Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw

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Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
Scholastic, 2019

I really enjoy British dystopias – they are so much grungier than American ones – so I was excited to see this novel (originally published in the UK in 2018) on the review table. It reminded me a little of Maggot Moon, which I adored, and also of the communist East German regime which I was immersed in recently on a holiday in Berlin.

In a near-future England, the Coalition has brought in Brexit on steroids: nobody is allowed in or out of the country. The Coalition looks after you from cradle to grave and for your safety (of course!) they want to know where you are at all times, so all citizens have a chip embedded in their necks.

12 year-old Jake had led a happy and unremarkable life with his parents who were scientists for the Coalition, but when they both die in a car accident he is taken away to a Home Academy – a boarding school/prison for parentless children. But his parents had made him promise that if anything happened to them, he would make his way to his grandparents in Scotland accompanied by his dog, Jet.

Jake manages to escape from the Home and rescue Jet from his neighbors, but he can’t shake the pursuing “hub police” because of his chip. Just in time, he is rescued by a group of outwalkers: teens and children who have removed their chips and want to escape over the New Wall to Scotland. This motley group of seven, all white except dark-skinned Poacher, are richly characterized and are the heart of the novel.

As they crisscross England avoiding capture, the plot crackles along at a high intensity pace with occasional, welcome moments of slack. The group has its harsh rules for survival: no technology, be outside, be hidden, and obedience to the gang; any infractions and you’re out. Jake is initially uncomfortable with the outwalkers, and the feeling is mutual, but they gradually let him into their motley family.

However, the kids do seem to be unfeasibly lucky in getting out of apparently no exit situations and a late turn of the plot adds in a new character. This takes the focus from the personal and sets up an unnecessary sequel, a development of which you just know I’m not a fan. 

The author has used current events and attitudes and turned up the jets of speculation to create a grim but very plausible world. The Coalition’s promotion of jingoistic nationalism, its manipulation of the media and the narrative, the social hierarchy based on wealth and privilege, and the restricted access to healthcare will feel as familiar to American readers as it does to British ones.

I’ve seen some criticism of this book – Poacher, the only black character is the only one whose speech is written in dialect, one of the other characters uses “throws like a girl” as an insult – and these are fair objections. Nonetheless, I found myself thoroughly gripped and invested in the quest for belonging made by these characters and would recommend it to teen readers who enjoy bleak speculative fiction.

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The Line Tender by Kate Allen

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The Line Tender by Kate Allen
Dutton, 2019.

When red-haired Lucy Everhart was seven, her shark scientist mother died suddenly; now thirteen, Lucy is surrounded by a home-made family including her police diver Dad, fisherman Sookie, next door nonagenarian Mr Patterson, and her best friend/tentative crush naturalist geek Fred (all main characters default white). When a second tragedy hits Lucy, she finds solace in immersing herself in her mother’s final project of tagging great white sharks in Cape Cod. 

This is a quiet, emotionally resonant novel about dealing with grief and finding purpose: Lucy is the “line tender” who “uses all the resources to stay connected to the other end of the line” and so keeps her off-beat family together. The author does a fine job of sympathetically drawing and giving dimension to all the main characters and even the secondary ones feel authentic. She also has a wonderful feel for the community in the small fishing port Rockport, Massachusetts. 

There is plenty of shark information shared by the characters and discovered by Lucy and Fred for their summer project field guide: Fred writes the notes and Lucy provides the drawings. There are pencil drawings of sharks prefacing each chapter, though the species are not identified. As well as Lucy’s mother, there is also a brown-skinned woman biologist who acts as a role model for both Lucy and the reader. 

Through Lucy’s narration, the reader can feel her grief and, though the novel is long and slow-paced, the emotional journeys of all the characters feel authentic and are never dull. May appeal to readers who enjoyed Jacqueline Kelly’s Calpurnia Tate books.

Review based on an ARC.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Aurora Cycle _01
Knopf, 2019.

The authors of The Illuminae Files kick off a new action-packed sci-fi series in which a squad of teen “legionnaires” protect a girl recovered from a spacecraft that went missing back in the early days of Earth’s expansion into space.

Legion Squad 312 consists of straight arrow leader, dishy blond Tyler, his persuasive diplomat sister Scarlett, tattooed ace pilot Cat, genius but socially awkward dark brown-skinned Zila, along with two “aliens” geeky Betraskan Finian and noble Sydralthi warrior Kal. Added to this mix is “half-Chinese” mystery “girl out of time” Aurora who has visions and gradually emerging powers. 

Surprises and twists abound as this group of misfits come together with much snarky banter while learning to rely on each other’s individual strengths as they are pursued across space by the menacing Global Intelligence Agency who are determined to capture Aurora. 

The narration of the seven teens as well as pages from an iPad-like “uniglass” all add to the world-building. Set in 2380, it seems that some things have changed – there are now 475 known civilizations, though most of them seem to be variations of humans but with different numbers of appendages and different color skin – and some things haven’t – humans still want to colonize, refugees are still despised, economic disparity persists, and nerdy boys still think they have a chance with hot girls. 

High energy and tautly plotted all the way through, as the squad eventually uncovers the fearsome threat to all life in the universe and Aurora’s role is revealed, the authors leave us gasping for the sequel. 

