Monthly Archives: August 2016

Sekret (Sekret #1)

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A YA political thriller set in 1963 Cold War Russia, with a paranormal slant. What’s not to love? (Well, a couple of things actually, but not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the novel).

Yulia is a ration rat, a teenager who lives by her wits in the black market, struggling to support and care for her family in Communist Russia. They live clandestinely with her aunt and cousin, stretching the two rations to feed five. Her brother has mental challenges, her mother is a scientist in hiding, and her father left the family years before. Yulia has a few secrets of her own, ones that can never be known. One, her family is former Party but is now on the run from the KGB. Two, she has psychic powers. She can read others’ thoughts just by touch, and she uses that to her advantage on the black market. But it would be dangerous if either secret was discovered.

Russia is in the middle of the space race with the Americans, and so far have beaten them every step of the way. But someone is selling the blueprints of their top-secret program to their adversaries, and they need to find out who and fast. The KGB has been working to develop a team of psychic spies since the Great Patriotic War and recruits a new company of powerful teens to track the traitor.

Yulia’s secrets have been discovered by those with powers stronger than her own. Can she play this new game long enough to escape with her family?

This is a book I enjoyed despite its issues.

As with any spy novel, I spent the entire story wondering which character can be trusted, and which are the deceivers. And this can include the main character, Yulia. Just because the story is told from her point of view, from inside her head, does not make her a trustworthy character. She herself wasn’t always sure what was going on in her own mind. And as the second generation of psychic spies, the mistrust is already well-ingrained in her team.

I quite like the cast of characters. Each has a specific power and personality and quirks, ranging from the handsome bad boy Sergei to twisted true believer Masha to evil mind-scrubbing Rostov. Lara can see the paths and choices in the future, while Valentin can cast a glamour and twist opinion, controlling his subject’s thoughts. And all had their own reasons for playing the game, whether it was for power or a better apartment, or the hope of freedom for themselves or their families.

The history presented is obviously well researched. Cold War Russia was almost a dystopian society in many ways, and Lindsay Smith does a fabulous job of presenting a stark dichotomy in the lives of the population. For most, it was a sparse existence, with rations, queues, harsh vodka and fear housed in cold grey concrete apartments, not far from the brightly coloured domes of St Peter’s Basilica, and the luxury of warm housing, silk and velvet, champagne and caviar. But even the elite live in fear and mistrust, always looking over shoulders and wondering who in their lives will be next to disappear.

This debut novel is not without inconsistencies and problems. The plot begins quite slowly and moves sporadically throughout. There are action-packed sequences and flashbacks, but then time skips by without explanation, making it a bit confusing at times. Along those same lines, the timeline seemed off sometimes. And I don’t think it was – a few quick google searches confirmed that songs were released and shots fired and moons orbited as written – but the feeling was one of cramming in too much in a short period of time. All that said, veiled hints are dropped throughout the story that seem inconsequential at the time until major events and twists happen and bring them all neatly together.

As for the training, too much is left unexplained. To me, the story reads as though Smith knew the teens had to train their minds to master their powers and in spy craft, but she had no idea how that would happen. She rushes through it all, teens are given a few textbooks and then sent into the field, with little to no explanation of the training or the mission itself. Spying has a long history, especially during the Cold War. There should be more to it. The training itself could fill a novel, and I think the background could only add to the mystery and suspense.

Smith also missed an opportunity to really analyse the psychic abilities of the various spies and how each worked. How did the music veil their thoughts to some, but not to others? Yulia thought escape 24 hours a day. Even with her musical defense, how did she prevent others from peeking into her head and discovering her thoughts? She lived in a house full of psychics. And the scrubbers cause pain, just by looking at them, or being in the same room? More explanation is needed, or at least someone needs to explain it to me. My brain hurt trying to figure it out.

So, all in all, a unique enjoyable YA novel, with room for improvement. Maybe the problems are ironed out in book two of the series, Skandal. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll read it. To me, Sekret can stand alone. It didn’t end with a cliff hanger, but just left the door open for more. Suitable for the entire YA age range.

Sekret was published April 1st, 2014 by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Children’s.

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Ex-Wives of Dracula

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This book is a LOT of fun. And I even broke my taboo about sparkly vampires to read it.

