Posts tagged ‘Young Adult Fiction’

Piecing Me Together

Piecing Me Together.jpgTitle: Piecing Me Together
Author: Renee Watson
ISBN: 9781681191058
Pages: 264 pages
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, c2017.
Awards: Newbery Honor Award (2018), Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner (2018)

The front of the folder shows a group of black women–adults and teens–smiling and embracing one another. Woman to Woman: A Mentorship Program for African American Girls. Mrs. Parker is smiling like what she’s about to tell me is that she found the cure for cancer. But really, what she has to tell me sounds more like a honking horn that’s stuck, a favorite glass shattering into countless pieces on the floor. […]
“Why was I chosen for this?”
Mrs. Parker clears her throat. “Well, uh, selection was based on, uh, gender, grade, and, well, several other things.”
“Like?”
“Well, uh, several things. Teacher nominations . . . uh, need.”
“Mrs. Parker, I don’t need a mentor,” I tell her.
“Every young person could use a caring adult in her life.”
“I have a mother.” And my uncle, and my dad. “You think I don’t have anyone who cares about me?”
“No, no. That’s not what I said.” Mrs. Parker clears her throat. (17-18)

Junior Jade has a scholarship to attend St. Francis, a mostly white, expensive private school on the other side of Portland from where she lives with her mother and uncle. When she is called down to the counselor’s office, she thinks it’s about the study abroad to trip to Spain, a trip she’s anticipated for the last two years, learning Spanish and making money for by tutoring her classmates. Instead, Jade learns she’s been nominated for Woman to Woman, a mentor program that pairs her with Maxine, a graduate of her high school. Maxine however, doesn’t seem to be the best person to mentor, showing up late to or completely forgetting about plans and being more concerned about her ex-boyfriend then Jade. Jade doesn’t want to forgo the “opportunity” to get a full-ride scholarship if she completes the program, but the things they do make her feel more out of place then ever. She’s tired of being someone who needs help, and wants to get out of town and out of her circumstances; the trick is finding someone who can listen and help in the way she needs.

I finished Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson and it’s given me some things to consider as a mentor and a librarian. There’s a lot of excellent passages that I could quote from that provide insight and an evaluation of who we feel is “in need” and what we feel they need. After much self-doubt, Jade finally gets the courage to voice her concerns about the program to her mentor Maxine. Jade tells Maxine that just because her parents aren’t around doesn’t mean she needs a mentor. (In actuality, her mother just works an nontraditional schedule and is highly involved in Jade’s life and is not like other non-existent mother characters that are cliche characters in other books.) Just because she has the opportunity to go other places doesn’t mean she wants to see what she can’t afford. Just because she lives in a “wrong side of the tracks” neighborhood doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to see and people who can help from within. Why is Jade “only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” (direct quote from page 199) While it was a little preachy in places, I would recommend it for anyone who finds themselves with who we typically consider “underprivileged youth.” Sometimes even mentors need a reminder that the people they mentor are capable of contributing in their own way, and don’t need to be rescued by someone.

The material is also very relevant in relation to the Black Lives Matter conversation. Although that phrase never makes an appearance in the narrative. About two-thirds of the way in, an incident makes the news regarding a fifteen-year-old black female named Natasha Ramsey receiving a broken jaw and fractured ribs as a result of police breaking up a house party due to a noise complaint. Jade’s uncle E.J. (who is only a few years older then Jade) responds with scorn at Jade’s suggestion that they say a prayer.

