Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicole Yoon

Daniel Jae Ho Bae's older brother Charlie Jae Won Bae has just been kicked out of Harvard University. Daniel's parents who are immigrants from South Korea are disappointed and angry that their beloved first-born son who can do no wrong has failed. Charlie doesn't like Daniel and the feeling is mutual. As a little boy, Daniel looked up to his older brother but that changed when Charlie pushed him away to be with friends.

Daniel and Charlie's parents Min Soo and Dae Hyun met and married in South Korea and came to New York City to start a new life. With the help of a cousin they opened a beauty supply shop called Black Hair Care which sells hair care products to the African American residents of New York. They expect their children to be successful to be doctors. Now that Charlie has been forced to withdraw, the pressure is on Daniel to gain admission to a good school and to stick to the path chosen by his parents - becoming a doctor. But Daniel doesn't want to be a doctor. Instead he wants to be a poet.  He's refused to apply to Harvard, but has an interview today with a Yale alum.

Daniel dresses in his new gray suit and a bright red tie for the interview and takes the Westbound 7 train to Manhattan where his favourite barber is located. He has the entire day free before his interview and he decides he will "do whatever the world tells him to", that he will "blow in the direction of the wind."  Enroute the train is stopped in a tunnel just before the Times Square station by the conductor who encourages everyone to find God. From Times Square Daniel decides to walk to the barber keeping an eye for a "Sign". He stops outside a church on Thirty-Seventh Street but when it's locked his sits down to people watch. That's when Daniel sees a black girl with a huge Afro and huge pink headphones completely blissed out listening to music. Daniel recognizes that she's passionate about music and finds this attractive. He decides to follow her when she enters a music store called Second Coming Records. 

Natasha Kingsley, her nine year old brother Peter and her parents Samuel and Patricia are being deported tonight. She and her parents are undocumented, illegal immigrants from Jamaica. They were discovered when her father was charged with a DUI.  Natasha decides to try one last time to prevent their deportation by going to the offices of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. On her way into the USCIS offices, Natasha has her personal effects scrutinized by Irene, one of the many security guards. She's late for her 8a.m. appointment with Karen Whitney by five minutes and she is refused. Just as she's about to be escorted out by security, a brown-skinned man by the name of Lester Barnes intervenes. Barnes tells Natasha that her family is here illegally and that she has to leave. He attempts to tell her "Everything is irie there, man" but Natasha questions him about whether or not he saw the real Jamaica on his trip. She begins to cry telling him she planned to attend college and will be returning to a country she doesn't know and hasn't lived in since she was eight. Barnes gives her the name of a lawyer, Jeremy Fitzgerald who can "fix" her situation. Natasha has an appointment at eleven a.m. and so she decides to walk to the lawyer's office and stop in at her favourite record store along the way.

Inside Second Coming, Natasha is disgusted to see her ex-boyfriend Rob and his new girlfriend, Kelly, making out and stealing records. Also watching is a stranger, a Korean boy who is astonished at what Rob and Kelly are doing.Natasha refers to him as Red Tie and together they watch as Rob and Kelly are confronted by a store employee. Daniel introduces himself and shakes hands with Natasha but she's not interested, doesn't tell him her name and tells him to have a nice life. Daniel follows Natasha out of the store and when she goes to step off the curb to cross the street, Daniel sees a BMW running the red light and pulls her out of danger. Natasha is stunned but grateful despite her headphones being broken. Daniel presses her to tell him her name which she does and he invites her to get something to eat. He learns that Natasha is from Jamaica and that she has an important appointment to keep, something that is causing her worry.

While Daniel believes he could have the life his father wants for him and be a great doctor, "something about Natasha makes me think my life could be extraordinary.." Daniel finds himself inexorably attracted to Natasha. In fact, he believes he's falling in love with her even though he knows being with a black girl will never gain his parent's approval. In the coffee shop, Natasha is not friendly towards Daniel and is dismayed to discover that Daniel is falling for her. She tells him not to fall in love with her because she has no intention of falling in love with him. In fact she doesn't believe in love because it can't be measured and is temporary.

So Daniel challenges Natasha that he can get her to fall in love with him. To do this he decides to use some of the questions from a study mentioned in the New York Times. But what Daniel doesn't realize is that time is running out for them. Are they destined to be together? Can Fate intervene?


The Sun Is Also A Star is a beautifully crafted novel that explores the way our lives are inexplicably interconnected to one another. Throughout the tapestry that is woven in this story, Nicole Yoon asks her readers to consider the role of God, Fate or chance in what often seems like random encounters in our lives.

The central characters are Jamaican born, illegal immigrant Natasha Kingsley and Korean-American Daniel Jae Ho Bae. Around them revolve a cast of smaller characters that include Natasha's father Samuel, Daniel's brother Charlie and his father, Dae Hyun Bae, Irene a security guard at USCIS, the train conductor, the BMW driver Donald Christiansen, Attorney Jeremy Fitzgerald, his assistant Hannah Winter, a Korean waitress, and the building security guard named Joe. Although Daniel and Natasha affect each others lives significantly so do the other characters and in particular one character who plays an unexpected part in bringing them back together.

Like the string art on the novel's front cover, Yoon weaves a set of colourful, imaginative narratives together that portray the desperation of a girl to stay in America while demonstrating the threads that connect us all. The Sun Is Also A Star brilliantly demonstrates how we are all interconnected and asks us to consider the origin of the meetings that happen between people. Are these encounters coincidence, random acts that happen in the universe or do they happen due to Fate, destiny or God? Of course the main encounter in the novel is that of Daniel and Natasha. Were they destined to meet and fall in love or was it just random chance?

The two main characters view life very differently and thus approach this question very differently. Natasha is intelligent and practical. Like most people today, she doesn't "like temporary, nonprovable things, and romantic love is both temporary and nonprovable." While her mother believes everything happens for a reason, and her father prefers to see the hand of God in things, Natasha believes "that life is just a random series of good and bad things that happen until one day you die. There is no fate, no destiny, no meant-to-be." Natasha believes she's a realist: "It's better to see life as it is, not as you wish it to be. Things don't happen for a reason. They just happen." Natasha intends to be a data scientist but she feels this choice is not destiny. "I chose this career. It didn't choose me. I'm not fated to be a data scientist...I did research on growing fields in the sciences...No fate."

Practical Natasha believes the "poetic heart, the heart of love songs and fickle and will lead you astray. It will tell you that all you need is love and dreams." Despite this, Natasha's "fickle, nonpractical, non-future-considering, nonsensical heart wants Daniel. I know there's no such thing as meant-to-be and yet here I am wondering if maybe I've been wrong." This sets up an intense conflict within Natasha who believes that "love is just chemicals and coincidence."  Natasha believes in "determinism -- cause and effect. One action leads to another leads to another. Your actions determine your fate." She views the actions of one individual human as inconsequential compared to the forces at work in the vast universe. 

In contrast, Daniel, an aspiring poet  challenges Natasha's practical, less passionate outlook on life. "We are capable of big lives...Why choose the practical thing, the mundane thing? We are born to dream and make the things we dream about." Unlike Natasha, Daniel believes in love and shortly after meeting her, he's certain he's going to fall in love with her. Daniel believes in Fate or destiny - their meeting might have been by chance but once it happened, falling in love was inevitable. When Natasha reveals that she is hours from being deported, Daniel is deeply hurt. He struggles and wonders if "Life is just a series of dumb decisions and indecisions and coincidences that we choose to ascribe meaning to."  He considers what Natasha told him that he's looking for someone to rescue him from his life because then the decisions about his future will be out of his control. "It won't be me defying my parents. It will be Fate." 

But Daniel's faith that something else is at work in their lives is rekindled when he and Natasha find each other a second time that day - he returns to the building where she had the interview while she goes back to his house hoping to meet him there. Perhaps it is destiny or Fate that intervenes but Daniel's brother does the only good thing he will do for his brother in his life, he gives Daniel's phone number to Natasha. They discover yet another coincidence - Daniel's interview is in the same building as Natasha's lawyer and that the interview is with her lawyer, a Yale alumnus.While Daniel believes in God and that the connection people share with one another represents God, Natasha believes only in science to explain that connection. When it becomes apparent that Natasha will have to leave, Daniel has succeeded in his quest but while he hopes there will be "something else that could lead them back to each other" someday. For Natasha, maybe meant to be isn't forever.

 Themes and ideas from Natasha's narratives are explored further in separate chapters. For example, when Natasha meets with Lester Barnes at the Immigration office he makes reference to the Jamaican term "irie". He tells Natasha of his limited Jamaican experience, "I had a nice time. Everything is irie there. You'll be all right." But in the chapter titled "irie. An etymological history" Natasha explores the meaning of irie, but also how words can mean one thing to one person -like Barnes, but a totally different thing to another person. Barnes really doesn't know or understand the Jamaican concept of irie in the same way that Natasha might. "A word can start off meaning one thing and end up meaning another. Is it from overuse and oversimplification, like the way irie is taught to tourists at Jamaican resorts? Is it from misuse, like the way Natasha's father's been using it lately?"