18-year-old Mindy thinks she might be a lesbian. Probably. She is still questioning. It’s just that guys don’t do it for her, but she’s not entirely sure that girls do either. So she works her job delivering pizzas and lives fairly anonymously at school, doing her best to fly under the radar as she figures out her life. Until she delivers pizza one night to her next-door neighbour and former best friend, Lucia. Whereas puberty was not so fun for Mindy, it totally rocked Lucia’s world, turning her into a tall busty bronzed goddess. Naturally, she captains the cheerleading squad and dates the captain of the football team.

So of course, Mindy falls in love with her. And of course, Lucia gets bitten by a vampire. Which somehow just makes her hotter.

The first quarter or so of the book is set-up, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure where it was going or if I would like the story very much. Mindy is a bit of a loner, values comfort over fashion, and is pretty self-aware for a teenager. She sees the pitfalls in crushing on Lucia, but is honest and forthright with her feelings, leaving the ball in the more confused Lucia’s court. Mindy looks out for her and helps her, even when Lucia isn’t interested in her for anything other than her pizza delivery skills.

I rolled my eyes a bit at Lucia’s initial description as the completely stereotypical cheerleader. Every cliche you can think of. Blond. Gorgeous. Tall. Dumb. Privately hurting. Sexually promiscuous. Mean girl. Queen bee. Girls envy her, boys love her.

But then the action really starts, and I couldn’t read the rest of the story fast enough. As the girls’ relationship (both as friends and more) develops, both Mindy and Lucia morph into kind and thoughtful protectors, friends, and lovers. Lucia doesn’t become the perfect human overnight, her flaws are still glaring and eminently teen in their selfishness, but she opens up and looks beyond the surface of those around her, and thinks of others. Mindy doesn’t radically change into an extrovert party-girl either, but her confidence and willingness to try something new strengthen in proportion to the relationship.

The dialogue between the girls and Romanian exchange student Seb is fluent and witty and authentic. See is hilarious in his attempts to be cool, but author Georgette Kaplan treats him respectfully, never making fun of him, but introduces him as an equal friend and confidant. Kaplan brings the reader right into the book, and I felt like I was sitting alongside the three friends as they chat and explore and flirt and scheme and complain and fight and search for answers.

The plot is touching, fresh, funny, but also adds components of horror and violence. Which sometimes seem out of place, but Kaplan does a good job of weaving all the elements together so that the violence is not too jarring. Her take on vampires is different and entertaining, occasionally poking fun at pop cultures’ current fascination with the theme. She mixes it up; some vampires are sexy and fun, some are creatures of darkness and brutality. And the vampires are just a backdrop; the main focus of the story is always the girls’ relationship, however, even as so many new pieces are added.

And the relationship is fully explored and balanced. The first thought would be that Kaplan would follow the predictable: beautiful Lucia has the power, with dorky Mindy grateful for her attention. But it is an even and realistic partnership, with each girl bringing her strengths. Mindy’s self-confidence balances out Lucia’s flamboyant personality, who in turn encourages Mindy to step outside her comfort zone. Through her vampire powers, Lucia shares a mental connection with Mindy, but the two can block each other out or invite each other in, and it is not used as mind control. The two don’t just grow as a couple, they also learn that they can live apart, and they make their choices accordingly. It is a wonderful relationship.

The LGBT theme is beautifully handled. Lucia’s realization that she loves Mindy is treated with no less importance than Mindy’s previous acknowledgement that she is “probably” a lesbian. Lucia’s love for Mindy is as real and as glorious as Mindy’s for her.

There is some fairly graphic violence, drug use, and sexual content, so the novel may be better for the upper end of the YA age range, but the story overall is a really fun and unusual read.

Ex-Wives of Dracula was published March 16th, 2016 by Ylva Publishing.

Flygirl

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Once you start this one, you won’t be able to put it down.

Ida Mae Jones is 17 years old when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour. She works endlessly as a housemaid to save money, trying to earn enough to travel from Louisiana to Chicago to get her pilot’s license. She can’t get one in her hometown, now matter how skilled she is. She is a girl, and she is black. But her daddy was a pilot and a black man, and she knows she has it in her as well.

After the US enters the war, she watches as her dreams of flight get even further out of reach. She is needed at home, earning money and helping to run the family berry farm after her older brother leaves his medical studies to enlist as a medic. But as the war continues years after year, the Army has to free up more men to fight and so creates the Women Airforce Service Pilots. The WASP. Their job is to ferry planes across the country, test out new designs, and take the place of men who could then be released to fight.