“And what is prayer going to do?” E.J. asks. “Prayer ain’t nothing but the poor man’s drug.”
“What?”
“Poor people are the ones who pray. People who don’t have what they need, who can’t pay their rent, who can’t buy healthy food, who can’t save any of their paycheck because every dollar is already accounted for. Those are the people who pray. They pray for miracles, they pray for signs, they pray for good health. Rich people don’t do that,” he tells me. […]
“Be careful today, Jade. For real.” (182-183)

Jade is hyper-aware of her classmates’ response to the event, which seems nonexistent as there is no talk in the hallways, no discussion in the classroom, and from her perspective everyone is acting oblivious, except for her Spanish teacher whom she finds watching new coverage during his break. There are small instances of racism that keep frustrating Jade, especially because the only other person she talks to at school, a white classmate named Sam who also comes from her neighborhood, doesn’t seem them as racism. When Jade is the only one who gets in trouble for laughing at another student’s disrespectful comments about a staff member, Sam blames it on wealth disparity. “Her parents donate a bunch of money to the school every year. She can say and do whatever she wants,” Sam says. “That had nothing to do with her being white and your being black.” Jade responds “You know that’s what people are going to say about Natasha Ramsey. That it had nothing to do with her being black.” and Sam asks “Who?” Another time, Jade questions why she is always the one given these opportunities instead of Sam, who lives in the same area, is also lacking parents, and sees Jade as being ungrateful at having these opportunities to go places like the symphony. This is definitely a perfect scene to spark discussion for students and adults. When have their been times where two people have been in similar situations and the outcomes have been treated differently, and what factors played a role in the resulting outcomes?

We as readers will never know the real reason why her classmate doesn’t get punished for saying the comment but Jade gets in trouble for laughing at it. I think both reasons could be validated, as money and race both talk, but I also fear that as a white female I’d be accused of implicit bias if I brought up this possibility, just as Sam does. I can’t claim to understand what African Americans have to face in terms of racism, both overt and obvious, but I do understand that if you face enough situations with racial overtones, everything starts getting colored and about color. And there was at least one instance in the book of overt racism that Sam also discounts when faced with the account, that could be contributing to Jade’s mounting frustrations. Jade instead seeks out people who understand her feelings on the issue, and readers in turn gain an understanding of just how much the case has affected Jade and her friend from the neighborhood, Lee Lee. These girls are scared it could have been them or will be them, and the other white girls in Jade’s school don’t have that fear because they are insulated by their racial identity. Jade and Lee Lee feel a powerlessness that they are hesitant to admit, because then they fear it means they are, and they don’t want to see themselves or have others see them in that light. In studying Lewis and Clark and their slave York, which she finds out about from Lee Lee’s talking about her history teacher, Jade wonders if he ever “existing in a world where no one thought him strange” and I think Jade feels that otherness herself. Going to an all white school where she can’t relate her family life with that of other students, and then coming home where she can’t relate her options and experiences at school to her family, Jade and Sam share that feeling of isolation and being stuck in the middle.

I keep coming back to the previously quoted passage, “Why am I only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” Jade and Lee Lee are scared, but they don’t want to be seen as someone who needs protection, reassurances, or special treatment. They are women of action, and by the end, it’s inspiring that they found a way to tie resources from their community into a proactive attempt at change. Jade responds to a question that she has learned from the mentor program she doesn’t “have to wait to be given an opportunity” and I think that’s really the most important thing that we can teach the people we mentor. This book is placed in the teen collection at my local library, but I feel it would be appropriate for middle school reading.

It’s making me consider how I can reach out more professionally and personally to fulfill the needs and the desires of the kid I mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters and the public I serve. What are we pressing on others versus providing others? How can we identify what patrons need but also what they can give, and how do we tie the two together? I welcome your thoughts in the comments, and also recommendations for further reading on either enacting these goals, or working with populations that are traditionally seen as underprivileged, but should never be seen as uninformed or unable to contribute.

