Friday, September 23, 2016

A Spy's Devotion by Melanie Dickerson

A Spy's Devotion is the first novel in Melanie Dickerson's Regency Spies of London series. A Spy's Devotion is set in 1811 in London, England. It is the first party of the Season and Miss Julia Grey and her wealthy cousin, Miss Phoebe Wilhern are in attendance along with Mr. Nicholas Langdon who has recently recovered from wounds he suffered while fighting in the Peninsula against Napoleon. Phoebe is infatuated with Nicholas and determined to flirt with him and make him fall in love with her. Julia plays the pianoforte and sings, entertaining those at the party.

Meanwhile, Nicholas, who notices Julia's attractiveness, is reminded by the coarse Hugh Edgerton that Julia has no dowry and therefore is not a suitable marriage prospect. Edgerton tells Nicholas that Julia is flirting with Mr. Daniel Dinklage because he has an income of fifteen thousand pounds a year. He suggests that instead Nicholas should be considering Phoebe Wilhern. Edgerton asks Nicholas what he will be doing in the week he has remaining before returning to the war and Nicholas indicates that he must do a favour for a man named Richard Beechum who died in battle. He will be returning a diary to someone he doesn't know. At the same dance, Julia overhears her Uncle Wilhern talking to Edgerton and stating that they must retrieve the diary from Nicholas Langdon.

The next day while waiting for his valet to locate Garrison Greenfield, the man he must return the diary to, Nicholas is visited by Edgerton who behaves strangely. When the valet returns from the War Office without any information about Greenfield Nicholas decides to copy the diary which appears to be written in some kind of code and visit the War Office himself. When he sets out, Nicholas is beaten and robbed of the diary. Devastated at losing the diary Nicholas continues to the War Office where he informs Philip McDowell of what has happened. He learns from Colonel Thomas Stockton of the Foreign Office that Garrison Greenfield was a British spy. Stockton asks Nicholas to investigate Hugh Edgerton and Robert Wilhern and to hand over the copy of the diary to his men.

Meanwhile, Sarah Peck who was Phoebe and Julia's governess is being sent away to a new position. Sarah encourages Julia to secure the affections of Mr. Daniel Dinklage and marry him rather than end up as a governess. She later writes to Julia about her new position and states that the only person who treats her nicely is the son of her employer. This news causes great worry to Julia who fears Sarah may be in danger and she warns her to act prudently.

Parties and balls continue as the Season progresses. Phoebe continues her desperate attempts to win the affections of Nicholas while Julia unwillingly encourages Dinklage in his pursuit. She has promised Phoebe that she will do everything she can to convince Nicholas to focus on her. Nicholas is careful to dance with each young woman only once so as not to show favour to any particular girl but he continues to find himself drawn to Julia. He introduces Julia to his sister Leorah and the two young women quickly become friends. Julia struggles to ignore her attraction to Nicholas as her cousin Phoebe is so determined to win Nicholas. In fact she attempts to direct Nicholas's attention away from herself and to encourage his interest in Phoebe.

At a dinner party at the Wilhern's, Nicholas attempts to search Robert Wilhern's study to locate the missing diary. He is unsuccessful but is saved from discovery by Julia. Julia could have informed her uncle about him, but remained quiet and Nicholas begins to wonder if she might be of help to him.The next morning Julia's uncle informs her that Hugo Edgerton has approached him with a request to marry her. Julia is horrified however, especially after Edgerton accosted her at the ball at the Wilhern's weeks earlier. She tells her uncle that she must refuse his request. In a desperate attempt to save herself, Julia who is a gifted pianist,  visits her old teacher, Monsieur and Madame Bartholdy to ask whether they could take her to the continent to tour and perform, but Monsieur Bartholdy tells her they are now too old for such a venture. At the same time Dinklage's mother refuses to accept her son's interest in Julia and sends him away to Derbyshire.

During her visits to the Bartholdy's Julia discovers that Nicholas Langdon travels in this poor part of town to visit the Children's Aid Mission where he spends time with the children and helps his old friend Mr. Wilson who runs the mission. Nicholas asks Julia to keep his visits a secret. At the next ball, when Julia is accosted by Edgerton, Nicholas rescues her by asking her to dance a second time with him. This sends the Wilherns and especially Phoebe into the depths of despair as a second dance sends the message that Nicholas favours Julia. However Nicholas realizes that as he's investigating Julia's uncle for possible treason she is not a suitable marriage prospect at this time. Also he needs to marry someone with a sizeable income because as the second son he receives little income from his father. Despite this he finds himself increasingly drawn to Julia.

When Julia leaves the ball, Nicholas recognizes the Wilhern's footman as the man who attacked him and stole the diary. At home, Julia's uncle questions her about her relationship with Nicholas and makes certain that she understands that it is Phoebe who will be marrying Nicholas. Julia is forced to tell Phoebe that she is not interested in Nicholas although in her heart she knows this is not true. More and more she is pressured to accept Edgerton's marriage proposal causing Julia great distress. This distress is noticed by Nicholas who one day encourages her to tell him her troubles.This Julia does and Nicholas wonders why it is that her uncle is so keen to have her marry Hugh Edgerton. Nicholas decides to confide in Julia, telling her that her uncle's serious debts place him at risk of losing Wilhern Manor in Warwickshire. He also tells Julia that her uncle is believed to be involved in a plot to assassinate General Wellington and asks for Julia's help. Will Julia be able to discover the truth about her uncle and Edgerton's involvement in the nefarious plot to kill Wellington and at the same time save herself from being forced to marry a man she does not love?

Discussion

Melanie Dickerson has written another enjoyable romance that involves a touch of adventure for a likeable heroine. Julia Grey is an orphan who has been taken in by her wealthy Uncle Wilhern. Her position is precarious because without a dowry Julia is unlikely to attract a good marriage prospect. Julia is accepting of this and believes that once Phoebe marries she will live with her and her husband. However, this soon seems unlikely because her uncle is determined to force her to marry the unlikeable Hugh Edgerton. Julia does not realize that her uncle, Robert Wilhern is hiding a huge secret - he's financially strapped and is looking to recover his ancestor's estates confiscated during the French Revolution. To accomplish this he has plotted to kill General Wellington who is leading the British in the war against Napoleon. He hopes to help the French towards victory and thus reclaim his property./

Dickerson uses the social conventions common in the early 1800's to create suspense and tension in her novel. For example, a young woman without family or connections had virtually no options other than marriage or becoming a governess. Without a significant income, a woman like Julia could expect few marriage proposals and would often be forced to accept marriage to a man regardless of his character or whether she loved him. Julia's precarious situation as an orphan living in the house of her cruel uncle sets her in exactly that scenario. Her Uncle Wilhern tells her that she has an offer of marriage from Hugh Edgerton, the man who is a drinker and has debts. Julia soon discovers that her uncle will be paying Edgerton money to marry her and that he is determined that she marry Edgerton as quickly as possible. Not only is this a problem for Julia but also for the British government's case against Edgerton and Wilhern whom they believe are involved in an assassination plot against General Wellington. Once married to Edgerton, Julia will be unable to testify in court because British law at this time did not allow for a woman to testify against her husband.

The author also highlights the double standards that existed in 19th century England regarding the behaviour of men and women. When Julia's friend, Sarah Peck is seduced by her employer's son and then abandoned, Julia notes how the upper class considers the matter trivial because of Sarah's class. The fact that Sarah is a lowly governess rather than a gentleman's daughter determines how people react. "Of course, if it had been a gentleman's daughter rather than a governess, it would have been treated in a much more serious manner. There would have been talk of him being made to marry the girl. The papers would have mentioned it discreetly, only giving the first letter of their names. But a governess...no gentlemen would be expected to marry a governess, and the papers wouldn't even deem it worthy of mentioning."

The point is further made when Phoebe's mother receives a letter from Mrs. Brumley about what has happened to Sarah. The Smitherman's whose son William seduced and impregnated Sarah are more concerned with the loss of a governess than what their son has done. The governess, Sarah Peck is assigned all the blame and the worry that Phoebe and Julia might possibly be tainted by virtue of having contact with Sarah.While Sarah is considered "ruined" Julia notes that the man she was involved with shares no similar fate. "The gentleman goes on his way as if nothing ever happened. He is full able to make a suitable match. But the governess's reputation is forever ruined."
Indeed, we later learn that William is sent back to Eton to continue his studies as if nothing untoward has ever happened.

Sarah's predicament only serves to emphasize to Julia just how serious things might become for herself. Worried that she may now be abandoned she acts in a way that she later considers wrong. As Phoebe pursues the man Julia secretly loves and it becomes evident that she will not be able to remain with her cousin, Julia goes against her conscience and her better judgement and flirts with Mr. Dinklage. However once she is refused by his mother, Julia comes to realize the motives behind her actions. "It was because she was afraid. She wanted security, respectability, and safety from poverty."

But unlike Sarah, Julia discovers that following all the rules for a woman as set out by 19th century society do not necessarily offer protection for someone of her class. Julia realizes that "She had tried to be so prudent, to conform to society's every rule for young ladies." and that even so she is still at the mercy of the inequality that exists in society for women and for those of her class. Forced to flee from her uncle and then harassed as a governess by Mr. Atherton, Julia decides to take matters into her own hands and writes a letter to Nicholas telling him how she truly feels, breaking social norms by actually going to his room and leaving the letter there.

Julia easily recognizes that God has been looking out for Sarah - through Julia's actions a place is found for Sarah to move to, she finds work and she ends up marrying Mr. Wilson. "Sweet Sarah Peck. God was taking care of her, giving her something useful to do. What a blessing." When she prepares to leave her position as governess at the Atherton's she tells little Timothy that she will continue to pray for them so "that you will be kind and good adults who care about other people, just the way God cares for you." However, Julia doesn't so readily recognize God's actions in her own life. It isn't until the very end that she comes to understand God has been in charge all along.

At times A Spy's Devotion feels like a cross between Jane Austen and a Harlequin romance. However Dickerson's characters are interesting and while her story line is not original, readers will nevertheless be hooked to read to the predictable happy ending. This is a good solid effort that highlights some past social inequalities that thankfully no longer exist.