Correction. White women can ferry planes and free up men to fight.

Ida Mae’s dreams return, and now being a woman is a positive. But she is still black, and has no chance of being accepted to the program. So she decides to “pass.”  Being light-skinned, she can act the part of a white woman, claiming Spanish heritage to those who look too closely. But passing also means forgetting where she comes from, and denying all those important to her. It also means denying herself. Will it all be worth it?

So much going on in this book!  I have always loved the story of the WASP, and the fight they had to be accepted by the military and by society. But this is a new twist. As a teen, I devoured everything I could get my hands on about the organization, but there was never anything like Flygirl.

So well written. So well researched. Such a believable main character and believable story. With the WASP as the backdrop for Ida Mae’s journey, author Sherri Smith captures the time and place and societal norms perfectly. Wartime, racism, sexism. While the war may have broken down a lot barriers, some were still left firmly in place.

Ida Mae is a strong, smart, independent, young woman who is willing to do what it takes to achieve her dreams in the face of prejudice that I cannot even imagine. She is confronted with incredible challenges and the stakes are immeasurably high if her race is discovered. Her gender has her at a disadvantage to begin with, and her race only lengthens her odds even more.

Her cast of friends is varied, as is her interaction with them and her family. Jolene, her boy-crazy best friend from back home who is deeply hurt when Ida Mae leaves, and her two new sisters-in-arms, Patsy and Lily, who have their own histories they have to overcome. Even with Jolene, Ida Mae can only be slightly more honest about herself than she can be with her white friends, albeit for different reasons.

The family dynamic is interesting and familiar. Her Mama wants to forbid her joining up and flying; knowing a bit more about the world than her daughter does, she sees the pitfalls. Her younger brother and Grandy support her and think she should do what to takes to get ahead, while her older brother is proud but thinks her place is at home. Each in their own way, they know there is a line that cannot be crossed. And the idea that once Ida Mae had passed she could never return to her roots never occurred to me. Her choice to fly meant more than just tough training under horrible circumstances, but a loss of friends and family.

The language, the writing, the descriptions, and the pacing are excellent. Time skipped around a bit during the training – some periods took a long time, others seemed over in a flash – but given that the training is just the back drop to Ida Mae’s journey and the reader doesn’t need a detailed list of every flight the trainees took to get their wings, it all works.

If I have any criticism, it is that that the ending is a bit abrupt. It is not a cliff-hanger or a resolution, nor does it give any indication as to which way Ida Mae would live her life after the war. Does she go home or does she continue to pass? The book just ends. But that small disappointment aside, Flygirl is a great read for anyone.

A wonderful story about a little known organization in American history, about a time when black women faced even more prejudice, and an incredible story about overcoming odds that seem insurmountable. The hurdles these women of colour overcame, including in some cases the need to turn their backs on their families in order to achieve goals, are remarkable.

Smith has included an extensive bibliography at the end of the book, for those who wish to learn more.

Flygirl was published January 22nd, 2009 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

Unwind (#1)

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Here’s one that can really creep you out and make you reconsider the world as it is.

Many things have changed since the Second Civil War, a conflict that developed along incredibly volatile lines. There is now a Bill of Life, Unwinding, storking, all matters related to the value of human life. Boiled down, it means that the sanctity life is unassailable. But how unassailable? When does life become precious?

If a woman gives birth and doesn’t want the child, she can leave it at any random door. If the homeowners don’t catch her, they have been storked, and must raise the child. But only until the child is 13. Between the ages of 13 and 18, parents can choose to have their children unwound; sent to a harvest centre, teens are taken apart surgically and transplanted to various people who require new organs or body parts.  A replacement leg, for instance, after an accident, or heart and lungs after illness, or new eyes, just because the old colour didn’t suit.  Life is not ending, it is just transferred. And bonus, parents don’t have to deal with unwanted children any more.

And kids can be slated for unwinding for any reason. Connor is an out-of-control teen who was never really wanted. Risa is a ward of the state, and no use to anyone. Lev was conceived to be unwound. His parents offer him up as a religious sacrifice, and he has been raised to believe it is a noble purpose. Connor and Risa don’t see it that way. They vow to escape their fate, which means going into hiding until they turn 18 and no longer qualify.