Yoon also shows her readers how the slightest of our actions can influence another person in ways we might not know. Irene who is the security guard at USCIS loves her job because it is the sole source of connection with other people in her life. She slows down each bin she needs to search, forcing people to "look up and meet her eyes." Irene decides that she will kill herself, something she's been contemplating for some time. However, Natasha, believing that Attorney Fitzgerald can save her family from deportation, decides to phone Lester Barnes asking him to thank Irene. Her delaying Natasha getting through security resulted in the chain of events that led her to meeting Daniel. Barnes call to Irene ultimately saves her life, leads her to start on a new path and results in her, years later helping to reunite Daniel and Natasha.

The Sun Is Also A Star is another brilliant, beautiful novel by Nicole Yoon. Her stories are engaging, thoughtful and remarkably well crafted. Nicole Yoon grew up in Jamaica and also in Brooklyn New York. Her second novel makes her a force to be reckoned with in young adult literature.

Book Details:

The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicole Yoon
Canada: Doubleday Canada    2016
344 pp.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

What Light by Jay Asher

What Light is a delightful Christmas holiday romance written by renowned author Jay Asher. This beautifully crafted novel  is about forgiveness, redemption and second chances.

Sierra's family runs a Christmas tree farm in Oregon. Every year on the Thanksgiving break, Sierra and her parents make the journey to California to set up their Christmas tree stand in a small town three hours south of San Francisco. Every year it means temporarily leaving behind her life and friends, Rachel and Elizabeth in Oregon for one month. From Thanksgiving until Christmas, Sierra and her parents live out of a trailer, selling the trees they grow on their farm in Oregon. Their family's Christmas tree business was started by her father's father and her parents met on the lot because her mom's family were annual customers.  From the time she was a year old, Sierra has accompanied her parents to California. However, this year might be their last. Sierra's family have selling trees at their lot for over twenty-five years but competition from supermarkets and other retailers who now sell trees has cut into their profits. Instead, Sierra's family might have to close the stand for the last time this year and sell to those vendors next year.

In California Sierra has a best friend too. Heather's family lived next door to Sierra's grandparents on her mom's side and when they would visit her mom's family the two girls quickly became friends. So traveling to California means Sierra will at least have a friend to connect with. The day before Thanksgiving Sierra and her mom drive down to California to meet up with her dad. At the tree lot Sierra settles into their cramped trailer. Andrew, one of the young guys her father employs, asked Sierra out last year. However, Sierra refused telling him she wasn't allowed to date anyone who worked for her father. This has made things awkward between them. Besides Sierra feels it would not be worth it to date someone for the short time she's in California, only to have to leave Christmas morning.

After their traditional Thanksgiving dinner with Heather's family the two girls head up to Cardinal's Peak to check on the Christmas trees they've planted over the past six years. Heather tries to convince Sierra to date someone for the month that she is in California so she has someone to double date with. She finds her boyfriend, Devon, boring and plans to dump him after Christmas. But Sierra does not want to hurt some guy by dumping him right after Christmas when her family leaves. Sierra tells Heather that this may be their last year for the Christmas tree stand.

Then one day the Christmas tree lot is visited by a very cute guy whose smile brings out a dimple. And Sierra begins to reconsider her moratorium on dating. The next morning when Heather visits, Sierra tells her about the cute boy who came by the lot. Sierra's description of his cute dimple tells Heather immediately who he is and she's not pleased. She tells Sierra his name is Caleb and that he is not a good choice for a holiday romance. When Sierra presses Heather to reveal what she's heard, Heather tells her that there is a rumor that Caleb attacked his sister with a knife. Sierra is horrified but relieved to discover Caleb's sister is alive. Caleb returns to the tree lot to purchase another tree and this time Sierra gets a chance to meet him. When she refuses to shake his hand, Caleb suspects that someone has told her about him but they part amicably. On her way home Sierra sees Caleb purchasing another tree from Hoppers family-owned tree lot. Puzzled she stops and asks Caleb what he's doing. They tease one another and Sierra admits to having heard something about him but Caleb brushes her off telling her they can just be friends.

When Heather and Sierra go for breakfast at Breakfast Express Sierra learns that Caleb works at the diner. While they are at the diner, Sierra and Heather discover that Caleb is buying Christmas trees for needy families. The makes Sierra feel conflicted about what she's heard about Caleb and the Caleb she knows. The next day he stops by the tree lot and tells Sierra that he buys the trees because "'s nice to give people what they want instead of only the necessities." He tells her he uses his tips from the job at Breakfast Express to buy the trees. When Caleb suggests she accompany him the next time he takes a tree to a needy family, Sierra agrees.

Sierra begins to realize she's falling for Caleb as she struggles to understand how the boy she knows fits with the rumours surrounding him. Even more difficult is the fact that any relationship started will have to end when her family returns to Oregon after Christmas. Or will it?


What Light is an uplifting Christmas romance about a girl who gives a boy a second chance when no one else will. Sierra is determined to enjoy what will likely be her last Christmas in the small California town that her parents sell Christmas trees. While her friends both in California and Oregon are encouraging her to find a holiday boyfriend, Sierra's not keen on the idea - that is until she meets the very cute Caleb. But Caleb has a bad reputation as the boy who pulled a knife on his sister. As Sierra meets Caleb over the period of a few days she begins to struggle with two very conflicting images of the boy she knows - the one who works and spends his tips on Christmas trees for needy families and the boy who supposedly attacked his sister with a knife.

Despite her best friend, Heather's reservations Sierra decides to give Caleb a chance.  But she decides "I need to know more before I let myself get any closer to him." Her parents too have reservations mainly because they know Sierra will be leaving after Christmas and that it's likely their tree stand will not be back next year. At this point they don't know about Caleb's behaviour towards his sister years ago. As Sierra continues to meet him she struggles with her mounting attracting to Caleb. "I like Caleb. I like him even more every time I see him. And this can only lead to disaster..." When Caleb and Sierra deliver a tree to a needy family and they are less than appreciative, Caleb tells her he understands this family's situation. "Just so you know, I am very aware of how mean they were about getting a free tree. I have to believe, though, that everyone is allowed a bad day." Caleb is willing to give the couple the benefit of the doubt, something he hasn't been given in by anyone in the town. This has led to him being isolated and ostracized.

Eventually Sierra learns what really happened between Caleb and his sister Abby and she's understandably horrified. Yet she's also very empathetic. "The way his jaw tenses, I know he's cried over this many times. I consider everything he's told me. How hard all of this has been for his mom and his sister, as well as for him. I know this should scare me a little, but somehow it doesn't, because I do believe he couldn't hurt anyone. Everything about him makes me believe that."

Caleb, who is frustrated and hurt at losing his best friend Jeremiah over what happened, tells Sierra that they mustn't judge Jeremiah's family because they don't know the full story. Sierra notes that all of her friends did exactly that when she told them about Caleb. "Everyone reacted so fast. Everyone had an opinion without ever hearing from Caleb."  Sierra believes that if Caleb's sister has forgiven him then she has no right to hold this over him especially since he obviously regrets his actions.

Concern for Caleb leads Sierra to confront Jeremiah about his break with Caleb. Her parents have always considered forgiveness and the belief that people can change for the better to be important. She encourages Jeremiah to talk to his mom and to consider the possibility that Caleb may have changed. Despite her willingness to give Caleb a chance, Sierra still feels intense conflict over their growing relationship because she hasn't told him about the strong possibility that she will not be back next year. She tells her friend Rachel, "Now that I know it's not wrong to like him...I obsess over whether that makes it right. I'm only here for a couple more weeks."

When Andrew tells Sierra's parents about Caleb, her parents worry that's she's becoming involved with someone who might be harmful. This angers Sierra and she decides to confront her parents about how they view Caleb. Sierra tells her parents that they seem to feel that there is no room for mercy, that what Caleb did should mark him for life. "He's been labeled so many people for so long. And they'd rather believe the worst of it than talk to him about it. Or just forgive him." Sierra tells her parents that she's "been raised to believe that everyone can become better".

It is Sierra's determination to trust Caleb and to give him the benefit of the doubt that help him to prove himself worthy of her. And her making the decision to do this leads others to do so as well. Jeremiah decides to take a stand for their friendship and visit Caleb against his mother's wishes. And it is Jeremiah who later on returns the favour and tells Sierra to forget the "logic" because "logic doesn't know what you want."

Jay Asher has crafted a believable, strong character in Sierra. Asher avoids making Caleb a character readers pity. Instead he too is seen as strong but perhaps a little battle-weary with trying to overcome his bad reputation. Through Sierra, readers explore the themes of forgiveness, mercy and redemption and are forced to consider questions like How long should someone be marked by a mistake? and Can a person really change? Asher never gets too heavy-handed and even Andrew's jealousy is muted as the story focuses more on how Sierra deals with him and the effects his actions have on her and her family.

The novel ends on a strong positive note, filled with hope for the future. What Light is good holiday read, not too heavy, but with some interesting themes and nice touch of romance to lighten things up. Well worth picking up for the Christmas holidays and beyond.

Book Details:

What Light by Jay Asher
New York: Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House     2016
251 pp.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Replica by Lauren Oliver

Replica is Lauren Oliver's newest young adult offering. The novel is described as a "flip book" with two stories that can be read either separately or interchangeably, one or multiple chapters at a time.

Sixteen year old Gemma Ives lives in a beautiful mansion in North Carolina with her mom, Kristina and her father Geoffrey who co-founded the sixth largest pharmaceutical company, Fine & Ives. Gemma's health has never been good. She's overweight and because of her numerous health issues she's not allowed to participate in gym. Her best friend is April Ruiz, a dark haired beauty.  Both April and Gemma have overly protective parents.  Gemma had resigned herself to spending spring break at home but April managed to convince both their parents to allow them to drive to Bowling Springs, Florida where April's grandparents lived. They plan to leave on Saturday April 19.