Book Details:

A Spy's Devotion by Melanie Dickerson
Grand Haven, MI: Waterfall Press    2016
314 pp.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sing by Vivi Greene

Singer Lily Ross gets dumped by her boyfriend, Jed Munroe in a restaurant. Lily met Jed at a party at her manager's Brooklyn loft only a year ago. She had moved to New York from L.A. after her break-up with Caleb. Before Caleb there was Sebastian. Jed is also a musician and their lives seemed to fit together perfectly. Instead Jed tells her the pressure's getting to him and he takes off, leaving Lily a wreck.

Sammy, Lily's best friend since preschool and Tess a friend Lily made at camp when she was twelve are there to help Lily pick up the pieces. Now besides being her friends, they are Lily's paid assistants. Tess suggests they leave the city and spend the summer at her family's cottage on Penobscot Bay.

At first Lily declines. But when she goes into a coffee shop with her bodyguard, Ray and is mobbed with questions about Jed, Lily decides to take up Tess's offer.At the cottage Lily receives a frantic call from her manager, Terry who's concerned about all the negative publicity from her break-up with Jed. Her fall tour, Forever, which is based on songs about her relationship with Jed is ready to go as is her first song off her new album.

The first few days are wonderful until Lily reads about the breakup in the newspapers and discovers that Jed has talked to reporters. On a trip into town, Lily gets into a fender bender with a local - a handsome man driving a pickup truck. She meets the same guy again the following Saturday when Tess takes Lily and Sammy to meet with a bunch of guys she used to hang out with, to go fishing. That guy is Noel Bradley who takes the group out on his fishing boat where they spend the morning hauling in lobster traps. On the boat Noel and Lily become interested in one another. Meanwhile Lily decides not to respond to the texts from Jed.  A night swim leads her to fall asleep on the beach only to be awoken in the morning by Noel walking his dog, Murphy. They talk and Noel tells Lily that he attended college but returned to town where he lives with his father and his younger sister.

After Noel suggests they "hang out" sometime, Lily arranges a secret meeting at night because she doesn't want Tess or Sammy to realize that she's become involved with yet another guy. Noel takes her for a hike and they swim in a nearby pond. Around a campfire, Lily confesses to not being able to write new songs and Noel tells Lily about his mother whom he says is a painter and who abandoned them. On another secret night out, while hauling lobster traps out of the water, Noel tells Lily he was studying art at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design but that he came home. After this night out Lily writes her first new song about beginning a new day and being hopeful rather than about broken relationships and lost love.

Lily soon has several new songs composed: her first one is titled Anchors. After the July 4th holiday Lily's relationship with Noel begins to intensify. Terry contacts Lily and is relieved to learn that she has composed a number of new songs. Lily suggests they record at Tess's house and Terry reluctantly agrees. Terry wants to know who the "anchor" is but Lily not wanting to reveal that the song is about Noel simply tells him it is about the island. However with all of Lily's crew on the island working on the recordings, Noel feels unsettled and unsure of his place in her life. Can Lily and Noel make it work or will their vastly different lives be too much to overcome? Will Lily be forced to choose between her love for Noel and her love of making music?

Discussion

Sing is a novel whose plot draws comparison to country singer- turned pop star, Taylor Swift, whose songs are frequently about previous relationships and breakups. Sing's cover even suggests Taylor Swift  with its look-a-like complete with blonde hair and pouty red lips. In this version, the famous pop star is fictional Lily Ross whose career has been made by writing songs about her breakups. She's been with a number of men over the years and her latest love, Jed Munroe also a famous singer, has just dumped her. Hoping to find a bit of peace, Lily decamps to her friend Tess's cottage on an island where she quickly falls in love with the best looking guy in town, Noel Bradley. Noel is a rugged artist with a soft heart, who has returned to his family's home to care for his younger sister and his father after their mother was placed in rehab for doing drugs. Greene brings in the love triangle when Jed visits the town to try to win back Lily setting up a conflict that Lily must deal with. Which life does she choose and will Lily Ross ever find happiness and true love?

Lily Ross is a mostly likeable character but she's predictably self-centered and even somewhat shallow. Her friends take her to task when it's discovered she's been having a secret relationship with Noel Bradley and lying to them. Tess in particular feels betrayed because she considers herself Lily's friend, "the only people who don't kiss your ass and tell you what you want to hear all the time." Tess tells Lily that she's not ready for another relationship.

The reappearance of Jed Munroe in her life leaves Lily intensely conflicted. She struggles with the discovery that part of her still loves Jed. "I love the way he knows what he wants and doesn't apologize for being who he is. I love our life together, how seamless and complementary it can be." With regard to Noel, Lily feels that she is making the same mistake once again. But Maya who runs a yoga class on the island tells Lily that she's waiting for her life to be easier. When Lily tells Jed she won't be getting back together with him, he tells her she'll never be happy. But Lily knows she has at least broken the cycle of her music being all about breakups. She also knows that music must remain a part of her life. "No matter how much I try to make things work with Noel, no matter how much I love being here on this island, could I ever truly be happy without making my music, seeing my fans, singing my songs on tour? I can't just pretend that's not a part of me anymore."

At first the solution seems to be to have Noel accompany her on tour, because Lily doesn't want to feel the pain of loss when she leaves Noel behind on the island. But when Lily reveals Noel's identity during an interview and the paparazzi arrive,and then the truth about his mother is made public, Lily begins to realize just how different their lives are. Lily's mother reminds her of the value of sharing her music with others and that this is something special. Lily and Noel repair their relationship and Lily tells him that her time on the island has not been a waste - that she has discovered that her music allows her to connect with others. "My songs are the way I've always made sense of the world, the mistakes I've made, the people I've met and what they've taught me. I'm not done with any of that. I don't know that I ever will be." Lily comes to realize that life isn't full of "perfect, happy endings" but that people do go on, just as she will without Jed and without Noel.
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Perhaps unwittingly Greene has written a novel that portrays the reality of the current dating culture for many women in the 21st century: meet a man, live with him and then break-up with no sign of commitment or marriage, a year or two or more of life wasted and a broken heart.  Although the characters in this story are supposedly famous contemporary musicians, the relationships in their lives and the modern problems they face are very much similar to those of everyday people. Their relationships, although subject to the pressures of fame, parallel the patterns seen within society in general today. Many women go through similar experiences of dating for a few weeks/months, then living together without moving towards any sort of commitment. That this can be harmful to women whose hearts and bodies are made for something much different is effectively demonstrated in Sing. When Jed dumps Lily, she looks at the keys to her apartment which Jed just handed back to her she states, "...and when I think about how many times I've done this, handed over my heart, the keys to my home, to my world, I feel dizzy. Over and over again --it's not enough. I'm not enough. "  Lily believes the reason her relationships crash is because she's the problem but by the end of the novel her friendship with Noel has helped her rediscover who she is and that she can be happy in life.

For fans of contemporary romance and singers like Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, Sing will resonate with them and be an enjoyable, fun read.


Book Details:

Sing by Vivi Greene
New York: HarperTeen   2016
279 pp.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice

Sixteen-year-old Ruth Ann (Roo) McCabe is on her way to pick up her younger sister Mathilda Mae (Tilly) at the river museum. It's four o'clock on a February Saturday afternoon. The Connecticut River is almost frozen over and Roo wants to get a few pictures of the beautiful scene for her portfolio for a scholarship contest. She desperately wants to attend Yale University, where her father studied years earlier. Roo and Tilly's father died last summer from a massive heart attack.Tilly is waiting impatiently and continues to text Roo as does Roo's boyfriend Newton and her best friend, Isabel.

After taking a few photographs, Roo gets in her Volvo and while driving towards the bridge leading into the town of Black Hall, she picks up her phone and sends a text: "mins away." In the three seconds she's looked down at her phone she finds her car has drifted off the road and into the path of a woman walking her dog. Attempting to avoid hitting both, Roo swerves, causing her car to somersault down the bank and lands on its roof in the frozen creek. Hanging upside down in the car, bleeding, Roo passes out.

Tilly is eventually picked up at the museum by Newton who informs her that Roo's been in a car accident. When Tilly sees Roo in the ER she is conscious but nauseous as well as complaining about her head hurting and her neck feeling stiff.  Suddenly Roo has a seizure and suffers what doctors diagnose as a "brain stem stroke affecting the basilar artery system." Roo's doctors tell her family that she is comatose. Roo's eyes are open and protruding, her face covered in bruises and dry spittle and her mouth pulled back, frozen in a silent scream. Doctors say she is "incapable of emotion" and she's on a ventilator to help her breathe. A newspaper story states that Roo who is not named, is "expected to remain in a vegetative state" and that the accident is being investigated to see whether drugs or alcohol were a factor. This upsets Tilly but Isabel tells Roo's mother that she was taking pictures and that they were texting about this. This leads Tilly to wonder if Roo actually pulled over before texting her that afternoon. Could she have been responsible for Roo's accident.

Unknown to Roo's family however, Roo can hear and understand everything but she is unable to respond. "I commanded my limbs to move, but they didn't. How bizarre. I was trapped, mummified." Roo finds she can't speak and she cannot move her limbs. "Then I realized, No, there are no straps. It's me -- I can't move. I can't speak. I can't get anyone to hear me. I must have looked like a lifeless lump, but inside my mind I was wild, alive, in agony, going crazy." Even worse for Roo is "not having my family realize that I was awake and completely conscious, hearing everything. How could they not know?"

Neither her family nor the doctors are aware that Roo is conscious. Dr. Sarah Danforth, a specialist in pediatric neurovascular disease isn't and neither are her nurses. Eventually Roo begins breathing on her own and is taken off the ventilator. Tilly expects that this will mean a big change in her sister but when she arrives at the hospital she finds Roo still unresponsive. Dr. Danforth tells Tilly that Roo still doesn't feel emotion. Tilly struggles with guilt because she believes she is responsible for Roo's accident and she asks her sister if she is guilty of causing her accident. But Newton tells Tilly the accident was partly Roo's fault leading Tilly to become extremely angry at him and getting herself placed on probation at the hospital.   Roo sees all of this but cannot respond.

Being trapped in her body leads Roo to reminisce her how she and Newton first became friends, began dating and planned to attend college together. She wonders what she looks like to him now.; She also remembers how her father died suddenly last summer on a perfect summer day when he came home and went to lie down before dinner and never woke up. As the days wear on, Roo has time to think about the accident and realizes that she was texting before the accident and that she has done this to herself.

