Tag Archives: friendship

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

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Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Simon & Schuster, 2016.

This fantastic sci-fi novel imagines a future without death in which Scythes “glean” people to keep the population at the right level. Multiracial Citra and Rowan are apprentice scythes, studying under Scythe Faraday, but at the Scythe Conclave it is decided that only one of them can eventually graduate to be a Scythe and that one will immediately need to glean the other.

I have only read Shusterman’s really terrific Challenger Deep, so I’m not familiar with his other sci-fi series. In Scythe, I think the world building, and the way it is gradually revealed is exemplary. How humans came to be immortal, and the personal, political, legal, cultural, and religious ramifications of that are explored.

The novel is driven by a schism in Scythedom between those who feel it has moral and ethical dimensions, and those who want to kill people for fun. Citra and Rowan spend their apprenticeship year learning not only “killcraft” but also finding out about the way different Scythes approach their weighty task. As their final test approaches, their feelings about each other are conflicted and complicated by the pact enforced on them.

The plot moves swiftly, switching between their points of view, and interspersed with extracts from various Scythes’ journals. There are some satisfying twists along the way, though none that was a great surprise, and the ending (which I found a little too reminiscent of a popular dystopian novel) was satisfying while at the same time setting up a sequel.

With its name brand author, eye catching cover, and intriguing vision of the future, this novel is perfect for teens who enjoy dystopias.

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What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

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What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum
Delacorte, July, 2017.

We are in very familiar territory here. Again. It’s a two-hander – a girl and a boy, each with an ‘issue’ (Kit’s father recently died in a car crash, David is on the high functioning end of the Autism spectrum), meet up, become friends, and then maybe more. Not much new to see here.

The main characters are appealing and well written, and the author digs into their emotional depths with skill. The support characters are almost entirely peopled from TV and movie high schools – and the author mentions this often enough for it to, almost, be a sly wink. David’s family is feels straight out of some soapy TV dramedy – say This is Us. Kit’s homelife, on the other hand, feels more off the beaten track, as her Indian mother sinks into depression and despair.

The plot follows its expected route, as Kit and David get to know each other and both credibly find themselves changing as a result of this relationship. There’s a couple of unexpected swerves, the mean kids mostly get their comeuppances, and there’s even a makeover scene, though maybe not quite what you’re expecting.

The author’s note mentions “lots of research” though nothing specific is detailed. I assume this is on the autism spectrum but, as David notes, quoting a well-known aphorism, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. I have to say, he feels a bit like a caricature of a kid with autism, though with much of the inconvenient stuff rubbed off.

So this has been something of a negative review, which actually doesn’t seem entirely fair, because I did enjoy the novel. It’s easy to read, the characters are engaging and I was rooting for them, the tensions in the plot are nicely balanced, and the pace is brisk but not rushed. It’s not going to change the world but it will give you a pleasant afternoon.

Thanks to Delacorte for the review copy.

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Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

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Little Monsters by Kara Thomas
Delacorte, July 2017

Kara Thomas’s second psychological mystery builds on all the good things from her debut, The Darkest Corners (2016), and resolves all the issues I had with that book. In short, it’s a thrillingly menacing and atmospheric chiller in which none of the characters are quite who they seem to be.

High school senior Kacey has only recently arrived in Broken Falls, Wisconsin, moving in with her dad and his blended family after one too many blow-ups with her single mom’s endless stream of boyfriends. She makes friends and becomes the third leg of “BaileyandJade and Kacey.” All in all, she can’t quite believe how easygoing her new life is.

But then one night Bailey goes missing and at first the local police show little interest – just another teenage runaway. But Kacey and Jade start digging up evidence that points to a local boy with a grudge against Bailey.

Once again Ms Thomas brilliantly evokes the milieu of a white working class town: Most of the highschoolers have no escape and are trapped there for the rest of their lives, the lucky few can’t wait to get out. The heavy snows adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, and the local tall tale about a murdered family piles on the eeriness.

The plot is perfectly paced; layers are gradually peeled off the emotional lives of the characters exposing the depths of their pain and desperation, gradually leading to a wildly twisty (and for me, unpredictable) denouement.

Ideal for teens who like a side of creepy with their mysteries.

Thanks to Delacorte/Random House for the review copy.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray, 2017.

Angie Thomas’s much buzzed about debut novel is an absolute tour de force.

16 year-old African American Starr Carter lives in a black neighborhood and codeswitches when she goes to her mostly white high school. But when she witnesses her best friend Khalil being killed by the police, she realizes she needs to be the real Starr.

The author has given Starr a voice that shows her intelligence, her humanity, and her awareness of her position in two camps, not wholly accepted in either. As the only witness to the shooting, Starr has to go through a lot in terms of legal proceedings and she also grows personally when she realizes what her actions mean to the neighborhood and to her friends, both at home and school, as she searches for justice for Khalil and all the other “hashtags” like him.

The author skillfully and meticulously paints a portrait of a neighborhood that is economically run down, riddled with gangs and drugs, but still is a loving and supportive community. Even better than that, she draws characters that are wholly human – complex, conflicted, and ambiguous.

Despite the obvious temptations to make this a black and white (no pun intended) ‘issue’ novel, the author lets none of the characters, black or white, off the hook for their actions or attitudes. Khalil is a drug dealer, but the author also looks at the economic and social disadvantages that lead to drugs and gangs. Similarly, she exposes some of Starr’s white schoolfriends for their deep-rooted racism, but her white boyfriend is an ally. She explores the intensely paradoxical feelings that Starr’s parents have – they want to be part of their community, but also want their children to be safe and have the educational advantage that their school gives them.