When Gemma arrives home from school on the Friday she finds the police at her house investigating a threatening act of vandalism in which a Frankenstein mask was thrown through a window and a note stating "your sick your a monster you deserve to die"  Gemma believes the perpetrator of this was mean girl Chloe DeWitt however she overhears her father and mother talking about the break-in that evening. Her father insists that this is a message for him. From their conversation, Gemma learns that there was a breach at Haven and that "one of them escaped". Although her father believes "it won't live. No way it can live." he is concerned he will be in serious trouble if what is going on at Haven is discovered. That's because he knew what Saperstein was doing with the new funding even though he left the pharmaceutical company, Fine and Ives that he helped found. Gemma has no idea what her parents are discussing but what happened ends up affecting her spring break plans. Because Bowling Springs is only fifty miles from Haven, Gemma's parents decide to pull her from her spring break trip.

Gemma is completely desolate at losing her chance to spend the break with April. On her third day into break she is accosted by a strange man who seems vaguely familiar to her,  who knows her name and who questions her about Haven. She is able to get away and goes into the Quick-Mart where a classmate, Pete Rogers works, to call her mother.

That night, Gemma begins researching into Haven, Dr. Saperstein and her father's former company Fine & Ives. She learns the Haven Institute is a research facility located on Spruce Island in Florida, founded by Richard Haven. Haven died in a car accident the year Gemma was born and was replaced by Dr. Mark Saperstein whom Gemma's father knew. She also discovers that her father's company Fine & Ives Pharmaceuticals had contracted Haven to undertake the company's research but this was years after her father left the company over the direction it was taking. What interests Gemma is the conspiracy websites, specifically by Jacob Witz. Witz had tracked down a "Nurse M" who worked at Haven but before he could interview her she was found dead from suicide.

Pete Rogers shows up at Gemma's home that evening to return her change and for a tour of her palatial home. When he mentions that he's leaving for Florida in the morning, Gemma decides that she needs to get to Florida and to Spruce Island to learn what she can about Haven Institute.  Pete agrees to take her and the next morning, Gemma quietly leaves her home and the two drive to Florida. On the way down they learn there has been an explosion off Barrel Key and fire burning out of control on Spruce Island. Pete realizes this is where Gemma is planning to go. 

When Gemma arrives in Barrel Key,  Haven is on fire and a huge demonstration is occurring. She manages to convince Pete to drop her off and Gemma finds a way down to the beach. It is here she meets Jake Witz who tells her he can get her much closer to Haven. He indicates the none of the staff at Haven will talk about what goes on there, except for Nurse M. After spending hours kayaking through the marsh, they hear voices and hide in the mangrove trees. Can Gemma figure out what's really going on at Haven and what her connection is to the facility?


Lyra lives in the Haven Institute. Demonstrators on the shores of Barrel Key can often be heard chanting and calling them demons and monsters and Lyra believes they are probably right. She awakens one night to the power going off and the nurses coming to check their room to ensure they are all present. There is a Code Black which means that someone has escaped and Lyra learns later on that is is number 72. 

To Lyra there are two kinds of humans: "natural-born humans" and "human models, males and females made in the laboratory, transferred to the surrogate birthers who lived in the barracks." These latter humans are clones, but at Haven they are called replicas. Each replica is referred to by a model and a number.  Lyra and the other replicas believed the numbers were their names but Dr. O'Donnell  named the replicas after different constellations and she also taught Lyra how to read. One of the replicas named by Dr. O'Donnell is number six who is called Cassiopeia. Eventually, Dr. O'Donnell left Haven because Dr. Saperstein was unhappy with the way she helped the replicas.

Replicas often have serious medical problems such as organ failure. Lyra has been experiencing nausea and vomiting but when she's examined by Nurse Swineherd she doesn't tell her about this. Eventually Lyra's vomiting is discovered and she is taken to the hospital which she calls the Box. Later that night when Lyra feels nauseous she decides to go outside to vomit. When she returns she finds Cassiopeia in an altercation with Dr. Saperstein and the nurses who have discovered she has been hiding objects in her mattress. The next day Lyra decides to hide her special belongings on the north part of the island and it is there she discovers the missing male number 72. It is a this point that there is a huge explosion at Haven. Three bombs are detonated at the facility utterly destroying it. Fleeing, Lyra discovers a badly wounded Cassiopeia.  Dragging Cassiopeia, Lyra and 72 hide in the marsh while soldiers search for survivors. However, Cassiopeia dies and Lyra and 72 are forced to leave her as the guards continue to search for the missing replicas. As they hide in the reeds Lyra and 72 meet two people - another boy and girl and are confronted with an astonishing reality. How can this be and what is the connection of the girl who looks like Cassiopeia to Haven?


Replica is marketed as a "flip book" with two separate stories titled Gemma and Lyra that can be read either in alternating chapters or completely separately. I recommend reading these two intertwined stories in alternating chapters, something the book design makes awkward. Replica would have been written in alternating narratives as readers would want to read both stories anyways.

Replica is an interesting story that deals with human cloning and a young girl's attempt to uncover the mystery that involves her father and her past. What she uncovers is a mystery that involves three girls: Gemma, Cassiopeia and Lyra and the revelation that things are not as they seem.


Gemma and Jake determine that Haven has been experimenting with prions which are an infectious agent composed of protein. Some prions have the ability to replicate by causing properly folded proteins to change into misfolded proteins and therefore lose their functionality. When prions spread throughout the body, usually in the central nervous system, in this manner,  the result is prion disease.  Prion disease develops "when a person or animal ingests the infected tissue, such as a person eating meat from an infected animal" and develops "mad cow disease". Lyra tells Jake and Gemma that the replicas are filled prions and the doctors were always testing their bodies for prion penetration. Jake's internet searches indicate that Dr. Saperstein considers prions as a potential biological warfare agent. Prion disease which is untreatable and fatal could be used to disable terrorist cells. Jake tells Gemma "they've been using the replicas to make prions. They've been growing the disease inside them" This discovery makes Lyra feel anger because she did not ask to be made. Trying to understand and wanting to know the truth however, has given Lyra a purpose in her life. 

Both Gemma and Lyra uncover the shocking truth of their identities. Gemma believes she is a human with a mother and a father while Lyra believes she is a clone or to use the term in the novel, a replica. However, Gemma's efforts to uncover the truth behind Haven and her family's connection to the mysterious facility reveal a completely different reality. The truth is revealed when they meet up with Rick Harliss the man who attempted to grab Gemma near her home. He holds the missing pieces to the puzzle.

Harliss who at one time worked around the Ives's home, reveals to Gemma that her parents lost a baby girl named Emma before she was born. Around this time his wife Aimee had a baby girl named Brandy-Nicole and six months after Brandy's birth, Gemma showed up at the Ives home. Aimee noticed that the new baby looked identical  and that's when Harliss who was beginning to understand what was going on at Haven,  realized that Geoffrey Ives had his dead daughter cloned. Gemma is a replica of the Ives first child, Emma. Harliss also reveals that while he was in de-tox his ex-wife sold Brandy-Nicole but to whom he has no idea. With the information Harliss has given them Gemma realizes that Dr. Saperstein began taking kids whose parents would likely not miss them to use as experimental subjects at Haven when funding became scarce. "...if they couldn't afford to keep making them...Well, he took children he thought wouldn't be missed. He used them to test on. Just long enough to get the money he needed." Based on what Harliss tells her about his daughter, Gemma also realizes that Brandy-Nicole was one of those children and that Lyra is Harliss's missing daughter.  So in fact Gemma is a replica and Lyra is not. Gemma also realizes that her being a clone explains the source of all her health problems.

Learning their true identities is a shock for both Gemma and Lyra. Gemma is horrified. "She was a freak and a monster. There was no doubt about that now." However Pete makes her understand that how she was created does not matter to him as he feels she is "perfect". Knowing that she is replica does not change how he feels about her.  Lyra too is stunned to learn her true origin. She has a father and she's not sure she wants one. Neither Lyra nor 72 have any concept of what a family is nor what it means to love.  Lyra's concept of a mother is only what's she's experienced at Haven. "Her idea of mother looked much like the nurses and the Haven staff. Mother was someone to feed and clothe you and make sure you took your medicines." Her feelings about a father are equally confused. "She didn't want a Father. She had never even known what a father did, had never completely understood why fathers were necessary." Even the fact that she was naturally conceived leaves her confused. "...never had she truly thought about being a person, natural-born, exploded into being by chance." "She didn't want love, not from a stranger, not from a father. She was a replica." When Caelum turns away from Lyra because he is a clone and she is not, she like Pete did with Gemma, tells him that it doesn't matter because they each chose the other unconditionally.

In this way, Replica explores how modern biotechnology has influenced how we think about ourselves and what makes us human and how others might view those made with those technologies. It considers how modern technologies undertaken purely for the pursuit of knowledge without considering the ethical issues involved can be dehumanizing and immoral.  While Oliver considers on a personal level how clones and natural born humans might view one another she also touches on how doctors and researchers might view clones and human experimentation too. For example at Haven the scientists and nurses and doctors do not consider the replicas to be persons but research subjects with no rights. By creating entire batches that die, such as the yellow batch, they develop a cavalier attitude towards human life. Their attitudes are reflected in how Lyra views herself.