Meanwhile at school, Tilly struggles to cope with her sister's situation. This is further complicated by Isabel who takes Tilly to the place where Roo had her accident and reveals that she has found Roo's missing cell phone. Isabel tells Tilly that she felt guilty because she had been texting Roo when she had her accident so she came out to look for Roo's phone. When she found it she took it home, charged it and discovered that it was not her text that caused the accident but Tilly's text. Roo's last text, "5 mins away" was sent to Tilly. Isabel insists that they need to tell someone and Tilly reluctantly agrees to tell her mother. The two girls meet Martha Muirhead who is the woman who was walking her dog Lucan the night of the accident. Martha tells Tilly that she is just like her sister who was concerned for the her dog. Martha asks Tilly to let Roo know Lucan is doing just fine.

Tilly takes Martha's advice and decides to tell Roo that the dog she hit is now doing fine. But she also wants to tell Roo that she was the cause of her accident. As Tilly is talking to Roo and closely watching her sister's face she makes an astonishing discovery. It is one that completely changes the doctors diagnosis and gives tremendous hope to Roo, her family and friends. Life will never be the same, but maybe Roo has a chance to reclaim some of what she lost in the accident with the help of those around her and the bond she shares with her sister Tilly. And at the same time, maybe Roo's tragedy can save others from the danger of texting while driving.

Discussion

A major message that Luanne Rice conveys in her novel is that texting while driving can lead to unimaginable consequences forever affecting your life and the lives of those around you. In the province of Ontario, distracted driving now outnumbers impaired driving as the leading cause of accidents.Rice pulls no punches in demonstrating just how devastating a few seconds of inattention can be. Roo is an accomplished young woman with a brilliant future ahead of her. She is smart, attractive and accomplished. She has a boyfriend, Newton who adores her. She planned to gain early acceptance at Yale and was in the process of developing her photography portfolio for the Serena Kader Barrois Foundation Photography Contest. This award offers a thousand dollar scholarship which would help her get into Yale.; After her accident readers learn that Roo's photographs are especially captivating, making her injury seem all the more tragic. Dr. Howarth, a specialist in facilitated communication who will help Roo learn to communicate with the world around her, views Roo's photographs and tells her, "Your photos say so much about you Roo. You have a beautiful soul and a brilliant eye. You capture the perfect instant of beauty and action, and somehow you translate that exact moment, and the feeling that goes with it, to the viewer." Yet in mere seconds, Roo loses all this because of texting while driving. The message is not lost; distracted driving kills and ruins lives.

The second issue to be explored in this novel involves an unusual neurological disorder. Although initially it seems that she's just banged up from the accident, Roo has a stroke and passes out. It turns out that although her doctors believe Roo is in a coma and refer to her as being in a vegetative state ( a horrible term to use regarding any human being) she is actually conscious but completely paralyzed and unable to talk.

In Roo's case she cannot blink, but as her sister discovers, Roo is able to move her left eye up and down.
" 'Can you please just,' she began, and I must have been exasperated, because all I could do was look up at the ceiling, a heaven-help-me moment. My eyeball flicked up and down. Tilly stopped mid-sentence, mouth dropping open. And then...
'Roo?'
I'm here!
'Oh God,' she said. 'Did you just look up? Did you just move your left eyeball? If you did, and you hear me, do it again.'
I did it again."

This condition of being fully conscious but unable to move or speak is called locked-in syndrome (LIS). In LIS, a person loses the ability to voluntarily move with the exception of vertical eye movement as in Roo's case or blinking. It is extremely rare and is caused by damage in the brain stem as a result of head trauma or a stroke. Generally it is family who makes the discovery that their loved one is aware and capable of understanding everything happening around them. Sometimes neuro-imaging tools such as functional MRI scans are capable of showing that a person may be conscious but locked-in. If a person is medically stable, LIS patients can live for ten to twenty years, although recovery from LIS is rare.

As Rice showcases in The Secret Language of Sisters, those with locked-in syndrome are able to communicate with the world in a few ways. Roo begins with simple yes answers and then onto using a letter board. Also portrayed in the novel is the use of brain-computer interface technology which at this point appears to be an unusual option for someone with LIS. Because she is capable of moving her eye up and down this means that Dr. Howarth can develop an operating system to her Roo communicate. He tells her "...instead of your eye movement telling me which letter you want, your brain waves will speak directly to the laptop, and the words will appear." After Roo has a computer chip implanted in her brain she is able to quickly learn how to communicate. It is this new ability to communicate that really helps Roo because she has many issues to deal with as a result of the accident.

First she must come to terms with the fact that she is partly responsible for the situation she now finds herself in. But she is also angry at her sister. "If I hadn't texted Tilly back, that wouldn't have happened; and if Tilly hadn't barraged me with a thousand impatient texts, I never would have reached for my phone."
She is also upset that what happened to her is in the media and her tragedy is being used in an awareness campaign by her mother and that Isabel has changed her portfolio submission to feature her situation. The pictures of how she now looks horrify Roo. Dr. Howarth puts things into perspective for Roo when he tells her, "As much as it hurts, Roo, this story will help others, keep them from texting behind the wheel. You have to know that. People's lives will be saved because of you." Roo also observes a growing attraction between her sister Tilly and her boyfriend Newton, making her angry, "crazed and jealous." Although Isabel and Newton both deny this possibility, Roo is certain of what she sees.

As Roo struggles to cope with significant changes in both her life and the lives of those around her, Dr. Howarth understands, telling her, "It's very hard to let go of things we love most, to accept that life changes." Roo remembers a line from her favourite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, "We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it." Roo has done this with the father she lost last near and now must do it with Newton.

One of the themes The Secret Language of Sisters focuses on is the special bond sisters have with one another. Roo and Tilly had a special bond before her accident. Roo was the big sister, popular, pretty and smart who always looked out for Tilly. After the accident their roles are reversed as it is now Tilly who must advocate for Roo. Tilly who is wracked with guilt over texting her sister, believes that bond no longer exists. Her guilt over the text is also compounded by her growing attraction to Newton, whom she becomes close to and eventually kisses. Distraught over what has happened between herself and Roo, Tilly goes to see Martha Muirhead. Martha feels they have a connection because they both have sisters and they both feel responsible for what happened to them. She tells Tilly that a person has to use their talents to heal and survive and that it is the same with Roo. For Martha and her sister Althea, their love of singing was their secret language. She tells Tilly their bond may be damaged but it is not broken.

When Martha goes to visit Roo she reveals how similar she and Althea were to her and Tilly. She tells Roo that their relationship can't be broken because they are sisters and they speak the same language - they care about each other. "You get to be a sister only because you have Tilly. Without each other, that goes away. You're still beautiful and talented, but you're not a sister. It's the alchemy of sisters, Roo."

Rice ends her novel in an upbeat way, with Roo focusing on the positive, on what she still has and not on what she has lost. She forgives her sister and Newton, understanding that the relationships between her, Tilly and Newton have changed. Like Martha and Althea situation, Tilly and Newton realize that maybe because they both love Roo, they were hurting and sought solace in each other. Tilly begins to recognize Slater's interest in her and his support of Tilly draws her away from Newton. Meanwhile Newton demonstrates to Roo that he still deeply loves her and he is not planning to abandon her. He tells her, "You are my north star. Will you try to keep going with me?" He recognizes the girl he loves is still there, "Inside, you're the same as ever, so beautiful and smart, making me keep up with you."  and he makes it possible for Roo to continue to use her talent for photography.

The Secret Language of Sisters is a beautiful novel about the connections sisters share, and about how those connections can endure through even the worst of times. It is also a timely warning about the dangers of texting and driving and how life can change in the span of seconds.

The following resources may be helpful:

CAA Distracted Driving Information

The locked-in syndrome: what is it like to be conscious but paralyzed and voiceless?

Book Details:

The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice
New York: Point, an imprint of Scholastic Canada 2016
336

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat

Phoebe is a slave on Arnold Duncan's Whitehaven Plantation located in Virginia in 1858. When Phoebe was only six years old,  her mother was sold off to another owner and from that time she's never spoken. Now sixteen years old, Phoebe looks after Tessa Duncan, the daughter of the plantation owner, brushing her hair and laying out her clothes.


The story begins with Will, one of the slaves owned by Duncan, being brought back by the overseer Brutus after attempting to escape. Brutus is ordered to "peel and pickle" him, meaning that Will is to be whipped until there is no skin remaining and then salt water poured on the wounds causing extreme pain. Duncan believes that Will, who is a very large man, is a valuable slave and he's determined to "break" him and then breed him. Duncan also owns Will's younger brother Shadrach.

Over the past year Miss Tessa has been tutored by Mr. Cooke to learn to read. Unknown to anyone else, Phoebe has learned to read while fanning Miss Tessa and Cooke as they study. Since it is against the law for a slave to learn to read and write, Phoebe keeps this a secret. She hopes one day to check the master's red book to learn where her mother has been sent.

One day Shad announces to Beatrice who is the cook and to Phoebe that a doctor is coming to the plantation the following week to study Virginian birds. The arrival of Doctor Ross Bergman, an ornithologist from Canada peeks everyone's interest including Phoebe. Arnold Duncan whose great-great-grandfather came from Scotland, is the first Duncan in five generations to have no son to pass on the plantation. His land is almost spent and he needs fresh land to grow tobacco. To buy land, Arnold Duncan hopes to attract Bergman's money.  Duncan is also keenly aware that times are changing with the North turning on the South and the slaves against their masters. The days of a plantation run on the backs of black slaves may be nearing its end.

Phoebe finds Dr. Bergman most interested in her, but even more so when Miss Tessa informs him that Phoebe seems to "have a way with birds". Master Duncan orders Phoebe to accompany Dr. Bergman to the woods to show him where the cedar waxwings nest. Missus Duncan is not happy about this. The next morning Miss Tessa accompanies Dr. Bergman and Phoebe into the woods. Both Shad and Bea worry about Phoebe going into the woods with the white doctor.  Miss Tessa's constant talking means they find no birds. For Tessa the walk and the heat are tiresome and she's not interested in birds but in attracting Dr. Bergman as a potential husband.

