Release – Patrick Ness

I have read and reviewed a few Patrick Ness books now, and there is no doubt that he is an incredibly talented and engaging author. I really loved More Than This, enjoyed The Knife of Never Letting Go (which is being made in to a film with an amazing cast) and was intrigued by The Rest of Us Just Live Here (amazing concept and an alternative view on superheroes!) This book is no different, but I am feeling a little uncomfortable about recommending it to you and I will explain the reasons why as we go along.

The main story centres around a day in the life of Adam Thorn. He is 17 and lives in a small town in middle America. His father Bob Thorn, is a local pastor for a church called The House Upon the Rock. For English readers I imagine him as one of those evangelical priests who walks up and down at the pulpit and shouts a lot about Jesus loving you, I think that these are a more regular occurrence in America then they are here. His mother is in denial that they are poor and his brother Marty is the prodigal son who has gone off to Christian college to learn how to be a preacher like his dad. Adam is the black sheep in the family because he is gay. Not that this is ever discussed in the Thorn household, ever. Marty has all the commitment but none of the personality and Adam has all the personality but, according to Big Bob Thorn, is morally corrupt.

Adam’s best friend is called Angela Darlington and she is the adopted daughter of a Dutch lady and her American husband. She is originally from Korea I think and has a sharp wit and an open heart. She loves Adam and worries for him and has decided that she is bi or gay or not, it doesn’t matter. She supports Adam and is more family to him then his own crazy lot. He also has a boyfriend called Linus but is still in love with his ex, Enzo who is moving out of town. Today is his leaving party (or get-together as they keep calling it) and the book is leading up to this event. Adam also likes cross country running but isn’t very fast, which is incidental to the book but shows a little of his  personality.

The other  section of the book centres around the drug fuelled murder of another local girl, Katherine van Leuwen. She is murdered by her boyfriend while they are both high and her body is dumped in the local lake – where the get together is taking place later on. Her spirit inhabits some kind of Queen of the Lake who is now wandering the town looking for her murderer to exact revenge. Or rather the queen has reanimated Katherine’s body and when people see her, they are shocked to see the dead Katherine wandering about. She is followed by her faithful servant who is a fawn. She visits Katherine’s mother and friend and the murder scene trying to figure out why she is there. If the Queen cannot reconnect with her body by the end of the day then the world (hers and ours) will be destroyed. No pressure there then – the poor fawn is working overtime to erase everyone’s memories of his Queen in Katherine’s body. You all still with me?

There are several things that I really loved about this book. The writing style for one always makes me marvel at how people  can be so clever. I almost doubt my own cleverness because there is no way I could come up with a concept so clever. Ness writes with passion and depth. His descriptions, the scene where Adam is sexually assaulted by his boss, is so good you feel like you are sitting in that cramped office with them. I felt the shame of both of them, and the anger. The story is engaging, I liked Adam and Angela and Linus, wasn’t too keen on Enzo and Marty but I can understand them. Adam’s parents are struggling with their faith versus the love for their son and I can see, as a parent, how this would be difficult. I wanted it all to work out in the end but I guess life isn’t as neat as all that. I also love the concept of all the action taking place on one day, so many changes occur in Adam’s life that the supernatural element could be the only explanation.

Here is my problem. According my goodreads profile I have read nearly 1000 books. I have been reading for 40 years (give or take my childhood years!) and I have travelled all over the world, time travelled and gone in to the future in fiction. I have experienced things  through many fictional characters and have loved and laughed,  hated and felt angry, violent and heart broken. All of these emotions are brought on by the written word. I love reading and it is my job and my passion to make as many people as possible feel the same way that I do about it. I have never told a student not to read a book when they have asked me. I have recommended books that are controversial, touch subjects they may not understand or agree with but, they all make you think about what it might be like to live in another person’s skin.

