March 29, 2012

Tragedy at sea

by James Heneghan

On September 17, 1940, a German U-boat sank a passenger ship called the CIty of BenaresIt was carrying 406 passengers and crew, of whom 100 were children being evacuated to Canada and the United States. Only 19 of the children survived. Wish Me Luck is a fictional story of this World War II disaster. 

For thirteen-year-old Jamie Monaghan, the war seems very exciting. He doesn't want to miss any of it, even if it means hiding in a bomb shelter most nights. So he's not pleased when his parents decide to send him to Canada. "Ye'll be safer there" says his dad.

Within 24 hours, Jamie finds himself sharing a cabin with tough Tom Bleeker on the City of BenaresThe ship stops only once, when the waters need to be swept of mines, making their sailing date Friday the thirteenth. Meanwhile, the voyage proceeds like a luxury cruise, with gourmet meals, personal laundry services, and hot showers. In another bit of foreshadowing, Bleeker insists that a German U-boat is tracking them, but nobody believes him. 

The description of the sinking is gripping and suspenseful, made all the more tragic because it involves children. Bleeker is the hero in this story; his transformation from an angry, uncouth boy to a quiet, contemplative teen is nicely handled.

Also read the nonfiction book Miracles on the Water, by Tom Nagorski. It tells the harrowing story of the Benares through eyewitness accounts from some of the survivors. For a review, go to

March 27, 2012

War Horse - book vs. play

by Michael Morpurgo

Joey is a young farm horse who forms a strong bond with Albert, a farmer's son. When Albert's father sells Joey to the army, Albert vows to find Joey as soon as he's old enough to enlist. Albert then disappears from the story for a time, as Joey describes his war experiences. As expected, these experiences are horrific. For comfort, Joey is grateful to have the company of Topthorn, a tall black stallion, and different caring owners. But war horses are worked to the death, and Morpurgo does not spare us the details. The Germans use Joey and Topthorn to pull heavy guns from battle to battle, despite rain and sticking mud. The hard labour is too much for Topthorn, and Joey is left alone in no man's land. Rescued by the English, Joey is reunited with Albert, and they make the journey home.

While the novel is good at depicting the cruelties of war, I didn't find it emotionally involving. Perhaps it's because I had trouble visualizing myself as a horse. So I decided to see the play, in hopes of a more visceral experience. I was not disappointed. 

The puppeteers imbue the horses with personality and life, forming a bond with the audience that makes for a more moving story. The play fleshes out scenes, creates more background for the human characters, and provides glimpses into Albert's war experience, which was not in the book. There are some deviations in characters and situations, but it works pretty well, although I thought it odd that Emilie meets Albert on the battlefields.

Albert is not so optimistic in the play; instead, he is very traumatized. In a disturbing scene, he euthanizes a horse by stabbing it in the head. While this may have occurred in reality, it's not a nice thing to see.

I felt that Albert took far too long in recognizing Joey at the end of the book. Joey knew Albert immediately, but Albert, who was cleaning Joey off at the time, was oblivious. In the play (if you haven't seen the play, you should stop reading now) they meet after Joey's rescue from no man's land. Both are injured; Joey from barbed wire, Albert nearly blinded from tear gas. Joey is almost shot, but is saved when he responds to Albert's inadvertent whistle. It is a much more emotional scene.

In summary, readers who love Black Beauty, would enjoy War Horse. For those who, like me, found Anna Sewell's novel to be too didactic, you may want to skip Morpurgo's book and see the play instead.

By the way, there is a story of a war horse in Louisa May Alcott's Little Men.In the second last chapter, called Round the Fire, the boys are listening to stories told by the staff. A character named Silas tells a touching tale about his brave horse, Major.

March 22, 2012

Adventure in the swamp

by Carl Hiaasen

Bunny Starch is the most feared biology teacher at Truman School. The kind of teacher who dares to humiliate a student in front of the whole class. So when she disappears after the school field trip to the Black Vine Swamp, her class is extremely relieved. Until they end up with Wendell Waxmo, an outrageous substitute who loves a good song. 

Nick and Marta, two of Starch's students, think something terrible must have happened to her. They don't believe the principle's explanation that Mrs. Starch had to deal with a family emergency, especially since she has no family. They're sure that the class delinquent, Smoke, has something to do with it. Their investigation reveals many more suspects - an  eccentric eco-avenger, a dim-witted oilman, and an endangered Florida panther.

Hiaasen's trademark humour and typical wackiness keep the action moving in this exciting adventure. Highly entertaining.

The paperback also includes a sneak peek at Hiassen's new novel, Chomp.