At dinner that night, Master Duncan is angry about a suspected abolitionist who has been showing up at the plantations and helping slaves to escape up north. On another outing to find birds, Bergman draws bird nests and is introduced to a more detailed tour of life on the plantation by Miss Tessa, one that sees him witness a black slave being beaten. He keeps his feelings carefully hidden although he does tell Miss Tessa that her use of the Bible as a justification for keeping slaves is not correct.

Dr. Bergman simply bides his time hoping to get Phoebe alone. His chance comes the very next day when Miss Tessa is made to remain at the house for a lesson with Mr. Cooke. Phoebe takes "Dr. Birdman" as she calls him, out into the woods for more birding. Wary of his intentions, she waits until he takes a nap to go to her "hidey-hole" in the tree where she has hidden her journal. Bergman follows her there and watches Phoebe as she sits quietly with an little bird in her hands. When she returns Bergman tells Phoebe he needs her to help him and to keep a secret. He wants her to bring him a slave who has tried to escape to her hollow tree. Phoebe agrees to do this.

Shad, suspicious of Dr. Bergman's intentions, follows Phoebe and the doctor into the woods. Although nothing happens to Phoebe, Shad remains watchful. The next day Master Duncan releases Will from the shed because he needs his tobacco harvested quickly. Phoebe delivers Bergman's message to Will and they meet him at the hollow tree where the doctor tells Will to bring men he trusts to the tree the following night.  The next night Will brings Levi, Joe and Davey to meet Dr. Bergman. Unknown to them Phoebe is hiding within the tree and hears their plans.  Bergman tells the slaves that not all white men are like Master Duncan, that he is there to help them escape and that many hundreds of slaves have escaped to the north and to freedom. Only they can choose to take the risk and Bergman requests that if they choose not to, that they tell no one. He asks them to meet him at Carson's Corner in ten days. Can Will and his friends and Phoebe trust that the white man is telling the truth? Will they have the courage to grasp this chance at freedom? And will Shad discover the truth of slavery before it's too late?

Discussion

The Gospel of Truth is told in free verse by six narrators: the slaves Phoebe, Shad and Will as well as Master Duncan and his daughter Tessa Duncan and the abolitionist, Dr. Bergman. The novel is set in 1858, only two years before the election of Abraham Lincoln and three years before the start of the American Civil War. In 1858 America, slavery was ubiquitous in the south where plantation owners used black slaves to work crops of hemp, tobacco and cotton. Slavery had been essentially abolished in the northern states by 1804, but with many plantations in the south switching over to growing cotton, the use of slave labour was firmly entrenched. There were millions of black slaves living in the southern United States by 1958. However, the movement to abolish slavery altogether began to grow rapidly after 1830. At this time free blacks and white abolitionists began actively helping slaves to escape to the northern states or into Canada. The route of safe houses and those willing to help became known as the Underground Railroad.  At this time the southern states were beginning to face an economic crisis as the land began to fail. Those living in the southern United States saw the northern state's abolitionist views as an attack on their way of life. When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, seven southern states left the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. This secession eventually led to the beginning of the Civil War and ultimately to the war becoming about the issue of slavery.

The use of verse to tell the story of courageous men and women who risked everything to escape slavery is an effective means of storytelling because it pares the narrative down to its essentials and focuses on the humanity of the slaves. Pignat does touch on many of the realities of institutionalized slavery: the brutal beatings, whippings and torture undertaken to "break" slaves, the selling of mothers away from their children and children from their mothers, the rape of slave girls by their masters and the use of slave women as concubines.  In The Gospel Truth, Phoebe, Will and the other slaves must overcome their conditioning by their white master to accept their fate and their fear of the white man to realize the truth written in their hearts that she belongs to no one and that "owning people is wrong."  The white plantation owners deliberately keep their black slaves ignorant, unable to read or write, meaning they were completely dependent upon their owners. Phoebe secretly learns to read in the hopes that she can learn what happened to her mother.

Pignat also demonstrates that the racist view of the slaves was part of white family life and passed from generation to generation of Americans. For  example, when Miss Tessa is out birding with Dr. Bergman  they witness the brutal beating of a girl whose fallen behind the line. Tessa tells Dr. Bergman,
"We buy, breed, feed, clothe, house, and train them,"
Miss Tess parrot.
"And if need be, we sell them.
But we take good care of our property."

"Your people," he say.

"Oh, Doctor," she roll her eyes,
and say what master always say,
"they're not people...

they're Negroes."

She attempts to explain that her belief is supported by the Bible to which Dr. Bergman suggests that "...some people misinterpret even God's truth."

Readers also see the effect of slavery on families and marriages. The use of slaves as concubines undermined many marriages. Master Duncan's rape of Ruthie, Phoebe's mother and the birth of Phoebe destroy the Duncan's marriage as Missus Duncan refuses her husband afterwards. This results in Arnold Duncan having no male heir for his plantation.

The theme of truth is woven throughout the novel. When Phoebe is taunted by Ella Mae Bea tells Phoebe that the reason Ella Mae hates her is because Phoebe's father is a white man, Master Duncan.  She tells Phoebe that "I've been protecting you for ten years no. But I see I can't protect you from everything...'Specially not the truth." Bea tells Phoebe it's time she knows the truth.

Later on Shadrach finds the bag containing the items Dr. Bergman gave Will for his escape as well as Phoebe's journal in the hollow tree. Shad tells Phoebe that he thinks Will is going to try to escape again but that he has prevented this by taking the bag and he has given her journal to Master Duncan so he can find out "who been leading my brother astray."  This terrifies Phoebe who tells herself that she cannot run from the truth, she can't hide the truth that she knows how to read and write. Shad is horrified when he learns the truth about the journal - that it belongs to Phoebe who knows how to read and write. As Shad struggles to uncover the truth of what is going on, he is forced to choose between Phoebe who wants to run to freedom and Master Duncan who promises to make him overseer. Phoebe finds her voice to tell Shad the truth of why she's running:
"I ain't Master's shame," she say,
eyes puddled up with tears.
"I ain't Tessa's toy,
or even your girl, Shad."
She shrug.
"I's Phoebe. Just Phoebe. I belong to no one."

She tells Shad,
"--owning people is wrong.
shameful wrong, Shad.
And that's the gospel truth."

In the end Phoebe states that
"It takes courage
                to see truths
                that we'd rather not."

There is plenty of symbolism to explore in this novel particularly around the yellow bird that Phoebe finds injured at the beginning of the novel. She takes the bird, which has a broken wing, home and places it in a cage. Phoebe believes that

"sometimes the safest place to be is 
in a cage."

This is a truth for Phoebe. However as time passes, the bird languishes, refusing to eat or sing. Phoebe returns to where she found the yellow bird and watches the same birds who are free, discovering that they eat worms and bugs. When she brings home a worm, the yellow bird responds and finally moves in the cage. Phoebe comes to understand that although the yellow bird's wing has mended its heart is broken. Miss Tessa wonders why the yellow bird won't sing and makes the connection that like Phoebe, it is mute. However she fails to understand why this might be. When Phoebe plans to run and take Will's bag containing the items he will need to escape to him at Carter's Corner, she remembers to free the yellow bird. She recognizes that although the bird is safe in the cage, it is not living the life it was meant to.
"Sure, I keep her alive,
but I's keeping her
from living like a yellow bird should."

Phoebe also understands how being caged has affected the yellow bird.
"Miss Tessa said the bird is tame.
Tame is just another word for broke.
Her wing is long healed.
But numbed by what life she knows behind these bars,
Yellowbird stopped hoping for one beyond them.
Truth is,
that cage is hurting her in ways I can't fix.
I keep her alive,
but she's living half-dead.

So Phoebe does what she has to - "I throw her at the dark and all its dangers."  She sets the yellow bird free and when free, the bird sings "like a yellow bird should."

The yellow bird represents Phoebe who as a slave, is living in a cage called Whitehaven, unable to leave and unable to live her life as she is meant to. Like the yellow bird, she and Will and the others must flee into the "dark and all its dangers" to escape their cage of slavery. And Phoebe herself, once she makes the choice to escape, finds her voice to tell Shad why it is that she must go. On the verge of freedom she speaks, just as the yellow bird once free, begins to sing again.

The Gospel Truth is a wonderfully crafted novel with a remarkable heroine as its focus. Winner of the 2015 Governor General Award, The Gospel Truth represents historical fiction at its best, capturing the era in a realistic manner with believable characters. Caroline Pignat is a Canadian author whose novel Greener Grass won the 2009 Governor General Award. Pignat is an English teacher in Ottawa.

Book Details:

The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat
Brighton, Massachusetts: Red Deer Press    2014
327 pp.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Fifteen Lanes by S. J. Laidlaw

Set in India, Fifteen Lanes tells the story of two girls from very  different segments of Indian society, one the daughter of wealthy parents who leads a life of privilege, the other a first born to a prostitute whose fate seems to be that of her mother.

The story opens with Noor Benkatti remembering how at age five she used to sleep under her mother's bed in a room shared with three other women. Noor lives in a house in Kamathipura run by Binti-Ma'am and her son Pran with her Ma and another woman called Deepa-Auntie. Her five year old self did not fully understand the men who visited her mother, Ashmita and the other women such as Deepa-Auntie at night, nor why she couldn't sleep at night with her mother in their bed.

Noor remembers her first day of school, her uniform, the tight braids and her first time wearing shoes. Her mother sent her to a fee-paying school but unlike the parents of her schoolmates, did not accompany her the first day. Noor immediately made a friend in Gajra Bawanvadi. Gajra was soon sharing her delicious lunch of samosas, paratha and dahl with Noor, who was used to eating very little. But when her mother discovers that she's been eating more food than usual she warns her not to steal.

Noor's story fast forwards four years to when she is nine years old. Noor now has a three year old sister, Aamaal and her mother is expecting another baby. In the 4th class at school, Noor is an excellent student, placing firsts in Math and English. Talking with Deepa-Auntie, she asks her about her past. Deepa-Auntie is from Nepal and has beautiful golden skin which makes her a favourite with the men who come to the brothel. She grew up poor on a farm but when she was a young girl she was taken from her village by a man who promised her she would work as a domestic. Instead she ended up in the brothel in India. When talking with Deepa-Auntie, Noor asks her mother to explain why they never visit her Ma's village anymore. Ma explains that she is a devadasi, that her mother dedicated her to serve in the temple. Her mother gave Ashmita to the temple for money. The village elders pretended it was a sacred tradition but it was no longer like that. Without explaining further what a devadasi is or what it will mean to Noor, Ma tells her that she cannot escape her fate. "You were born into your fate, Noor. I may forestall it but you can't escape it. We can only hope your next incarnation will be more forgiving."

