Friday, May 27, 2016

The Rose and The Dagger by Renee Ahdieh

The much anticipated sequel to The Wrath and The Dawn continues the story of Shahrzad al-Khayzuran and her beloved husband Khalid, the murderous Caliph of Khorasan.

In the first novel, Khalid reveals to Shahrzad his terrible secret. He married his first wife in an arranged marriage when he was seventeen. His father wanted him to marry Yasmine el-Sharif, daughter of the Sultan of Parthia, so as to unite the kingdoms of Khorasan and Parthia but Khalid did not wish to marry Yasmine. To avoid insulting the Sultan he quietly married a young girl named Ava. The marriage was not a happy one as the young couple grew apart. Ava was happy when she became pregnant, but when she lost the baby she committed suicide. Ava's father called Khalid to his home and revealed the curse he had laid upon him and paid for with his own life. "One hundred lives for the one you took. One life to one dawn. Should you fail but a single morn, I shall take from you your dreams. I shall take from you your city. And I shall take from you these lives, a thousandfold."

Ava's father wants Khalid to sacrifice one hundred daughters to the dawn so that their families may know his pain and the loss of the future and so that they will hate Khalid as he does. In order to place the curse, Ava's father sacrificed himself through potent dark magic. At first Khalid refused, but a drought began in Rey; the rains ceased and the wells dried up. The people of Rey became sick and began to die. Khalid realized the curse was real and so began to take a bride every night.

The novel ends with Shahrzad's father, Jahandar using the dark magic from the secret book he's found to destroy Rey in an attempt to rescue his daughter. He creates a terrible storm that lays waste to Rey, burning the city. Tariq and Rahim race to the palace to rescue Shahrzad and face the awful truth that Tariq's beloved Shazi loves Khalid, Caliph of Khorasan. Jalal allows to Tariq and Rahim to take Shahrzad, while Reza bin-Latief, father of Shiva meets with the Sultan of Parthia to plan their humiliation and annihilation of Khalid.

The Rose and The Dagger opens with Shahrzad, her sister Irsa and her father Jahandar in the camp of Omar al-Sadiq, the emir of Badawi who has formed an alliance with Reza bin-Latief. Her father Jahandar al-Khayzuran was found by Shahrzad, Tariq and Rahim outside Rey, the night of the fire storm that destroyed the city. He was clutching an old, leather-bound book, his hands and feet burned. They were unable to pry the book from his hands. In the camp,  Reza is not happy when he sees Shahrzad alive; he considers her to have betrayed him and tells her to consider which side she is on.

Meanwhile, Khalid remains in the ruins of his palace and of his city, Rey. The head of the palace guards, Kalal al-Khoury confronts Khalid, telling him he cannot continue to cover for Khalid's repeated disappearances. He also tells Khalid that he has learned he is going to be a father and thinks he may want to marry the woman carrying his child. 

In the Badawi camp, Shahrzad's father Jahandar al-Khayzuran realizes that the book he used has magical powers well beyond what he expected and what he was able to control.  Although he knows the book should be destroyed, Jahandar believes that now that he understands what it is capable of, he may be able to control it.  Although Jahandar feels remorse over what happened in the city, he senses that his daughter Shahrzad has even more power than he. He decides he will teach Shahrzad how to use her powers.

Shahrzad discovers the rug that Musa-Zaragoza,  the magus (magician) from the Fire Temple, gave her is a magic carpet which she can control. Irsa is shocked at Shahrzad's ability to do so. Her hands sense an energy within the carpet and are able to make it rise from the floor. But she has yet to understand how the carpet might help her.

In Rey, Khalid is surprised to see Despina with the Rajput. Vikram's shoulder has been destroyed by Tariq's obsidian arrow and he tells Khalid he is unable to use his left hand. The Rajput wants to leave Rey and to take Despina as his wife. Despite his shock Khalid agrees to keep their marriage secret and allows them to leave. Khalid continues to disappear into the city at all times, much to Jalal's anger. On one excursion he goes to help repair the city's oldest library where Shahrzad's father once worked. It is here that Jalal angrily confronts Khalid. Jalal believes Khalid sent Despina, the woman pregnant with his child, away as an act of revenge for him sending Shahrzad away from Rey with Tariq. Khalid does not reveal Despina and Vikram's situation to Jalal because he doesn't yet know the reason for her actions. Despite Khalid telling Jalal he did not send her away as a means of revenge, Jalal warns Khalid that he will no longer protect him.

In the Badawi desert camp Omar al-Sadiq listens as Shiva's father Rez bin-Latief argues for attacking Khalid and the city of Rey. With most of the Caliph's Royal Guards killed and the standing army either having fled or been destroyed, Reza believes now is the time to act. But Omar is reluctant to have his people become involved in this war as he his not certain which side to ally himself with. His wife Aisha has warned him that neither Tariq nor Reza could be trusted and the discovery of Fida'i, who are hired assassins in the camp only make Omar more reluctant. He notes Tariq seems disquieted by his uncle's determination to bring about war and decides he must speak with the young man.He is also deeply disturbed by the attack on the calipha, Shahrzad.