March 20, 2012

Kids protect environment

by Carl Hiassen

"I'm not a common criminal", Noah's dad says. "I know right from wrong. Good from bad. Sometimes I just get carried away".  This time, his dad's temper and impulsiveness have landed him in jail for sinking the Coral Queen, a casino boat that's been dumping raw sewage into the Florida Keys. The problem is that he doesn't have actual proof. So it's up to Noah and his little sister Abbey to put the Coral Queen out of commission for good.

Readers familiar with Hiassen's previous book, Hoot,will enjoy Flush. It has the quirky characters, funny names (like Lice Peeking), and unbelievable situations that make for an adventurous, suspenseful yarn. With snappy dialogue, smarter-than-adult kids, and a very satisfying ending.

March 15, 2012

Life despite illness

by Martha Brooks

It's 1941, and World War II is on. But the war doesn't seem to touch the life of fifteen-year-old Marie-Claire. She's still having fun, sneaking off to dances, and spending time with Oncle Gérard. So it comes as a shock when Gérard is diagnosed with tuberculosis. But it gets worse when she, and her younger brother and sister, are also diagnosed with the disease. They are sent to the nearby sanatorium to "chase the cure." 

Separated from her siblings, and angry at her situation, Marie-Claire tries her best to ignore everyone, especially her irritatingly cheerful roommate Signy. But as the days go by, she gradually gets used to her new life. Even though she is surrounded by sadness, there is also hope, and she is able to make friends, and find love with another patient. 

A heart-warming story, full of meaning and life. 

March 13, 2012

My Louisiana Sky

by Kimberly Willis Holt

Twelve-year-old Tiger often feels like an outsider in her small Louisiana town. She has an unusual name - Tiger Ann Parker, and parents who are slow. Her father has trouble reading the bills, but is good at reading the weather. Her mother has the mind of a six-year-old. They all live together with Tiger's strong-willed grandmother.

Tiger longs to be like the other girls, but her parents' actions tend to affect her social standing. She is able to tell her troubles to her grandmother, but after her grandmother dies, Tiger feels lost. So when her aunt Dorie asks her to move to Baton Rouge, it's a chance for her to start over. It takes a hurricane and Aunt Dorie's cleaning lady, Magnolia, to help Tiger appreciate her parents and what they have always given her - complete love and support.

My Louisiana Sky is a rewarding coming-of-age story, told with quiet truth and dignity.

March 8, 2012

After residential school

by Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

In this sequel to Fatty Legs,Margaret eagerly waits to be reunited with her family. But she is unprepared for the pain to come. Her mother doesn't recognize her, repeatedly saying "Not my girl."  In just two years, Margaret has changed from a young, round-faced girl to a skinny, tall creature with short hair. Worse of all, she has forgotten her language and can't eat the food. Even her kamik (boots) give her blisters because she's now used to canvas runners. The other children tease her and the adults shun her, because she is now an outsider. Margaret finds that she has more in common with the lone black man in the community, whom the people avoid. They are both strangers at home. 

Fortunately, Margaret's father, who had also been to residential school, helps her to regain the language and the customs. So it was difficult for him to ask her to return to school with her sisters. He recognized that the world was changing, and they needed to learn or be left behind. Margaret knows that she could protect her sisters and help them retain the wisdom of their people.

A sorrowful, but important story that everyone should read.

March 6, 2012

Inuit girl at residential school

by Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Eight-year-old Olemaun longed to attend the outsiders' school, where she would learn to read. Her father and sister tried to dissuade her, but she didn't understand. Led inside by a hooked-nose nun, Olemaun's braids were cut off, her clothes taken away, and her name changed to Margaret. Then she was put to work with the other girls. They were forced to clean floors, empty waste buckets, and work in the hospital. But Margaret had a strong will, and found ways to protest the cruel treatment. When she left the school two years later, she vowed she wouldn't go back. But her younger sisters were curious, so she returned in order to protect them.

An enlightening look at one girl's experiences at a residential school. 

March 1, 2012

Faith in God

Twelve-year-old Elsie was looking forward to her end-of-school pajama party, until it was cancelled due to her mother's illness. Her mother has depression, which puts her in the psychiatric hospital once again. Conflicted with anger, guilt, and shame, Elsie tries to bargain with God, by promising good behaviour in exchange for healing her mother. But Elsie can't seem to keep out of trouble. She fights with her sisters, breaks into a swimming pool, and lies to her friends. Elsie's struggles cause her to lose faith in God and alienates her from her Mennonite family. 

During a search for a lost cat, Elsie and her sister Lena must hide in an old barn to avoid a sinister kidnapper. That night, Elsie has a glimpse of heaven and rediscovers God's presence in herself and the world. It gives her the courage to make one last, desperate attempt to help her mother.

Despite its serious situations, the story is often light-hearted, funny, and profoundly moving.