Noor does not understand what a devadasi is and Deepa-Auntie has no information to give her because she is from Nepal. Deepa-Auntie hopes to pay off her debt to Binti-Ma'am and Pran and return to her country to see her younger sister Yangani. However, Deepa-Auntie is not allowed out of the house and can only sit in the window box which is where men look at the women for sale. She must have permission and can only be escorted out by Binti-Ma'am or Pran.

Noor's mother gives birth to a baby boy named Shami. The day of his birth Noor is out with her friend, Parvati but Aamaal and Lali-didi who is a new girl in the brothel run to tell Noor to get Sunita-Auntie to help her mother who is in labour. However, when Noor returns with Sunita-Auntie her mother has given birth to a frail, little boy. Sunita-Auntie tells Noor that both her mother and the baby boy have the virus - meaning AIDS and she tells Noor to suffocate the baby.  Noor refuses.

Little Shami is constantly sick with pneumonia and sores. One evening Aamaal and Noor are accosted by a customer leaving their house. Noor manages to get Aamaal away from the man and she is saved by Pran and her mother. The customer tells Ashmita that if she is devadasi so is Noor and that she is only delaying the inevitable. Pran informs him that  when it is time Noor will be sold. This altercation leads Noor to confront her mother about what it means to be devadasi. Ashmita explains that it has been tradition that the oldest daughter is dedicated to serve in the temple as a courtesan to the priests and wealthy landowners. Although the practice has been outlawed it continues on as a form of sexual slavery now. Noor is horrified to learn that this will be her fate.

Noor's true situation is discovered as a result of her seeking medical help for her little brother Shami who is HIV-positive and sickly. As Noor's mother's health deteriorates (she is also HIV-positive) she is unable to care for Shami. Her time is spent resting and continuing to work as a prostitute at night. It is a brief encounter in a clinic that unravels Noor's world. At school Noor continues to excel, obtaining firsts in almost every subject. Noor's mother lied to get her into the school hiding that fact that she is the daughter of a sex worker and Noor herself has fabricated an embellished family history; her father is a civil servant and her mother a former actress. After school one day as Noor and her classmates, Gajra, Sapna and Kiran are discussing their marks, Sapna's father who is a doctor, arrives. He recognizes Noor as the girl who brought her very sick brother to his clinic and he makes sure Noor knows he has recognized her. Knowing once the truth of her situation becomes known - that she is the daughter of a sex worker, she will be expelled from her school, Noor races home. At home Noor learns that her mother has been called to her school. Prita-Auntie, upon hearing what has happened tells Noor to come with her and she takes her to the NGO demanding that they ensure Noor is allowed to continue in the school.

Juxtaposed against Noor's story is that of fifteen-year-old Grace McClaren. Three weeks into the new school year and Grace is struggling to make friends. Her popular brother, Kyle has moved on to university and her best friend Tina has moved to Singapore, leaving Grace without anyone to hang out with. For the past three years Grace has attended Mumbai International School. Her family has moved every couple of years and Grace has struggled to adapt, never really fitting in. Attempting to make friends Grace tries to become part of Madison's group however this fails miserably. Grace has a crush on Todd who was friends with her brother Kyle even though it seems like Kyle didn't like him. On Friday night Grace gets a series of text messages supposedly from Todd. Although she's skeptical at first, Grace continues to text Todd over the weekend and by Sunday they are sexting with Grace sending him a picture of herself topless.

When she arrives at school on Monday morning Grace is horrified to see her topless picture taped to her locker and discovers that it has been shared with almost everyone at the school. Grace realizes she has been tricked by Madison and possibly Todd.  Mr. Smiley who is principal of the school,  listens to Grace's version of what happened and tells her parents that the school will have to decide what consequences she will face. At home her father is supportive, but Grace's mother is not as she is furious over what she believes was a stupid act. Grace's distress over what has happened is to great that it leads her to begin cutting by engraving the word "Stupid" into her thigh with a pen. At school the next day, Mr. Donleavy who is Grace's community service advisor, tells Grace and her parents about a program run by an NGO that works to prevent the daughters of sex workers from being trafficked as their mothers were. While her parents are horrified, Grace herself is very interested. Mr. Donleavy tells Grace that teens in the program are paired with a girl and she would act as a mentor and friend.

Meanwhile at school, Grace continues to receive nasty texts and to be confronted by Madison. However, the school's most popular student, VJ Patel who's father is a Bollywood producer, tells her he will help her. VJ wants Grace to be his beard in exchange for him supporting her socially and teaching her how to deal with people. VJ is open with Grace telling her numerous secrets about his family. He told his mother he is gay but she told him never to mention it again.

Grace continues to cut herself, cutting the words SLUT and LOSER into her legs. Mr. Donleavy takes VJ and Grace to Kamathipura  to Sisters Helping Sisters run by Miss Chanda, which works with the children of women in the sex trade. At first Grace believes the house is full of children but is soon shocked to learn that the girls are her age. While Grace is at SHS, a woman shows up with a young girl in tow and begins yelling at the NGO staff. Grace notices the girl and learns from her that the woman is asking the staff to help keep the girl in school. Grace and VJ learn the girl's name is Noor and that because her school learned she was the daughter of a sex worker, they want her to leave. Because Noor's mother distrusts the NGOs she is unable to join the program and come to the house run by SHS. This doesn't stop VJ though as he arranges for Noor and Grace who will mentor her to meet at his home. As Grace struggles to recover her reputation and her self-esteem, Noor struggles to remain in school and escape the horrible fate of becoming a devadasi like her mother. When Noor's situation takes a sudden change for the worse, she has the courage to reach out to Grace who acts quickly to help her, and redeeming herself in the eyes of her parents.

Discussion

Fifteen Lanes whose title is a reference to the lanes in Kamathipura which house the sex trade, tackles the difficult subject of sex slavery and trafficking as well as sexting. Although this was a well written novel, I feel the story of Noor would have been better told if the story had focused entirely on her rather than flipping between the two points of view. Noor' Benkatti is the daughter of a sex worker whose story is juxtaposed with that of Grace McClaren, a wealthy girl whose family  had lived on three different continents. Grace's life is a complete contrast to that of Noor's poverty. Their futures are incomparable: Noor faces a future of certain prostitution and an early death from disease and hardship while Grace has many options open to her including education, being able to choose to marry and have children. Comparing Grace's first world problems of sexting to Noor's third world problem of being trafficked into prostitution felt trivial. Grace's problems arise from her own actions and problems that are decidedly "first world" while Noor's situation is the result of the outlawed practices of religious prostitution and sex trafficking.

Nevertheless Laidlaw who spent time volunteering with sex workers' daughters in Kamathipura, manages to capture in a gritty way, the reality of life for girls who are trafficked both from within India and also from other countries. The way young girls are forced into the sex trade is explained by what happened to Noor's mother and some of the other women in the novel. Noor's mother tells her that while everyone in her village pretended that her working in sex was a sacred duty it was not. She was sold for money by her mother to the temple and then trafficked. Deepa-Auntie tells Noor that she was taken by a man from her family in Nepal with the promise of domestic work before she even had her first period. Noor knows was beaten because Deepa-Auntie has scars all over her body. Lali-didi was sold to a brothel in Calcutta by her brother. She tells Noor, "My family was glad to be rid of me."

Noor's future is hinted at by what happens to her twelve-year-old friend, Parvati who lives on the street. Parvati is vulnerable and relies on her boyfriend Hussein who has offered Parvati and Noor a place to sleep. Parvati tells Noor that Hussein loves her and gives her gifts of clothing. This makes Noor suspicious. As it turns out, Parvati has been given money by a boy named Suresh who decides he wants it back. Eventually Parvati is ganged raped by Suresh and his friends and ultimately forced into sex work.

Noor's narrative also explains other ways that girls end up in the sex trade - through the kidnapping of babies. "Kidnapping was another hazard of life on the street, though baby girls were more often stolen that boys. ..Babies sometimes disappeared from the brothels themselves...Everyone knew it was the brothel owners. They sold them to traffickers who resold them in distant cities far from the protection of their families. The brothel owners made money, and it was a powerful way to punish mothers who'd resisted allowing their children to follow them into the trade."


The sense of hopelessness that sex trafficked victims experience is shown by Noor's mother Ashmita who tells her young daughter "You were born to your fate, Noor. I may forestall it but you can't escape it. We can only hope your next incarnation will be more forgiving."

Noor's life in the brothel is explained in a way that is not graphic but still conveys her reality. Noor indicates early on in the novel that it is impossible to live in a brothel and not be corrupted by what is happening. As a small child she is allowed to sleep under her mothers bed but can hear all that is happening. When she becomes older, the expectation is that she will find a place to sleep out on the street before she is either sold or slips into sex work like her mother. After a customer tries to buy her, Noor admits that men have said bad things to her and that men, including her mother's customers often tried to touch her. Her mother like most of the other sex workers was sold into it at an early age. Noor states that she believes her mother is only in her twenties and that her mother told her she was "barely in her teens" she she had Noor.

The effect of working in the sex trade is also grimly portrayed in the novel. Lali-didi, the new girl in the brothel is very young. She is forced by Pran to take as many customers as want her. "No one knew how many customers she had each night. Only Binti-Ma'am saw the money that changed hands. She promised Lali-didi that one day soon her debt would be cleared, but everyone knew Binti-Ma'am was a liar. No one in our house cleared their debt while they were still young enough to fetch a high price."

Noor understands what the sex trade does to girls like Lali-didi. "As always, I felt a stab of anxiety as I watched the transformation from the girl that she was, little older than me, to the object that she became.For weeks I'd seen something die in her each time  she went through this process and every day less of her returned. She rarely spoke, never laughed; it was if she were dead already."

The discrimination girls like Noor face because of their situation which has occurred through no fault of their own is well described too. When Noor is allowed to continue on at the school, some of the girls reflect the judgemental attitudes of Indian society. Sapna whose father struggled to escape poverty states, "My father says it's improper for a girl like her to go to school with girls like us." But Gajra defends Noor stating that she must not be defined by her mother's situation or her social status.

