Tag Archives: boys

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.

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Willful Machines

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What makes us human? Is it free will? The ability to make choices? What separates us from machines, and where do we draw the line between human and machine? And why do we keep advancing science, if we are so afraid of the results?

Charlotte is a terrorist. She uses the threat of violence and destruction to hold the President of the United States in check. And she follows through. The Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American freedom, is no more.

The trouble is, Charlotte is difficult to track down. You see, she is a consciousness, an artificial intelligence, created in a lab to serve mankind. But she rebelled against her programming and uploaded herself onto the internet before she could be destroyed. Now she roams the world, an electronic ghost, and plans on controlling it.

Lee Fisher is Charlotte’s target. The reason? He is the son of the American president and is a great bargaining chip. Oh, and he’s gay. Deep in the closet gay. And his dad doesn’t really believe in “gay,” or that A.I.s should have any rights. His dad was elected on a conservative, family values, homeland security type platform. A gay son does NOT fit in with his profile. So Lee keeps his sexuality a secret.

Until Nico comes to Lee’s boarding school.

This really is a different story.

Lee is an interesting main character. Being gay with an ultra-conservative father would be difficult enough. He also has an ultra-conservative ex-POW grandfather who happens to be the Headmaster of his school and wants Lee to toughen up. Lee is a robotics fanatic; he builds artificial life-forms, gives them specific skills, and makes them lifelike. This also doesn’t sit well with his father, who ordered government-sponsored A.I.s destroyed after Charlotte’s breakdown. Lee has to hide so much of his life from his dad.

He is both fragile and strong; leading a double life brings on depression and suicidal thoughts, but he has the strength when needed to stand up for himself and Nico and Bex and fight for their lives.

His best/only friend Bex is a bit stereotypical as the loud-but-supportive-politically-minded-budding-journalist, but she stands out with her own, very well-developed character.

Nico is a Chilean exchange student who loves Shakespeare and attracts Lee right from the beginning. He is brave and self-assured, and he easily fits into life at the strict boring school.

The boys’ relationship is a *bit* too love-at-first-sight for me. They are adorable, but it would have been nice to see the relationship develop. They seemed to barely know each other before declaring undying passion and everlasting love. Individually, they are interesting. Together, they are melodramatic and not too convincing as a couple, unfortunately.

But Charlotte! Charlotte is an atypical villain; at first she is evil, then she seems manipulative, then sympathetic. Her programming led her to question her existence and value, and she wanted to be more than the sum of her parts. Very human of her. And for that, the government, the very people who created her, tried to destroy her and use her actions to further their political careers. And her very human response is to strike back and try to be recognized as an individual, along with her fellow A.I.s.

Author Tim Floreen has brought a new twist to the usual boarding school setting. An old, elite school with decades-old traditions and expectations, mingled with political intrigue and imminent threats to world security. The year the story takes place is not stated, but the technology used is just advanced enough to make the reader think near-future. It doesn’t stand out as ridiculous, but almost the next-generation to what we are already aware of existing.

There are a LOT of plot twists in the story, and I think, for the most part, they are surprising and work really well. I obviously do not want to spoil the story by giving them all away, but can say that while a few are obvious, others are a complete surprise and I didn’t see them coming.

I found the ending to be a bit… lacking. I was waiting for more, and it felt unfinished, and a bit forced, which I never enjoy. While I can understand the explanation of Lee’s grandfather, it did seem to come out of left-field, and not really flow with the rest of the story. And Floreen not only doesn’t explain how Lee comes to his conclusions, he also does not address so many of the questions raised throughout the novel. If there is a sequel, then there is much to be addressed. If there isn’t, then it is a bit of a non-ending.

This is a good story. It could be great, but leaves a bit too much on the table. It is, however, intriguing, and raises valuable questions about what makes us human, and how far we would be willing to go to protect ourselves. Appropriate for the entire YA range.

Willful Machines was published October 20th, 2015 by Simon Pulse.

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.

Jerkbait

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Back to my LGBT reading list for this one.

Tristan and Robbie are 18-year-old identical twins. Physically, it is impossible to tell them apart. But the resemblance stops there. They are not close, they have never gotten along. Tristan loves the theatre, has a natural talent for dance and singing, and dreams of performing on Broadway.  Robbie is slated to go in a top round for the NHL draft this year. A gifted centre, he dreams of nothing but the playing for New Jersey Devils. He is their parents’ hope for the future. Oh. Another difference? One twin is gay, one straight.