I finished this book last week and have really struggled with how to review it. This book is written for the teen market or YA audience. This is classified as 11 to 18 years old. This market has blown up over the last few years and is amazing. The wealth of subjects that it writes about make it easier for young people to experience and accept things that they have not experienced yet, and I think this is a great thing.  There may be things that they cannot talk about with anyone else but they can read about and not feel so alone in the world. Which is why I think that YA authors have an obligation to educate as well as produce great fiction – no mean feat. The sex scenes in this book are some of the most graphic I have ever read. The description of Linus and Adam in bed together are both unnecessary and so descriptive that it made me uncomfortable, and I am no prude. I have never read another YA book where any sexual descriptions, straight, gay or bi are so intimate. I’m not sure why Ness decided to make them so, or why his publisher then decided to go ahead with them. There is a fine line between educating and shocking and I think this one crosses it.

That’s just a personal opinion and you may go on and love it and think I’m a silly old lady but, I want you to know what to expect and, as an educator (!) I need to do that. I loved this book but I struggled with it. You decide what you think.

 

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The Thousandth Floor – Katharine McGee

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This is the first in a series. The book is set in New York in 2118. Not sure what has happened to the world but the main characters all live in a tower block that is, you’ve guessed it, 1000 floors high! The richer you are, the higher up the block you live. The character that we first meet, Avery Fuller, lives with her parents and her adopted brother, Atlas, who has disappeared. The family are obviously mega rich and super powerful. Avery and her family live in a penthouse on the 1000th floor.

The book is written from five different POVs. Avery, Lena, Eris, Watt and Rylin. One of these is a boy…. Rylin lives down on the lower levels with her sister. Her mum is dead and she is  trying to make ends meet. She goes to work at a party hosted by another rich kid with a trust fund and she ends up involved in a murky world involving her current boyfriend and the rich boy she is falling in love with. Avery and Atlas have a secret that will blow all their world’s apart and there is a lot of unrequited love and drug usage going on. Watt is a super hacker and has created a computer that he has placed inside his head. This is highly illegal but he uses it to make money by spying on people and selling information. In a world where everyone does everything online this is a powerful tool, but could land him in prison for the rest of his life. He lives quite far  down the block as well.

At the beginning of the book we learn that one of the main characters will fall from the top of the tower to their death. The build up and who it might be will keep you guessing all the way through and this is a clever plot device. It makes you want to read on. All of the characters are pretty shallow and the only one who seems to value their life (eventually) is Eris. Leda is hiding an addiction and a spell in rehab, Rylin is trying to protect a boy she realises she n longer knows and Watt gets in way too deep when he discovers that he is falling for the very person he shouldn’t. Even though there is much made of the fact that Leda, Avery and Eris are all such great friends, when it all comes down to it, they leave each other to save themselves. It is also an interesting exploration of friendship amongst kids who think they have everything, but at the end of the day having everything doesn’t always make you happy.

All of them have secrets and some of them are more desperate to hide them then others. I liked the twist with Eris and Lena and it’s all nicely set up for a sequel. A good futuristic book that will make you want to go and read the next one, but if you like a fantasy book with a bit more action and adventure then this probably won’t float your boat.

There are also a few bits in there which are morally questionable and may make you think which of the main characters (if any) you actually like by the end of the  book! I will go on and read the next one, but it might take me a while to get to it. I didn’t invest too emotionally with any of them as they all have dislikable traits. Maybe we aren’t meant to…. Am interested to see where the author takes them all next though.

Our Chemical Hearts – Krystal Sutherland

There is a wealth of books for teenagers about all kinds of things. Some of them worry me. They deal with illness, mental and physical, abuse, sexuality (loads of these!) bullying, relationships, strange illnesses that aren’t really illnesses and, like this one, grief. In this day and age when teenagers have access to so much online content, to then write books about how they should deal with these things, effectively taking the role of the parent, sometimes troubles me. I don’t want my daughter to find out how to deal with these things from a book, I want her to be able to talk to me about them,  but I know that this isn’t possible for some. I also know that there are lots of things going on in your heads that you  need to sort out and, if it helps to read about it then that can only be a good thing…. except bear in mind that  life isn’t all doom and gloom!

