Tag Archives: historical fiction

And I Darken (The Conquerer’s Saga #1)

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Told from the alternating viewpoints of Lada, Princess of Wallachia, and her younger brother Radu,  And I Darken re-imagines Vlad the Impaler as a girl. With lots and lots and lots of stabbing, both of the physical and the back variety.

Lada Dragwlya is the daughter of the Prince of Wallachia, but he sold her and younger brother Radu to the Ottoman courts to pay a debt and buy favour. Lada turns her feelings of abandonment and loss into aggression, while gentle Radu takes the diplomatic approach, charming and listening and learning about his enemy. She becomes the solider, he becomes the spy.

When lonely young sultan Mehmed enters the picture, everything changes. The heir to the Ottoman empire becomes one of the three, but their loyalty to each other is always tempered by the fact that he will be sultan one day, and the siblings are essentially his property. And both Lada and Radu love and admire him in their own way, which might be the force that tears them all apart.

Lada is an epic anti-heroine. She doesn’t just say she is badass, she is fierce and resilient, and on the surface, perhaps a touch psychotic. But while she is cold and calculating and has no qualms about killing, it is only to serve a deeper purpose. She has her own moral code she lives by and never wavers from, even as it makes little sense to anyone else. As she matures, she begins to recognize what her place is in the world, and not accepting it, must find a way to change her world or herself. She is committed to her kingdom and will defend it at all costs.

Lada fights for everything. She is cunning and aggressive, hot-tempered and intelligent. Dismissed by her father at birth as useless until she proved beautiful enough to marry off, he soon discovered the girl possessed the strength and fierceness he had hoped he would pass on to his son. She looks down on women, having seen her own mother beaten down by her father, and considers them weak. But whereas she begins by denying her own feminity, desperately wanting her father’s approval and seeing his own thirst for power, she learns that power takes many forms, and women have their own source and ways of wielding it.

Lada shares the spotlight with Radu. Unfortunately, not the strong aggressive son that his father wished for, he is graceful and gentle, weak in their father’s eyes, and thus rejected. His sister is both his protector and his nemesis. Their relationship is filled with frustration, jealousy and misunderstanding, underscored with a deep bond. He seeks her approval even as his perceived weaknesses frustrate her, and she feels possessive of him without really understanding why.

But Radu also grows and develops and learns to wield his own influence, a different one than Lada possesses, and maybe ends up the more powerful of the two. He fades into the scenery, listening and sorting through facts and innuendo, and learns controls through subtlety.

OK. Is there a love triangle? Yes and no. There is the unrequited love that Radu has for Mehmed, so strong that Radu leaves rather than be around the one he knows cannot return his desire. And while Mehmed and Lada share a strong attraction, their deepest feelings are truly for their kingdoms and their power.  Wallachia holds Lada’s heart, while Mehmed craves the power of his throne.

Set in Eastern Europe, this is not a fantasy. It is more a historical retelling, a gender-swapping political thriller. It’s about power and the many ways in which it can be used and gained and lost, and fighting to be and get what you want.

This is not a short, quick read. At nearly 500 pages long, there is a LOT of information in it, and as a historical retelling, there is much fact that needs to be sifted from fiction. Author Kiersten White takes the time to develop her characters and follows them through the first decade and a half of their lives, exploring how their worlds intertwine and separate, how power and influence shift and wane and intensify.

If you want something light and fun, this is not for you. If you like a rich history and complex characters and plots that build slowly, this book is the start of a trilogy that will keep you captivated.

And I Darken was published June 28th, 2016 by Delacorte Press.

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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.

Saving Hamlet

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Something fun to help me recover from a month of reading horror – theatre nerds, Shakespeare, time traveling, a bisexual BFF, and a plethora of cute boys to crush on, gay and straight. What more could a girl ask for?

15-year-old Emma is hoping to forget her freshman year at BHS. She started last year as a soccer star with long red hair and a bright future. But then the Hallowe’en party happened and she quit the soccer team and lost her friends. Life looked pretty bleak. Then Lulu sat at her lunch table one day and asked her to join the drama club, and suddenly life looked up again. She had a new best friend and a purpose.

So sophomore year looks good. Emma has changed her look  and she has changed her life. She has a sleek short haircut and a drama appropriate all-black wardrobe, is the assistant stage manager for the school production of Hamlet, the hottest boy in school is directing the play, what could go wrong? Well, how about a fight with her best friend, a sudden promotion to stage manager (a position she has just begun to learn), bad casting for the play, and a hole in the centre of the stage that she trips over and falls through.

And lands in Hell. Otherwise known as the basement below the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Yes, that one. The one in London, in 1601. And the players are preparing to stage Hamlet for the first time. And Emma is mistaken for a boy (how flattering) and as the assistant to the stage manager Mr. Wick, who is known as the book keeper.

