Tag Archives: Smith

Sekret (Sekret #1)

Unknown

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.

Advertisements

Flygirl

Unknown

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.

Lockdown (Escape From Furnace #1)

Unknown

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.

The Geography of You and Me

9780316254779_p0_v2_s260x420

I have heard a lot about Jennifer E. Smith’s books, but have never yet read one.  I’m glad I picked up The Geography of You and Me.  It is simple, sweet, and adorable; easy to read in one sitting, and brings back high school memories.

Do you remember the blackout of 2003?  10 million people in Canada and 45 million people in eight US states lost power; a big chunk of northeastern North America went dark for 24 hours.  It was incredible living in Toronto, and seeing total darkness and a star-filled night.  We don’t get that here!  Imagine that happening in New York City, and imagine living in a 42 story building.  What about if you happened to be in an elevator with a boy you barely recognized when the power blew?

Almost 17 year old Lucy and and really 17 year old Owen meet in the elevator, stuck between the 10th and 11th floor of their building in New York City, during the citywide blackout. The son of the new building manager and the daughter of the successful financier hadn’t crossed paths until this point.  But the unexpected event leads to an hour of cautious getting to know each other, and a further evening of exploring the dark city and surveying it and the heavens from the rooftop in the stifling end of summer heat.

With the following day comes the return of power to the city, and reality to Owen and Lucy. After a few mistakes dealing with the building, Owen’s dad loses his job. Father and son leave NYC to look for work, and a new school for Owen.  Lucy’s parents move to Edinburgh for her father’s career, and she leaves the city without having a chance to find out if Owen and she share the same feelings.

What follows is the story of two teens who can’t get each other out of their minds, who remember a few stolen hours and an instant connection, and try to find a way back to each other, to see if the feelings are real.

Oh, FUN.  Instant, teenage, heart wrenching love.  Silly fights because you don’t want to be the first one to say how you feel.  Long distance pouting.  Kissing the wrong boy/girl, just to get someone out of your head.  Smith writes a light summer read that will have you remembering that first boyfriend that you fell in love with across the room in 11th grade science.  The characters are believable and the scenarios reminded me of high school escapades that are a milestone for every teen.

Appropriate for any teen, fun for you.  It’s not life-changing, but pour a glass of wine, read the story, and look through your high school year book.

The Geography of You and Me is published by Little, Brown and Company.