This book is a sensitive portrayal of a young woman who has lost her boyfriend/ best friend/ future husband in a car crash. The story isn’t told through her eyes though, but through the boy who falls in love with her afterwards. Henry is a bit geeky and aspires to be the editor of his high school newspaper in his senior year. He has schemed for the last two years with his friends Lola and Murray ( a quirky Australian!) to achieve this. When he is called in to the English teacher’s office (Mr Hink) at the beginning of the year he encounters Grace Town. Grace walks with a limp, wears musty boys clothes and, when offered the job of sharing the editorial job with Henry, turns it down. Henry chases after her (she is surprising nimble, even with a walking stick) and demands to know why. Grace has transferred from another local high school in the area called East High. Henry feels drawn to her but can’t explain why, even to himself. She is not the typical girl to fall in love with and, Henry isn’t the type of boy to fall for girls much anyway, he’s too interested in his writing.

As their relationship develops La and Murray, and Henry’s sister Sadie, who is also going through a divorce, try to warn him against trying to start something with someone who is so broken. The metaphor here is that Henry likes to collect broken things, in particular Japanese pots that have been fixed with gold wires. Grace is profoundly broken and blames herself for the accident that took her boyfriend and future, Dom. The idea that when someone you love is killed, you are also robbed of that future that you would have had with them is a deeply upsetting concept.

There is also a little side thing going on with Henry’s parents which I found quite interesting. This all became clear at the end of the book but it was the relationship between Henry and his parents and then their relationship with his sister Sadie that made me think a bit. The age gap between Sadie and Henry is big and Sadie was the naughty one who did everything, so when Henry is her opposite they aren’t sure how to deal with this. I can’t quite decide whether they intended to make him feel guilty or were relieved that he wasn’t as rebellious as his big sister, interesting though.

The writing is beautiful and the texts and emails that intersperse the book are good at breaking things up and a realistic portrayal of how young people would communicate, no one is ever off limits anymore.   I wanted to feel sorry for Grace, but I ended up just feeling a lot of frustration with her. She doesn’t ask Henry to feel the way that he does but she doesn’t do anything to help make the situation better. The way in which grief is portrayed  as a real, visceral thing that eats away at you is awesome (in the proper sense of the word!) This is a debut novel by this author and I wasn’t expecting it to move me as much as it did, be prepared for some raw emotion and hard hitting dialogue that will leave you reaching for your tissues. Murray is also great as the comedy factor and, although he is portrayed as a stereotypical Australian, it’s kind of ironic!

Enjoy this one, I’m sure you will!

One of Us is Lying – Karen M McManus

Hands up if you have seen the awesome 80s classic The Breakfast Club? High school kids stuck in detention, all different types, don’t really know or like each other and then they are all stuck in the same room and end up having this amazing experience? WHY NOT??? This film is fab and I demand you go and watch it this evening….

Well, this book is unashamedly similar, except one of the students who goes into detention doesn’t make it out again. Bronwyn, Cooper, Nate, Addy and Simon are all in detention on a Monday afternoon for being caught with their mobile phones. Except all the phones they were caught weren’t their own, but were found in their bags. Weird coincidence number one. While they are all there, the teacher leaves for a second and there is a car crash in  the car park which they all go and look at out of the window. The next thing you know, Simon falls down and starts  gasping for breath. It is well known that he has a peanut allergy and quick thinking Nate tries to find his epipen. It’s not in his bag and one of the others runs to the medical room to get a spare; there aren’t any.  Simon doesn’t make it  (this isn’t a spoiler, it tells you this in the blurb)

The other four narrate the story and all have something to hide. Simon is the author of an online gossip website called About That and has been writing nasty things about other students, he isn’t exactly Mr Popular. So when it’s discovered that he has been deliberately killed they are all under suspicion. Bronwyn is the clever type who is just trying to get though high school and into Yale. Cooper is the star baseball player who is just about the get a full scholarship and possibly play in the majors (this is important if you play baseball apparently) Nate is the school drug dealer and lives with his alcoholic dad, his mum has disappeared. Addy is dating Jake, a thoroughly nasty jock who is a total control freak. That basically sums up Addy’s personality at the beginning of the book.

As things play out and the students all fall under suspicion they start to get together to figure out what really happened. As they start to trust each other more, and spend more time together, there is a lingering suspicion that one of them may have committed the murder. So who did the crime?