One night Shahrzad becomes intoxicated and passes out leaving Tariq to take her to her tent. There he finds a letter written by Khalid to Shahrzad expressing his deep love for her. Tariq now knows that the Caliph does in fact care for Shahrzad in a way similar to how Tariq feels for her. The next morning Shahrzad realizes she must find Musa Zaragoza in hopes he can help her father and know of a way to break the curse on Khalid. Shahrzad sneaks into the desert surrounding the camp with her magic carpet and orders it to take her to Musa Zaragoza. Can Shahrzad find a cure for what mysteriously ails her father. Will she be able to find someone to lift the curse from Khalid and possibly stop the impending war that threatens them all.

Discussion

In The Rose and The Dagger, Ahdieh keeps her readers thoroughly engaged through the numerous plot twists and an enticing array of unique characters. The novel is fast paced as each unexpected twist pulls the reader along towards the shocking climax (which is then undone by a secondary character) and a post-climatic epilogue that continues the story several years into the future. The story is told using third person omniscient so the thoughts and feelings of many of the characters including Shahrzad, Khalid, Tariq Jahandar, Irsa, and Omar are known to the reader.

The strength of The Rose and The Dagger is in the characters, many of whom are struggling with intense internal conflicts. For example Omar al-Sadiq is a wise emir whose people live in the area between Khorasan and Parthia. He has brought Reza bin-Latief and his nephew, Tariq to his camp in Badawi so he can observe them and determine if he should fall in with them in the coming war. Omar has given them horses and provisions but the presence of hired assassins around Reza makes him wary. Reza's determination to attack the Caliph will draw Omar's people into the war and Omar is concerned for his people. He does not know who to trust. He observes that Tariq has a "strange uncertainty" and that he does not partake in the "angry revelry" of Reza's men at a war meeting. This creates further doubts for Omar about Tariq's choice. "Omar was not certain Tariq had chosen right in following his uncle. Not certain Tariq knew how best to choose between right and wrong." The attack on the calipha, whom he respects,  in his own camp also leads to further doubts. Eventually Omar comes to believe that the choice to attack Rey is the wrong one and he convinces Tariq that the choice to ride against the Caliph is the wrong choice.

Jahandar al-Khayzuran is also deeply troubled. He is a man who wants to be noticed and he hopes to accomplish this by attaining great knowledge about magic. Jahandar hoped to find his true calling "As a man of power. A man to be respected. A man to be feared." His plan was to use the book's magical power to save his daughter, Shahrzad. However, its power was far more than Jahandar had expected and it has destroyed Rey.  He becomes obsessed with the book to the point that he will let no one touch it. And when it is stolen from him Jahandar will do anything to get it back even aligning himself with Reza bin-Latief and the Sultan of Parthia. He had hoped by going along with Reza's plan to kidnap Shahrzad and take her to Amardha that he would be able to find his book.  But Jahandar has misunderstood the complex relationships between the Sultan, Reza and the Caliph. He learns that Khalid destroyed the book and in his anger at being dismissed and ignored, Jahandar fatally attacks Khalid. When he realizes that his actions do not change anything, that he has destroyed his daughter, Jahandar uses the magic he has learned from the book to save Khalid at the cost of his own life, thus redeeming himself.

Tariq Imran al-Ziyad is another deeply conflicted character. He loves Shahrzad and is determined to seek revenge for what has happened to her. Tariq believes Shahrzad's husband is a butcher and a madman. When Tariq accuses Shahrzad of being blinded by love, Shahrzad defends Khalid telling Tariq that the truth of Khalid's situation is not so simple. Tariq's discovery of a letter to Shahrzad from Khalid leads him to understand that their love is no passing fancy. He also begins to suspect that Khalid is not the person everyone believes him to be. His words are not the words of a madman. In fact he finds him to be remarkably controlled and a man of few words. Later on he finds he cannot kill Khalid after he sees how much Khalid and Shahrzad love one another for it will utterly destroy Shahrzad.The behaviour of the Caliph leads Tariq to question all that he thought he knew about him. He discovers Khalid is not deceitful, "Which put to question many other suspicions Tariq had long harbored against him." Eventually Tariq decides to side with Khalid against his uncle Reza.

The Rose and The Dagger is a complex story that incorporates the themes of forgiveness and redemption throughout. It is about the redemption of one man in particular, the Caliph of Khorasan, who has been forced by a powerful curse, to choose between murdering one hundred brides or to see his people die by the thousands. This choice is unknown to all but a few and therefore virtually everyone else believes the Caliph to be a murderous monster. He is seen as a monster by the people of Khorasan. In the Badawi camp the soldiers say as much. "That monster doesn't deserve a grave," another young man chimed in. "His head belongs on a pike..." Shahrzad's sister, Irsa refers to Khalid "The monster of Rey ..." Tariq, Shahrzad's first love tells her her husband is a "butcher" and a "murdering madman". However, gradually the truth is uncovered. Irsa and Tariq in particular cannot reconcile the man they experience as the murdering madman people believe he is. When the reason for his cousin Shiva's murder is revealed to Tariq, he sees "a hint of something more" in Khalid. He sees "more of the man beneath the monster."
And he discovers he no longer hates Khalid.