Lyra does not consider herself a human person because this is what she's been told. "But that's what they were: bodies. Human and yet not people. She hadn't so far been able to figure out why. She looked, she thought, like a normal person. So did the other female replicas. They'd been made from normal people, and even birthed from them." Likewise the staff at Haven also do not consider 72, Lyra or Cassiopeia to be persons either, often referring to them by the pronoun, "it".  Lyra believes there is something substantially different, "some invisible quality"  between herself and normal humans. Lyra hates "that she could look like a human, and yet she was not human, and they could tell."

When Gemma and Lyra meet neither can understand the other. Because Gemma looks like Cassiopeia, Lyra assumes (correctly as it turns out) someone "made" her and that she is a replica and that Gemma does not know she is a clone. Gemma and Jake's kindness towards Lyra confuse her especially when Gemma identifies Lyra and 72 as "people". "We're not people," Lyra said. "You said, 'These poor people have been through god knows what.' But we're replicas. God didn't make us. Dr. Saperstein did. He's our god."

Lyra's view of her body is not healthy either. She hasn't considered the beauty of the human body which she saw only as parts. "She'd never noticed how beautiful bodies could be. She'd thought of them only as parts, machine components that serviced a whole." 72 also has a distorted view of his body. He's only ever been called by a number and he admits that when he was a child he thought he might be an animal.

Oliver repeatedly references God as a theme in her novel. Lyra refers to Dr. Saperstein on more than one occasion as god even sometimes as a God with a sneer on his face. When Lyra had seen an alligator near the grounds at Haven, she thinks about how God made this beast but not her. "God made that creature, that monster with a taste for blood, and loved it. But he had not made her."  To Lyra, being made by a loving God matters. In her narrative, Gemma notes how beautiful one of her classmates Chloe is compared to herself and thinks, "Like she had been formed by a god with an eye for detail, whereas Gemma had been slapped together haphazardly by a drunk." The implication is that man playing god in creating human beings in a lab is messy and haphazard in contrast to when God creates, he does it with beauty and perfection.

There's also a hint in the novel that perhaps there was more than just cloning going on at Haven when Lyra remembers seeing the rats in their cages with their "strangely human fingers." 

Overall Replica is a well written novel that holds reader's interest with its numerous twists and action sequences. Replica is the first book in Lauren Oliver's newest series. The next book will be titled Simulation which the author has stated will be more complicated.

Book Details:

Replica by Lauren Oliver (Laura Schechter)
New York: HarperCollins Children's Books     2016
519 pp.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Stranger At Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

A Stranger At Home continues Olemaun's (Margaret)story as she lives at home for a year and struggles to reclaim her heritage. Ten year old Margaret meets her family in Tuktoyaktuk. She is thrilled to finally be going home. She has short hair, is thin and much taller. On her feet on canvas shoes. But when she greets her mother, she refuses to believe Margaret is her daughter, shouting, "Not my daughter. Not my daughter." Margaret, separated from her family for the past two years due to a short summer, finds her excitement evaporating fast. She is saved by the warm embrace of her father who calls her by her Inuvialuktun name, Olemaun. Her eight year old sister Elizabeth, seven year old sister Mabel and two year old brother Ernest are also there to greet her.

From the very beginning Margaret has trouble adjusting back to life in her own culture. She no longer remembers how to speak Inuvialuktun and must speak in English with her father translating. She has been taught to pray and worries about her family's spiritual welfare. Her favourite foods disgust her. " I was sickened by the pungent smell of whale blubber -- muktuk, I remembered -- the salty smell of dried fish, and the musky, gamey smell of meat and whipped caribou fat...I crinkled my nose shut." For Margaret, the food was worse than what she was fed at school. Her own people's food was heavy and sickening. Seeing the difficulty she had eating made Margaret's mother cry, further adding to her distress.

Margaret wants to return to their home on Banks Island as soon as possible, believing that this will make it more likely she will never have to go back to the outsiders' school. However, her father tells her that they will now make Tuktoyaktuk their home because he can obtain work as a special constable with the RCMP. Caught between two worlds Margaret must learn to navigate in both to survive. Relying on her determination and inner strength she does just that.


A Stranger At Home which is the sequel to Fatty Legs focuses on Margaret's struggle to re-assimilate into her own culture after two years in a residential school. The authors do an excellent job of portraying the problems many First Nations children experienced when they returned home after even one or two years away from their families. Their struggles were real and complex. The lack of understanding what they were going through by their own families only compounded their pain. All of that is captured in Margaret's story.

While Margaret's mother expresses sorrow and anger over her daughter's loss of her identity, her father is more able to accept his daughter because of his previous experience attending a residential school. He understands her difficulties and patiently helps Margaret re-integrate.  As Margaret states, "He was the only one who nurtured Olemaun instead of chastising Margaret." He involves Margaret in the building of their new cabin, has her help him collect ice and teaches her how to handle the dog sled. Margaret listens during the long winter nights to the elders as they talk. Gradually over time, Margaret becomes less and less an outsider. The dogs no longer bare their teeth at her and greet her with wet kisses. She begins to relearn Inuvialuktun. She wears her mother's warm parka and her kamik. But she also loves to read and relishes the thought of have new books.

Margaret experiences tremendous internal conflict  as a result of her religious education at the residential school.  For example in the school she has been taught about God and that her family is going to go to Hell if they do not convert to Christianity. When she challenges her father about this he becomes angry. She states, "I felt like a bad Christian and a bad daughter for not trying harder to convert them." Margaret is afraid of the English-speaking missionaries whom she believes will punish her for not converting her family. Eventually from the stories told by the Inuvialuit elders, Margaret finds some comfort in the fact "that they had their own stories to give them guidance, stories that were handed down instead of being written." But she continues to struggle with her guilt because "the nuns had taught us that no one could go to Heaven without stories about Jesus." Although well meaning, sadly the Catholic missionaries used fear as a way to evangelize the Aboriginal peoples rather than demonstrating the love God has for us.

Like the previous book, Fatty Legs, A Stranger At Home includes numerous colour and black and white photographs in a section called Olemaun's Scrapbook and there is a small section titled The Schools which talks about the residential schools and their effect on the culture and families of the Aboriginal peoples.

Fatty Legs and A Stranger At Home are a much needed introduction to this difficult chapter in Canada's history.

Book Details:

A Stranger At Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Annick Press Ltd.      2011
124 pp.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

Alan Gratz's novel centers around Projekt 1065 which had begun prior to World War II. Projekt 1065 was a real program undertaken by Germany to build an aircraft that used a turbojet engine, meaning it could fly faster than propeller craft currently in use. But the Germans were not the only ones working on development of a jet engine and they weren't the first either.

In the 1920s British Royal Air Force engineer Frank Whittle designed a turbojet engine. Seven years later, German physicist, Hans von Ohain came up with his design.

Eventually under Projekt 1065, the Germans developed a jet airplane, the Messerschmitt Me 262 was developed. It's first flight using a jet engine was in 1942, but recurring various problems meant it did not see real action until 1944 - too late to really have a significant impact on the outcome of World War II.

In this novel, a young boy is tasked with gaining knowledge of the German plans for construction of a jet plane in the hope of giving the Allies the edge in the war.

Thirteen year old Michael O'Shaunessy lives with his parents Davin and Megan in Berlin, Germany. Michael's father is the Irish ambassador to Nazi Germany, a post he was given in 1937. Ireland has remained neutral in the war and so maintains an embassy in Berlin. Like all youth in Germany, Michael is a member of the Nazi Youth but he is no Nazi. Instead he pretends to like the Nazis, pretends to hate Jews and pretends to want them to win the war.

Since 1937 Berlin has changed dramatically. When Michael and his family first arrived Berlin was a city wrapped in the red Nazi flags and with streets filled with happy people and plenty of parades. But in November of 1938 Berlin changed forever. On their way home from viewing a film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Michael and his family were caught up in Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass". On this infamous night the windows of Jewish businesses were smashed and any Jews in the streets were viciously attacked. Michael's parents reveal to him that they cannot stop to help anyone because they are not only ambassadors but they are also on a mission for the Allies. On that now involves Michael. Berlin is now a suspicious city, where "people kept their eyes down, whispered if they had to talk, crossed the street to avoid having to give the Hitler salute to someone they knew in case they didn't say 'Heil Hitler!'"

At a dinner at the house of a man who is connected to Daimler-Benz, the German automobile company that makes engines for the Nazi military, Michael is tasked with hunting down information about the location of a new engine factory. He finds the information he needs in their host's study and with his photographic memory is able to remember it and pass it along to his parents.

Michael's teacher is Herr Professor Doktor Major Melcher an elderly man with white hair who had fought in the First World War and who used to be a college professor. He's not friendly to the students whom he doesn't really want to teach. Herr Melcher informs them that Berlin is now officially "Jew-free" and secondly that all seventeen-year old boys will be called up to serve in the German army. Unlike his classmates who only know the propaganda that the Nazi regime is feeding them, Michael knows that this is due to the surrender of the German Sixth Army to the Russians at Stalingrad. This means that Michael and the rest Jungvolk will graduate a year earlier to the Hitler Youth.