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Renegades

Renegades.jpgTitle: Renegades
Series: Renegades #1
Author: Marissa Meyer
ISBN: 9781250044662
Pages: 556 pages
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends Book, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC c2017 by Rampion Books

Nova had one dart handcrafted by Leroy Flinn, their own poisons master. She only needed one. If she missed, she wouldn’t get a second chance.
But she wouldn’t miss.
She would kill the Captain.
Once he was hit, Ingrid, the Detonator, would emerge from hiding and hit the Council’s parade float with as many of her signature bombs – made from a fusion of gasses in the air—as she could launch. Phobia would focus on Thunderbird, as she usually took to the air during a battle, giving her a frustratingly unfair advantage. They’d heard that Thunderbird was deathly afraid of snakes, which was one of his specialties. They were banking on the rumors to be true. Worst-case scenario: Phobia startled her long enough for Nova or Ingrid to take her down. Best-case: He gave her a midflight heart attack.
And that was it. The Council—the five original Renegades—all eradicated at once. (28-29)

But of course, the plan that Nova and her team have spent so much time concocting doesn’t go off as planned, and one of their own get captured. Plan B is a Hail Mary effort, sending Nova in deep undercover to train with their enemies. She succeeds, and is placed on the very team that thwarted her efforts to kill the Captain. Serving as a double agent becomes harder then she expected when she realized not only the people she is spying on, but also her own allies are keeping things from her. Plus, with a new prodigy (person with superpowers) in town that no one knows anything about, it’s anybody’s guess who is going to end up helping Nova in her hour of need.

Superpowers seem to be a rising trend in literature these days, possibly a result of the growing interest and excitement around the Marvel and DC movies. Personally a fan of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her newest series. But while I found her first series ground breaking in her reimagining of fairy tales, this one treads some well-worn ground of vengeance, vindication, villainy and virtues. We’ve seen this story told multiple times, of a “bad guy” who is out to kill the “good guys” with questionably justifiable reasons. In this case, seventeen-year-old Nova is focused on the Renegades, a group of five super-powered adults who are trying to restore order to a world taken down by chaotic and more selfish super-powered antagonists when powers were first starting to develop. The Anarchists, the group that Nova is originally a part of, is all that’s left of an organized front trying to enact revenge against the Renegades for hunting them down and confining the Anarchists to hiding and petty crimes necessary for survival. A variety of ethnicities, backgrounds, and powers are well portrayed, and reminiscent of Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners series (which begins with Steelheart). We see the conflicting philosophies and responsibilities played out time and again, all the way back to Spiderman’s famous “With great power comes great responsibility” and more recently by V.E. Schwab in Vicious. The actual debate sparked by the different camps is explicitly laid out in a scene between Nova and one of the Renegades, where they discuss the influence that the prodigies had on the world, and whether non-gifted people could contribute to the rebuilding of something that the gifted but greedy individuals brought about.

Nova is very set in her ways and ideals, but even she is not immune to the altruism showcased by her team, which includes Adrian (superhero name “Sketch”), Oscar (“Smokescreen”) and Ruby (“Red Assassin”). Oscar, Ruby, and injured Dana are background characters to dual narrators Nova and Adrian. On the opposing side is Honey, Winston, Leroy, Phobia, and Ingrid, with Ingrid receiving more screen time then the rest as the default leader of the group. Everyone on both sides seems aware of the hype that they are obligated to live up to, with the Renegades being recognized on the street and the Anarchists being villainized and characterized by public displays and paraphernalia.

Adrian has his own secret, which readers are privy to within the first few chapters. Trying to live up to the legacy of his adoptive parents, he’s experimenting with his ability in order to enhance and add to his powers. Assuming the secondary identity of “Sentinel”, Adrian’s actions end up in an unenviable position where he needs to right a mistake before revealing himself. Then he receives a tip about a new prodigy who might be involved in his mother’s death, and he’s ready to discover everything he can, even if it goes against the wishes of the Council. This unexpectedly also places himself in a position to realize that not all Renegades are as altruistic as the organization wants them to be, and he’s struggling to come to terms with that idea since he’s been indoctrinated with the goals and dreams his entire life. D

The tender romance for Nova that begins by the end of the book is expected. Hints of the spectacular double-cross during the climactic battle are also liberally laid as to come as little surprise. The true unexpected twist revealed on the very last page is what will leave readers gasping and struggling to wait until the sequel arrives later in November 2018. I expect more background information will have to fill in the blanks that readers realize the author has been purposefully hiding since the very first page.