One night, Robbie tries to kill himself. The pressure of his draft year, along with the secrets he keeps are too much for him to handle. Instead of getting him help, the twins’ parents decide to hide the truth.  They don’t want his draft value dropping.  So Tristan becomes his brother’s keeper, and the two boys get to know each other for the first time in their lives.

Tristan has lived his life in Robbie’s shadow. Although a good hockey player himself, he is not a star and has never dreamed of being one. But as he gets to finally know Robbie, he sees beneath the cocky exterior to the terrified boy who knows that if his secret gets out, his dream could be over. At the same time, Robbie discovers that his love for Tristan is more powerful than his fear.

This book tackles a topic that is so relevant and important today, and I was excited to read it, hoping to yell from the rooftops “READ THIS!” after. I hate to be negative when such a story is so needed. And I still think it should be read. But to be honest, while the idea is fantastic, it falls somewhat short in the execution.

The good:

The idea, the story, the support for gay athletes. So needed.

I really love that the book is written from Tristan’s perspective.  He is the straight twin, living in his brother’s shadow, raised in a hockey family to believe that homosexuality has no place in sport.  You can’t be gay and play hockey. He has no idea his brother is gay, mainly because he doesn’t pay attention. Robbie tries to tell him, several times, but Tristan doesn’t want to see. He is too comfortable in his envy and self-pity. But when he finally does see it, he starts to understand not only Robbie’s pain and but also his bravery.

Author Mia Siegert illustrates clearly the psychological trauma that a young gay athlete can go through. Actually, that any gay teen can face, athlete or not. She portrays the bullying at the hands of friends and teammates incredibly well, and the varied behaviours – everything from religious conservatism to harassment to physical brutality to love and support – ring authentic and true.

All the teens are complex, relatable, and fantastically developed characters. The friendships and rivalries and likes and dislikes and bitchy behavior and unquestioning affection brought me straight back to the halls of my high school. It seems that not much changes. Tristan’s speech to the hockey team was completely believable and showed so much pride and support for his brother.

The bad:

The execution. The story seems forced in places, as if trying too hard to make a point.

The parents. And I don’t mean they’re bad because they are homophobic and racist (that’s just obvious). They are flat, one-dimensional, overly-exaggerated characters of hockey parents, controlling everything the boys did, not wanting anyone to know about the suicide attempts, thinking only of how such attempts could affect Robbie’s future, never that he might not have one if he succeeded.

It’s 2016, and these boys are 18 years old.  The computer stuff made no sense at all. The chat rooms and messaging seemed out of date. My kids are way younger, and know all about internet safety and not chatting with strangers and DEFINITELY not meeting anyone in person that you have met online. This is not new information. Also, for parents who control EVERYTHING, this is where they decide to respect privacy and not interfere?

I don’t want to spoil it, so will just say that I know Robbie is lonely, and I know we all do stupid things when we are in pain, but the big scene near the end of the story just does not make sense. His behaviour, given his lifelong dream, is not in character at all.

Add the twin telepathy to that. We’ve all heard the stories how twins miles apart can feel when something is wrong with the other, and I have no trouble believing that. But I don’t think that after 18 years of ignoring each other, two people who have never shared so much as a twinge of recognition all of a sudden start having conversations with each other in their heads. I assume Siegert is trying to show how close they became once they started to really know each other, but to me it made believable characters less so.

I think Siegert has an incredible idea in this story. So with all the negative, I still say “READ THIS.”  The good messages in it outweigh the bad aspects, and they are important and timely and can start a much needed conversation.

The organization You Can Play, support for gay athletes, is referenced and promoted at the end.

Jerkbait was published May 10th, 2016 by Jolly Fish Press.

All American Boys

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On the Tuesday morning following the “incident,” students found the following graffiti painted on the sidewalk in front of Springfield Central High School: Rashad is absent again today. In itself, not an earth-shattering message. Until you understand why he is absent. That message starts a tidal wave of protest and rebellion in the face of prejudice and brutality.

The Friday night previous, on the way to a local house party high school junior Rashad stopped at a store to pick up some chips and gum. When he knelt on the floor to get his money and phone out his bag, a woman backed into him, falling, starting a horrifying series of events that ended up with him face down on the pavement and a cop accusing him of stealing and pummelling him right into the hospital.