Emma is NOT an actor in a story that is set in the theatre. I like that. She is self-conscious and endearing, funny and conflicted, and seems on the edge of losing control at all times. Thrust into the spotlight when the stage manager quits, she has to juggle fragile egos and a disastrous production in the making. Not to mention her no-longer-best friend’s life is imploding, and there is nothing Emma can do to help.

Emma (known as Master Allen in the Globe) encounters Shakespeare himself in her travels back to his theatre, and soaks up the atmosphere of the original production and studies his methods and motivations. She brings that knowledge and new-found confidence in her ideas back to her present day production, and back to her relationships.

Every kid in the novel is misunderstood and melodramatic and, therefore, a totally authentic teen. Small things become huge, and huge things actually become easier to handle. Who would have thought that traveling back in time 400 years would actually be preferable to working on a high school drama club production? (I may have just answered my own question there.)

Stanley and Lulu, Emma’s two best friends, are gay and bi and possibly two of the best-written characters I have read in ages, if not ever. They are beautifully developed with individual personalities and quirks and jealousies, they are complex and not “token”, which I have found so many of the diverse characters in other novels to be lately. And, to top it all off, they are sarcastic and funny, which pretty much made them my favourites.

But all the present-day characters in the novel are strong. I d0n’t necessarily like each one, but my reasons for not liking them are because of their personalities, not because they are poorly written. They aren’t. They are all so real and familiar to me, I am pretty sure I went to school with at least half of them. (Or, given my age, their parents.) And the characters from Shakespeare’s troupe of players and stagehands are exactly how I would picture each and every one, from Will himself to Burbage and Wick. Their humour and egos are spectacular.

The plot is FABULOUS. Author Molly Booth weaves Shakespearean facts and literature throughout the novel, illustrating all the magic that is present in his writing. This isn’t a novel that is filled with action, but rather with subtext and stories and growing up and learning all of life’s fun and not-so-fun lessons. The drama playing out in Emma’s life is mirrored in the theatre, as is the drama in each of her co-workers’ and friends’ lives. Who can be trusted, who is real, what is their motivation for their actions? It is as hilarious as it is poignant and adventurous.

Booth’s world-building showed meticulous research and thorough understanding of the time. Her attention to detail in both the Globe’s and the present day’s productions is impeccable, making me feel like I was breathing in the sawdust of the old theatre and smelling the rank odors of the costumes and players. 17th century London was full of interesting characters and Em’s adventures in that century had me on the edge of my seat.

This is a great novel for anyone with a yen for adventure and romance. And while knowledge of Shakespeare isn’t a requirement to understand the story, it certainly adds to the enjoyment. LOVE this one.

Saving Hamlet was published November 1st, 2016 by Disney-Hyperion.

Esperanza Rising

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This is a middle-grade book that gets everything right. Historical fiction based on the life of author Pam Muñoz Ryan’s grandmother, it is authentic and heartbreaking.

Esperanza spent the first 13 years of her life in luxury on her ranch home in Aguascalientes, Mexico. But the murder of her father by bandits put an end to the beautiful dresses and servants waiting on her hand and foot. She and her mama, Ramona, flee with their former servants to the United States, leaving behind their wealth and her Abuelita.

They settle in California at a camp for Mexicans working the local farms, and for the first time in her life, Esperanza must earn her keep, and earn the respect of those she lives and works with. Facing not only hard labour but racism and more loss, Esperanza has to reinvent herself and learn what she is capable of surviving.

The characters in this novel are fabulous. Esperanza starts off as a slightly spoiled, pampered young girl, who has had a life never wanting for anything. As an only child, she is the centre of her parents’ lives, and of those of the servants that cater to her. She is a bit hot-tempered and doesn’t really think of her words and how they can affect other people. Servants are there to serve, and she loves them, but they are not her status. That is just the way it is. As life hands her hardships, she starts to change her expectations and learns to work. But it is not only her attitude towards labour that changes.

Esperanza begins to see that no one is better than another. And it is a tough lesson to learn. She goes from shunning a poor peasant girl on the train to working alongside and befriending people she would have once thought were lower than her. I love the passage where she realizes she cannot sweep the floor, and instead of ridiculing her, her friends teach her. She learns pride in her work and that friendship has no level.

Ramona is a wonderful character. After a life of privilege and losing her husband, she gives up her wealth and status to work on a farm and to stay with her daughter. And in doing so, she sets an example for the girl about what is actually important, and how all people are created equal, a lesson Esperanza had yet to learn.

Miguel, Isabel, Abuelita, Hortensia, Alfonso, Josefina and so many others make up Esperanza’s new extended family, and all contribute to her education and strength. They live with racism in every form, from Isabel losing the Queen of May crown in her third-grade classroom to a blond, blue-eyed girl, to Miguel losing his machine shop job to the unqualified white man from Oklahoma. They witness forced deportations of American-born Mexicans to a country they never lived in, and they struggle with the urge to strike for better working conditions, knowing that they could be among those sent across the border.