Not really understanding how badly Germany is doing now in the war, the boys celebrate.  Hitler Youth Leader Horst has the boys burn books but a short, timid boy who doesn't fit in well, Fritz Brendler refuses to burn his. Michael goes to Fritz's defense although both he and Fritz are beaten up. But Michael vows that one day he will "teach Horst how to take a beating." The Junkvolk are called away from their book burning by the SRD -Hitler's Youth's "Patrol Force" to help search for  the pilot of a British plant that has been shot down outside Berlin. Michael knows he must find the pilot before the German's do or he will be tortured and killed.

While searching the barn for the downed pilot, Michael reveals to Fritz his overwhelming fear of heights. Fritz tells Michel he won't tell anyone as both boys know that "In Nazi Germany every weakness was punished." Michael discovers the wounded pilot hiding in a hedgerow but manages to lead the search party away from his hiding place. He then hides the pilot After first searching the haystack in the barn near where the plane was shot down, Michael manages to locate the pilot who is injured, before the other boys find him. He hides the British airman in the barn but the pilot tells Michael he needs to find the camera he hid in one of the haystacks as it contains important reconnaissance photographs. Later that night Michael and his parents return to the farm and pick up the British pilot who identifies himself a Lieutenant Simon Cohen, a Jew.

Messerschmitt ME 262
Although taking Simon back to Berlin is extremely risky, Michael's parents have no other recourse. They hide him in a secret room off of da's study. Simon tells them that he was flying in daylight because the Nazis are "developing some kind of airplane...Works without propellers...Super fast...Caught it on the runway during testing...They call it...Projekt 1065." Unbelievably the next day in class, an exhausted Michael is shown the first page of the blueprints for the secret plane the Nazi's are developing by Fritz.  Fritz tells Michael that this is a new plane with two jet engines that can "go twice as fast as any other airplane in the world!" Fritz reveals that his father works on the design team for the plane. He shows Michael because he tried to save Fritz from being beaten up by the rest of the troop.Michael races home during an air raid and informs his parents and Simon about the blueprint he has just seen.

In order to gain access to all twelve pages of the plans, Michael decides to befriend Fritz. However, Michael's decision to get close to Fritz means he will have to make choices and do things he knows are wrong. It also may mean sacrificing everything he holds dear for the greater cause of helping to defeat the Nazis.


Projekt 1065 is a well written historical novel set in 1943 Berlin. The son of the Irish diplomat joins the Hitler Youth and is drawn ever deeper into spying when he learns a member of his Jungvolk troop has access to the blueprints of a top secret jet plane the Nazis are working on.

Author Alan Gratz has done a good job of recreating life in World War II Berlin. Set in 1943, the German army has suffered a catastrophic loss on the Eastern Front with the surrender of the German Sixth Army and the loss of almost 300,000 soldiers. Berlin is being constantly bombed by the British at night and the Americans by day. People work for the Nazis because resistance will mean arrest and deportation to a concentration camp. Children are heavily indoctrinated in Nazi ideology about race and the superiority of Germany.  Gratz's focus is on the Nazi indoctrination of the youth. Their lives revolve around the Hitler Youth which takes precedence over both family and school. The are taught that it is honorable to die for the Fuhrer and the Fatherland. Any sign of weakness is seized upon, meaning the children often bully and fight one another.

What happens to the young people of Germany is best demonstrated by the character, Fritz Brendler, a thirteen year old boy who "was so small he looked like he was ten years old..." At first Fritz doesn't want to burn books, he's timid and he doesn't fit in. He is attacked by Horst the cruel leader of the Hitler Youth and beaten up by the other boys.  Horst spews the rhetoric and Nazi belief telling the boys that "Compassion is a weakness,". Horst tells Fritz that someday when he becomes a real Nazi he will turn in his parents, burn books and give your life for Germany. It is a foreshadowing of what's to come for Fritz as he gradually transforms from young boy into a ruthless member of the junior Gestapo.

Despite the fact that's he's considered weak, Fritz is determined to join the SRD, the Hitler Youth's "Patrol Force" - the junior equivalent of the dreaded Gestapo. At first Michael is doubtful that Fritz believes everything the Nazis have taught him. Fritz tells Michael he wants to join the SRD "For Germany" "For the Fuher" "Everything I do is for the greater good of the Fatherland." Michael doesn't know if Fritz really believes what he is saying. The day of the Hitler Youth tests, Michael passes the different events easily while Fritz struggles but Michael notes "He had a wild look in his eyes, like he refused to fail." The second part of the test involves boxing and Michael is horrified to learn that he must fight Fritz who is no match for the experienced Irish boy. So determined is Fritz to make the SRD, that their brutal match results in Michael being forced to beat Fritz senseless. Both boys make it into the SRD.

At first Fritz still retains some of his innocence. He shows Michael his secret collection of British and American mystery novels and the two boys spend an hour enjoying them. However their first assignment is a raid on the Edelweiss pirates - a resistance group of young Germans. Astonishingly Fritz volunteers to lead the raid. Fritz's eagerness results in SS-Obersturmfuhrer Trumbauer giving him the nickname of Quex, the same nickname given to one of the most famous Hitler Youth ever, Herbert Norkus. He tells Fritz to report to him for assignment to a special team which turns out to be a group of SRD assigned to assassinate a famous scientist. It is this assignment that begins Fritz's complete transformation into an increasingly cruel boy.

Emboldened by his new rank, Fritz tells Michael that Herr Professor Doktor Major Melcher is a "doddering old man who serves no purpose to the war effort," Instead of obeying his teacher, Fritz refuses in a cold showdown that is only ended by an air raid. Michael notes, "Whatever it was Fritz was doing before and after school for the SRD with Max, it was changing him. He was harder now. Colder. Meaner." Fritz returns with the other SRD boys and they beat Melcher before taking him to the Gestapo. Later on, Michael finds Fritz burning his collection of mystery books. When he tries to stop him, Fritz punches him in the face. Michael tells him, "You'd burn something you love just to be on top for once in your life. Even if it means turning your back on who you are." Fritz tells Michael, "This is who I am. I'm going to lead Germany into the future. I'm going to help Hitler rule the world.  Even as he fights Fritz on the roof of the cable car, Michael still struggles to believe that Fritz is who he says he has become.

As Michael is drawn deeper in the workings of the junior Gestapo he must deal with the intense conflict between his actions and his beliefs. Repeatedly he must participate in Nazi cruelty so that he does not blow his cover and he can finish his mission to obtain the remaining pages of the jet plane blueprints. When Herr Professor Doktor Major Melchor is attacked by Fritz and the other SRD boys, Michael knows he has to participate. "I was about to say something, stand up to the SRD bullies, tell the police about Melchor's son, tell them how Fritz and the other boys were wrong. If I said something, I might save Melcher's life. But I would ruin everything else Simon and my parents and I had worked for..." Likewise he has to help man the anti-aircraft guns and the thought that he has shot down a British plane makes him sick. But the greatest conflict Michael must face is the possibility that, in order to be placed on the science team that's being sent to Switzerland to kill a scientist, he must turn in Simon, endangering both the British pilot's life and that of his parents too.

Overall Projekt 1065 is a thrilling, engaging novel that conveys to readers a good sense of what it was like to be a young person in Germany under the Nazis. Michael O'Shaunessey is a classic hero who shows great courage under pressure and who is willing to fight for what is right. Michael also demonstrates maturity in being able to wait until the time is right to get his revenge on Horst instead of acting on impulse. Despite admitting to having a hatred of the English, he forms a strong bond with the British pilot, Simon and is devastated at his cold-blooded murder.

Gratz provides a detailed Author's Note at the back which puts into perspective some of the events that occur in the novel.Projekt 1065 is highly recommended to readers who enjoy historical fiction with a bit of action and adventure.

Book Details:

Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz
New York: Scholastic Press     2016
303 pp.

Friday, November 11, 2016

One Half From The East by Nadia Hashimi

"One little letter fell off the back end of my name and my world changed. It's the smallest little letter, barely even a sound. Rahim...Rahima. See? If you say it fast enough, you could miss it. Who ever thought such a tiny little letter could make such a big difference."

One Half From The East is a story written for younger readers about the unusual practice of bacha posh, dressing a young girl as a boy. Set in a small village in Afghanistan, a young girl is dressed as a boy, a custom that is believed to bring the family good luck and to perk the spirits of her maimed father. This leads the young girl to confront her culture's negative views of being a girl and all that implies for her future.

The novel opens with ten-year-old Obayda and her family struggling to begin a new life in a small village outside of Kabul. Six months earlier Obayda's father lost his leg in a car bomb explosion in the marketplace. This terrible event led to Obayda's family moving to the smaller village because her father's brothers would be able to help them out.

Life in Kabul was much easier; Obayda's family had an apartment with a balcony and their school had blackboards and desks and a playground with swings. In the small village, Obayda lives close to her eldest uncle who is responsible for looking after his younger siblings as well as his own family. But in Obayda's family there are only girls, sixteen year old Neela, thirteen year old Meena and twelve year old Alia. There is no son to look out for their family.

One day Auntie Aziza visits their home. Since his accident, Obayda's father remains confined to this bedroom, unwilling to leave his bed. Meena and Obayda listen in to the conversation between their mother and Aunt Aziza who suggests that Obayda become a bacha posh. Aunt Aziza suggests that Obayda's mother cut her daughter's hair, dress her in pants and a shirt and send her to the new school dressed as a boy. "With her as a son, she will bring good luck to your home. You'll see your husband cheer up. Then you plan for another baby in the family. Having a bacha posh at home brings boy energy into your household. The next baby that comes will be a boy. And once you have a real son, watch what happens. Your husband will come back to life."