While not quite as enthralling as the first novel, The Rose and The Dagger is still a finely crafted story, a romantic sequel to The Wrath and The Dawn. Filled with remarkable characters, fast paced action, it is a novel not to be missed.

Ahdieh has once again included a map of the setting in the front of the novel. A full list of the characters is given below:

Cast of Characters

Shahrzad al-Khayzuran - Calipha of Khorasan and wife of Khalid

Jahandar al-Khayzuran- Shahrzad's father

Irsa al-Khayzuran - sister to Shahrzad

Khalid Ibn al-Rashid - Caliph of Khorasa, husband of Shahrzad

Rahim al-Din Walad - friend of Tariq and Shahrzad

Tariq Imran al-Ziyad - Shahrzad's childhood friend

Shiva bin Latief - Shahrzad's best friend who was Khalid's bride before Shahrzad

Reza bin Latief - father of Shiva, Tariq's uncle

Omar al-Sadiq - Emir of Badawi whose lands border both Khorasan and Parthia

Salim Ali el-Sharif - Sultan of Parthia and Khalid's uncle

Yasmine el-Sharif - Salim's daughter and once intended bride of Khalid

Despina el-Sharif - Salim's secret daughter and spy

Vikram Singh (The Rajput) - Khalid's bodyguard

Captain Jalal al-Khoury - Captain of the Guards

General Aref al-Khoury - Jalal's father

Musa Zaragosa - magician at the Fire Temple

Teymur - relative of the Emir of Karaj

Artan Temujin- son of Tolu who lives with Musa Zaragoza

Parissa and Masrur - Musa Zaragoza's guards

Shesha - winged serpent

Isuke - Artan's aunt who possesses strong magic

Fida'is - hired soldiers with no allegiance.

Book Details:
The Rose and The Dagger by Renee Ahdieh
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons 2016
416 pp.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Heart Like Ringo Starr by Linda Oatman High

A Heart Like Ringo Starr is an utterly predictable but sweet story about a young girl whose hopes for a normal life come true.

Faith Hope Stevens was born with a congenital heart defect. Prognosis: likely to die before her nineteenth birthday.  Faith's family runs the Stevens Brothers Funeral Home in Seafoam, Delaware where she lives with her mom and dad and her eight year old brother, Lenny.

"Dead people downstairs,
live humans upstairs --"

Great-Aunt Mary, whom Faith refers to as the "antique fairy" is eccentric in her dress. A hippie from the 1960's Mary tells Faith that love is what matters in life.

Due to her health problems, Faith has been homeschooled. She has little energy to do physical activity.  Her mother is in denial about the possibility of Faith dying from her heart. Lately Faith has been losing weight and shopping trip to Sears with her mother doesn't lift Faith's spirits. No teenager wants to shop at Sears for clothing.

Faith is on the waiting list for a new heart. As a member of "Here's-A-Wish", Faith and her family are entitled to a vacation to Walt Disney World. The vacation in Orlando is magical for Faith and her family. But Faith knows wishing upon a star won't help her. She also knows her parents are grieving about her situation. Faith has a long bucket list of things she wants to do in life as any young person would. But what Faith wants most is
"...a heart
that keeps
the beat
of me 
perfectly,
in dreamy
seamless
rhythm:

Never missing.
Never dropping."

"I want a heart
like a drummer,
a heart
like Ringo Starr,
a heart
to take me
far."

Lenny is impressed with Faith's bucket list but he wants her to have a boyfriend.

"You need to find
your knight
in shining armor,"
Lenny says.

Shortly after they return home, Faith's father must prepare the body of Vinnie Green, a boy Faith's age who was killed in a crash down the road from their house. Vinnie was found drowned in Black Creek. Shortly after this, Faith's father receives a call that there is a heart for her. Faith may finally realize her dream of living a normal life. She will have to confront her own fears of living a life very different from what she's used to.

Discussion

A Heart Like Ringo Starr is a novel in verse and is different from most novels in this genre because the poetry mostly rhymes. This makes A Heart Like Ringo Starr somewhat unusual to read. Like most novels in verse, the storyline is sparse but Oatman High's poetry does convey the story well. Life for Faith before she receives her new heart is vastly different from teens her age. She lives at home where she is schooled and she isn't physically very active. She has typical teenage dreams - to travel, to go to prom, to skydive, to go to concerts and to climb mountains. Despite this Faith has come to terms with her life as it is. However, her entire life changes dramatically after suddenly receiving a new heart. Faith feels lost  and finds herself wishing for her old life and even her damaged heart. As a senior in high school, she doesn't belong and has no friends. She feels like a freak. On a whim, Faith travels to Rehoboth at her Aunt Mary's suggestion where they look for sea glass. On the beach, she stumbles into a handsome guy Jimmy Winters, and from this point on, Faith's entire life is suddenly transformed. Like Faith, Jimmy too came to the beach on a whim. The two seem to connect instantly and this connection changes Faith. She falls instantly in love with Jimmy who seems to accept her as she is. On the surface Faith's radical transformation after meeting Jimmy might feel contrived yet it points out how we all need that connection to someone to feel whole. Faith never experienced this before because her health was always a barrier.