Muñoz Ryan’s descriptions make the story come alive. I could picture the thousands of acres of rolling hills of El Rancho de las Rosas, the plump juicy grapes waiting for harvest, the crowded and steamy train across the border, and the Depression-era dust storms and tiny accommodations of the work camp in California. She writes about events in America’s history that aren’t well known but affected the lives of thousands of people who came looking for a better life. Some may have found it, but some ended up worse off.

Read the author’s notes at the end. She talks about her grandmother and “Miguel,” and you might just jump for joy.

Esperanza Rising was published May 1st, 2002 by Scholastic Press. First published January 1st, 2000.

Stalking Jack the Ripper

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I have been waiting and waiting for this novel to come out, and was so afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Not only is the cover stunning, that incredible first sentence grabs you and won’t let go for the rest of the novel.

17-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth wants to be a scientist. Specifically, a forensic scientist, helping Scotland Yard solve murders and various crimes though post mortem examination of victims. The trouble is, Audrey Rose is the daughter of a lord in 1880’s London, and she should be attending teas and social outings, not cutting into dead bodies and searching for clues on the trail of vicious killers.

Her father has been teetering on the edge of insanity since the death of her mother five years before, while her brother flits from one area of interest to the next, all the while living the high life befitting that of a lord’s son. Her Uncle Jonathon, a forensics expert, does not see eye to eye with her father, and secretly tutors Audrey in the medical arts without her father’s knowledge.

And then Jack the Ripper begins his rampage through the underbelly of Whitechapel in London.

The actual identity of Jack the Ripper has never been discovered. There are theories galore about who the man might have been, but no one knows for sure. So he can be anybody. He tore through Whitechapel in 1888, preying on prostitutes, removing their internal organs after he slit their throats. One of the many thoughts were that he was a surgeon, or had some medical knowledge.

I loved the little touches throughout the novel like the period photos and blood splatter on the chapter headings. Talk about gruesome and evocative! What a way to set the tone.

Audrey Rose is an interesting character. She is willful and strong, and interested in more than teas and marriage. She wants to make a difference in the world, refusing to let society dictate her behaviour. Audrey is bi-racial, Indian and English, and I think not enough was made of that in the novel, beyond her enjoyment of traditional Indian snacks and the fact her Indian grandmother did not seem to approve of her English father.  Her mixed heritage seemed almost an afterthought thrown into the novel, with no real impact on the story.

Fellow forensics student Thomas Cresswell is witty and charming and intent of winning Audrey’s heart, regardless of the fact he is not a suitable match. I like him, although I was never quite sure through the story if the romance was believable out not. They never seemed to move beyond verbal sparring, despite the fact that Audrey did notice how handsome Thomas was almost every time they spoke. But then he would infuriate her, and she would back away. But he is an intelligent, enjoyable character, who kept me on my toes with the twists and turns of his backstory.

Uncle John and Lord Wadsworth are perfect sparring brothers, unable to see beyond past grievances to come together as a family. Aunt Amelia didn’t really have much impact on the story, despite her many appearances, but I did love Cousin Liza’s irreverent attitude and the obvious affection the two girls had for each other.

Debut author Kerri Maniscalco captures perfectly the tone and atmosphere of the time in her writing. Her use of language and description brings the reader right into the dark, damp streets of London, with fear lying as heavy as the ever-present fog.

The story is complex, and the pace quite slow and descriptive. Perhaps too slow and too descriptive. Every action, every outfit, every mood and every thought is described and attributed. Audrey never just stands, she stands proudly, or angrily, or regally. Thomas never just answers a question, he answers it haughtily or mysteriously or argumentatively. Uncle John never just speaks, he speaks thoughtfully or distractedly or moodily. Audrey smooths her intricately embroidered black dress, clenches her hands in the perfectly stitched gloves, and stumbles in her smooth blush silk slippers. Unfortunately, I got bogged down in all the description and found myself losing the thread of the story and having to re-read passages to get back on track.

As for the stalking that Thomas and Audrey do, I spent most of the novel waiting for it to actually occur.  I don’t think it ever did. The pair looked for him. They studied crime scene evidence and psychological journals. But they never actually stalked him.

The conclusion is wonderful. I loved the last chapter of the novel, how everything tied together, how relationships were resolved. Really well done.

This is a good start to a series. It is quite violent and gory, as a good Jack the Ripper story should be, so is not for the faint of heart. I found myself on the edge of my seat, despite any criticisms I have, and look forward to the follow-up books to see where Audrey Rose’s curiosity takes her next.

Stalking Jack the Ripper was published September 20th, 2016 by Jimmy Patterson.

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.