Category Archives: fiction

Warcross by Marie Lu

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Warcross by Marie Lu
Putnam, 2017.

I enjoyed Marie Lu’s Legend series and thought it was one of the better YA dystopian series. Warcross, the electrifying start of a new series, is set in a just-over-the-horizon future and toggles between a sort of Blade Runneresque Tokyo and a virtual reality game called Warcross that the world is obsessed with.

Emi Chen is scraping a living bounty hunting in New York, when she uses her hacking skills to exploit a glitch in Warcross. She is immediately invited to Tokyo by the young (and dishily charismatic, of course) designer of Warcross, Hideo Tanaka. He wants her to participate in the Warcross world championship to catch a hacker called Zero who seems to have nefarious ideas and Emi is chosen to be in the Phoenix Riders team to take part in the tournament.

The most exhilarating parts of the novel are set in the games themselves and it’s a little Hunger Gamesy, though apparently without the threat of imminent death. Ms Lu comes from a game design background and it shows in her wildly imaginative set-ups and fluent descriptions.

Emi is a feisty, thoughtful, and sympathetic protagonist. There are way too many undeveloped characters, at least initially, though as we progress into the world championships this settles down a bit. There is a notable diversity of skin tones, countries of origin, and physical ablebodiedness. Hideo himself, however, comes straight out of central casting as leading man with a tragic background.

There are a few glitches in the plotting – most notably in the revelation of Zero’s identity, which at this stage just doesn’t make sense (in fact, the person who I had tabbed for this fits soooo much better). Additionally, and this may be addressed in the next novel (did I say that this was a series? Well, of course, it’s a series), the novel doesn’t address why, or even how, Warcross is such a global phenomenon to the extent that apparently everyone, even old fogies like me play it or at least watch it. The ending sets us up for the sequel, albeit with a rather tedious dump of exposition.

But I’m mostly quibbling here – Ms Lu is a fine author and when she’s on her home territory she pulled me in and had me thrilled by her VR game.

Will I read the sequel? Past experience suggests that the stakes will be upped from personal to national or even global, which probably means less actual time in Warcross, so it’s probably a no for me, though I’ll take a view when it comes out.

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Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

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Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp
Sourcebooks Fire, January 2018

A creepily atmospheric YA paranormal chiller which draws much of its menace from its setting in a tiny tight-knit community in the wilds of Alaska during the long winter when there are few hours of daylight. Corey returns to Lost Creek, “an almost all-white conservative town with little room for wayward girls,” for the funeral of Kyra, her troubled best friend and almost immediately realizes it was a suicide not an accident. Corey becomes increasingly troubled by the town inhabitants’ attitude towards Kyra in both life and death and, even though she herself left only a few months ago, their closing against her as an “outsider.” This is interspersed with flashbacks to the previous two years during which Kyra’s alternate manic episodes and depressions had become increasingly severe. Niekamp (This Is Where It Ends, 2016) draws nuanced portraits of both bipolar Kyra, looking only for acceptance of herself as she is, and Corey, convincingly conflicted between being there for her friend and craving normality. Some interesting sub-plots around sexuality are undeveloped and the novel occasionally breaks into a screenplay format for no apparent reason. Nonetheless, this will appeal to teens who enjoy magical realism with a side of eerie. Reviewed from an ARC.

The Border by Steve Schafer

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The Border by Steve Schafer
Sourcebooks Fire, 2017

After their families are gunned down by a drug gang, four teens attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert from Mexico into the US in this intense but flawed YA novel.

Characterization is thin but serviceable: Pato is the thoughtful narrator, his cousin and best friend Arbo is dependable, Marcos is a tough guy and his independent sister, Gladys, is Pato’s somewhat perfunctory love interest.

The trek, which forms the bulk of the narrative, is grueling as the teens run out of water in the intense heat and have run-ins with both human and animal predators, all the while having little idea what they will face if they make it to the US.

Debut author Schafer’s note details his research and he successfully puts a human face on undocumented immigration, but he has also unfortunately focused on all the negative stereotypes of Mexico: drug cartels, corruption, and “illegal passage”. Spanish is mostly used for cursing.

While it is important for American teen readers to have more context to aid understanding of what drives immigrants, the novel does both readers and immigrants a disservice by focusing on this “single story.” Reviewed from an ARC.

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
Walden Pond, 2017

This middle grade story of nine self-sufficient orphans on a mysterious island can be read as a low key fantasy and/or an allegory of the unfettered joys of childhood and the looming responsibilities of maturity. It reminded me, in some respects of Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey but I found it way more appealing than Spinelli’s nonsense and think it could get some MG readers.

Every year, a boat arrives on orphan Island carrying a very young child. The young child is taken into the care of the second oldest of the 9 residents and the oldest one gets onto the boat to embark for who knows where physically, but adulthood metaphorically.

Life on the island is blissfully easy. Food is abundant, the wildlife is unharmful, it only rains at night, and even the wind throws the kids back onto land if they jump off a cliff. However, there is a strict unwritten structure and set of rules passed down from all the previous residents, which the children follow religiously (deliberate choice of word there).