I liked the way that, as the reader you experience all the main suspects in their own words, which makes it more difficult to figure out which one (if any) of them might have done it.  As  the groups secrets are exposed and some of them get a bit closer the suspicion heightens. Although I never really believed that any of them were guilty, the lies came out quite slowly so it was exciting to go along not knowing who the murderer was. I also started to really like the characters and really hoped that none of them were responsible!

This is another YA book that references classic stuff but also is trying to encourage you to be an individual. Addy in particular is in an abusive relationship but doesn’t even realise it. Cooper’s secret also exposes the fact that, although American is a first world country, it still has some backward thinking going on!

The twists and turns made me want to finish quickly and I  really enjoyed the ride. A good thriller that will make you go ‘oh!’ when you find out the truth! One to read over the summer I think.

Now go and get The Breakfast club on Netflicks, if you love Pitch Perfect hopefully you have seen it already!

If I Was Your Girl – Meredith Russo

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If I Was Your Girl is essentially a love story between a boy and a girl. The problem is that the girl used to be a boy. And the boy doesn’t know.

Amanda is leaving her old life behind and goes to live with her dad after an incident at school where she is badly beaten up. Her parents divorced when she was six. Her dad was a typical ex navy tough guy who wanted to teach his son baseball and his son wanted to do baking instead. ‘Andrew’ finally gets the courage to tell his mum that he wants to be a girl and she supports him through the process. He eventually has gender reassignment surgery but cannot seem to mix in at school. The other kids obviously knew him from before and he is mercilessly bullied. Eventually they decide that he should go and stay with his/ her dad who he hasn’t seen since the divorce.

At her new school, Amanda has never been Andrew and has no intention of telling anyone her secret. She is immediately chatted up but the local football team including a guy called Grant who is talking to her on behalf of his friend Parker. Amanda just wants to keep her head down and get on with school but, and this is mentioned many times over the course of the book, she is very attractive and can’t help getting male attention.

She falls in with a group of girls and meets another girl, Bee, in her art class who is bi sexual. She then figures out that Bee has something going with Chloe, who is in her friendship group but neither of them want anyone to know. This is small town America and people who are different are singled out. This reinforces Amanda’s desire to not tell anyone what is going on with her. But, her  friends are really nice and she starts to live the life she has always dreamed of. She goes to parties, meets boys and generally does girlie things.

Amanda and Bee are supposed to take an art class together but the teacher is off sick and they have never covered it. They hang out and smoke dope and generally relax. Eventually Amanda tells Bee her secret and then things start to unravel. In the meantime, Amanda is falling in love with Grant. Grant is a lovely guy who really makes her feel special, but she doesn’t feel that she can tell him the truth, she is worried about his reaction. So she leaves it and lets the relationship continue. Her dad is also concerned about it, considering he was hoping that she would stay out of trouble. The ending is as you would expect but it is no less brutal for that.

Meredith Russo is transgender and has been living as a woman since 2013. I have read quite a lot of books recently about young people and how they are struggling with their sexuality. Some are good. Some are really not! In fact, there is a comment from Alex Gino on the back of the book and I really did not like their book, George (see review).

What I liked about this book was that it was so normal. Girl meets boy, they fall in love and should live happily ever after. You get glimpses of what Andrew’s life was like, the choices he makes, the support group and the number of people who can’t live with the prejudice and commit suicide. But, at the end of the day, Amanda is a someone who has already lived through a lifetime of pain and misunderstanding, and she is only 17. The subject was dealt with in a sensitive but truthful way, there will always be people in the world who hate what they don’t understand, and that’s just down to ignorance. I’m not sure that in this country they would allow a young person to go through all the surgery etc. at such a young age but he obviously felt it was the right thing for him. It’s a great book with a really important message that makes you think about the characters long after you have finished the book, and it gives me hope that the future is a more tolerant and welcoming place.

We Are All Made of Molecules – Susan Nielsen

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We Are All Made of Molecules  was one of the books available as part of the Booktrust box of books, another great selection this year and I read it as part of my book club with year 8.

Stewart and his dad live together in their house which, until recently, also contained Stewart’s mum. A year before the book is set, she died. Stewart is a highly intelligent 13 year old and attends the Little Genius School for gifted children. He is very clever.