Jimmy Winter's connection to Vinnie Green and Vinnie's connection to Faith stretches credibility, although it is possible. It is this connection that pulls Jimmy and Faith even closer together and makes Faith feel "bereft". This twist in the story is predictable but nonetheless touching.

Oatman High seems to lead readers to incorrectly believe that dead people can donate organs.  Vinnie Green was "found drowned, in Black Creek"  which suggests he had no vital signs when found. Vinnie's organs would not be suitable for donation; major organs can only be donated prior to death. Once a person has died, the organs, especially major organs such as the heart, kidneys and liver are unusable for transplantation because they deteriorate almost immediately. They must be removed while the donor has a beating heart.

A Heart Like Ringo Starr is a quick read for those interested in sick lit, those who enjoy reading novels in verse and like a feel good ending.Recommended for high-low collections.

Book Details:

A Heart Like Ringo Starr by Linda Oatman High
Saddleback Educational Publishing      2015
250 pp.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo's latest book is about a sailor who was in the merchant navy during World War II and who suffered a catastrophic injury that changed his life forever. The story is narrated by the grandson who is now in his fifties, remembering how his relationship with his wounded grandfather grows through the years.

As a young child, Michael had nightmares about a man with a twisted face who jumps out of a sinking ship that is on fire. The nightmares always happened before his grandfather's visits at Christmas.These visits were not frequent because his grandfather lived on the Isles of Scilly. Unlike other people, and against his parents warnings, Michael would look at his grandfather. Unlike others who were revolted by what they saw, Michael could see past his grandfather's scars.
"I was never revolted by what I saw. If I had been, I could have looked away easily. I think i was more fascinated that anything else, and horrified too, because I'd been told something of what happened to him in the war. I saw the suffering he had gone through in his deep-blue eyes -- eyes that hardly ever blinked, I noticed."
Although Michael asked his parents about how his grandpa was wounded, they were reluctant to tell him much about what happened or about his grandmother whom he never met. Michael began visiting his grandpa in the Scilly Isles when he was twelve. His grandpa's world was much different from busy, noisy London; he spent his time fishing and reading. As the years went by, in the quiet time spent together Michael forged a strong bond and a deep understanding with his grandpa that led to his learning the truth about what happened during the war and in the years afterwards.

Discussion

Half a Man is a touching story about a family in desperate need of healing and forgiveness. The story centers on the importance of how we "see" others and of accepting people as they are. The hurt in Michael's family began when his grandmother Annie, was unable to see past her husband's terrible wounds. Grandpa tells Michael that Annie came to see him in hospital but things were different. "Right away I saw she didn't look at me the same, didn't speak to me like I was normal, like the nurses did. She still loved me, I think, but all she saw was a monster man." When he returned home, grandpa found that Annie still would not look at him. This deeply hurt Michael's grandpa and Annie's inability to accept him for who he was after the war, led to deeper problems. This inability to see grandpa was passed onto Annie's daughter - Michael's mother and eventually to Michael's father. They mistakenly believe that looking at grandpa was rude and upsetting to him. The only person able to look was Michael. At first Michael's looks were secret glances. These furtive looks turned into longer stares at grandpa's face and his missing fingers. At first Michael was scared when he looked at his grandpa's face, but as he grew older, the fear disappeared and he came to recognize the suffering. This acceptance leads Michael's grandpa to open up to him about what really happened to him many years ago - something he has never told anyone. Like anyone else, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, grandpa wanted to be seen and accepted.

Michael's grandpa too struggled to accept what happened to him. He admitted to Michael that he drank too much and said things that he shouldn't have, leading Annie to leave him. He tells Michael, "I don't blame her, not anymore. No one wants a monster for a husband. No one wants half a man, and that's what I was, Michael, half a man. That's what I still am."

Therefore, Half a Man is also a story which explores the lasting impact war has on those directly involved and on their families - often into the generations that follow. Morpurgo's gentle story-telling conveys the sense of loss experienced by grandpa's family when he returns home so terribly wounded. As grandpa struggled to recover from his catastrophic wounds he discovered the one thing he desired most - his family, taken from him. His beloved wife, Annie, who could have been a source of comfort and healing, was unable to look at him. Their struggles to cope with the aftermath of the war led to Annie abandoning him, taking their little girl who was Michael's mother, with her. The result was a family completely broken: Michael's grandpa was consumed by hate and Michael's own mother grew up angry at her mother for taking her away from her dad.

It is left up to Michael to bring about his grandpa's wish for the family to reconcile - specifically his wife and daughter. This happens at grandpa's funeral.

Michael's grandpa mentions that it was Dr. McIndoe who put him back together in the hospital. "It was him that did it, put us back together, and I'm not talking about the operations. He was a magician in the operating room, all right. But it's what he did afterward for us. He made us feel right again inside, like we mattered, like we weren't monster men."