Wires and Nerve: Gone Rogue

Wires and Nerve Gone Rogue.jpgTitle: Gone Rogue
Series: Wires and Nerve (#2)
Author: Marissa Meyer
Illustrator: Stephen Gilpin (based on art by Doug Holgate)
ISBN: 9781250078285
Pages: 324 pages
Publisher/Date: A Feiwel and Friends Book, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC, c2018

“So, can we all start by agreeing that there is absolutely no way we are letting Cinder sacrifice herself to this psychopath?”
“No one is agreeing to anything yet.”
“I know you, Cinder, and I know you started planning how to trade your life for theirs the moment you heard about his.”
“That’s not true. I started planning a way to get them back safely.”
“And have you come up with a plan yet that doesn’t involve getting yourself killed?”
“Thorne is right. Steele is trying to lure you into a trap.”
“Yes, OBVIOUSLY this is a trap! But what am I supposed to do? We can’t just ignore him!”
“He has Winter and Jacin!”
“And Wolf.”
“And Tressa…”
“And now he wants the Queen of Luna! Aces, Cinder, Would you think of your own self-preservation for once?” (168-169)

The conclusion to the Wires and Nerve series begins with Wolf considering his future with Scarlett when their farm is surrounded by Steele, the big bad wolf-soldier from the previous graphic novel. He recruits Wolf for his revenge towards Cinder, and after Cinder and her entourage arrives on Earth Steele kidnaps Winter, Jacin, and Tressa. Demanding Cinder in exchange for the hostages and threatening the lives of the Earthen public, the fight is far from over. Iko is tasked with a key part in the final showdown, but can she fulfill her role without tipping off Steele that she might be more than he thinks she is?

Firstly, I was slightly disappointed that we saw almost nothing of Thorne and Jacin in this episode of action. Heck, Jacin gets captured TWICE by the wolf-soldiers, and he’s supposed to be a former Lunar guard for the royal family, implying some fighting prowess even if he did want to become a doctor. Even Kai had some blink and you’ll miss them occurrences where he said the necessary “Yes we’ll have military support” or “I’m your emperor so you must listen to me” dialogue, then receded into the background, not contributing in the final battle scene except to tell Steele he’s lost and to ask Cinder if she was hurt. Cinder was a token character, less so then Kai and the others because we saw her navigating the political side of things on both Earth and Luna. It was emphasized repeatedly that Steele was after her for what she represented and not because of who she was, which also lent to the feeling that she was being typecast, although the fought it admirably by arguing again and again that she was nothing like the previous rulers. The few romantic scenes of her and Kai together will satisfy fans of the series (like myself). That was also probably the reason for Scarlett and Wolf’s scenes together, although seeing Wolf stumble over his obviously more submissive and overprotective nature towards Scarlet’s alpha role was a tender moment in an otherwise tense political thriller of double crosses.

The cast was there, and they served their purpose when called upon in a fight, but the main focus was Iko and Liam Kinney, which on the one hand disappoints me but also satisfies me that Iko got her opportunity to shine in the spotlight. I enjoyed the evolution of Iko and Kinney’s relationship because it felt natural. Besides a subtle nod to increased heart rate, there is nothing overtly romantic, which I had worried about it becoming after reading the first one. The story line as a whole seemed to emphasize Iko’s humanity, even though she was an android, and Kinney’s ultimate acceptance that there is more to Iko then wires and circuitry. We get glimpses of Iko’s original programming through some files that Cress recovers, but the underlying question of nature versus nurture persists through much of the story. Iko’s quirks have always been accepted by her friends and previously people who didn’t appreciate them were cast as outsiders. When she gets paired with Kinney, this is the first time that Iko has to continually justify and understand her existence. I like to think that they become really good friends due to this increased self-awareness, both of themselves and their assumptions towards the other person.