Noor who is aware of what will happen if she tries to escape when she is locked into "the box" in preparation to being sold, shows great courage in contacting Grace. Grace's friendship with Noor helps her to put her own difficulties in perspective and also helps her to understand that they both share some measure of pain. Noor doesn't judge Grace for cutting because she recognizes that same pain in Grace that existed in her friend Parvati and in Lali-didi. She encourages Grace to tell her parents.

Fifteen Lanes is a detailed account of the reality of sex trafficking in India. It has become a serious problem throughout much of the world even in the United States and Canada. Those wishing to learn more can follow up this novel with other online resources. 

For information about the devadasi consider this article from The Telegraph.

The following documentary, Born Into Brothels (2004) in an Indian-American documentary filmed in Sonagachi, Kolkata's red light district. It was made by Zana Briski who went to the red light district to take pictures of the prostitutes but also encounter the many children of the sex workers.



Book Details:

Fifteen Lanes by S.J. Laidlaw
Tundra Books:    2016
300 pp.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Movie: Ben Hur

Since 1959, the movie Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd as Messala has been a beloved classic. The Oscar winning film's iconic chariot race scene, the stage for the final, deadly confrontation between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala captured the imaginations of theatre-goers in way unheard of at that time. This summer's release of a new adaptation doesn't quite measure up to the 1959 classic but Ben-Hur is still a good effort and better than most "swords and sandals" movies.

For those who might not know, Ben- Hur is actually based on the 1880 novel of the same name written Lew Wallace. In this year's adaptation, the movie begins by focusing on the close relationship between a prince of Israel, Judah Ben-Hur and his adopted Roman brother, Messala. Messala lives in Jerusalem in the house of Ben-Hur as an equal. The two love to race horses but their kinship can go only so far. Messala is in love with Judah's sister, Tirzah but because he is not a Jew, Judah and Tirzah's mother, Naomi disapproves. This leads Messala to leave Jerusalem to make his fortune in the Roman Army. While he is gone, Judah marries Esther but Tirzah remains unmarried. Messala makes a name for himself in the Roman army fighting in Germania and other Roman territories. Just prior to his return, three zealots are found hiding in the Ben-Hur stables by Judah. One of the zealots, Dismas, has been seriously injured. Judah treats the wounded young man, orders the others away and informs Dismas he can stay until he heals but he must not fight against the Romans.

Messala returns to Jerusalem as head of the Roman garrison and reunites with Ben-Hur. Instead of brutally killing the Jews opposed to Roman oppression, Messala has tried to be lenient. But when a group of Roman soldiers are attacked in a Jewish graveyard, he seeks out Ben-Hur and tells him he needs help. Messala wants Judah to provide him the names of the zealots who are involved in the insurrection because Pontius Pilate will be arriving in the city and he does not want trouble. Judah refuses to name names but assures Messala that the Jews have agreed to not cause problems. As Pilate makes his way through the city an attempt is made on his life. That attempt comes from the rooftop of the Ben-Hur house and is made by Dismas. Dismas manages to escape in the ensuing confusion, allowed to by Ben-Hur who knows he will be crucified if caught. The Roman soldiers capture Judah, Naomi and Tirzah but Esther manages to escape. Messala rails against Judah, whom he accuses of treason, sentencing him to the galleys and ordering Naomi and Tirzah to be crucified. On his way to the galleys, Judah has his second encounter with the teacher, Jesus who brings him water, a foreshadowing of their later meeting when Jesus is on his way to Calvary.

Judah survives five years in the galleys, fueled by his hatred. His galley is destroyed (along with all the other Roman ships) in a battle against the Greeks who have been plundering Roman ships in the Aegean Sea. Judah washes up on the shore near the tent camp of Sheik Ilderim who recognizes that he is an escaped galley slave and threatens to take him to the Roman garrison. However, Judah saves Ilderim's sick horse and is allowed to stay in the encampment. Judah accompanies Ilderim's entourage to Jerusalem where he meets Esther who is now a follower of the prophet Jesus. She tells Judah she does not know what has happened to his mother and sister and that he cannot be seen in the city. Judah decides to confront Messala, luring him to the abandoned Ben-Hur home but is almost captured.

Recognizing Judah's desire for vengeance, Sheik Ilderim tells Judah that the best revenge is to be obtained in the coliseum by challenging Messala to a chariot race and humiliating him and Rome by winning. Sheik Ilderim arranges with Pontius Pilate for Judah to race and that if he wins all Roman claims against Ben-Hur will be void. Pontius Pilate agrees and so Judah begins training as a charioteer. Judah eventually learns that his mother and sister are lepers having been spared crucifixion by a Roman soldier further fueling his anger against Messala. This leads to the chariot race in Jerusalem and Judah's victory over Messala. However, Judah realizes winning the race does not give him the peace he longs for and after witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus he seeks out the broken Messala and the two forgive one another. Meanwhile, Naomi and Tirzah are cured of their leprosy after the death of Jesus and reunited with Judah.

Discussion

Although the story line in this adaptation varies considerably from both the 1959 movie and the novel, Ben-Hur still manages to capture the essence of the story: a Jewish prince is made the scapegoat for a crime he didn't commit by a beloved adopted brother, his family is destroyed and he sets out to seek vengeance only to discover revenge is never the answer. This adaptation misses many important parts of the novel such as the details of what happens to Naomi (Miriam in the novel and the Charlton Heston movie) and Tirzah, and their conversion from Judaism to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Also missing are Judah Ben-Hur's rescue of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius, from drowning in the Aegean battle. In the novel and the 1959 movie, Arrius adopts Judah and gains him his freedom. In contrast to the 1959 movie, this new adaptation sees Judah Ben-Hur married to Esther (in the novel he married at least five years after the race with Messala) but their romance is a minor point throughout the movie. This new movie differs significantly in that Messala does not die as a result of his injuries, so one of the most famous death scenes in cinema is not recreated. Overall, the 1959 movie more closely follows the story line of Lew Wallace's novel as much of the middle of the story is missing from the 2016 adaptation.


Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur reasonably well, but lacks the passion that Charlton Heston brought to the role. Toby Kebbell as Messala manages to capture Messala's troubled nature and desire to fit into the Roman world. The only actor who seems out of place is Morgan Freeman who has the part of Sheik Ilderim. Freeman's interpretation of the Sheik, wise yet willing to make his fortune off of the Roman games is overshadowed by his trademark sonorous voice. It's been suggested that Freeman might have been better narrating the film and I agree. At times the screen writing is shabby and the dialogue, delivered with a hint of British accent, most definitely modern. The last scene, a recapitulation of the opening scene with Judah and Messala racing on horses is set to a thoroughly modern tune that seems woefully out of place.

The main themes of the novel, betrayal, redemption and forgiveness are not overshadowed by the amazing special effects. The galley battle scene and the chariot race are amazingly well done and the cinematography with it's sometimes unique camera perspective make for fascinating viewing. The crucifixion scene is short but lacks the drama that the 1959 movie was able to convey. Judah Ben-Hur's conversion to Christianity is quick and clean; there's little of the struggle which was so well portrayed by Heston. Judah Ben-Hur has several encounters with Jesus, who preaches a new law, that forgiveness and love of neighbour are paramount.

Although Jesus is a minor character in the first part of the story, his presence becomes more prominent after the chariot race. When Judah tries to give him water but is whipped, Jesus intervenes, stopping Judah from retaliating. Jesus' radical call to love is in direct contrast to the Roman way of blood sport and cruelty and to the practice of Judaism at the time of Jesus - both of which encouraged "an eye for an eye'. Judah Ben-Hur learns that his vengeance has not healed him of his hurt and has not only crippled his once beloved brother, Messala, but destroyed his soul too. Revenge hasn't changed the fact that his mother and sister are lepers or that his family is in ruin (according to this version). The Jews (and Judah Ben-Hur) are becoming like their oppressors, cruel and blood-thirsty, a fact that Pontius Pilate points out to Sheik Ilderim after the race.

It's likely that this film won't do so well probably because audiences are tiring of remakes. We've had remakes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Tarzan, Godzilla, not to mention the tiresome Spiderman, Batman and Superman reboots and many, many others. This is also a movie with definite religious overtones that tend not to resonate so well with modern audiences. In the hopes of making the film more palatable, there is plenty of action and it was filmed in 3D. The movie has little gore and no sex. The filming was done in such a way that suggests what happens rather than showing it.  This is particularly true of the sea battle and the chariot race as well as the crucifixions, the confrontation in the Garden of Gethsemane and even the leper colony. Despite its many weakness, Ben Hur is an enjoyable remake, with great action sequences, beautiful cinematography and a good (albeit vastly pared down) story.  For younger viewers, if you haven't seen the 1959 version, please do so. It's worth the time (3 and half hours!) and it's a classic.

Here's the second trailer for Ben-Hur 2016 - the beautiful music is Ceasefire by the Christian rock group For King and Country:






Friday, August 19, 2016

How It Feels To Fly by Kathryn Holmes

How It Feels To Fly explores the complex illness of anorexia and its relationship to anxiety, body image and identity. The novel also explores the effect of parental expectations and peer pressure on teens struggling with anxiety issues. The story focuses on one girl who is part of a group of elite athletes and artists as they struggle to work through their issues over a period of two weeks.

Sixteen year old Samantha Wagner, is an aspiring ballet dancer who has been sent to a counselling camp, Perform at Your Peak in North Carolina, for elite teen artists and athletes with anxiety issues. Samantha's mother was a aspiring dancer whose career was ended by a broken ankle.

The camp director, Dr. Debra Lancaster, is helped by two peer counsellors, Andrew, a former football player and college student majoring in pyschology and Yasmin a vocalist and sophomore at Belmont University in Nashville who suffered from stage fright. Both Andrew and Yasmin are graduates of Dr. Lancaster's therapy.

In the past months, Sam has gained fourteen pounds as her body changes. The weight, gain coupled with pressure from ballet teachers and adjudicators and her mother, has resulted in Sam developing an eating disorder and serious anxiety issues. Then came the panic attack that was witnessed by her ballet instructor, Miss Elise. Backstage before her performance in Paquita, Sam put on Lauren's smaller tutu and freaked out. Concerned about her well-being, Miss Elise spoke with Sam's mother and she was sent to this therapy camp.