Dr. Archibald McIndoe was in fact a real person. At the time of World War II, there were only four plastic surgeons in Britain and Dr. McIndoe was one of those. Dr. McIndoe was stationed at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead (where Michael's grandpa was treated). There he founded the Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery to treat mainly RAF causalities of World War II. Dr. McIndoe developed new ways to treat the horrific burns suffered by RAF pilots and championed the rehabilitation and reintegration of these terribly disfigured men back into society.

In 1941 he formed the Guinea Pig Club which consisted mainly of recovering RAF patients. McIndoe believed that the disfigured airmen should be fully reintegrated into society at a time when many who saw these men in public were horrified and demanded they remain hidden.  McIndoe died young, at age 59 in 1960, but his legacy lives on in the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation which works to develop new ways to treat burns and soft tissue injuries. Morpurgo's Half a Man is dedicated to Eric Pearce, "one of the very last of McIndoe's 'Guinea Pigs.' "

You can read more about the amazing Sir Archibald McIndoe on the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation website.

Half a Man is a story simply told, beautifully illustrated by Gemma O'Callaghan's prints.

Book Details:

Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press   2005
53 pp.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Girl At The Center of the World by Austin Aslan

The Girl At The Center of The World is the sequel to The Islands At The End of The World. Seventeen year old Leilani Milton and her father returned to their home on the Big Island. Three months after The Arrival of the Emerald Orchid, an alien being orbiting the Earth and responsible for disabling all electronic and power grids, Lei and her family lead a subsistence lifestyle. They farm their own crops and ration everything.

Leilani's epilepsy has resulted in her being able to communicate with the Emerald Orchid who returned to Earth to spawn as she has done before. An astronomer, Buzz living at the observatory on Mauna Kea helped Lei talk to the Orchid. The alien along with its baby was about to leave Earth but Lei and her father discovered that the Orchid has the ability to absorb the harmful radiation spewed out from nuclear meltdowns. With nuclear reactors no longer able to cool their fuel rods, catastrophic nuclear meltdowns began occurring all over the planet. Lei while in contact with the Orchid during her seizures was able to witness these meltdowns occuring all over the planet. Yet no excess radiation has yet to be measured. When the Orchids communicated their love of the "sweetness", Lei came to understand that this was a reference to the radiation which they absorb.

While the Orchid's leaving would have allowed the power grid to be restored, the nuclear meltdowns would have left the planet uninhabitable. So Lei managed to convince the Orchid to stay a while longer and to absorb the "sweet" radiation.  Lei's connection with the Orchid is strong but similar to a child holding onto a helium balloon. If she lets go, the Orchid will leave for her home in the depths of space where there are many more like her.

However, Lei's problem is that the longer she keeps the Orchid in orbit around Earth the more difficult it will be to recover from the extended period without power. She needs to get a message out to everyone about the nuclear plants, to tell them to stop trying to save the reactors and to let them go critical because the Orchid can absorb the harmful radiation. The question is how to do this.

Leilani's father, mother, her seven year old brother Kai and her Grandpa are safely hidden in their little valley. Her family celebrates Lei's seventeenth birthday along with Keali'l who is Hawaiian and whose parents died in the first tsunami wave. Keali`l worked for Lei's mother, a biologist at University of Hawai`i and now she's taken him in.

During one of her contacts with the Orchid, Lei finds the Orchid hinting at releasing something which Lei doesn't really understand. At her birthday party, which is attended by Tammy, Keali`l and Buzz, Lei feels ill and her parents worry that she might have appendicitis. However Lei experiences a seizure and realizes that the Orchid is releasing a meteor (Lei refers to this as a pearl) which she wants to send into the ocean. Lei asks the Orchid to send the meteor into the mountain on Hawai`i, Mauna Loa because if the meteor hits the ocean it will cause a tsunami. When she awakens there is an earthquake and a meteor shoots across the sky and into the shield volcano's flank.

Witnessing this, Tami Simpson who is Lei's best friend, realizes that Lei is able to communicate with the Orchid. Lei tells Buzz that she calls the meteor "the pearl". Buzz tells the Milton's he will hike up the volcano to check out the impact site and sample the pearl.

At night Tami and Lei meet Keali`l at the breakwater on Hilo Bay. The bay is filled with tsunami debris and the hills around Hilo are dark. Keali'l brings a dive light and the three go diving for slippahs (lobsters). However their diving is interrupted by Hanamen, the sheriff's men,  who fire shots at them and demand their dive light and their bag of lobsters. Lei leads her friends through a hole in the breakwater. One of the Hanamen is a  guy named Two Dog. Two Dog and the other Hanamen notice a sailboat passing the bay and decide they are going to attack. Leaving a man behind to watch for Lei and her friends, Two Dog and two men head out after the sailboat. Lei leads Tami and Keali`l through the breakwater but Tami cuts herself badly on a piece of concrete. Fearing she will draw sharks as she is bleeding and having been seen by the Hanaman on the breakwater, Tami begins swimming for the sailboat. The three teens manage to convince the man and woman on the sailboat to pick them up, warning them that people are planning to take their boat.

