control the entire galaxy. Based on the information Sofia has received both she and Gideon believe there could be a rift on board the Daedalus. Can the two of them learn to trust one another enough to stop Roderick LaRoux and save both humans and the creatures from hyperspace?

Discussion

Kaufman and Spooner have collaborated to create a brilliant conclusion to this unique science fiction trilogy. Their Fractured Light brings together the main characters from the previous two novels to tie up all the loose ends quite neatly. The series focused on three couples: Tarver Merendenson and Lilac LaRoux who initially discover the rift between the two universes, the creatures from another universe whom they name "whispers" who are imprisoned and her father's "research" on them, Flynn Cormac and Jubilee Chase who uncover "whispers" imprisoned on Avon in a secret research station, and Gideon and Sofia Quinn who each have lost someone dear to them as a result of Roderick LaRoux and are determined to stop him.

Their Fractured Light has three distinct narratives: Gideon, Sofia and the "whispers" one of whom is now is trapped in the human universe. As in the previous two novels, the main characters are a young man and woman who are initially at odds but who come to understand each other and fall in love.  In Their Fractured Light, Gideon and Sofia are thrown together much like Tarver and Lilac were in the first novel. Like Tarver and Lilac they have prejudices towards one another and do not trust each other as both have criminal pasts. As a result they both withhold vital information that might help them achieve their goal of stopping LaRoux. However as they spend more time, they begin to uncover the truth about one another. Gideon, who is a hacker known as the Knave of Hearts, believes he has been pursuing Commander Anjte Towers who helped LaRoux hide what happened on Avon. Instead he learns that Towers assumed Sofia's identity when she left Avon and it is Sofia he's been tracking all this time. When Sofia who has been stalked for months by the Knave, is shocked to discover the boy she is falling for is the man pursuing her she feels betrayed and scared. Because of their past choices, neither is now able to trust the other, despite their intense feelings for one another. Their struggle to trust each other becomes one of the main themes of the novel.

Sofia believes that Gideon doesn't really know her and therefore can't love her. But he assures her that he knows her and does trust her. However, even after hearing each other say they trust the other, both still have their doubts because they believe the other might just be saying what wants to be heard.What eventually convinces Sofia to take the risk to trust is Gideon's belief that the whispers may have been observing them, seeing all their communications in hyperspace and watching the three couples to see the choices they have made.

"The other whispers, in their universe on the other side of the rift, have been watching us. Judging us, testing us, setting us up like pieces on a board to see who we are. And if Gideon can know me, love me, trust me and I can learn that lesson in return -- if we and all our friends and allies can make choices and sacrifices that come from our hearts -- then I'm ready for us to be judged."

Following in the example of Tarver and Lilac, Sofia decides to trust Gideon fully and to trust the whispers. She will open the rift, allowing the whispers in the other dimension to help the tortured whisper threatening their world with catastrophic destruction. Likewise, Gideon decides to show his trust in her by accompanying her into the rift.

Another dominant theme in this novel is that of choice and whether or not the choices we make define us. Both the humans and the whispers must make choices. For humans, choice is a part of life, but for the whispers, choice is a very new idea.

The whisper narratives reveal that these sentient beings "have always been one entity, infinite selves all linked, every thought shared." From "thin spots" they begin observing humans, intrigued by their individuality. The scientists probe the thing spot causing them pain. Some whispers are imprisoned and tortured. They discover there are more like LaRoux and to decide to observe them "to understand. To decide whether their existence is worth knowing..." They discover there is much anger in humans and that they "cannot see into each other as we can and therefore they know each other only through the words they invent." The whispers decide to follow six humans who have suffered loss and pain. Meanwhile, one of the whispers who is separated from his kind, grows to know hate and desires to kill the humans. When that whisper is able to take over Lilac it begins destroying the human world. It is the choice of Sofia and Gideon to open the rift that enables the whispers to rescue their separated one.

Because of their contact with humans in the "thin spots" where the two universes meshed, the whispers have been changed. This has led to conflict within their universe, some want to close their universe to humans and become one entity again, while others are curious about the possibility of becoming unique. In the end, they must make a choice, as they tell Lilac, to "Blow open this rift for good, allow our kind to explore your world and understand it, and there is no guarantee your human qualities would not eventually destroy us, as they destroyed our last emissary. Or, sever your universe's ties to ours once and for all, guaranteeing the survival of our species..." Choice is difficult for them because all possibilities exist. They wish Lilac to choose for them. But she refuses. Instead Lilac tells them that humans use the good experiences and emotions their choices bring them as a shield for the bad, and that they can teach the whispers to do the same.