A satisfying and quick read that closes out the series that ties up the loose ends for the legion of fans. I got to hear the characters in the audiobooks, and now we get to actually “see” the characters in the graphic novels. I’m sad to see it end, but I think it’s a good place to stop and appreciate the format change.

Little Brother

Little Brother.jpgTitle: Little Brother
Author: Cory Doctorow
Narrator: Kirby Heyborne
ISBN: 9780307711540 (audiobook), 9780765323118 (paperback)
Discs/CDs: 10 CDs, 11 hours 54 minutes
Pages: 382 pages
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2008.

I lost it. “Dad! Are you listening to yourself? They’re talking about investigating practically every person in the city of San Francisco!”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s right. They’ll catch every alimony cheat, every dope dealer, every dirtbag and every terrorist. You just wait. This could be the best thing that ever happened to this country.”
“Tell me you’re joking,” I said. “I beg you. You think that that’s what they intended when they wrote the Constitution? What about the Bill of Rights?”
“The Bill of Rights was written before data-mining,” he said. He was awesomely serene, convinced of his rightness. “The right to freedom of association is fine, but why shouldn’t the cops be allowed to mine your social network to figure out if you’re hanging out with gangbangers and terrorists?”
“Because is’t an invasion of my privacy!” I said.
“What’s the big deal? Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?” (137-138)

Marcus is a computer nerd living in San Francisco. He’s cut out of school early with his friends to pursue a clue as part of an online scavenger hunt, when the impossible happens. A terrorist attack leaves them one man down after the Department of Homeland Security apprehends them and holds them for secret questioning. When Marcus gets out, the city is in a semi-militarized state as the government hunts down the perpetrators. That’s what they claim they are doing, but as their surveillance methods increase, Marcus isn’t the only one who begins to wonder who these people are and what or who they are really collecting and pursuing.

I don’t want to turn this into a rant about technology, surveillance, privacy, and how they intersect all too often these days. However, reading this book gave me the same creepy crawly feeling that Robopocalypse did almost 5 years ago. Written before Robopocalypse, nothing has really changed since Cory Doctorow wrote this a decade ago. The general public still blindly accepts that surveillance is happening, that information about them is being collected about their movements and habits and activities, and nobody questions where that information is going or how it is being used. We grant access to huge quantities of information because companies require it in order to use their services, and now these publicly owned companies have the ability to control that information, including selling it to third parties, analyzing it for their own purposes, and deciding whether or not the authorities can gain access to that stored information.

It’s hard to imagine any of this happening in real life, and that’s Doctorow’s point. It might be hard to imagine, but it could happen, and we have the technology already where it could. Obviously advocating for a more involved and informed society when it comes to technical privacy, the book ends with Marcus advocating in what feels like a public service announcement for “signing up voters and getting them to the polls.” It includes afterwards by a security technologist and the MIT student who hacked the XBox, both of whom encourage readers to evaluate the world. “Trading privacy for security is stupid enough; not getting any actual security in the bargain is even more stupid” says the security technologist Bruce Schneier, while Andrew Huang ends his essay with “Be like M1k3y [Marcus’ screen name in the book]: step out the door and dare to be free.”

As a result of the technical nature of the story, there are huge sections of info dumps, where action is forwarded and details are revealed in professorial paragraphs mimicking a classroom lecture. This means that readers might get more out of it when they read it over listening to it. While the background is necessary to understand the story and appreciated by this reader, I do wish there had been a better way to incorporate it into the narrative. Obviously Marcus, the main character, is going to surround himself with people who can aid in his digital exploits and who are already more knowledgeable than readers about hacking concepts, so explaining it in character to a character wouldn’t ring true to the story. But they do have an opportunity when they finally have to involve a less-tech savvy but no less paranoid character (I won’t reveal who) about two-thirds into the story. And five pages on key-encryption or an even longer passage on Marcus’ history of LARPing, while appreciated, seemed a little wordy.