Marcus who is a doctor and Rachel agree to sail to Onomea Bay where Lei's house is located. Lei tells them her family will help them if they treat Tami's serious leg wound. On the sailboat while talking with Keali`l, Lei has an important revelation that she could use the Orchid to send a message via Morse Code by causing the Orchid to dim and brighten. To test the possibility that this might work, she asks the Orchid first to fade then to go back to her normal brilliance. It is successful.

Keali`l stays with Rachel on the sailboat while Lei, Marcus and Tami hike to Lei's home where they fill her parents in on what happened. Marcus tells Lei that Tami must have antibiotics for her leg which has a deep cut that must heal open. The next day Marcus relates his story of escape from Phoenix Arizona to San Carlos, Mexico. Lei and her family stock up Marcus and take him back to Onomea Bay and then she and Keali`l head into Hilo to search for the IV antibiotics Marcus has told them to search for. Finding nothing at the clinic they head to the hospital where the doctor, Dr. Madsen, after learning how she was injured tells them that they must bring Tami in. Tami is brought in and receives the antibiotics she needs because of Keali`l. Lei knows Keali`l has gotten the antibiotics at a great personal price. Meanwhile Lei runs into Aukina, the soldier from the military camp on O`ahu. He agrees to teach her Morse code, although he doesn't know her reason for wanting to learn.

In an attempt to relax, Lei goes swimming at Rainbow Falls and suffers a grand mal seizure during which her contact with the Star Flowers is interrupted by an unknown person telling the Orchid to leave Earth. Shocked, Lei has no idea what to make of this. As Tami's leg heals, Lei begins to learn Morse Code from Aukina and struggles to learn who might be contacting the Orchid. Against the backdrop of the growing tension between the tribes, Lei begins practicing dimming and brightening the Orchid so she can eventually send her message out about the nuclear reactors. But will her efforts be thwarted by the unknown person attempting to convince the Orchids to leave?


Discussion

The Girl At The Center of The World is an exciting sequel that focuses on Leilani's attempt to save her planet and on the survival of her family and friends. There are plenty of descriptions about how the Milton family is working on building a sustainable lifestyle.

However Lei's focus is on a much larger and grander scale. Through her contact with the Orchids she experiences first hand the melt down of nuclear reactors in different areas of the world. "A silent pop of white flashes off the coast of New York. A ball of water crowned with radioactive mist swells along the morning's edge. The atomic poison of this explosion mixes with the fallout of other nuclear disasters that blanket the globe. But my Orchid draws up the venom, neutralizes it." Lei knows the longer the world remains without the ability to make electricity the harder it will be to recover. But her discovery that the Orchids have saved the planet from nuclear fallout means she must eliminate all of the danger from the nuclear reactors before she can let the Orchids leave. She must get the message out to the rest of the world to allow their nuclear reactors to go critical so the Orchid can finish the job of absorbing the excess radiation and then be released. An unexpected development is the introduction of an unknown person who attempts to get the Star Flowers to leave. Lei doesn't know the identity of this person but attempts to block his communication with the mother Orchid and to form a strong bond with her baby.  All her attempts to communicate and reason with this person fail. This sets up a mystery and also a source of conflict that complicates Lei's mission. The resolution to this conflict in the novel is really anticlimactic partly because once the identity of the other contact is revealed, Lei seems to quickly and rather easily convince him to leave and partly because the second storyline is more exciting.

That second storyline continues the conflict hinted at in the first novel between Lei's Tutu who was once a police officer and the sheriff of Hilo who has taken control of the island. Lei's grandfather and the sheriff have a complicated past which comes back to haunt them both. Bands of gangs called Tribes are fighting for control of Puna and Hilo. The sheriff of Hana from Maui who put a gun to Lei's father's head in the first novel is in control in Puna. His Hanamen control the plantations and agriculture. When the sheriff learns about Lei's ability to connect with the Star Flowers he begins to search for her family's farm. This leads to a deadly confrontation which provides the main source of tension for the novel.

Aslan's storyline is unique as is his setting - the exotic islands of Hawai`i. He touches on some of the native Hawaiian culture and beliefs, and of the islands' annexation by America and the desire of Hawaiians to exercise self government. This is main reason for the sheriff's desire to have the Orchids stay. "What we're building here is too important. These Flowers leave, the occupiers --the tourist droves --return. I won't allow that to happen."

Unlike the first novel which focused on survival during the crisis, The Girl At The Center Of The World focuses more on relationships; Lei's relationship with her beloved grandpa who reveals his connection to the sheriff of Hana, her friendship with Tami who is her best friend and the blossoming romance between Lei and Aukina. Aslan ties up all the loose end neatly - and perhaps too conveniently leading the novel to end in a hopefuly way.  Power is gradually being restored and civilization is beginning to return to the world.

The Girl At The Center Of The World is a solid conclusion to the novel and will appeal to those who enjoy a unique science fiction story set in an exotic location. Austin Aslan was inspired to write these two novels while doing his masters in tropical biology in Hawaii.