The whisper narrative goes a long way to filling in the backstory for the trilogy. Kaufman and Spooner do a great job of weaving together all the elements from the three novels into a thrilling and satisfying conclusion. Many of the characters in the earlier novels appear in this finale. Roderick LaRoux is the quintessential villain out for universe-domination at any cost. He never sees the whispers as anything but creatures to be used for his own gain.

The Starbound series is a must for science fiction buffs. Well written, beautiful covers, interesting characters and an attractive story all make this an excellent series for teens and adults alike.

Book Details:


Their Fractured Light by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
New York: Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group 2015
432 pp.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Fish In A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Fish In A Tree is about a young girl whose struggles to read make her the target of the class bully. The arrival of a new teacher changes the course of her life and makes her a catalyst for change in her friends lives too.

Ally Nickerson spends most of her time getting into trouble at school. She's been to seven schools in seven years. Whenever she tries her best, Ally is told she's too messy or she doesn't try hard enough. In her current school, she's frequently sent to see the principal, Mrs. Silver. When her teacher, Mrs. Hall asks her to write a page about herself, Ally refuses to do the assignment. At a class baby shower for Mrs. Hall, Ally's card causes a huge commotion. The card she's given Mrs. Hall is a sympathy card, the type you'd give to someone who had a death in the family. Once again she finds herself struggling to explain her strange behaviour and is sent to see the principal.

Her behaviour leads Ally to be frequently bullied by her classmates Shay and Jessica. They also enjoy picking on Albert, a large boy whom Ally describes as a "walking Google page". However one girl, Keisha Almond stands up for Ally and often confronts Shay and Jessica in class about being mean.

Ally's mother works as a waitress at A.C. Petersen Farms to help support their family. Her father has been deployed overseas and Ally misses him intensely. She also misses her grandpa who passed away recently and used to read Alice In Wonderland to her. Ally identifies with the story because she sees it as a "book about living in a world where nothing makes sense..."

Ally's secret which she wants to hide from every one is that she finds it difficult to read. Words are like insects marching across the page. She can't quite grasp them long enough to know what they are. In second grade didn't recognize her own name and in third grade the teacher told her mother that she "might just be slow, that my mom shouldn't expect too much of me." Her grandpa's gift of Alice in Wonderland is like a "gift that's locked in a glass box". What Ally does love however, is to draw. In her sketchbook which she calls the "Sketchbook of Impossible Things", Ally draws anything that pops into her head, like "...a snowman that works in a furnace factory."

Mrs. Hall is replaced by Mr. Daniels, a young man who is very different than either Mrs. Hall or Mrs. Silver. For one thing he doesn't tolerate Shay's meanness in class and he works to make all the kids feel like they belong. When Ally doesn't complete the assignment about herself, Mr. Daniels discovers she likes math and she loves to draw. He tells her that if there are problems in class, the two of them will deal with it together and she won't be sent to the office. At "show and tell" Ally listens to her classmates show and describe things that tell the class about themselves. She almost doesn't show what she brought - a 1943 steel penny that her soldier father gave her. Mr. Daniels thinks its cool Ally showed the class her coin.

The next day Mr. Daniels gives everyone a note book to write in and tells them they can write about anything and that it will never be graded, which makes Ally very relieved. Their first entry is to be about themselves. Ally decides to test Mr. Daniels to see if he means what he said by only drawing a black cube. Her drawing leads Mr. Daniels to ask her why she chose to draw this. She tells him the black box represents a dark room and her desire to be invisible.

Mr. Daniels changes the class seating placing Ally beside Keisha. The night of the holiday concert, the music teacher, Mrs. Muldoon hands out beautiful bouquets of red flowers donated by Jessica's father. When Keisha leans in to smell hers, some of the buds fall off. Annoyed, Mrs. Muldoon takes Keisha's bouquet away from her. Upset at what has happened to Keisha, Ally rips her bouquet apart to share with her friend and finds herself also without a bouquet for the concert. This leads to the beginning of their friendship.

Mr. Daniels assigns his class to write about a short story he read to them in class. Ally tries to enlist her brother, Travis to help her, but he tells her is not good with writing. He states that "my brain is like gears with no grease" and "It's like asking a blind man to drive a bus." After spending most of the night writing her paper, Ally turns in the assignment to Mr. Daniels. He praises her for turning in her homework and for writing more than she usually does.