The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones

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The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick, September 2019

On a solo trip to the wintry and isolated Ghost Lake, 16 year-old straight arrow Nate discovers that his family’s cabin has been taken over by escaped convicts. Resourceful and competent Nate initially tries to hide out but is later forced to confront these dangerous men. Eight months earlier, Nate’s best friend Dodge, a prankster and rule-breaker, drowned in Ghost Lake, and now his spirit both haunts Nate and pushes him to face the natural and man-made threats.

The desolation of the snowbound wilderness and the storm that comes in which prevents Nate leaving are never truly as atmospheric as I feel they should be. The description of Nate’s survival skills, taught to him by his father, are not particularly compelling either.

In his bones, Nate is a straightforward rule-following teen, the product of his loving, kind but safety-conscious and wilderness savvy parents: he knows what is the right thing to do and is intrinsically impelled to do it. On the other hand, he is ambiguous about Dodge, who in life was always pushing him to try new and dangerous things, ones not necessarily approved by his parents. Dodge’s death, while on a foolhardy family boat delivery trip which also killed his dad and younger brother, obsesses Nate as he fears he could have prevented it.

The two escaped convicts are broadly sketched psychopathic bad guys and the identity of their guide is a minor though not wholly unexpected twist. All characters appear to be white but I’m not sure if there’s a hint or two that Nate’s Dad is indigenous – Kirkus doesn’t mention it so maybe not. 

I have been a fan of Mr Wynne-Jones’s earlier sophisticated, elegantly written, texturally complex books, The Emperor of Any Place and The Ruinous Sweep, so I was somewhat taken aback by the prosaic and straightforward nature of this book. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a reasonably decent adventure novel, but it just seems so much less than his previous novels. 

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

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Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Delacorte, 2019

An eye-catching cover and intriguing premise is sure to bring readers to this YA speculative thriller, reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

18 months ago, the Tox hit Raxter School for Girls on a remote Maine island. Most of the teachers went mad and killed themselves, some girls lost or gained body parts, others mutated in different ways, and the flora and fauna on the island has grown larger and wilder. Narrator Hetty has lost an eye, her friend Byatt has grown a second spine and the hand of her other friend Reese has turned to silver scales.

With the CDC and Navy promising a cure, the school is quarantined behind a secure fence and cut off from all communications, but this precarious balance is blown when narrator Hetty joins the “Boat Shift” – the group that leaves the school to collect supplies – and when Byatt disappears. 

In the first part of the book Power leisurely builds the world with a few brief glimpses of life before the Tox. Character development does not seem to be a priority (main characters all default white) and even Hetty is not much more than a stereotypical YA dystopian protagonist. Her unresolved sexuality and out of the blue attraction to Reese provide some relief from the disease-driven plot, but the novel remains one-note overwrought, with life-threatening crises from page to page.

The arc of the story follows a familiar pattern as Hetty and friends start to search for explanations and unravel a potential conspiracy (Maze Runner fans might have some ideas) and the plot picks up momentum, with fast-paced, occasionally gruesome, action and horror. 

An environmental theme is introduced late in the novel and with many questions unanswered a sequel is sure to follow. 

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

 

How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox

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How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox
Dial, 2019.

Drawing on her personal experience of mental illness, the author creates an absorbing and authentic portrait of a teen girl under extreme stress.

At the beginning of the book, set in Australian oceanside town of Wollongong, 17 year-old Elizabeth “Biz” Grey feels disengaged and removed, and her brain gets stuck in loops.  Unsure of her sexuality, she tried to kiss her best friend Grace but is also attracted to new boy Jasper (all main characters appear to be white with the possible exception of Grace whose last name is Yu-Harrison).

Following an incident at the beach after which she is ostracized by her friend posse, she begins to lose her already tenuous grip on reality. She still sees and converses with her father, but he died when she was seven, and when she takes up photography, the images she creates literally speak to her. Her desperate and loving mother and endearing young siblings provide a solid home life but though Biz appears to be coping, inside she feels she is a “non-functioning sad person.”

The intense first person narrative puts the reader right in Biz’s head as her thoughts shake and circle around, showing her fuzzy line between reality and hallucination and her perception of the fragile line between life and death. It is a particularly tough read when she contemplates suicide but she ultimately decides that she needs to follow her father’s life in order to “get better.”

The author delicately and evocatively shows the complexities of mental illness as well as the challenges and grief it puts on friends and family. Will appeal to readers who appreciated Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep.

Resources are provided in the acknowledgements.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K. S. Ansari

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The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K. S. Ansari
Walden Pond, 2019.

There’s been something missing in 12 year-old Charlie O’Reilly’s life for the last year: his younger brother, Liam. But, bizarrely, no-one else remembers Liam – not his parents, no-one at school, and not even his best friend, Ana, though she, alone, believes Charlie. But since Liam disappeared, his mother has sunk into a deep depression and his father never seems to be at home. It’s only when Charlie and Ana talk to the new assistant baseball coach that they start to find out what might have happened to Liam.

This intriguing debut middle grade novel weaves in elements of fantasy and the supernatural into an ingenious plot, full of surprises and discoveries. Even Charlie’s vivid nightmares, about an Irish family migrating to America because of the potato famine, eventually slot into place.

Themes of loss, regret, and forgiveness are handled sensitively if sometimes a little didactically, as thoughtful, persistent Charlie balanced by brave action-focused Ana – like all major characters they appear to be white – pursues the mystery of what has happened to Liam.

As Charlie learns that life is often painful and messy, he appreciates that without that, there can also be no joy. Ideal for readers who are ready to take on that understanding.