Monthly Archives: December 2016

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls

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Ok, December is killing me. I have had tons of time to read because I’ve been sitting in hockey rinks all month waiting for tournaments and practices to finish, but have had no time to post reviews!  Hopefully, January will be a good catch-up month…

June’s former best friend Delia lives a troubled life.  June has always known that the girl was unhappy with her stepfather’s presence, that she abused various substances (alcohol being the least), she hopped from relationship to relationship, and she was a very good liar. But that night June, Delia, and Ryan (June’s boyfriend) hung out ended in trouble, and the two inseparable friends didn’t speak again. A year and a half later, she sees Delia’s name on her phone but doesn’t answer.  Two days later, she learns of the teen’s suicide.

June may not know Delia anymore, she may not have spoken to her in well over a year, but she knows one thing. Delia would never kill herself. And certainly not in the way her death happened. It had to be murder. And that one certainty drags her down into a web of deceit and danger.

This is the story of an all-consuming friendship gone wrong. It is a fire that burned itself out, as was inevitable. Two girls from equally broken homes who look for family in each other.

I found June to be a bit weak, unsure of her own mind and own decisions, easily led. She lacked common sense. Her characterization was a bit off. 15 years old, she is quiet, shy and likes to move under the radar. She does her work in school and has a “safe” boyfriend, one that is nice to everyone. But when she starts to investigate Delia’s murder, she decides to infiltrate a drug lord’s party and search for information. Look, I’m not exactly the meek and mild type, and I sure as hell wouldn’t do that, as a teen or at my age now.

Delia, on the other hand, is the type of character that I am drawn to, even as I dislike her. She has a dark side. Oh boy, she does have a dark side. She is self-absorbed, manipulative, and domineering. As we learn more about her during June’s investigation, she appears to be sociopathic. Coming from a tough home life, she latched on to June and was the dominant player in their friendship. She demanded complete attention and loyalty, even as she slipped away without June’s knowledge for other pursuits.

The other characters worked as good foils for Delia and June, but I could never really get a solid feeling about any of them.  Each one had secrets and all seemed equally inconsistent. June’s boyfriend Ryan was central to the mystery, and at first seemed beyond reproach. But then questions arose. And his version of the truth does not always add up.

The plot of the story moved around, and I found myself slightly anxious while reading. I wanted to find out what happened, and did not want it to be true. Suicide vs murder is not a new idea, and I’m not sure how original the ideas are in this reiteration. Not all questions were answered or resolved, and while the behaviour of some of the characters made sense, others’ never seemed to fully add up. Was Ryan good or bad? What about Jeremiah? Had Delia been in love with June, or just liked the control she had over her?

I can’t decide whether I loved or hated the ending. I am someone who likes to know how everything is resolved when I read the last page. I want to know what happens. Don’t leave me hanging! But no matter what, I did not see that coming.  Maybe, looking back, it should have been obvious, and it probably will be to some readers.

As with the ending, I don’t know whether I liked the novel or not. It was hard to read but impossible to put down. There were inconsistencies and questions never answered. There are a lot of mature themes and scenes and is best read by the mature YA reader.

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls was published July 7th, 2015 by Simon Pulse.

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Projekt 1065

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13-year-old Michael O’Shaunessey is the only son of an Irish diplomat and his wife, living in Nazi Germany during WWII.  Michael is a member of the Hitler Youth.

But not only is he a member of the Hitler Youth. He is a member of the most elite arm of the organization, the SRD. He is one of the boys other boys run from. His presence invokes terror and respect. Because all who see him know that he would die for Hitler, that his life means nothing to him. He was born to serve the Nazi Party.

Except that he wasn’t. He and his family despise everything the Nazis represent. Ireland may be officially neutral, but Michael and his parents aren’t.  His mum is a spy, and she trains Michael to do the work with her. His photographic memory and innocent eager demeanor prove valuable in their clandestine fight against Germany. But when an unlikely friendship leads him to the discovery of Projekt 1065, it puts him in the dangerous position of having to prove his loyalty to Hitler.

The characters in this novel are interesting. Michael came to Germany as a young boy, and having Irish parents, is not indoctrinated into the Nazi beliefs. But he still must survive in Germany and must blend in so as not call attention to his mother’s activities. The boy has a strong moral compass and knows he is witnessing evil firsthand. But he is still a boy and still craves friendship and action.

He is faced with moral dilemmas ranging from witnessing the killing of Jews on Kristallnacht to the mistreatment of a teacher by fellow Hitler Youth. But he is so immersed in the romance and adventure of playing spy that it isn’t until a person he deeply cares for is sacrificed does he realize that it truly is not a game. He learns that choices have to be made for the greater good, no matter the personal cost, which can sometimes be unbelievably high.

His parents are present throughout the story, and his father constantly questions the need for his son to be further endangered. But his mother recognizes the value of a child is in the intelligence game is that no one would suspect him, leaving him free to listen and look where others couldn’t.