Book Details:

The Girl At The Center Of The World by Austin Aslan
New York: Wendy Lamb Books     2015
337 pp. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Girl In the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

"This is all completely insane and every new piece of information only compounds the insanity. I'm trying to find a girl who vanished from a closed house. Who cannot be reported missing, because if the police found her, it would be worse for her than if they'd never gone looking at all. "

It is January 1943. Winter in Amsterdam. Holland was occupied two and half years ago by Nazi Germany.

Hanneke Bakker is on her way to make her "deliveries" of black market items. Hanneke trades in the black market - the "illicit underground exchange of goods" such as potatoes, meat, and lard so her family can survive. She hunts down items that can no longer be easily found in shops such as bacon, tea and chocolate. To Miss Akkerman, her first customer on this Tuesday morning,  she brings lotions and lipstick.

Hanneke's next customer, Mrs. Janssen, has requested sausage. The Janssen's have three sons, the two older ones have moved to London and America, but the youngest son died on the Dutch front lines attempting to protect Holland's border from the German invasion. Her husband disappeared a few months ago and Hanneke never asked about his whereabouts. She offers Hanneke real coffee and stroopwafel and insists she visit. Mrs. Janssen then tells Hanneke the real reason for asking her to stay:  she wants Hanneke to find a missing person.

Mrs. Janssen has been hiding a young Jewish girl in a tiny room off her pantry. Her husband Hendrik had a business partner David Roodveldt who is Jewish. The Roodveldts included wife Rose, and their two daughters Lea and fifteen year old Mirjam. In July David came to Hendrik needing a place to hide, so David brought them to his furniture shop where he built a secret room. Mrs. Janssen did not know her husband was hiding the Roodveldts and didn't find out until one night last month when a girl wearing a pale blue coat showed up at her door. That girl was Mirjam Roodveldt. She told Mrs. Janssen about the hidden room and that someone betrayed Hendrik. The Nazis came to the factory but when Hendrik claimed he didn't know and David tried to intervene, all were murdered by the soldiers. Mirjam escaped out the front door of the factory.  Mrs. Janssen tells Hanneke that she was hiding Mirjam in the secret room in her pantry until yesterday at noon. When she returned from visiting her neighbour, Mrs. Veenstra, Mrs. Janssen discovered Mirjam was gone. Mrs. Janssen has no idea how she left the house unseen nor where she might have gone. Hanneke promises Mrs. Janssen nothing mainly because she is trying only to survive the war.

Hanneke purpose in life at this time is to try to help her family survive, not to find missing persons. Her father is unable to work because of an injury during the Great War. Hanneke works as a receptionist for Mr. Kreuk, an undertaker. But Kreuk also has a second job for Hanneke. Using the ration cards of dead people, he stocks up on supplies and resells them at higher prices on the black market. Later on in the day after talking with Mrs. Janssen, Hanneke and her family witness their neighbour, Mr. Bierman who is Jewish being taken away by the NSB officers. Life in Amsterdam has changed so much for Hanneke and her family. Her best friend Elsbeth is now living with a German soldier. Her boyfriend Sebastian (Bas) Van de Kamp was killed on the Dutch front two years ago.

Hanneke decides to go back to Mrs. Janssen and ask her more about Mirjam. She learns that Mirjam attended the Jewish Lyceum. Even though it is now 3pm, Hanneke decides this might be the perfect time to sneak into the school unnoticed when the hallways are filled with students leaving. However, she finds the school quiet and mostly empty of students who are either in hiding or have been taken away by the Germans. At the Jewish school Hanneke is confronted by a tall young woman only a few years older than herself. She tells Hanneke nothing. When Hanneke returns home around 6pm she finds Bas's older brother Ollie waiting for her. Ollie, a university student, takes Hanneke for a walk and questions her about her visit to the Jewish Lyceum. Ollie reveals that the young woman Hanneke met at the school, Judith came to him because she believed Hanneke might be a Nazi scout. After pressure from Ollie, Hanneke reveals that she is looking for a fifteen year old girl and wants to meet Judith again to ask her. Ollie invites her to their supper club that both he and Judith, also a university student attend.

That supper club turns out to be a small resistance group that includes Ollie, Judith and her friend Sanne, Willem and Leo and is part of a larger network. The group is struggling to provide fake ration cards for the people that they have been helping in hiding. From Judith, Hanneke learns about how the beautiful theatre, Hollandsche Schouwburg has been turned into a deportation center for the Jewish population who are shipped to the camps. Judith's cousin, Mina works in the nursery or creche which keeps the children separate from their parents until they are deported to the camps. Hanneke learns that any Jewish person who is caught up in the nightly sweeps, regardless of whether they received their deportation notice, would be sent to Schouwburg. She needs to discover if Mirjam might be in Schouwburg.

As Hanneke continues her search for Mirjam she confronts the reality of the Nazi occupation of Holland and the effect of war on the Dutch people. Hanneke also begins to discover the risks the hidden resistance takes to save even a few Jewish children. And she uncovers the truth of Mirjam's disappearance, she discovers friendship, jealousy and unintended betrayal while dealing with the loss of the boy she loved.