The story is insular in nature, with the close-up focus of Marcus and his movements and point of view. As a result, we don’t get a detailed feel for any of his classmates, friends, or fellow hackers who aid in his attempted take down of the government overreach. There is a romance, and they do have protected sex off screen which might prevent recommending it to some audiences. In fact, I feel like we get more information and character development from Marcus and his parents then from any of his friends, most of them falling to the sidelines due to objections of Marcus’s activities.

It’s an important book to recommend in these times of digital sharing and oversight, and hopefully one that not only sparked discussion when it was published but will continue to encourage debate and free thinking, along with caution and thorough analysis of the world, both virtual and real.

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All The Way Down.jpgTitle: Turtles All the Way Down
Author: John Green
ISBN: 9780525555360
Pages: 286 pages
Publisher/Date: Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2017.

Daisy and I were scanning stations in search of a song to a particular brilliant and underappreciated boy band when we landed upon a news story. “–Indianapolis-based Pickett Engineering, a construction firm employing more than ten thousand people worldwide, today–” I moved my hand toward the scan button, but Daisy pushed it away.
“This is what I was telling you about!” she said as the radio continued, “–one-hundred-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to the whereabouts of company CEO Russell Pickett. Pickett, who disappeared the night before a police raid on his home related to a fraud and bribery investigation, was last seen at his riverside compound on September eighth. Anyone with information regarding his whereabouts is encourage to call the Indianapolis Police Department.”
“A hundred thousand dollars,” Daisy said. “And you know his kid.” (15)

When news breaks of the disappearance of a local billionaire, sixteen-year-old Aza’s friend Daisy can hardly believe that Aza used to go to camp with his son, Davis. Aza and Daisy lead very different lives compared to Davis, and Daisy is definitely interested in the reward money. After Daisy and Aza are caught snooping around, Davis and Aza reconnect in a manner that only two lost souls who are looking for support can appreciate. However, Aza is more interested in simply getting through the day, as her spirals of thought prove more consuming and destructive. Her medicines and therapy visits aren’t helping, and even she is beginning to realize that maybe she can’t handle everything as well as she thinks.

Be warned, this review includes several longer quotes. I tried very hard to avoid any spoilers in their content. But if you want to be as blown away by the thought-provoking nature of the book as I was the first time you read it, this will probably impact your enjoyment and awe.

Aza suffers from an unnamed illness which appears to my uneducated brain as some combination of paranoia, anxiety, and OCD. She is constantly reopening a wound on her finger in an attempt to drain any infections or harmful bacteria from her body. I don’t think I have ever read a book that has so thoroughly described a mental disorder from the sufferer’s perspective. It begins a conversation about identity, awareness, and self-control that was started long before the phrase “I think therefore I am”. In fact, that quote is discussed at length in the book:

“It’s . . . like, I’m just not sure that I am, strictly speaking, real.”
Dr. Singh placed her feet on the floor and leaned forward, her hands on her knees. “That’s very interesting,” she said. “Very interesting.” I felt briefly proud to be, for a moment anyway, not not uncommon. “It must be very scary, to feel that your self might not be yours. Almost a kind of . . . imprisonment?”
I nodded. […]
“You’re imprisoned within a self that doesn’t feel wholly yours, like Molly Bloom. But also, to you that self often feels deeply contaminated.”
I nodded.
“But you give your thoughts too much power, Aza. Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.”
“But your thoughts are you. I think therefore I am, right?”
“No, not really. A fuller formation of Descartes’s philosophy would be Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes wanted to know if you could really know that anything was real, but he believed his ability to doubt reality proved that, while it might not be real, he was. You are as real as anyone, and your doubts make you more real, not less.” (166-167)

I love the way that John Green presents mental illness in a manner that helps me empathize with sufferers but also allows me to see that there is still a lot to be understood about the brain and how it works. There is a lot to process as the book raises questions on self, awareness, identity, being, and thought. I would love to use this as a book discussion pick, and see what others have to say, either based on their own experiences with mental illness or how they interpret the interactions of biological, chemical, and mental responses.