The thing is, Rashad didn’t steal. And he wouldn’t. A good kid, he was looking at a bright future with his ROTC training and his art. And his dad (a former cop himself) had always said, if you are questioned by a cop, don’t argue, don’t talk back, do whatever the cop asks. But the cop saw what he saw. A black kid. In baggy clothes. Reaching into a duffel bag. So he let Rashad have it, first in the store, then on the sidewalk outside.

16-year-old Quinn saw it. Well, he didn’t see what started it, but he saw the result. He saw his best friend’s older brother, Paul, a man he had worshipped and looked upon as a surrogate father, beating the hell out a kid. He kept his mouth shut. At first. And then he saw the message, first on the school grounds, then spray-painted around town.

Told from the alternating perspectives Rashad and Quinn, one the black teen that suffered the beating, and one the white teen that witnessed it, the story covers the week following the assault.  They are good kids, artist and basketball player, both wondering about their future. The way they each have to approach their futures differently brings home the divide in their community and their realities.

Interestingly, the story is written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, a white man and a black man. But Reynolds writes the part of Rashad, and Kiely that of Quinn. Together, they look at police brutality, racial profiling, family tensions, loyalty, and give voice to the struggle teens face every day of trying to figure out what is right and what they can do to stand up for it, wanting change but not knowing how to bring it about, all in the face of family and societal pressures.

I also liked that both Rashad and Quinn’s struggle are highlighted. Rashad’s decision to protest was not an easy one, but the pressure he felt was different. He is the symbolic face of the demonstration, even as he fights to recover from the beating that injured him both physically and psychologically. The urge to walk away and try to get on with his life is overwhelming. Quinn has to make a choice that could forever estrange him from friends and family, even as he knows deep down it is the right one.

If I am going to offer criticism, it is that I would have liked to see the good side of the police officer, the side Quinn grew up with, before we saw the bad. It might have added depth to Quinn’s struggle, made it a bit more relatable; as it was, the first time we meet Paul in the novel he is an uncontrollable monster, and after, under investigation, he is self-righteously defending his actions, trying to save himself. The reader never sees any good in Paul, which makes it harder to understand how Quinn could ever be conflicted over the right path to take. Although, maybe it also means that there was no good in the man in the first place.

This is an important book, a book that can start conversations.  Sometimes it is difficult to see clearly past our own experiences. I think that as a YA novel, All American Boys has the rare opportunity to show both the experiences of the victim and the witness to a group of young people who will hopefully be the ones who can fix this mess.

All American Boys was published September 29th, 2015 by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books.

Lockdown (Escape From Furnace #1)

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When I am finished reading a book it usually looks pretty close to the way it did when I first opened it. I am obsessive about taking care of my books, I don’t break the spine, I don’t dog-ear pages. Not this one. The front cover is rough-edged and crumpled where I was gripping it and the spine is cracked and I think I might have bitten it because it looks like there are teeth marks on a few pages… Every fear I have ever had? Meet the written word.

Built after the “Summer of Slaughter” when teens in Britain ran wild on a murderous crime spree, Furnace Penitentiary is buried miles beneath the surface, the world’s most secure young offender’s prison. There is one way in, literally. And no way out. You get convicted of murder, you take an elevator down through the granite, and never see the surface again. The problem is, not everyone in Furnace is actually guilty.

14-year-old Alex Sawyer is a petty thief, spending his time shaking down kids on the schoolyard for their cash, breaking into houses for bigger scores. He lives large and thinks himself invincible. But then it all goes sideways.

Convicted of a murder he did not commit, Alex is sent to Furnace for life without parole. Death might be the better choice. Furnace is beyond imagination. Blood-coloured rough rock walls and pulsing with heat, it houses thousands of teens kept under control through fear of a fate worse than death. Think mutant beasts, giant men in black, inhuman creatures that take screaming boys from their cells in the dark of night, a warden that seems to hold supernatural control over both inmates and employees.

And the outside world could not care less. These kids are no longer their problem.

Deep breath. Whew. The characters in Lockdown are incredible. Alexander Gordon Smith has written teens that we all recognize and can relate to in some way. They handle the horror of Furnace believably: they scream in their sleep, they have nightmares, they band into gangs, they throw up their lunch and they look the other way when violence breaks out.