Discussion

The Girl In The Blue Coat is a finely crafted historical novel about life in occupied Holland. Set over the span of eight days in January of 1943, the novel follows Hanneke Bakker, whose blond hair would make her a poster girl for the Nazi party, as she searches for a missing Jewish girl.

At first Hanneke doesn't want to get involved in the mystery of Mirjam's disappearance but Hanneke undergoes a transformation over the week portrayed in the novel. At first Hanneke is concerned only with survival, like the majority of her fellow Dutch citizens. War, occupation and the loss of her boyfriend have hardened Hanneke to some degree.  When Mrs. Janssen wants her help, Hanneke's initial reaction is "Too bad she didn't realize I don't need to be buttered up. I work for money, not kindness." Even after Mrs. Janssen tells her story, Hanneke states "The explanation doesn't matter, really. I can't help her, no matter how sad her story is. It's too dangerous. Survival first. That's my war motto. After Bas, it might be my life motto...Now I transport black market goods, but only because it feeds me and my family. I flirt with German soldiers, but only because it saves me. Finding a missing girl does nothing for me at all."

Hanneke insists she is a different person from the one she was before the war. She doesn't believe she can change a situation that is much bigger than her small world.  "Finding this girl is not who I am anymore. That action is soft; I am practical. That action is hopeful; I am not. The world is crazy; I can't change it." 

She tells Mrs. Janssen that she will consider finding Mirjam.But as Hanneke begins to learn about Mirjam she finds herself drawn into becoming  "an accidental member of the resistance."  And she finds herself drawn into asking "Mirjam. Where did you go?"  Hanneke decides to help Mrs. Janssen partly as an act of rebellion against the Nazis, partly to try to put a bit of order into her "corner of the world" but also as "a way of finding the person I used to be." 

When it appears that Mirjam has been caught in a sweep and is at the dreadful Hollandsche Schouwburg, Hanneke becomes determined to free her and prevent her from being taken to the camps. Ollie tells her that his group cannot help her and that they cannot risk the resistance network for one girl. But Hanneke responds, "I know your 'greater good', Ollie, but if the good that you're working so hard for is one that won't work to rescue a fifteen year old girl, then is it worth it anyway? What kind of society are you trying to save?" 

Hesse builds the tension in her story with numerous plot twists that lead to the revelation of what really happened to Mirjam and her best friend, Amalia. The terrible tragedy plays out despite Hanneke and the resistance group's efforts. Like her own situation with Bas, there are unintended consequences of certain actions. Just as Amalia unwittingly revealed Mirjam's family's secret hiding place leading to the death of four people, Hanneke's pressuring of Bas to sign up led to his death. Hanneke did not believe Bas would die and feels enormous guilt over his death, just as Amalia felt enormous guilt over what happened to Mirjam's family. However, unlike Amalia who tried to fix her mistake, Hanneke can never undo what she's done. She comes to realize that doing good deeds will never make her feel better about the loss of Bas, but that healing is possible. "Maybe we can't barter our feelings away, trading good deeds for bad ones and expecting to be whole."

Hesse also effectively portrays the effect of war on people; how fear and the desire to survive at all cost changes people so that they no longer resist evil but unwittingly co-operate by simply doing nothing. For example Hanneke notes that after Mr. Bierman is arrested, "the shop assistant is selling vegetables to a customer, as though the store's owner wasn't just put into a truck and carted away, as though Mrs. Bierman's world wasn't just turned upside down."

When Hanneke and Willem watch one of the forced marches from the Schouwburg, Hanneke notes how people simply ignore what is happening. "The prisoners follow, carrying suitcases, disheveled and tired like they haven't slept in days. The crowd is big, maybe seventy people, and the soldiers march them down the middle of the street. It's a lovely winter day in Amsterdam, and though there are other people on the street, couples like me and Willem, nobody acts like the forced parade of people is out of the ordinary. Our sense of the ordinary has become horrifying."

Hesse also touches on the Dutch citizens who were on friendly terms with their Nazi occupiers and how they were thought of by their fellow citizens. This is done through Hanneke's friend Elsbeth. Hanneke and Elsbeth were close friends for twelve years but their friendship died when Elsbeth became involved with a German soldier and eventually married him. Hanneke refuses to attend Elsbeth and Rolf's wedding and she grieves over how the Nazi's poison everything.

There's plenty of references to some of the resistance actions by the Dutch and to how the Dutch Jewish population suffered. In this way Hesse creates a realistic setting for novel so that readers get a true sense of the what the Nazi occupation was like. Ollie, who it is revealed is a homosexual, confides his secret to Hanneke but questions her as to whether she will tell. Even at the end of the novel when Hanneke expresses her happiness over the defeat of the Nazi's at Stalingrad, she experiences momentary fear that the woman on the train may be a Nazi sympathizer.

The Girl In The Blue Coat is a combination of historical fiction, mystery and adventure. It has a strong heroine and an interesting supporting cast of characters.

Book Details:

The Girl In The Blue Coat by Monica Hesse
New York: Little, Brown & Company    2016
301 pp.