The three main characters and all the supporting cast have individual personalities that author Neal Shusterman develops incredibly well. That isn’t to say they were likeable, particularly Connor, but they are charismatic and defiant and want to live. Connor is troubled and can’t seem to stay away from conflict, feels alone and withdrawn from his parents, even before he finds out they have signed the unwind order. Underneath his anger he is alone and desperate.

Risa is smart and tough, adaptable, but also unprotected. Unless she has a skill that sets her apart, she is just a drain on society, and she will be unwound. And her skill set doesn’t seem to count for anything.  The two of them team up with Lev to take control of their lives. His change makes him perhaps the most interesting of the three teens. His initial belief that his life is best served by unwinding shifts as his time approaches and his friendship with Connor and Risa deepens.

Originally, as I started reading this, my initial thought was “this could never happen.” And when you read any dystopia or fantasy, the first thing you must do is suspend disbelief, or what is the point?  But because the concept of this novel is so violent, so dismissive of life, I initially had trouble doing so. But then all of a sudden I turned the last page and had no idea how I got there.

This story isn’t just about a dystopian near-future. It opens up a complete discussion on the value of life and where lines can be drawn. It is about a system born of conflict, and honed by greed and self-interest. How much control is too much for a parent to have? When does religious belief cross the line? At what point does “do no harm” become “well, if it is for the greater good”? When does life begin and end? Are the “unwound” still living and aware? Shusterman pokes the moral grey areas and steps back to watch turmoil.

If the rest of this four book series is anything like Unwind, I am not going to get a lot of sleep until it is finished. It is appropriate for the YA age range, but is not a light read. Through his characters’ thoughts and discussions, the author treats his young (and older!) readers to some very thought-provoking questions, without hitting us over the head with his own opinions.

Unwind was published November 6th, 2007 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Antigoddess (The Goddess War #1)

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A war between the gods is brewing. Athena is dying. Feathers grow throughout her body, choking and slowly killing her. Hermes is no longer the fleet-footed god; he is wasting away. Enter Hera. She, Poseidon, Aphrodite, and other powerful gods are banding together to kill off rivals in order to save themselves. Athena and Hermes search for allies, and answers.

The answer lies with the mortals, as it always has. But these ones in particular – Cassandra, Aidan, Henry, and Andie – are special. They have a past that has intertwined with the gods for millennia. And, in fact, Aidan has never been mortal.

This is NOT Percy Jackson and the Olympians. It is dark and twisted, and not for the faint of heart. Kendare Blake does horror like no other.

The story is written primarily from the two perspectives of Cassandra and Athena. As a god herself, Athena really sets the stage for the entire story and brings a depth to the plot that Cassandra can’t, given her mortal status. The basis for the conflict, her rivalry with Hera and Aphrodite, the years of  opposition, layer together to bring this moment about.    Bombs, magic, starvation, dehydration and near fatal car accidents might just be enough to weaken Hermes and herself so they can be finished off. And while all this is going on, brother Apollo is off gallivanting, trying to make up for sins committed thousands of years before.

Cassandra is a weak character in the beginning. She is psychic, she makes predictions for her classmates for profit, she is clingy and moony-eyed over her oh-so-dreamy boyfriend Aidan. She’s a bit much, at first. But when the sh*t hits the fan as she finds out who she really is, she becomes a more interesting and complex character. She remembers her disdain and anger towards Apollo and finds an incredible strength, becoming Athena’s right hand. Her history and present converge into the making of a powerful foe for Hera.

And her visions. Disturbing, violent, fascinating, and packed with gore, Blake’s imagery will not leave your brain for a very long time.

Cassandra handled the news of her true identity, and that of Aidan, with a lot less WTF! than I would have thought possible. Regaining her memory is violent and painful, but she accepts her past. And and Henry’s reactions seemed a bit more cautious and believable, but maybe the explanation actually offers some relief for Cassandra, who has lived her (current) life not understanding so many parts of herself.

I loved that the gods throughout this book were as self-absorbed and childish as always. Even after a few millennia of existence, they never seem to learn, holding onto petty grudges and jealousies forever. Add Athena and Hermes and Apollo portrayed as teens, and their selfish behaviour is even more pronounced.