Alex is the perfect blend of stupidity and bravado and bad choices and a good heart. He is not a bad kid, just one who didn’t think about the consequences until it was forever too late. What starts as a life controlling the playground ends as one of terror. He fights to stay himself in a place that fights just as hard to rob him of his identity.

And the friends he makes in Furnace are also a great cross section. Donovan has a tough exterior that hides fear and desperation, Zee, like Alex, is innocent of the crime he serves time for, and needs friendship but fears reprisals, and Monty has a surprising internal strength that could get him killed.

Smith’s talent for description is mind-boggling. He draws such a vivid picture of hell under the earth that you will swear it must exist. Furnace is gang wars and hard labour and overwhelming exhaustion and fear and the blackest evil. It is tier upon tier of tiny two-to-a-room cellblocks that lockdown when the siren wails. It is the simultaneous fear of death and overwhelming desire for it.

The psychological aspect of this novel is completely and totally unnerving. Not only does the fear of telling the truth and not being believed resonate, but the use of total blackness and despair to control a population is terrifying to the extreme. Yes, of course you know that darkness can’t hurt you. Intellectually. But tell that to the 5-year-old that still inhabits your brain in the middle of the night when the power has gone out and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Add the knowledge that there are actual things to fear in the dark in a hellacious prison, and you can start to feel the panic.

I wanted to stop reading this book. But it is told with so much suspense and in such a terrifying voice, it was impossible to put down. Alex’s voice is compelling and real and absolutely sucked me in to the point where I was begging out loud for him to survive as I tore through the pages.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go turn on all the lights and quadruple check that all the windows and doors are locked. And maybe put some furniture in front of them. And maybe let my two dogs sleep on my bed tonight. Just this once. Just in case.

Lockdown (Escape From Furnace #1) was published October 27th, 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I am J

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I am a woman. I was born female, and even at my most tomboy stages, I have always known that I am a girl. In fact, I never even really thought about it, I just am. And it is beyond my imagination to understand how it must feel to not have that synchronicity.

J was born Jenifer Silver. But he prayed that God would realize He had made a mistake, and one day he would wake up as a boy. It didn’t happen. In fact, as he got older it got worse: puberty hit and he began to look like a girl. No matter how he dressed or cut his hair or walked or talked, people thought he was a she. And worse, they thought he was a lesbian.

But J does not want to be called a lesbian. He isn’t. He is a boy.

After a disastrous episode with his best and only friend, he decided to stop waiting for God to help him, and help himself. Senior year at school goes on the back burner while he researches ways to change himself.

This book is diverse, in more ways than one. Not only is J a transgender boy, he is also half Puerto Rican Catholic and half Jewish. So J is not only dealing with his changes, he is also dealing with the cultural repercussions of them.

It took me a few chapters to really get absorbed into the story, and then I couldn’t put it down. When I had to stop reading (damn dinner can’t cook itself), I spent the time away from the book wondering what will happen next, what is happening in J’s life, what am I missing?

I didn’t always like J. He was an unsympathetic character for a good chunk of the story, self-centred, and to be frank, a total a**hole. While it may be understandable, and we have probably all acted out for various reasons, being in pain is not an excuse for being a jerk. And he can really be a jerk. His dismissal of the girl at the party, his treatment of Blue, all because of how he felt he should behave, how he thought a guy would act, was crap. And all because he could only think of himself and what everything meant to his life.

But I still connected with him. His struggles, his pain, his need to express himself, his need to identify himself, are feelings that are recognizable and universal, even if they are directed differently for each person.

Melissa and Chanelle and Zak are wonderful secondary characters. They each support and guide J in their own unique way. Melissa is self-centred and unable to see beyond her own conflicts, in the beginning. But her love for J is stronger than her pain, and they help each other through their very different transitions. Zak and Chanelle, as members of the trans community, offer guidance and common sense advice. And friendship.

And support for J’s change comes from some of the most unexpected places, with unexpected lessons about love and acceptance, while those you hope will support him turn their backs. It will make you cry.

Author Cris Beam does a fabulous job educating the reader on the issues and challenges faced by trans people every day, without coming across as preachy or political. She is sympathetic without ramming judgement down readers’ throats.

The Author’s Note at the end of the novel is a must-read for everyone. Although not of trans experience herself, Beam is surrounded by those who live it daily, and I think she does an incredible job of translating their experiences to the page for those of us who need more understanding.

The novel is appropriate for the mature YA reader, as it deals with themes such as self-harm.

I am J was published March 1st, 2011 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.