Keisha invites Ally to sit with her a lunch. Soon after this Ally decides to invite Albert to sit with her and Keisha. Albert reveals to the girls that his family is not very well off, which explains why he gets a free lunch everyday. The three friends are ridiculed by Shay who calls them the "Island of Misfit Toys", a reference that Albert doesn't agree with.

They day they are to write stories Ally panics and decides to come to class with her arm in a sling. Mr. Daniels is puzzled about her injury and questions her. After three days he tells Ally that he will have the nurse call her mother if she shows up with her arm in a sling the next day. This prompts Ally to remove the sling. When Keisha is asked to rewrite one of her stories, Ally realizes that Mr. Daniels has never asked this of her. So she decides to write something so terrible that he will have to ask her to redo it. However, Mr. Daniels doesn't seem concerned.

Ally invites her two friends for ice cream at her mother's restaurant one day after school. Albert tells them that Mr. Daniels questioned him about his bruises. Ally too has noticed the bruises on Albert's arms. Albert tells Ally and Keisha that he is confronted everyday by a group of boys that he meets on his way home. He doesn't want to fight, despite Keisha's encouragement to stand up to them, because he believes he will be blamed for the violence.

Ally continues to struggle in Mr. Daniels class but she also has moments of success. When they are asked to write a poem, Ally's poem wins the Fantastico Poetry Award. The prize is a certificate and a coupon for ice cream. However, Ally is upset because she believes she only won the award because Mr. Daniel's feels sorry for her.

The situation comes to a head when the class goes to the Noah Webster House. Shay makes fun of Ally when the guide shows the class a white dunce's hat and explains how it was used in the late 1800's. Ally runs out of the house and is found a short time later by Mr. Daniels. He tells her that she is very smart and that he believes the reason she struggles so much with reading is because she has dyslexia. Mr. Daniels lets Ally know that he wants to help her and that he was going to call her mother and ask if she could take some special tests. Even though Ally is scared she agrees to take the tests. Little does she know just how much her life will change and how she will become an inspiration to her some of her classmates to change how they view themselves.

Discussion

Lynda Mullaly Hunt has crafted a beautifully written piece of fiction that is guaranteed to capture the interest of young and adult readers alike. That's because Ally Nickerson is a heroine everyone can identify with and everyone is rooting for. Ally begins the novel believing that her situation is hopeless. School is a painful endeavour that she has to endure every single day. Not only is learning almost impossible but the ridicule from her classmates is constant. In Mrs. Hall's class Ally knows "The rest of the class is getting tired of me again. Chairs slide. Loud sighs. Maybe they think I can't hear their words: Freak. Dumb. Loser." She endures the constant bullying from Shay who taunts her. "The world gets dumber every time Ally Nickerson speaks." Even when Mrs. Silver begs her to let her help her, Ally refuses.

But things begin to change with the arrival of Mr. Daniels and it is his presence that will set Ally on a remarkable journey of self-discovery. Mr. Daniels is an exceptional teacher who recognizes that each student is different. For example, Oliver, who tends to just talk and talk,is reined in by Mr. Daniels with a secret code between the two of them - he tugs on his earlobe whenever its time for Oliver to stop talking. He quickly tells Shay that her ridicule of Ally "isn't cool. We don't do that in here." And he calls his class Fantasticos. This is very much in contrast to Mrs. Hall who tended to ignore Shay's taunts of Ally. Where Mr. Daniels recognizes Ally's artistic abilities, to Mrs. Hall her drawings were "doodling". Mr. Daniels encourages Ally to submit whatever she can while Mrs. Hall allowed Ally to "slide". Mr. Daniels wants to work out their problems in the classroom; Mrs. Hall preferred to send Ally to the principal's office.

Mr. Daniels demonstrates that he considers each of the students unique in Ally's eyes by the way that he treats Oliver. Instead of telling him every time "that he's doing something wrong in front of everyone", Mr. Daniels has an "ear-pulling signal" with Oliver. Ally recognizes that Mr. Daniels not only cares about the students but that he "actually seems to like that we're different." He doesn't seem to want perfect, silent children.