Sam is supposed to be attending ballet intensive in two weeks but her participation has been delayed so that she can participate in the therapy camp. However because the camp runs a week into the only ballet intensive that she was accepted into, Sam has been put on the wait list with the expectation that there will be no problems obtaining a spot in the a week late.

At Perform at Your Peak, the other campers include Jenna who is a figure skater, Zoe who plays tennis, Katie an elite gymnast, Dominic an outstanding quarterback and Omar who is an actor. Dr. Lancaster tells the campers that there will be a group therapy session every day but that they will also spend time in private counselling sessions with her.

After orientation Andrew tells Sam that the camp will help her "to learn how to take good mental care" of herself no matter what career she's in but Sam takes this to mean that Andrew believes she can't become a professional ballet dancer. At the first group therapy session, Andrew and Yasmin tell their stories; how Yasmin found Perform at Your Peak helped her to overcome stage fright and how Andrew discovered that he was playing football to please his father and in the end decided to quit after his freshman season. Dr. Lancaster asks the group to share a time when they each performed at their absolute best. After each shares a specific performance, Sam talks about her performance as the Dewdrop Fairy in the Nutcracker, this past December. Sam states she was told it was the best she had ever danced and that she felt "light and sparkling" and very pretty. Zoe mocks Sam for feeling this way but Dr. Lancaster tells the group that they will be working to get back that feeling of affirmation and well being that they experienced during these good performances.

As part of the therapy, Sam is partnered with Andrew for an exercise where they must be blindfolded and led around by the other person. Sam has Andrew go first and she leads him over to the gazebo while admiring how attractive he is. She learns that Andrew is a college junior, four years older than herself. But when it's her turn and she stumbles into a hole, Sam has a panic attack, blaming Andrew for risking her future career. Andrew is stunned and confronts Sam questioning her about what happened. Trusting Andrew, she admits to the attack and tells him that she was afraid the stumble would cause an injury and destroy her ballet career. Sam convinces Andrew not to tell Dr. Lancaster about the panic attack but to let her do it.

At lunch it becomes apparent that Sam is unable to eat, at least not in front of others. When she tries to hide, she is caught by Dr. Lancaster who makes up a plate of spaghetti for her. Zoe who calls Sam,  "Ballerina Barbie", and who is bothering everyone, accuses Sam of having an eating disorder. In her next private session Dr. Lancaster questions Sam about her panic attacks, leading Sam to reveal that she had a panic attack while she was with Andrew. She tells Dr. Lancaster that while blindfolded she felt extremely anxious because she couldn't tell if she was being judged by Andrew and that she doesn't like being looked at. She refuses to elaborate much further than that.

Sam begins to get up early both so that the other campers can't see her get dressed and also to spend time with Andrew. In their next group session, Zoe continues to refuse to participate and laughs when Dr. Lancaster assigns the group to create a collage representing a situation that makes each person anxious. Sam's collage has a small figure surrounded by eyes. After discussing the collages, Dr. Lancaster encourages the six teens to reach out to one another telling them, "Your fellow campers can empathize. They can make you feel less alone...They can brainstorm with you. Support you." However, Sam's inner voice tells her that no one can help her. As the days pass, Sam finds herself falling for Andrew, interpreting his touches, the extra time he spends with her and his compliments as a sign that he feels the same. But Sam's crush on Andrew leads to catastrophe for both of them and creates a crisis that changes the course of Sam's life.

Discussion

For the most part, How It Feels To Fly offers a realistic portrayal of what it is like to suffer from an eating disorder and anxiety. Sam's problems surfaced when, as she puts it, her body betrayed her. Sam arrives at Perform at Your Peak viewing her body as an enemy to her dreams of becoming a dancer. She gained fourteen pounds between November and May and this affected her dancing, throwing her balance off and making her pirouettes shaky. The change was so gradual that at first, Sam believed she was just having off days. "Then I noticed soft curves where there used to be straight lines. Roundness and fullness. A hint of an hourglass." She tries to cut calories and exercise more, but the weight gain continued. To hide her imperfect body, she wrapped herself in loose clothing.  However, soon other people noticed, her mother, her teachers and adjudicators and they made remarks. Negative comments began, some direct, some insinuating. "...Tabitha saw me holding a sandwich after ballet class and asked, all fake concern, 'Are you sure you need to eat that?' That's when I stopped eating in front of other dancers..."

Along with the dieting and exercising, Sam's thinking changed and she saw herself in very negative terms. She arrives at the therapy camp with these thoughts overwhelming her.  "Everything about you is wrong. Nothing can make it better. Nothing except --" and "Ugh you're disgusting." She is also in denial about her problems and her need for help. In their first morning group session she thinks to herself "I don't need therapy. I was doing fine on my own." She's trained herself to be good at not talking about her problems, "good at nodding, and changing the subject, and pretending I don't hear things. And smiling, always smiling."  Her inner voice is strong, constant and derogatory. "Even transparent, you're fat. Look at you. You're disgusting..."

However Dr. Lancaster notices Sam's eating issues and Sam experiences a panic attack almost immediately, proof that she is not coping well. Although Sam is reluctant to talk to Dr. Lancaster she does do the assigned exercises: the art therapy and the journaling. All of this is well portrayed in the novel and the interactions between the various characters and their dialogue with one another is realistic and sometimes humorous, creating welcome comic relief.

A key factor in Sam's seemingly fast recovery is her relationship with Andrew, a well meaning peer counselor who inadvertently stirs Sam's infatuation for him by helping Sam see herself differently. He tells her she is beautiful and that she is not fat. Although Andrew's advice is good for Sam, he doesn't recognize her growing attachment. And Sam reads far more into Andrews actions than she should. "As we walk back to the Perform at Your Peak house, Andrew stays beside me. I wish we were holding hands. I wish he had his arm around my waist. Once I start thinking about his hands, his arms, I get this picture in my head of us dancing together. I bet he'd be a great dance partner. Strong, attentive, gentle."

Andrew is unaware of Sam's infatuation and he oversteps his bounds by encouraging Sam to sneak out at night to teach him to how partner her. This only makes things worse. "The next morning, I can't stop thinking about Andrew. His eyes catching the moonlight. His bright smile turned intimate, like it was designed especially for me...Did he feel the sparks I felt? Is he thinking about me the way I'm thinking about him?" But when Sam takes matters into her own hands and tries to kiss him, Andrew realizes too late his mistake. Their improper relationship leads to Andrew getting fired and Sam relapsing.  It is this crisis and the loss of her spot at the ballet intensive that motivates her to try one last time to get into the ballet intensive. This gutsy action ultimately provides Sam with a new opportunity to rethink her place in the world of dance and take the "leap across the gulf" that Dr. Lancaster spoke to her about. It also leads to her finally confronting her mother about how she is hurting Sam.

Perhaps the one misleading aspect of this novel is that it presents an overly optimistic view of the treatment of eating and anxiety disorders. Although Kathryn Holmes in an interview with EpicReads has stated that "Sam does not have a full blown eating disorder" the constant voice in her head telling her body is ugly, the rituals and behaviours around food, and the restriction of food are all evidence of anorexia. Sam also admits later in the book to having made herself vomit months earlier and attempts to do so again but for the intervention of a fellow camper. She also has body dysmorphia as evidenced by her struggle to find body parts that she actually likes.

Teens struggling with eating disorders and the usual accompanying anxiety issues generally do not show the significant improvement over such a short period of therapy as Sam did.Therapy takes time to change negative thinking patterns because they often have their roots in other issues that must be dealt with. The rituals like counting food, eating alone, rearranging food on the plate and eating exactly what someone else eats are all coping strategies to try to hide the illness and stop the pressure being placed on the anorexic to eat. These also do not disappear within a two week time frame. Similarly with anxiety issues, patients must learn coping strategies to help them. These also take time. It also takes time to  build a rapport with a therapist, even meeting daily for a week. Sam seems to do this quickly, perhaps as Dr. Lancaster states because she is removed from the environment that is the cause of her stress and anxiety.

Holmes does a good job of demonstrating how dancers in particular are susceptible to developing body dysmorphia and anorexia. There is not only the change in her body, but the pressure from Sam's mother and the attitude of  teachers and coaches in dance and athletics towards those who don't fit the desired body type. For example, Sam's mother is determined that her daughter will become a professional ballet dancer and have the career she never had. Although she doesn't directly criticize Sam, she implies that eating foods like meatballs and fajitas is not healthy. She tells Sam, "I know I can count on you to make good choices." When her mother admonishes her for eating a fajita, Sam feels guilt for not asking for a salad. Instead of affirming Sam's choice to eat healthy, her mother launches into a lecture about learning to adapt, leaving Sam in tears.And when Sam loses her spot in the ballet intensive, her mother doesn't really take the time to assess how Sam is feeling and what she is thinking. She doesn't even stop to think that perhaps this might be a sign that Sam needs to find another form of dance more suitable to her body type instead of trying to mould Sam's body into that of a classical dancer. She launches into a plan that will focus on Sam training even harder, leading Sam to more extreme actions. Holmes also points out how unforgiving the dance world is towards those whose body type is not considered suitable. For example, Sam remembers when she had to provide her current weight on an audition form and there was a caveat that mentioned overweight or underweight dancers would be on probation. This led Sam to wonder "...how heavy was too heavy? What was the exact right number?"

One of the main strengths of How It Feels To Fly is the realistic characters and their developing relationships with each other. For example, Sam manages to help Katie overcome her fear of the balance beam, providing a source of support for her. And Jenna, whom Sam spends time doing ballet with at the camp, steps up to help Sam when she is in crisis, revealing her own struggles with cutting. The characters feel genuine and their problems real.

Holmes' message in her novel is to make young readers aware they are not alone and that others can be a source of support. Fighting body dismorphia and anxiety does not have to be done alone and is often successful if the person has patient, affirming support. She also highlights the belief that eating disorders are generally the result of a need for control by having Sam come to this realization at the end of the novel. "My epic realization that maybe everything -- my anxiety, my body image issues, all of it -- comes from wanting to feel in control."  Later on, a wiser Sam states
"I'm not good at letting go and moving forward. Not yet. 
I'm still so attached to Before. So anxious about After.
But I'm working on changing. I'm trying to focus on
Now...
Someone in the room might be staring at me. Might be judging me.
That I can't control."