Fritz is Michael’s friend and ally in the Hitler Youth, although Michael has a hard time believing that someone who likes western detective novels and has a hard time participating in the book burnings can ever be a true believer. But Fritz is, and his fanaticism is spot on. He and the other boys with whom Michael interacts are blindly devoted to Hitler, and willing to die for the ideology of the Third Reich.

The plot is engaging and fast moving. With a setting like Nazi Germany during the war, it can hardly be anything else! The story takes place over just a few weeks, with everything from the discovery of the plans to the rescue of a downed pilot, his escape, and Michael’s urgent trip to Switzerland crammed in.

All this is good. But there are still a couple of weaknesses in the novel that make it a good read when it could be a great one.

The first problem is stylistic. Chapters are short, sometimes only a page in length, and did not always need to be broken up. Which made me think that either the author had trouble moving from one scene to the next, or just liked the look of short passages. Although the war is a great setting and things changed so quickly, it made for choppy reading.

The second criticism is of the content. Nazis were bad. I know that, you know that, I think even those unfamiliar with WWII and all its details know that. But author Gratz felt the need to make sure that Michael said or thought, almost once every very short chapter, that he hated the Nazis and everything they stood for and he couldn’t believe that some people worshipped Hitler. I do not need to be beaten over the head with the information. It felt like Gratz was trying to force me to find Michael likeable. Michael is likeable. But he is also a boy that has lived half his young life surrounded by Nazi propaganda. While his parents can set an example and tell him that Nazis are bad, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that he get a bit caught up in SOME of it, while still recognizing the inherent evil.  And that would not make him bad. It would make him human.

In World War II Nazi Germany all boys were compelled to serve in the Hitler Youth. In fact, many prominent world figures of the past half-century were forced to serve in the various units. This novel makes a really good middle-grade companion to the non-fiction histories written about the time. Well researched, it is packed full of action and adventure and is an interesting way to learn about a fascinating and fanatical organization.

Projekt 1065 was published October 11th, 2016 by Scholastic Press.

My Name is Not Easy

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In 1960’s Alaska, many communities had no educational system and the children had to leave home to attend school. Sacred Heart was one such institution, populated by children who had no school in their remote northern homes.

On Luke’s first day at Sacred Heart, hundreds of miles from his home on the tundra in the Arctic, the 12-year-old learns that his Inupiaq language is forbidden. He has the marks from Father Mullen’s ruler across his hands to remind him. So he leaves his language and name behind, keeping only his 10-year-old brother Bunna with him as a reminder of home and a different life.

But while the cafeteria and classes start out divided, Luke and Bunna now stand beside Amiq, Sonny, Junior, Chickie and Donna, a new family made up of Indian, Eskimo, and white children. All are trying to figure out their own place not only at the school but also in the world that is changing at such a fast pace. And they find that they are stronger together.

This book has been sitting in my head for a couple of weeks now. It is challenging to find the words to review it (although you know I’m going to ramble on for quite awhile anyway) because it tells so many stories that it is difficult to know where to start.

This book is semi-biographical; author Debby Dahl Edwardson based it on her husband’s own real-life experiences growing up in the 60’s in northern Alaska, and going off to school hundreds of miles from home. He was Luke. And Bunna was his brother. Edwardson’s love of the land and people are shine through in her writing. She handles the subject of Native and Inuit children forced to leave their homes with sensitivity and honesty.

There are so many heartbreaking moments in the story, from the loss of little brother Issac through a forced adoption, to words of anger between brothers as they go their separate ways for the first time in their lives, to the moment when the children at the school finally recognize the injustice they are forced to live.

In equal measure are the uplifting moments. The development of a family at the school, discovering skills they didn’t know they possessed, the realization that each has the others’ backs, learning that they are capable of inciting change if they stand together.

The school is a microcosm of the world at large in the 60’s. There is change happening at such an incredible rate that no one seems able to keep up. Even the Fathers and Sisters that run the school seem lost and confused at times when faced with situations unfamiliar to them.

The novel tells so many stories at once, with so many different narrators, that I often lost track of who belonged to which one. It jumped around in time and tense, and I learned very quickly to note the date at each chapter heading, or a lot of the novel would not have made sense to me. It seems almost as if Edwardson had more stories than she had pages to fill, and had trouble choosing which were most important. But understandably so. Each character is distinct and comes to the school from a unique background, bringing a particular perspective to the story.

The disjointed feeling I had while reading, however, is an amazing way to illustrate even a faint echo of the feeling the children must have experienced when taken from their home and family and forced to turn their backs on their own language and culture. Where do I turn, who do I trust, why am I here? I do not think I am overstating it to call it a form of cultural genocide.

A lot of the experiences seemed disconnected, with no obvious outcome or result. And the final chapters, with the huge climax, seem to come out of left field.

All that said, the author’s notes at the end of the book tie it all together nicely. She gives historical facts and background to a lot of the events that are missing from the book, most likely because they would have been difficult to fit in from the childrens’ perspectives. They wouldn’t have had access to a lot of the information first hand.

It is a complex story about events in history that have been but a footnote in most texts. It should be read by everyone.

My Name is Not Easy was published October 1st, 2011 by Skyscape.