There’s another passage that I quoted to a friend who is suffering depression right now who said that it pretty damn accurately describes her brain.

“I don’t understand how you can be so inhumanly calm down here, […] but you have a panic attack when you think your finger is infected.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “This just isn’t scary.”
“It objectively is,” she said.
“Turn off your light,” I said.
“Hell, no.”
“Turn it off. Nothing bad will happen.” She clicked off her light, and the world went dark. I felt my eyes trying to adjust, but there was no light to adjust to. “Now you can’t see the walls, right. […] Spin around a few times and you won’t know which way is in and which way is out. This is scary. Now imagine if we couldn’t talk, if we couldn’t hear each other’s breathing. Imagine if we had no sense of touch, so even if we were standing next to each other, we’d never know it.”
“Imagine you’re trying to find someone, or even you’re trying to find yourself, but you have no senses, no way to know where the walls are, which way is forward or backward, what is water and what is air. You’re senseless and shapeless– you feel like you you can only describe what you are by identifying what you’re not, and you’re floating around in a body with no control. You don’t get to decide who you like or where you live or when you eat or what you fear. You’re just stuck in there, totally alone, in this darkness. That’s scary. This,” I said, and turned on the flashlight. “This is control. This is power. There may be rats and spiders and whatever the hell. But we shine a light on them, not the other way around. We know where the walls are, which was is in and which way is out. This,” I said, turning off my light again, “is what I feel like when I’m scared. This” –I turned the flashlight back on– “is a walk in the fucking park.” (262-263)
There’s another scene where Aza is fighting her OCD, and the claustrophobic nature of the conversation is palatable in the prose. It’s these scenes that make the book a stand-out among young adult fiction.
The rest of the book was less effective from my point of view. The plot of Davis’s missing father is all but forgotten for most of the book. Now this was probably intentionally done to emphasize Aza’s point of view and how all consuming her mental health issues are from her perspective. However, for a book billed as being about a search for a missing billionaire, there is very little searching done. The search for clues that does take place is short, conveniently accomplished, and then the mystery is left on the sidelines until the very end of the book. I also wish we had seen more of Daisy. While the subject is broached of how self-consumed Aza can be, Daisy seems equally one track, talking exclusively about herself, her likes, her relationship, and making decisions for both of them. There are one or two scenes where their problematic friendship is broached, but then the disagreement is truncated and they return to each other without resolving the underlying issues. The above quote is one of the few times that I feel there is actual understanding and connection happening between these two life-long friends.

Davis was equally enigmatic. We see more of him through his blog posts and poetry than we do during his interactions with Aza. He’s memorable qualities are his fascination with astronomy, his apathy towards his father, and his uncertainty about his brother. His concern over what will happen to his brother and himself as opposed to what has happened to his father is heartbreaking and the one thing that made him a relatable character. He sees his life as reactive to his father’s actions, a life he has no control over, which is what really allows him to connect so easily with Aza. Both Davis and Aza see their lives as a result of reactions, Davis to external forces (his father, the media, his brother) and Aza to internal forces (bacteria, chemical reactions, the OCD inside her head).

The last two pages seemed unnecessary to me, as the whole tone changes and it’s added almost intended as an “It gets better” postscript” or epilogue to the story. While that might not stick with you, Aza’s struggles will. Don’t pick this book up for the mystery or the romance. Instead, read it for the thought-provoking portrayal of mental illness and the conversations, self-reflections, and empathy it will elicit. If that was the sole intent of the book, to wrap a discussion of mental illness into a digestible package bookmarked by a billionaire’s disappearance, than John Green succeeded in his goal.

SP4RX

SP4RX.jpgTitle: SP4RX
Author/Illustrator: Wren McDonald
ISBN: 9781910620120
Pages: 116 pages
Publisher/Date: Nobrow Ltd., c2016.