The next day Obayda's mother cuts her hair and is given pants and a shirt. Her name is changed to Obayd and her life changes drastically. She doesn't have to help with the housework, she isn't allowed to wear a dress or dance, and she's served dinner before her sisters getting the few pieces of meat her family can afford. A few weeks later she is sent off to school.  Obayda's time as a boy is about to change her life in ways she can't imagine.


One Half From The East explores the gender inequality that exists in Afghanistan and is common to many Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Hashimi explores this problem on both an individual level and on how this inequality affects society as a whole.

Ten year old Obayda is already aware of the inequality that exists in her society for girls. She notes that in Kabul "every family sent their girls to school", but that in the village there were two kinds of families; "...ones that send their daughters to school" and "Some families think daughters are born to be wives and mothers and don't need to bother with books or writing...They can count only how many cups of rice to soak and can't tell the letter kof from the letter gof."

At school Obayda finds herself in a "weird place between both worlds." She finds "everything else about being a boy is hard because it's so different from being a girl. Trying to act like a boy is like learning a whole new language, and I am really struggling to find the words. " Obayda finds that becoming a pacha posh has put up a wall between her and her sisters.

Fortunately for Obayd as she is now called, another bacha posh comes to her rescue. Called Rahim, she tells Obayd, "Forget everything else and be a boy." Obayd asks Rahim, who has been a bacha posh for several years, if she likes being a boy and she asks Obayd, " know what it means to be a girl. Was it anything worth being?" This ultimately is the question Obayda must answer for herself.

The ramifications of being a girl in this small village are spelled out by Rahim to Obayd. "It's almost as if all girls are born knowing what could happen, so we try  to move around outside like ghosts -- keeping our voices low, our footsteps light, and our eyes to the ground." Because this is what being a girl means in Afghanistan, Rahim is determined never to change back to a girl.  After more than five months as a boy, Obayd discovers that she likes the freedom and the changes that have resulted. She is stronger and she is more confident. Rahim tells Obayd about a legend her mother has told - "that passing under a rainbow changes boys to girls and girls to boys."  Rahim hopes that by passing under a rainbow she can permanently change herself into a boy and have the freedom she so desperately wants. However for Rahim things do not work out. After seeing her playing with older boys her parents arrange for her to marry the tribal warlord who rules their village. She is thirteen years old. This horrifies Obayda who does not want to return to being a girl because she is afraid she will lose all the opportunities she has as a boy.

Obayda's time as a bacha posh leads her to believe that being a girl is the worst fate possible. Thinking about the new baby her mother is soon to have she states, "...I...wonder if it's a boy or a girl. I hope, for the kid's sake, that it's a boy, even though my parents will be so happy with a son that they'll probably forget my boy name." 

Obayda seeks out her friend Rahima who tells her to find a way to make sure she does not share her fate of being withdrawn from school and forced to marry. "Do everything, Obayd! DO EVERYTHING!" This advice leads Obayda to try to find a rainbow to walk under so she can permanently become a boy. But after frightening her family with her disappearance to find the waterfall,  her mother tells Obayda that the rainbow is only a legend told to children. Obayda is now confused, "Why would you want me to be a boy only for now? If being a boy is good, isn't being a boy forever even better?"

Obayda's sister Alia points out that she was quite satisfied when she was a girl but Obayda tells her she doesn't understand how much better it is to be a boy. Her sister Meena tells her she doesn't need boy body parts to do the things that boys do. She built a special crutch for their father to use while she was pretending to be a boy. But she was in fact a girl when she built the crutch. This leads Obayda to wonder "Was I really a boy or was I just acting like one? That makes a big difference."

Obayda's mother, realizes that by forcing Obayda to become a bacha posh she has taught her daughter that it is shameful to be a girl. She realizes this when she Obayda tells her that if the new baby is a girl she believes they will be unhappy and later when Obayda remarks that the baby must be a boy if the kicks her mother is feeling are so strong. Her father too shows Obayda that her believes girls are just as capable as boys when he reveals to his friend Agha Samir that it was not his brother who made his crutch but his daughter. 

Hashimi does demonstrate subtly that the practice of bacha posh can leave girls unable to integrate back into their culture as they become confused about their identity. Rahim tells Obayd that she over heard her mother and aunt talking about how "some boys like us don't know what to do when they're changed back. They get confused and act really weird." 

One Half From The East is a fascinating exploration into another culture quite different from that of North America and introduces young readers to the strange custom of bacha posh, allowing them to explore what it means to be a girl. The limitations places on girls in Afghani culture are common in all cultures to a greater or lesser extent. The message here though is that girls have the same dreams, potential and gifts that boys have and that we need to work to create a world where they are free to do so.

Older readers may want to further explore the life of Rahima in Nadia Hashimi's novel in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell.

Book Details:

One Half From The East by Nadia Hashimi
New York: HarperCollins Children's Books         2016
256 pp.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

United by Melissa Landers

United is the final instalment in Landers' Alienated novel about aliens contacting Earth and attempting to form an alliance between the two cultures.

In the second novel, Invaded, Aelyx and Cara discovered the truth behind the L'eihr's desired alliance with Earth;  the L'eihrs were determined to form an army to fight the Aribol if required, combining L'eihr technology with human soldiers that they lacked. Cara learns from Alona that dozens of probes have landed all over L'eihr. The probes were deciphered and it was determined that they were an attempt to learn about the L'eihr weaponry systems.

Cara also learns from the researcher Larish that it was possible the Elders used the DNA of the ancients to create Jaxen and Aisly but that such DNA might have been incomplete. He also tells Cara that rumours are that the bodies of the ancient queen and her consort were exhumed and cloned, but that their abilities were heightened with alien DNA. This happened twenty one years ago meaning that Jaxen might be that clone.

Cara, Syrine, Aelyx and Troy return to Earth where an attempt is made to kill Aelyx and destroy the Human-L'eihr alliance. David refuses to carry out Jaxen's command to murder Aelyx and dies in a shootout with Grimes who reveals that Jaxen is planning a coup to take over both Earth and L'eihr.

Invaded concludes with Cara realizing that she loves Aelyx and that she belongs on L'eihr. Both Aelyx and Cara must now try to stop Jaxen. She meets will him pretending that Aelyx has been murdered and Jaxen reveals that he plans to let Earth die, taking the best scientists to L'eihr while controlling the rest of the population. He also plans to remove the Way and restore L'eihr to its former glory. However, Aisly is able to learn from Troy the truth about what happened with Aelyx. Aelyx confronts Jaxen and kills him with the i'phal. Cara manages to inform Alona a few floors up what has happened and Alona reveals to her that ten hybrids were created with the Aribol-L'eihr genetic material. Jaxen and Aisly were the only ones who showed potential. The remaining hybrids were sent to other precincts, likely keeping their abilities secret. Although both Aelyx and Jaxen die they are both brought back to life using an AED and Jaxen and Aisly escape. Moved by her loyalty, Alona asks Cara  to join the Way.

United opens with Cara and Aelyx arriving at the colony on L'eihr. Accompanying them is Syrine who has the remains of her l'ihan, David with her. Syrine wants him buried on the colony and then she will return to the continent for healing.

On the colony, Cara meets with Devinder who is now part of the Way. Devinder gives Cara a tour outlining how the colony is set up. The colony has one squadron to maintain order and to administer Reckonings, a form of corporal punishment using an electronic lash.  Cara is to be a liaison for the human colonists while Aelyx will represent the L'eihr clones.

Aelyx and Cara settle into their apartment which consists of a living area and a bedroom; there is no kitchen or eating area and no bathrooms as these rooms are communal. A couple of months into the settlement of the colony, very few human-L'eihr couples have formed. Instead the two races seem to be grouped separately. Already there are problems as the humans cannot apply for jobs they like but are assigned tasks. Jake Winters, a young former leader of a multi-million dollar corporation on Earth wants

Cara receives an urgent transmission from Alona who tells her that the Aribol have made contact. Alona tells her that Aribol probes were also sent to Earth, something Cara feels government leaders likely hid from their people. The Aribol identifies himself as Zane, appearing wearing some kind of mask. Zane refers to the humans and L'eihr as "Novens" and reveals that they are descended from a single race the Aribol seeded throughout the universe. He also tells them that they are more aggressive than other Noven and that the alliance poses a threat to other races they've seeded nearby. When Cara objects saying they have no basis for this conclusion, Zane indicates that "This is a proactive measure to maintain peace. We will allow humans and L'eihrs one month to return to your respective planets and then surrender all interstellar travel technology. If you refuse to comply, both civilizations will have to be neutralized." When Alona doubts Zane's threat, he destroys the L'eihr's spaceport and their entire Voyager fleet save for one craft so they can comply with the Aribol demands.

Devender believes that the L'eihr exaggerating their defenses and weaponry to the mechanical probes is likely the reason the Aribol believe they are aggressive and heavily armed. Cara however, feels something is not right. Alona states that the Aribol signal originated from a galaxy they recently discovered last year but have not yet explored. Alona decides that the one Voyager craft currently away on a mission will be sent to investigate the galaxy Zane's message originated from while all the human colonists will return to Earth. Aelyx is allowed to accompany Cara as he will be able to return to L'eihr if necessary. Some of the L'eihr colonists including humans volunteer to join the Voyager ship seeking out the Aribol system. One of those is Jake Winters.  Can Cara and Aelyx discover the truth about the Aribol in time to save their alliance and their home planets?