Jinny was heartbroken when Deen left the island, leaving her as the Elder taking care of the new girl Ess. She isn’t very good at teaching Ess what she needs to know – reading and swimming – nor is she very good at training Ben, the next in line, on how to be an Elder. Jinny doesn’t want to follow the rules and when she breaks one of the most important ones, life on the island becomes out of joint.

Jinny rings true as a conflicted pre-adolescent and her relationship with her young charge, Ess, is delightfully imperfect; however, the other characters, who have a variety of different skin, hair and eye colors, are just sketched in.

I found some of the metaphors a trifle heavy handed – the entrance of snakes to this garden of Eden and Jinny’s long swim away from the island – but maybe this wouldn’t be the case for the intended audience.

Many questions are unanswered  who sends them to the island? What do they go back to? who set up this home? are they really orphans? – but the ending, bringing the story full circle, feels complete.

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Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo

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Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo
Random House, August 2017

This first in the DC Icons series, which pairs superheroes with high profile authors, is a stirring action-packed origin story for Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (though that name is never used in the novel except for the title) that will appeal to both existing fans and novices.

Amazonian princess Diana wants to prove herself to her mother Hippolyta but succeeds only in bringing trouble to their home island of Themyscira when she rescues a young mortal woman, brown skinned Alia, from a shipwreck. But Alia is a Warbringer, so Diana sets out with her to rid her of this cursed power.

Initially slow and rather wordy, the pace picks up once Diana and Alia are back in the “World of Man” and Diana experiences modern life for the first time and they embark on their quest battling those, both mortal and immortal, who don’t want them to succeed.

Told alternately from Diana’s and Alia’s points of view, the reader gets to see their similarities as children of great people who have tried to keep them safe by pushing them to the background, and they both have guts, grit, and integrity as they battle on. Their companions and comic relief, dark brown skinned Theo and Indian American Nim, also show true heroism and ingenuity when called upon. This being a YA novel, there is a hint of romance as Diana and Alia’s brother, Jason, spar for the right to protect her. The story is complete, but readers are likely to want further girl power sequels.

With recent interest in this superhero and with a cast of multicultural characters, this is a must have title for all libraries with YA readers. Next up in the series is Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu in January 2018.

Reviewed from an ARC

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A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck

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A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck
Knopf, Sept 2017

Matt and Tabby have been friends forever, but as they start high school Matt is hiding that he is in love with her, though she does not reciprocate. In fact, she starts dating handsome senior Luke, star athlete and all round nice guy so Matt puts himself in a self-imposed competition with Luke both for Tabby and on the basketball court. When a tragedy strikes, Matt goes off the emotional rails.

Debut author Reck is following a well-trodden path for his first novel (in fact, Kirkus notes many similarities with John Green’s Waiting for Alaska), and up until the tragedy occurs, while I was happy to read the engagingly written book, I was not finding anything out of the ordinary. It is only when Matt is plunged into grief that the book moves tentatively out of the ‘so what?’ zone. Reck has written with authority and insight into the anger that can be part of grieving; Matt is a mess but is powerless to change, though ultimately, with the intervention of his eccentric grandfather and his inspirational English teacher, Matt moves towards a gradual resolution.

Matt’s narration gives the novel some character and the stylistic devices add a nice layer of trimming – Matt views things as though he’s directing a movie of his life and he makes some smart comments on modern romantic movie tropes. However, the other, all white, characters are largely undeveloped stereotypes.

So not a lot to see here, but YA fans of sad stories might enjoy it.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart

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Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart
Delacorte, 2017

I loved  both e. lockhart’s previous novels The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2009) and We Were Liars (2014), (though I read them both before I began blogging so no reviews to link to) so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of her latest, Genuine Fraud and I LOVED this one too!

Jule West Williams is the enigma at the heart of this riveting thriller that opens with the police tracking her down in Mexico and then moves backward to peel away the layers of how Jule got there.

She is an amoral heroine who likens herself to Jason Bourne, James Bond, and “a lone vigilante, a superhero in repose.” Though she is opportunistic, a fluent liar, and without scruples, Jule is still a somewhat sympathetic character, though she herself would not care too much about that. Her identity is fluid, both in terms of the disguises she dons and more deeply: “She could feel the stories she told herself and the stories she told others shifting around, overlapping, changing shades.” The supporting characters are much less developed because Jule only sees others in relation to herself and what they can do for her.

The narrative is driven by the mystery of who Jule really is and what she has done and lockhart acknowledges its debt to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.  The prose is hardboiled, cool, and a little detached and overtly conjures up modern day movie tropes as well as using more subtle imagery of femme fatales from film noir.

The author plays with gender stereotypes showing Jule taking advantage of the assumption that “small, cute women were harmless” as she happily acknowledges that “to be a physically powerful women – it was something. You could go anywhere, do anything, if you were difficult to hurt.” The only chink in her armor is when she starts to fall for Paolo, but she has already booby trapped that relationship before it even starts.

At the end, Jule is triumphant: “I am the center of the story now… I don’t have to weigh very little, wear very little, or have my teeth fixed.” Ideal for teen readers who don’t want soft and cuddly and who appreciate a young woman who has no hesitation in grabbing what she wants.

Reviewed from an ARC.