Ashley lives with her mum, her dad lives in a little house in the garden (apparently it’s called a laneway house) because he has  decided that he is gay. Ashley is not the brightest button in the box and is mortified by this. She is, as she describes it, at the top of the social ladder and is always worrying about her position on it. She is desperate to keep the fact that her dad is gay a secret.

Their worlds collide when Stewart’s dad starts dating Ashley’s mum and they decide  to move in together. Stewart and his dad move in with Ashley and her mum and Ashley is super not happy about it. To make things worse (for her) Stewart decides to move from Little Gifted to the same high school as Ashley.

Stewart is not the most popular kid in school, but Ashley is the Queen Bee. She resents everything he says and does and doesn’t really want anyone to know that they know each other. Stewart starts to get bullied by the new boy, Jared, and Ashley fancies him. Stewart overhears a conversation about Ashley and decides to help get them together. This will also help with Jared trying to pull Stewart’s shorts down in PE (it must be a boy thing!). Jared is almost as unpleasant as Ashley so they deserve each other.

I loved the split narrative of this book. Stewart’s voice was warm and funny, Ashley was horrible and really made me dislike her. I could understand that they both had issues but I felt that Stewart was far more willing to compromise. Ashley was a bit of a spoilt brat. She does get her comeuppance in the end but it still left me thinking that she was horrible. Stewart is obviously on the Autistic spectrum and is very literal. But what a lovely boy he is, and the way he manages his life is really great.

This is a fun short read and it will help you appreciate the finer points of families coming together in these situations. It is also a good book club choice as there are a few things to discuss here. Most notably, Ashley and her relationship with her dad and Stewart and his obsession with molecules! You will like Stewart though, he’s one of the good guys.

Highly Illogical Behaviour – John Corey Whaley

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This book revolves around three characters; Solomon, Lisa and Clark. Solomon is a reclusive agoraphobic with severe anxiety disorder and, at seventeen, has not left his house for over three years. Lisa is a girl from his middle school who remembers him having a breakdown in the school fountain on his last day of school. Clark is Lisa’s boyfriend. There are other incidentals; Solomon’s grandma is my favourite character in the book, when you read it you’ll see why.

Lisa wants out of Upland, California. She thinks it’s a dead end place and her future is brighter than that. Her plan is to get into the second best psychology course in the country with a full scholarship. In order to do this she needs to write an essay about her personal experience with mental illness. She decides that her essay will be about Solomon, primarily her saving Solomon and making him ‘normal’ again. The snag is, she’s not going to tell Solomon she’s doing it.

She does tell Clark though, and he agrees to go along with it. She discovers that Solomon is warm and intelligent and fun to be with – and gay. As they become closer she realizes that Solomon has a lot in common with Clark and asks him if Clark can come over too. A strong friendship develops between the three of them and they spend most of their time together. Lisa starts to have doubts about the paper but thinks it all a means to an end so she continues with it. Clark meanwhile, is not happy at all.

Stuff happens that I can’t tell you about but needless to say, the ending is kind of predictable. The book deals with some big issues. Mental health and sexuality are the two big ones but there are other sub themes as well. The relationships with the young people and God are explored too. Lisa’s best friend Janis is religious and goes to a religious summer camp; Clark and Lisa don’t have sex and his mum is also religious so that may be the cause, not that they have discussed it all!  Lisa assumes that her relationship with Clark is a. normal and b. strong enough to withstand anything but really it’s a relationship based on non information and assumptions; the consequences of which will hurt Solomon as well as them. Solomon, on the other hand, almost makes  you want to just stay at home and never leave; his life is definitely pretty easy. With the inclusion of friends though, it starts to make him question why he has made the decision to leave the outside world behind.

Essentially Solomon won’t change and, although Lisa does make some breakthroughs, his problems are bigger than she can solve. She comes to realize that Solomon needs a lot of help to change and, most importantly, he must want to change his life – and he really doesn’t want to!

This is a quick and thought-provoking read which will introduce you some nice characters that will stay with you for a while. Everyone would probably like a break from the madness of life, but where’s the fun in that?!

Further Reading: Noggin by John Corey Whaley