While the beginning of the book is a bit slow with all the history and set-up, it picks up steam and action as the chapters progress. By the last third, the build-up to the final scene rushes through with an intensity that leaves the reader breathless. I turned the final page without even realizing I was so close to the end, and the cliff-hanger is as epic as a goddess of wisdom could demand. It is a great set-up for book 2.

While you don’t have to know the details of the Trojan War or the stories of the gods to understand this novel, knowledge certainly adds depth and enjoyment to the reading. Alone, it is a gripping tale of power and horror. With the backdrop of the history, you won’t want to put it down. This is an ancient story in a modern setting done perfectly. Blake weaves the old and new together with seemingly little effort.

The two follow-up novels in the series, Mortal Gods and Ungodly, are must-reads on my list.

Antigoddess (Goddess War #1) was published September 10th, 2013 by Tor Teen.

 

Le Fay (series)

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I hate writing negative reviews. I don’t ever want to turn someone off reading a book or series – just because something didn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it won’t work for someone else. This series did not work for me. At all. But I seem to be in the minority. On Goodreads, Henge and Sword get a LOT of love. I must be missing something important.

Le Fay is a modern retelling of the Arthurian legend. Magic is both controlled and mistrusted. The King is served by the best magicians in the Kingdom, as his knights and his advisors.

Morgan le Fay has fire magic. She can create and control fire; in her hands it is both powerful and deadly. She wants to use her abilities for the good of the Kingdom. She has dreamed of being Maven, the right hand of the future king, Arthur, since she was a young child. She competes and is selected to join Arthur’s Round, an elite group of young magic users from which the new Maven will be chosen.

Trained and tested along with the other outstanding magicians of her generation, she is one of the top students. The new Maven will stand at the future King’s side for his entire reign, so while magical power is essential, so is diplomacy and political savvy. Morgan wants to serve, and she wants to see magic returned to its exalted status. But all does not go as planned.

I LOVE the Arthurian legend. LOVE it. So when I heard about this series, I was so excited. There could be so much to love. But no. Just … NO. While the first book was good enough to grab my attention, the second punished me for it.

Morgan, the central figure in the series, was my greatest disappointment. She could have been great. She has so much potential as a character, she is a central figure in the original legend. And while she starts off in the first book as a strong-willed, focused girl, intent on serving the Kingdom, she makes one disastrous decision after another, and none of them make sense. NONE.

Her behaviour with her classmates is erratic. She suspects plots against the Crown, she herself is attacked, but she keeps her mouth shut.

She has a vision about her future, and can make no sense of it. She was warned this would happen, that what the candidates see is not always going to be a clear message for them, and needs to be studied and interpreted. So does she tell the examiners what she sees? Of course not. She tells them of a vision she had as a child.

If you are sworn to protect the King, and you learn of a plot to assassinate him, don’t you at least tell someone? Or do you kidnap him and run away? What personal strength and morality she displays in the first book is completely lost in the second; if she truly wanted to serve the King and Kingdom, she would get off her a** and do it. Instead, she spends the first part of the book pouting, and the rest making horrible choices and refusing to speak up for herself, and there is no reason for it, other than ego.

And the incident with Lancelot near the end of the second book? Shoot me now. Where did that scene come from?!?!?

Arthur is interesting, and in many ways true to the legend (minus the petulant video-game obsessed stage he goes through). He is a tortured, young, unsure of who he is and what he wants. Although he does find himself, the reader is left with the feeling of instability. He equally fears and respects Morgan.

Merlin is also fairly close to the Merlin we know. He is difficult to read, powerful, and political. He kept me on my toes throughout both books, always wondering what side he would take. I found him totally unlikeable, which is fine, at first. But in the second book, his behaviour and interactions with Morgan stop making sense. And it ends with me still unsure of his intentions and loyalties.

All the other characters were unpredictable and I had to keep rereading parts to make sure I had the right person in my mind for various scenes.

The book really fell apart for me with the modern setting, which I initially thought could be fabulous. But it just does not work. The magic and the history and knights and even Camelot itself evoke too many images, and the modern conveniences of texting and trains and cars seemed thrown in and forced, as if the author was not sure how to fit her ideas on the page.

I don’t know if there is going to be a third book, but if there is, I think I’ll pass. But if anyone reads this series and can explain to me what I so obviously missed, I would appreciate it.

Henge was published November 11th, 2014, and Sword on November 10th, 2015.