Sekret

International espionage, psychic powers, family loyalty, tortured love, the iron curtain – who can resist this combination? Sekret by Lindsay Smith has all these things and more. Set in the Soviet Union shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, this YA novel is told from the perspective of Yulia, a teen who has been in hiding with most of her family for some time. One day she goes to the black market to trade supplies for her mother's illegal clinic and is chased by suspicious looking people. When she makes it back home she discovers her mother and brother have been taken as hostages against her cooperation.

She is taken to a building that used to be amazing – the palace of some aristocracy before the revolution – but is now falling down and reeking of mold. There she meets several other teens, including blonde, buff Sergei and his polar opposite Valentin. Al of these teens have one thing in common – they have ESP with talents ranging from precognition to remote viewing. Yulia can sense the history of objects she touches, which makes living in the mansion intolerable. Everywhere she goes are the physic residues of torture, blood and pain. She is also haunted by the emotional memories of a girl who used to live with the other teens – a girl nobody wants to talk about.

From day one Yulia plans her escape but has enormous obstacles. If she runs her family will pay the price. How do you think about escape when everyone around you can read your mind? One of her captors, Rostov, is a chilling man whose very presence is painful. His brain gives off a noise that Yulia finds intolerable. He also has some terrifying skills, including the ability to reshape memories, both removing them and implanting new ones. The charismatic Valentin, nicknamed Valya, has the same ability, which makes Yulia doubt her feelings every time she is near him. One of my favorite parts of the book comes when she makes a list of people and put herself in the can't trust column.

While Yulia tries desperately to find a way to run away and keep her family safe her handlers put her to work doing two things; looking for a spy who is trying to steal space plans and looking for others like herself. If she brings them back they will face the same existence she does but if she doesn't help find them they may be found by another mind manipulator, who will leave them an empty shell.

There is a lot of suspense, and tension, in this novel, as Yulia works towards her seemingly unattainable goals. (Not to mention what happens if she does escape? Where does a single Russian girl who is being hunted go to hide out? And does she hide out forever?) While much of the conflict is external just as much is internal as she struggles with her conscience and her growing feelings for Valya. (Which may or may not be real.) Everything seems like a danger to her, from the blanket she sits on that overwhelms her with emotion, to her handlers and on to America, which is portrayed as pretty terrible. (No surprise there, there was a lot of propaganda on all sides of the cold war.)

Music plays an important part of this book, to the point where it is practically another character. If you are unfamiliar with the music of the time period you might feel a little lost.

Sekret is a fabulous novel that takes place in a time and place that isn't explored much these days. Fans of Code Name Verity should definitely give it a try, as should anyone who likes stories with brave, conflicted heroines.

You can read an excerpt here: http://us.macmillan.com/BookCustomPage_New.aspx?isbn=9781596438927

ETA - I read this book as an electronic advance review copy via NetGalley. It's not out quite yet but it should be soon.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a terrific comic from Randall Monroe discussing the consequences of birds being dinosaurs. http://xkcd.com/1211/ He is correct about that, btw. As Dr. Thomas Holtz says, “Dinosauria is "the concestor of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus, and all of its descendants.” All of its descendants in this case including birds. For more about this, try this page:
http://www.geol.umd.edu/~tholtz/G104/lectures/104clad.html