The turning point for Ally is in Chapter 14 Boxed In and Boxed Out because Ally experiences what it's like to do something really well in front of her classmates. Mr. Daniels gives Ally's class boxes sealed shut and asks them to try to determine what is in each box. The exercise is designed to test the students' power of observation and to "think outside the box" - that is to think creatively. Ally quickly proves that she "can do this thing as well as everyone else, and it is the best. The best feeling ever." This marks the first time Ally has been able to succeed in the classroom and the first time she has fit in with a group of her peers.

Ally's problem in school is eventually revealed. Ally indicates that she gets headaches whenever she tries to read and that the letters seem to move. When the principal, Mrs. Silver asks her to read a poster on the wall, Ally notes "The letters on the poster look like black beetles marching across the wall. I could probably figure most of them out, but I'd need a lot of time." She describes reading as "...like when I drop something and my fingers scramble to catch it and just when I think I've got it, I don't." Her mind works differently than others in that she seems to have a "mind movie" in her head. Mr. Daniels tells her what he believes her problem is and that is going to try to help her.

One of the major themes in this novel is that of identity. Ally's inability to read has made her believe that she doesn't fit in and that she is hopeless. Albert too experiences a crisis of identity; his size and intelligence make his different. When Ally, Keisha and Albert are collectively labelled "The Island of Misfit Toys" this is a reference to the island of toys who have been made incorrectly in the Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Albert argues that "Something is not a misfit simply because it has a different name."


Ally applies this to how she feels about herself.
"And then I think that if someone hung a sign on me that said anything, having that sign there wouldn't make it so. But people have been calling me "slow" forever. Right in front of me as if I'm too dumb to know what they're talking about.
People act like the words "slow reader" tell them everything that's inside me. Like I'm a can of soup and they can just read the list of ingredients and know everything about me. There's lots of stuff about the soup inside that they can't put on the label, like how it smells and tastes and makes you feel warm when you eat it. There's got to be more to me than just a kid who can't read well."

This is the first time Ally begins to think of herself as someone other than a person who can't read. This new reality is a struggle for Ally. When she realizes that Mr. Daniels doesn't critique her work in the same way as her classmates she remembers "how good it felt to do something right. To fit in." Now that she's felt that she wants to experience it again. First her fear of writing overcomes her and she puts her arm in a sling to avoid the assignment. When that doesn't work she knows she has to make a choice. "So now I'm stuck. I don't know who to be; the one who admits that I can't do it, or the pretender." Ally's fear makes her choose once again to be the pretender. But with Mr. Daniels' help Ally faces up to what she can't do, eventually even admitting she can't read to her friends. Once she stops pretending, and gets the help she needs, Ally's life begins to really change. At the end of the novel, when Mrs. Silver reads the poster in the office to her, Ally recognizes the truth it holds.

"Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is ask for help."   C. Connors

Other characters also struggle with their identity, especially Albert. When Ally tells her friends that she has dyslexia she confides that she is worried she will grow up to be a "nobody". Albert and Keisha encourage her to "Be yourself. Be who you are." but Albert admits "I know what kind of grown-up I want to be. But I don't know who I am now."

Another theme touched on in the novel is the power of words. Albert acknowledges that "There are always people ready to tell you who you are, like a nerd or a jerk or a wimp." This leads Ally to think about the power words have.
"And I think of words. The power they have. How they can be waved around like a wand -- sometimes for good, like Mr. Daniels uses them. How he makes kids like me and Oliver feel better about ourselves. And words can be also be used for bad. To hurt.
My grandpa used to say to be careful with eggs and words, because neither can ever be fixed."

The novel takes its title from the popular quote, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." This quote is often inaccurately attributed to Albert Einstein but there's no proof that he ever said or wrote this. In the novel when Mr. Daniels is attempting to convince Ally that he can help her and that she is very smart he paraphrases the above quote, "Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that its stupid."

Ally is remarkable heroine full of grit and determination. Mr. Daniels points out Ally's courage to her when he tells her, "Coming to school every day, knowing what you're in for. Knowing school will be hard. And that other kids are going to razz you. And you still come every day and decide that you're going to try again." That grit leads to a powerful transformation from believing she is hopeless and incapable of learning to believing that she has a life filled with possibilities.

Fish In A Tree is a wonderful novel that will help middle school children understand better learning disabilities, how some people learn differently and how they can be helped to learn. Filled with believable characters,several of whom experience profound transformations in the novel, Fish In A Tree concludes with a powerful message of hope.This is an outstanding novel and highly recommended.

Book Details:

Fish In A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
New York: Nancy Paulsen Books     2015
276 pp.