Unlike the first novel Alienated, which was predominantly character driven, United is a much more action driven story as the main characters, Cara and Aelyx strive to solve the mystery of the Aribol and why they are determined to destroy the alliance between humans and the L'eihr. The overall direction of the storyline through the three books was somewhat disappointing as the initial premise of the first novel, an alien race making contact with Earth for what appeared to be benevolent reasons and the struggles of the two races to understand and trust one another - was intriguing and showed promise. Instead of exploring more in-depth the developing relationships between characters the plot became more about the utilitarian motives of the L'eihr in contacting Earth as a strategic measure to protect themselves against the Aribol.

The resolution to the conflict between the Aribol and the humans/L'eihr was simplistic and inconsistent. It felt like the development of the plot was lazy. The Aribol are supposedly advanced well beyond human and L'eihr capabilities yet their ships are destroyed when they arrive at both planets. Presumably the Aribol have more than two interstellar craft, something even Cara considers as she's arguing for peace, "who knew how many Destroyers they'd stationed throughout the galaxy?".  Yet the destruction of these two ships is enough to convince the Aribol to partake of a truce.

The focus on action means little attention is devoted to further character development. Cara remains the fair-minded, open and forgiving person she was in the first novel. She offers to help Rune, the rapidly aging clone of herself and argues for peace rather than escalating tensions with the Aribol. Aelyx, Troy, Syrine and Larish are all characters who aid Cara in her mission to save the alliance and Earth.

Science fiction fans who enjoy a light read with romance will enjoy the Alienated series. There is some sexual content but nothing explicit.

Book Details:

United by Melissa Landers
New York: Elire Publishing     2016
317 pp. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Way Back Home by Alecia Whitaker

Alecia Whitaker wraps up her Bird Barrett series with this novel about a country singer who struggles to find balance in her life after becoming famous.

Eighteen year old Bird Barrett is on tour with her best friend Stella Crossley who is her assistant, her brother Dylan who plays in the band. and the rest of her crew.  Bird's brother Dylan has taken a year off college to tour with her while her parents stay at home helping her granddad recover from a broken hip.
Bird's Shine Our Light tour will visit forty-nine cities in North America over the next nine months and is the result of months of work with the Open Highway team.From the beginning of the tour, Bird begins to suspect that Stella has a crush on Dylan, making her feel a bit out of sorts.

In Los Angeles to do tour promotion, Bird runs into her nemesis, Kayelee Ford and twenty-three-year-old British playboy, Colton Holley. Holley invites Bird to his new nightclub in Las Vegas which Bird will visiting in a few weeks on her birthday. As the tour progresses Bird finds herself often away on related business and when she is back she begins to realize that Stella and Dylan might be an item. This makes Bird feel like an outsider on her tour and brings back memories of her failed relationship with Adam Dean.

In Las Vegas the concierge at the Venetian manages to arrange for Bird to visit Holley's nightclub with Stella and Dylan. They run into Colton Holley who treats them to a scrumptious dinner before heading to Club Colt. At the club they hit up the blackjack tables and have unlimited bottle service. Bird becomes increasingly intoxicated to the point where she has difficulty walking. When Colton comes on to her, Dylan steps in and eventually Bird refuses Colton's advances. Back in her suite, Bird is so drunk she pukes and passes out. The next morning a very hung over Bird gets through rehearsal but Dylan
reminds her that this is her tour and she is the boss, responsible for everyone on the tour.

When the tour is in Salt Lake City, Bird finally confronts Stella about her blossoming relationship with Dylan. She tells Stella that she wishes she had told her about her feelings towards Dylan. After Salt Lake City, Stella tells Bird that Dylan indeed does like her. Bird indicates to Stella that she does not want to be caught in "the middle if there's any drama" and she doesn't "want to be the third wheel" on dates.

Bird attends the VMA with Troy, her publicist Anita and her mentor, former country singer Bonnie McLain. She's been nominated for Best Video with a Message for
her hit Shine Our Light. While Bird has on a modest red cocktail dress, her rival Kayalee is dressed in a purple bandage dress that is very revealing. Even worse,Kayalee's provocative performance lights up social media much to Bird's annoyance.

After the VMAs, Bird learns that her opening act has suddenly quit citing a number of excuses. Bonnie suggests that Bird ask Adam Dean, who has just released his first single, to open for her. With Adam on the tour, Bird finds herself feeling the same attraction to him that she had last year. But can she and Adam keep it strictly business? Should she even try? And as the pressures of touring and fame begin to mount, Bird finds herself struggling to maintain a balance in her own life.


The Way Back Home is a wonderful conclusion to the Wildflower series about a young singer getting a break and becoming the next country music superstar. It's hard not to see the parallels to real life star Taylor Swift's rise to stardom as the premiere country music performer in 2008 and 2009. To that end The Way Back Home does a good job portraying the pressures a rising young performer faces when breaking into the music industry.

In the beginning of the novel Bird recognizes how many people are depending upon her. "Over a hundred and fifty people have jobs because of this tour. It's massive, and if I let myself think about the risk involved,it causes me major anxiety. A lot of people are counting on me."

Bird struggles to retain some sort of normalcy in her life, attempting to maintain her friendships while dealing with the day to day pressures of traveling from city to city and performing. Her publicist works hard controlling Bird's image and we see how every situation can be easily taken out of context and exploited either against or for that image. For example, on her eighteenth birthday, Bird celebrates by going to a club but drinks to much. She quickly comes to understand that as a public person there is no privacy for her and that every action will be scrutinized. As a result, Bird begins to feel less and less in control of her own life.
"Okay, yeah, I am the boss. Except I'm not. I still have to answer to my parents, my label, and my fans. Oh, and I'm the bad guy, but they were both there partying with their boss last night."

The pressure is intensifies when a reporter with Rolling Stone magazine spends a few days with the tour. But when the reporter, Jase, ends her stint with a tough interview that results in Bird losing her cool. the stress causes Bird to argue with Stella and to tell Adam that she longs to be a regular person again, "No autographs or pictures or screaming fans." A series of situations gradually lead Bird to come close to a breakdown; she refuses to sing at a rodeo when it's discovered she's in attendance and the Rolling Stone article makes her out to be a "judgmental and hypocritical Goody Two-shoes who plays the part of the wholesome all-American girl but parties behind the scenes." She also treats Stella badly when she misses a wardrobe cue during a performance, and lashes out at her brother and Adam. In desperation, Bird reaches out to her mentor and former country music star, Bonnie who whisks her away to her farm to help Bird recover and refocus.

Bird tells Bonnie that she feels like she's living a lie, that everyone believes she's "this charming, sweet, perfect role model" when in reality she wants to be different from that sometimes and that she can't say anything off script because "my team is carefully curating my aura..." But Bonnie tells her that with today's social media almost everyone has a public persona that isn't real and that maybe she's a bit jealous because "your family gets to go eat wherever they want whenever they want. And your friends can date and make new friends without ever wondering if the people they meet have ulterior motives...And they all get to make mistakes...but they all get to make their "just human" mistakes behind closed doors." Bonnie helps Bird recognize that "life is short, every moment spent with the people you love is precious, and every moment spent doing what you love is a gift."  With this new perspective, Bird returns to the tour and works hard to repair her relationships with Stella, Dylan and most importantly, Adam.

At times Bird almost seems too good - she wins two Grammys; one for Best Country Song and a second for Best Country Album. When Kayalee Ford crashes and burns at the awards and ends up puking drunk in the bathroom, Bird rescues her and later on with the help of Bonnie gets her into rehab. Bird and Bonnie visit Kayalee leading the two girls to end their feud. Bird looks beyond the Kayalee who has hurt her and recognizes "the pressure to make sure your parents didn't sacrifice everything for nothing, the pressure to make it to the top, the pressure to hone a public image, and then the pressure to maintain it." Although someone cheesy, the scene is in keeping with the character Whitaker has created and developed throughout her three novels.

The novel's subplot is the reappearance of Adam Dean and Bird's second chance to start a romantic relationship with the guy she's been crushing on for some time now.  After attempting to play it cool when Adam joins the tour, Bird acknowledges "The feelings I've always had for him have taken root in my heart again..." Complicating matters is the fact that Bird is Adam's boss. Their relationship is kept under wraps so that it can be revealed to the public at the right time. Bird is very accepting of Adam's difficult and troubled family situation and supportive of his career and he in turn is able to support her because he understands the pressures of working in the music industry. Readers will be rooting for them as their love blossoms.

Capitalizing on the current fame of Taylor Swift, Whitaker's The Way Back Home will probably appeal to younger teens who are also Swift fans. The relatively clean romance and the positive messages in this novel about living life with appreciation and gratitude along with the themes of forgiveness, the importance of friends and family all add up to make a good story.

Book Details:

The Way Back Home by Alecia Whitaker
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2016
327 pp.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel

Every Hidden Thing is based on the the decades long feud between American two paleontologists, Edward Drinkwater Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh which took place in the middle of the 19th century. Their feud which became known as the "Bone Wars" saw both men attempt to outwit the other in the hunt for dinosaur fossils in the American Midwest. Their rivalry new no bounds and lasted until Cope's death in 1897. Canadian author Kenneth Oppel has used Marsh and Cope's rivalry as the basis for his story in Every Hidden Thing.