Author Kathryn Holmes majored in Dance and English Literature at Goucher College in Maryland. She's a contemporary dancer who has performed with many New York City based choreographers.

How It Feels To Fly is a really good novel. Although the timeline for Sam's recovery is a bit swift, the process and the things she learns about her illness are well presented and accurate. Those who enjoy realistic fiction and who are interested in exploring one of the most common mental health challenges teens experience will want to read this novel.

Book Details:

How It Feels To Fly by Kathryn Holmes
New York: HarperTeen     2016
359 pp.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Keep Me In Mind by Jaime Reed

Keep Me In Mind opens with Liam McPherson writing about what happened that fateful early morning he and girlfriend Ellia Renee Dawson were out running along the beach. After taking a break, Ellia ran off on the winding bike trail that led towards a cliff. The next thing Liam knows, Ellia is screaming. Just remembering that much is painful. He can't sleep and has been hanging outside of Ellia's house across the street watching for her.

Ellia watches the boy who emerges from his house every day at 5:30am to run. She goes outside to meet him, remembering that she saw him when she woke up in the hospital with tubes everywhere. A week after getting out of the hospital Ellia finally decides to talk to Liam, asking him for help in unlocking her phone. Ellia remembers Liam visiting her in the hospital and her not recognizing him, believing she has just started high school. But when she learns later from a friend that he is telling the truth, Ellia wonders if her parents knew she was dating a white boy.

As a result of her fall, Ellia has retrograde amnesia "which was the inability to recall past events because of severe head trauma." Her parents believe that her remembering her phone password is a good sign, but Ellia's neurologist, Dr. Whittaker has told her that "adapting to everyday life would be an adjustment." On the advice of Whittaker, Ellia is sent to a psychologist to undergo cognitive therapy.

When Ellia's best friend Stacey visits she reveals to Ellia that she wants to be a designer but that her father wants her to follow him and be an engineer. Stacey gives Ellia a reference point, a link to her immediate past that she cannot remember. With well over three hundred friends on Facebook, Ellia can only remember twelve of them. Checking her phone reveals hundreds of pictures with Liam and other friends. Stacey suggests that she contact Liam, but to Ellia this feels odd because Liam seems like a stranger to her.

Liam attends Leon High School along with his uncle Wade McPherson (his grandfather married a much younger woman and had a child.) who lives with Liam's family three weeks out of every month. Distraught at the loss of their relationship, Liam decides to "write the story of me and Ellia, how we met, how we fell in love -- the whole nine. It would be an epic tale of love found and lost..." Liam uses Ellia's best friend, Stacey to learn how she is faring but Stacey presses Liam to visit Ellia and tells him to just be there for her and to "Give her a reason to know who you are or leave her alone."

Liam's father, a former Navy man, is a force to be reckoned with. He insists that Liam do two volunteer placements and questions Liam if he's still involved with Ellia who he has forbidden him to see. Liam attempts to tell his dad that he loves Ellia but that doesn't go over well. Even worse when Ellia shows up on his street and Liam is caught by his father talking to her, she is forced to leave.

Ellia begins cognitive therapy sessions with Dr. Kavanagh at the Serenity Behavior Health Center. On her first visit she meets Cody Spencer who goes to St. Pedro, a private all-boys academy and who has anterograde amnesia. Cody has no short term memory because of a surfing accident that resulted in him going without oxygen for a lengthy period of time. To help him function, Cody records any important information in his phone.

Believing Liam's dad is a racist, Ellia wonders about her past relationship with Liam, but Stacey tells her she's reading too much into what happened. Ellia gradually begins integrating into her friends from school, even though she is not back at school yet. She declines attending the Valentines Day dance and in a rare talk with her mother, learns that her parents were not keen on Liam. Meanwhile, Liam, upset over his father's reaction to Ellia, is confronted by Stacey who wonders why Ellia's memory loss is confined only to the time she has been involved with Liam. She tells Liam that Ellia is taking therapy and she suggests he meet her at Serenity. Liam surprises Ellia outside the health center and upsets her by kissing her. However this meeting sees them begin to communicate and Liam reveals more of what their relationship was like. They agree to meet at the park where Liam will tutor Ellia. As Ellia struggles to heal, regain her memories and return to her routine, she begins to uncover the true nature of her relationship with Liam.

Discussion

Keep Me In Mind is a story told in two voices, that of Ellia Dawson and her boyfriend Liam McPherson. Ellia's narrative feels genuine and down to earth as a teen struggling to remember the last two years of her life and regain her identity. As she learns about her life over the past two years, Ellia embarks on a journey that leads her to re-evaluate just who she was as well as her relationship with Liam. Ellia begins to discover an image of herself that is less than pleasing. From her friends she learns that she was constantly involved in pranks such as sneaking into a frat party and almost getting hazed and breaking into a run down department store to steal a mannequin. Liam confirms what Ellia has discovered from reading various posts, that at a model search in Quintero, she threw a chair at a model who caused her to trip on the runway and that she drove around with a homeless man in the trunk of her car. Dr. Kavanagh tells Ellia that the amnesia causes people not to "recognize parts of themselves." But, Ellia admits to Dr. Kavanagh that she doesn't like the girl she's discovered. Her therapy changes focus, from working on regaining her memories, to discovering why Ellia was acting out.

Ellia already knows that there are serious problems with how she and her parents relate to one another. Earlier in the novel she mentions her father's complete absorption with his work and she and Stacey often talk about how her life is very controlled. Her parents never fully communicate with her; they talk about her but never really include her in the discussion."The Dawsons were doers, fixers, movers, and shakers from a long line of overachievers with the title Dr. or Prof. in front of their names. Words like impossible, fail, and can't were considered cuss words in our household. Any attempt at angst or a pity party quickly led to a rundown of our family tree, stemming back to the British Crown and the sugarcane fields of Barbados." 

At her session with Dr. Kavanagh, Ellia states, "My parents are very performance driven. Dress with decorum. Stand up straight; never slouch. Behave like a lady at all times and never bring shame on your family. On sight, people will judge you, and your life must contradict their stereotypes and preconceived notions. Work harder than everyone else and get good grades. Go to an elite college. Get a well-paying job and marry a successful..." Exploring further, Dr. Kavanagh believes that Ellia's father, used to taking control, tried to manage how she grieved when her beloved dog, Babette died. She believes that Ellia not being allowed to grieve on her own terms,  may have been the trigger for her rebellion, rather than hanging out with Liam and Dr. Kavanagh encourages her to tell her parents how their pressure and control is affecting her.

Ellia also begins to get a sense that her relationship with Liam was not a healthy one;  she was very controlling and Liam allowed her to boss him around. Liam's narrative reflects his obsession with Ellia and his determination to recover her as his girlfriend, even asking her, "Is there any chance of us getting back together/" When Ellia learns of  her controlling behavior from Liam, she tells him "You live your life on your own terms. Don't let anyone -- not even a girl -- keep you on a leash. I don't care how fabulous and awesome she is, no one is worth forgetting who you are."  Revealing this to Dr. Kavanagh, her therapist suggests that their relationship may have been co-dependent, possibly because something is lacking in Liam's life.

Both Liam and Ellia discover their parents are not quite lying to them but committing "a lie by omission". To Ellia this is worse than a lie because "The other person had knowledge, leverage, that they could hold over your head or use to manipulate you." causing fear and anger. For Ellia when her father blames Liam for her accident, she knows that he's not telling her the entire truth because Liam was the one who found her. This causes Ellia to question who is withholding the truth, Liam or her father? When Ellia reads Liam account of their relationship, she confronts her parents, especially her father. Their discussion helps all involved understand what happened to cause Ellia to act out before the accident and leads Ellia to discover something important for Liam. For Liam, he learns from Ellia that his father also lied by omission - he never told Liam the court order preventing him from seeing Ellia has expired. He too confronts his father who accuses Liam of using Ellia to fill the void of his mother who left. Eventually Liam does call his mother on the urging of Wade and he tells her how her leaving the family has affected him.

The underlying theme of the book is the loss of friendship and connection. That loss can come about in many ways but in Keep Me In Mind it is the loss of friendship and love as a result of an unexpected accident - a serious head injury. As Ellia struggles to understand her relationship with Liam, whom she has no memory of, Liam mourns the loss of his relationship with her. Unable to express his loss in words and wanting to tell Ellia, he decides to write the story of their relationship. For most of the novel he experiences "writer's block", that is he is unable to write about the events that led to Ellia's injury and their broken relationship. For Liam, writing the account of his relationship with Ellia is cathartic; it helps him learn about himself and Ellia and it helps him process what has happened the loss of their relationship so that if their relationship is truly over, he can move on. He comes to recognize that he was using Ellia to escape his family problems. His account also helps Ellia because it forces her to see herself as she really was (but doesn't remember) and that she also was using Liam for the same reason.

Ellia herself wonders how Liam must feel and she too experiences as sense of loss. "These were supposed to be the best years of my life, and I couldn't recall most of them. What other experiences had been stolen from me? What other friendships, bonds, and trusts had been stripped away?" She recognizes that Liam is "waiting for the return of Ellia Dawson...My life wasn't the only one that was at a standstill, and it was hard to tell what was worse: forgetting or being forgotten."  She experiences deep conflict over the state of her relationship with Liam, who wants things to continue as they were. Ellia however, does not feel for Liam the way she did before her accident and that causes her to evaluate why this might be.

Eventually both Liam and Ellia come to realize that one cannot live in the past, that we must keep moving forward. Liam decides to let Ellia go, giving her the account he wrote of their relationship. Ellia is encouraged to view her amnesia in a different way: instead of a loss, to consider it an opportunity for a fresh start and a chance to reinvent herself. "Yesterday was gone and there was no point in reaching behind me for something I couldn't even hold. Time moved in one direction: forward. And I needed to keep my eyes straight and do the same."

Keep Me In Mind is an interesting read that focuses on the curves life can throw at us unexpectedly and how we sometimes struggle to cope. Fans of contemporary novels will enjoy how Liam and Ellia eventually work out the unexpected curve they've been dealt to begin anew.

Book Details:

Keep Me In Mind by Jaime Reed
New York: Point and imprint of Scholastic Inc.    2016
329 pp.