Thursday, April 25, 2013

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

Ben's new brother is a baby chimp named Zan. Ben's parents are scientists, and Zan is part of an experiment to see if chimps can learn language by signing. From the beginning, Ben is told that Zan will be treated like one of the family (with his own clothes, bed, books and toys). At first Ben is not thrilled, but he quickly bonds with Zan and becomes a trusted member of his inner circle.

Ben becomes one of Zan's main teachers and eventually is made part of the research project working alongside grad students. He takes care of Zan and plays with him as if he were his baby brother. He changes his diaper, dresses him and feeds him. They share books, hugs and tickles.

Ben's family has moved across the country to Vancouver for his dad's new job (at the only university that would give this experiment serious consideration). This means a new school and new friends. The first young people he meets attend the public school and get Ben into some trouble. The next ones are the children of his father's boss and attend a private school. Ben immediately falls for the daughter, Jennifer. Taking inspiration from the experiment, Ben starts a log of Jennifer's interests. He also records strategies for getting her to like him. Of course this is naive, but it provides one of my favorite sentences from the book: "If I could teach a chimp sign language, I could probably teach Jennifer Godwin to fall for me."

As the experiment progresses, Ben's relationship with his father is tested. While Ben grows to truly care for Zan and think of him as a brother, his father shows little interest in Zan's feelings. It is obvious that his father is not bonding with Zan and only thinks of the chimp as a specimen. Ben questions some of his father's decisions about how Zan is treated, leading to some heated discussions.

The ultimate problem in all of this is that Zan is not human. He is being raised as a human child, but cannot suppress his natural instincts. He acts out when he is frustrated. On a few occasions, he bites people. As he grows, he transforms from a cute baby to a strong, potentially fierce creature capable of seriously injuring someone. He is trapped between his life in a household of people and his inescapable chimpanzee nature.

This story is complex mix of normal teen issues and animal science. In one chapter, Ben is dealing with the thrill of kissing a girl for the first time and the next he is discussing animal rights with a grad student. His notoriety at school rises when he is in Time Magazine, but falls when he does something bad at a school dance. It's a fascinating story where you root for Zan and Ben to find what is best for them.

For more info about this book, check out the Evergreen Library catalog and the author's site.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Sin-Eaters Confession by Lisa J. Bick

Ben has made some bad decisions. For his whole life, he has done what is expected of him. He gets good grades and volunteers at the local emergency room. Ben's mother hopes that he will go to Yale and medical school. She has been 'guiding' him in that direction for a long time. His dad, a police officer, is more laid back about it.

When a family loses their oldest son in a car accident, Ben's follows his dad's suggestion and helps out on their diary farm. He and the younger son, Jimmy, spend hours milking cows and bailing hay. Ben feels like an older brother to Jimmy and likes hanging out with him. It is during a hot day of work that Jimmy secretly snaps a photo of Ben napping shirtless in the hay. Jimmy enters the photo in a contest and the it is published in a national magazine. The photo has a sensual quality to it that leads people to assume that Ben and Jimmy are gay. Jimmy's ultra-religious father is furious at him. He orders Ben to stay away from Jimmy and never come back to the farm.

Ben is not happy either. He is the subject of rumors and begins to question his own sexuality. He decides to confront Jimmy to ask what he was thinking. At the meeting at the coffee shop connected to his parent's church, Jimmy pleads for Ben's help. He sees photography as his only escape from his parents. A request to meet again leads Ben back to the shop the following evening only to see Jimmy get into a car with strangers and drive off.

At this point, Ben starts making the bad decisions. He witnesses a horrific crime and offers no help, not even calling the police or his dad. Ben is trapped by his own guilt. He fears getting caught by the authorities, but cannot bring himself to come clean about what he knows.

Even though I wanted Ben to do the right thing, I was mesmerized by his continual struggle as events unfolded. There was a situation where I was pleading for Ben to stop what he was doing, but I as unsure as he was at that point and I wasn't totally convinced he was wrong.

This is gut wrenching story of a life changed by one night and a choice to not do the right thing. It's messy and ambiguous at times . Ben's struggle is one I will remember for a long time.

For more info, check out the Evergreen Library catalog and the author's website.