The story begins with Samuel Bolt's father, Professor Michael Bolt presenting his latest find at a meeting of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Bolt is a gentleman scientist without a university education but well respected as a self-taught paleontologist. Professor Bolt was the second to discover a dinosaur in America - a partial skeleton but enough that he could name it.

Also in attendance at this meeting is Professor Cartland from Yale. The self-taught Bolt is seen as an amateur by Cartland whose connections to Yale give him important status. It is at this meeting that Samuel meets the homely but highly intelligent Rachel Cartland, Professor Cartland's daughter, whom he finds most captivating. They spend a short time conversing, neither aware that the other is the child of their father's rival.

Bolt had been sent crates of bones by a dentist, Dr. Hawthorn of Kansas. From these bones, Bolt was able to reconstruct a skeleton of a large sea creature he named Elasmosaurus. However, during his presentation, Cartland informs Bolt and the audience that Bolt has erred in his reconstruction of the creature. He has placed the head of the Elasmosaurus on the wrong end, mistaking the long length of vertebrae as the tail when in fact it is the neck. Cartland picks up the skull and clicks it into place on the other end of the skeleton stating, "Which would indicate to me, Professor Bolt, that the tail is in fact the neck, and you have built your dinosaur backward, sir." This outrage leads to the two men brawling at the meeting.

The next morning Samuel discovers an unopened crate in his father's office. In the crate, Samuel and his father find the largest tooth they have ever seen as well as a note written nine weeks earlier by a fossil hunter named Edward (Ned) Plaskett. Plaskett writes that he located the large tooth northeast of Fort Crowe and is offering his services to help find the rest of the fossil. Samuel's father determines that a creature with such a large tooth would be bipedal and "of some fifty feet in length, whose height measured from the ground, would be in the area of thirty feet." Samuel believing this would be the king of dinosaurs leads his father to partially name it rex.

Professor Bolt wants to simply telegraph Plaskett that he is hired but Samuel argues they should travel to Fort Crowe to find the rex themselves. However, lack of money is a huge problem because Samuel's father has used up all the capital from the sale of his inheritance. Samuel takes the initiative and at a Quaker's meeting tells the men he feels called to find God's creatures buried in the ground. The men take up a collection and raise enough for the Bolts to launch an expedition.

Meanwhile Professor Cartland and Rachel are on their summer expedition to the Western Territories. The Cartlands will have an army escort, twelve paying Yale students as well as free rail passes from Union Pacific. At first Professor Cartland decided that Rachel would stay in New Haven with her Aunt Berton attending picnics, church socials and a debutante ball. Rachel wanted none of it; she wants to attend university and hunt fossils and the expedition offers her a chance to work towards that goal. When she's sent to her aunt, Rachel releases a snake in her aunt's bed and is sent home. With her father having no other alternative, Rachel joins him on the expedition.

Unbelievably Samuel and Rachel meet up at Omaha Station to take the Union Pacific train heading out west, although neither party knows the exact destination of the other. Samuel continues to be completely enamored with Rachel. Their fathers set them both to spying on one another to try to determine their plans.  One of the Yale students appears to reveal to Professor Bolt that the Cartland's expedition is traveling to North Platte. This leads Samuel to tell Rachel about the tooth they have been sent by Plaskett. However the Bolts soon discover that the Cartland's destination is the same when they get off the train in Crowe. To the frustration of the Bolts they discover that Cartland has bought up almost all the supplies. When they finally meet up with Plaskett, his rough appearance at first worries Professor Bolt but he is determined to help them get to the badlands. While the Cartland's are burdened with their thirty soldiers and the Yale students, Samuel and his father along with Plaskett and a driver named Hitch Powers set out for the badlands. Samuel and his father set up camp and begin exploring. But when Bolt discovers Cartland's expedition camped on the banks of the nearby river, he is furious and confronts Cartland. The two men agree that whoever finds a bone first owns the site which will be staked with a flag. The two men race to find the rex of dinosaurs against the backdrop of hostile Indians bent on recovering what was stolen from them. Meanwhile, Samuel and Rachel become increasingly infatuated with one another, leading them to make an outlandish choice to control their own destinies.


Every Hidden Thing is a story loosely based on the intense rivalry between two American paleontologists in the mid to late 19th century. In the novel the rivalry is between two fictitious paleontologists, Professor Bolt and Professor Cartland, who are also loosely based on the real paleontologists, Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh. Other than their determination to find dinosaur fossils before the other and to quickly name them, Oppel's story is very much different. In the novel Professor Bolt's son Samuel is portrayed as having discovered the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton after having a vision resulting from a rattlesnake bite. In fact, both Cope and Marsh did discover pieces of the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the late 1890's but these pieces were not identified until much later in the 20th century. Although Cope married and had a child, Marsh never did.

Instead Oppel re-imagines the feud from the point of view of the two paleontologists' teenage children who form an alliance and eventually run off to get married. Samuel and Rachel share the storytelling in alternating narratives. The main strength of Oppel's story is the characters who are well drawn. Professor Bolt is described as a man who isn't "afraid to talk with his fists." Samuel describes his father as having a deranged look about him due to "his left eye had a slightly awkward angle to it..." Compared to Cartland, Bolt is a man with a bit more integrity who is deeply angered by Cartland's dishonest methods to obtain fossils. He appears more willing to respect the Indians than his rival.

Cartland is the most vile of the characters, stealing from just about anyone he can. He is described as short and "solid as a potbellied stove" with "sparse hair" and a mustache.  Rachel mentions that her father has a "rather unfortunate verbal tic of saying 'yes yes' in the midst of his sentences. And it rarely meant he agreed with you." He doesn't support Rachel's ambition to attend university and become a scientist. He's bought off his rivals so they can supply him with information on fossil finds and has blocked Bolt's papers from being published. Cartland shows profound disrespect for the indigenous people of the plains when he desecrates an Indian burial site, chopping the heads off the bodies to take back for research. Thoroughly in a rage when he discovers his daughter has married Samuel Bolt, Cartland attempts to kidnap his daughter.

Samuel is portrayed as an awkward teen definitely not comfortable with his changing body. He is determined to make Rachel both trust and like him so he tells her about the large tooth fossil.  Rachel describes Samuel as being "tall, with a mop of wavy, coarse hair. He looked like one of those puppies that hadn't grown into its body yet but gave all the signs of its full size to come..." Samuel sees Rachel as a potential wife and partner, working together to hunt fossils and do research but he's confused by her lack of feeling towards him.

Rachel is not considered attractive and she knows it, often focusing on how she is rarely complimented about her appearance. "But without a mother I was never told I had lovely hair or a pleasing figure or striking eyebrows..." Samuel's compliment that she has "the most extraordinary eyes." make her feel special. She's also described by Samuel as being unromantic, "She was like a fortress. Impenetrable."  Rachel is determined to attend university even marrying Samuel in the hopes of achieving this goal despite not wanting to marry.

Having a background in geology, this novel initially seemed very intriguing. However as the story progressed I found Samuel's description of how his body responds to Rachel  offputting. Samuel Bolt unabashedly narrates what happens to his body in a way that most readers really don't want to know. When he first meets Rachel Cartland, despite her being somewhat unattractive Samuel narrates how he becomes aroused. Why we have to know this I'm not sure. When the two elope and end up in a hotel room on their wedding night, the reader is subjected to a three page detailed account of their struggles and awkwardness, again probably something most teens really don't want to read about. Their blossoming romance in spite of the violent rivalry between their fathers plays on the much used Romeo and Juliet trope.

In contrast, Oppel's descriptions of the badlands welcome and colourful. "The steep slopes showed all their ancient layers -- tawny, black, gray, red -- like the diagrams in Father's geology books...Some of the stepped buttes looked like Mayan temples. There were gaunt castles. Archways and spires of a great Gothic cathedral..." When they arrive in the badlands Samuel narrates, "It was surprisingly lush along the brown, slow-curving river lined with cottonwoods and tall grass and flowers. In the sun's low evening light, the stone was rich yellow and peach and purple. The wind made a pleasant dry rustle in the cottonwoods." The ravines are described with equal eloquence: "The ground was scattered with rocks of all shapes and sizes, gray basalt and pink granite and yellowy limestone and great speckled silver hunks and creamy pebbles, all broken and crushed by glaciers and rounded and smoothed by rivers over thousands of years. There were green sage and spiky cactus and clumps of perfectly spherical deer droppings."

I'd love to recommend this novel which would probably be of interest to younger teens but I feel Samuel's wedding night narrative and the whole elopement subplot really distracts from the overall story. If you are interested in Tyrannosaurus rex and the rivalry between Cope and Marsh check out the resources listed below and spare yourself the unsavory descriptions that mar what would otherwise have been a really good novel. Hopefully another author will make an attempt to portray this interesting rivalry in a way that will be more informative and less sensational than Every Hidden Thing.

Paleontology: The Truth About T. Rex

This talk is about Tyrannosaurus rex held at Alberta's Tyrell Museum.

You can learn much more about the real Bone Wars by watching the short documentary, Dinosaur Wars on the PBS show, American Experience. The PBS website has detailed information on the rivalry between Cope and Marsh as well as information about viewing the documentary.

Book Details:

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel
Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.    2016
361 pp.