The book title comes from Tupac, and refers to the harvest that racism reaps, both for black and white communities. My only minor grumble is the novel slips a little into didacticism for a couple of pages when Starr’s dad lectures her on her inheritance as a black person, but it just about stays in character.

Sometimes I feel a little cynical about hot books on hot topics but I believe The Hate U Give genuinely transcends any category and is an extraordinarily good novel. I think teens (and adults) will find it thought-provoking, insightful, and stunningly of the moment.

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We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

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We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Dutton, 2017.

This quiet and delicate realistic YA novel about grief and family, is something of a change in direction for Ms LaCour, more character-driven with little in the way of plot, and with an exquisitely textured setting.

A freshman in college in New York state, narrator Marin is staying by herself in the snow-bound dorms over the long Christmas break. Her best friend from San Francisco, Mexican-American Mabel, is visiting her for a few days, but she has little else planned. Over the course of Mabel’s visit, the events of the previous summer are gently unfolded, and the reasons for Marin’s isolation and despair are poignantly revealed.

Slight but powerful, the novel centers on the subtly drawn Marin and Mabel. The young women were once lovers but now are struggling even to communicate. Initially their conversations are strained, staccato, and awkward but gradually start to flow as they relax back into their friendship. Interspersed are flashbacks to vignettes of Marin’s homelife with her grandfather and memories of her dead mother.

While keeping the reader drawn in, the author is in no rush for Marin to tell her story, and allows her to move slowly and organically out of the dark towards the light.

(Slightly grumbling note. The high school that Marin and Mabel go to is the one my daughter actually goes to – Convent in San Francisco. However, all their teachers are nuns, which is not the case at all. Why use the real name of a school if you’re going to make stuff up, why not just make up a name too?)

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The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Crown, 2016.

In this appealing William C. Morris award winner, three friends go through their senior year at school in mostly blue collar dead-end Forrestville, Tennessee. All three are social outcasts. Dill is the son of a jailed Pentecostal preacher who was imprisoned for possessing child pornography. Lydia is the creative fashionista behind the Dollywould blog, and her middle class family and creative sensibilities set her apart. Travis, the burly and gentle son of an abusive father and compliant mother, escapes into the Bloodfall fantasy novels and insists on wearing a dragon necklace and carrying around a staff. Their friendship may be unlikely, but Zentner makes it work.

I loved these characters, so vivid and genuine. Shifting between the three narrators, the first two-thirds is at a relaxed pace as we get to know them all. We understand the layers that make them up: their families, their ambitions, their limitations, self-imposed or otherwise. Through their eyes we see their possible futures: Lydia is the only one planning to escape the bounds of Forrestville by heading up to NYU, whereas Dill’s family are deep in debt from his father’s legal bills and can’t afford for him not to work, and Travis has no ambition beyond working at his father’s lumberyard.

Zentner lost me on a couple of points. There is a dramatic plot twist that sets the final third on its head and I felt the novel then shifted into a more conventional fraught YA romance. Secondly, I didn’t like that it’s the middle class family that are so wonderfully supportive and loving, whereas both working class families are wretched and dysfunctional.

Nonetheless, Zentner has clearly got a talent for deep and rich characters and settings, and I look forward to future novels. Recommended for fans of Jandy Nelson and Jennifer Niven.

Factory Girl by Josanne La Valley

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factory-girlFactory Girl by Josanne La Valley
Clarion, 2017.

Inspired by the author’s experiences while traveling in northern China, the author uses the fictional story of Roshen to shed light on the young Uyghur (pronounced WEE-gur) women who are transported thousands of miles to work in Chinese factories. As the Chinese suppress Uyghur culture and traditions, the oppressed families are coerced into signing over their teenage daughters under the Transferring Surplus Labor Force to Inner China policy with threats of losing their land and livelihoods by the Chinese cadres who rule the provinces.

Roshen, along with several other Uyghurs, is assigned to the Hubei Work Wear Company as, effectively, indentured labor. They are forced to work long hours in harsh conditions, poorly fed, tricked out of their pay, and kept isolated from their families and the outside world. Despised and discriminated against by the Chinese, both for their ethnicity and for being Muslim, the young women have different coping mechanisms: Roshen is outwardly “sweet” but inwardly recalls traditional poetry; Mikray rebels and tries to escape; and Hawa cozies up to the factory owner. Though the young women are preyed upon and exploited by the bosses, there are a few kind locals who try and alleviate their situation as best they can.

Roshen holds close the poetic command to “wake up!” but she lacks agency, and it’s there that the novel falls down a bit. Of course, in real life, simply surviving this ordeal would be an achievement, but in a novel like this, the protagonist really needs to be less passive.

Other than Roshen, the other Uyghurs are a little thinly developed. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of them and only a handful emerge with any clarity. However, the strength of the protective kinship between the young women is beautifully drawn and contrasts sharply with the utter hopelessness of their situation. The author does not pull her punches about the casual and relentless cruelty and indifference of their bosses.

There are some context notes at the end, and a few sources for further reading, but it does appear that the deliberate persecution of the Uyghurs and the elimination of their culture is mostly undocumented.

Ideal for teens interested in novels about social justice.

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