“Well the thing is, STEVE, they’re literally removing people’s brains and replacing them with manufactured ones —”
“That’s where you’re wrong, DANA, it’s the same brain, just altered for efficiency.”
“And what? That makes it ethically sound?? These impoverished low-level people are now being forced to work 36 hour shifts for God’s sake! And they are supposed to take ELPIS PROGRAM as a blessing?!”
“Dana, Look. Do you know how much these workers can make in a 36 hour shift? ELPIS gives them the means to provide for their fam-”
“PLEASE! Is that what you tell yourself[…]?!” (27)

In an unspecified dystopian future, SP4RX is a Bitnite, a hacker for hire. He doesn’t ask questions, only delivers the goods, until another hacker named Mega steals the program he heisted. It leads him to meet with a small resistance force with the self-assigned mission to stop a corporation implanting people with upgrades that allow them to be controlled remotely. Initially opposed to joining them, SP4RX realizes that their way might be the only way to maintain the slim direction over his own destiny.

Reminiscent of Fifth Element meets the Matrix, with maybe a little bit of Futurama and Dr. Who’s daleks thrown in for good measure, it’s not uncommon in this world for people to have cybernetic enhancements, communication takes place in person as often as in the virtual world, and the word “eliminate” has replaced “exterminate”. The art work is done in black, white, gray and purple, with the story segmented by full page graphics that feel like filler, or chapter or volume dividers, even though they aren’t labeled as such. A distracting feature is that characters are drawn sometimes with noses and sometimes without with little consistency as to which or why one way is chosen over the other. The story feels like a generic end of the world mashup, with little in the way of a back story explaining how they got to this point. By the end of the book, I was most interested in the minor character of the OBD droid, whose bodyless head steals every scene it’s in, as its implanted empathy drives the dogged search and loyalty it shows for SP4RX. Give that little guy its own series next time, and leave the rest to become more efficient.

Gemina

Gemina.jpgTitle: Gemina
Series: The Illuminae Files #2
Authors: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Narrators: Carla Corvo, MacLeod Andrews, and Steve West, with a full cast
ISBN: 9781101916667 (audiobook), 9780553499155 (hardcover)
CDs/Discs: 11 sound discs (12 hr., 30 min.)
Pages: 659 pages
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2016 by LaRoux Industries Pty Ltd. and Neverafter Pty Ltd.

Mayday, mayday, mayday, this is Acting Captain Syra Boll of the WUC science vessel Hypatia calling Jump Station Heimdall, please respond.
Please respond. Heimdall over. […]
On the off chance we are not receiving your transmissions, or you are unable to reply, Hypatia is still en route to the Heimdall waypoint with Alexander survivors and refugees from the original Kerenza assault aboard. We’re hoping like hell it’s not just a smoking pile of debris when we get there. Estimate our arrival in fifteen days.
If you guys can roll out any kind of cavalry, now’s the goddam time.
Hypatia out.

Little does the crew and passengers of the Hypatia know that Jump Station Heimdall is having their own problems at the moment, and could use some cavalry assistance of their own. The same people who blew up the illegal mining colony of Kerenza and is pursuing the Hypatia is intent on cleaning up this botched effort, through any means necessary. And those means just might include making sure no one from Hypatia or Heimdall can report back on the mass murder that has taken place. A celebratory event turns into a hostage situation, with the captain’s daughter Hanna pairing up with the Nik, the reluctant member of the crime family secretly transporting illegal materials on-board the ship. But those materials may prove more trouble than the hostage takers.

With an almost entirely new cast of characters, the audiobook for this second in the series is almost as good as the first. Although some time has passed since I listened to the story, I remember there were two snags in the production of the early discs where the sound quality didn’t quite stay consistent. However, they were easily forgettable by the time you got to the final scenes. A notoriously impartial and unapologetic Surveillance Footage Analyst from the first book makes a welcome reappearance. Towards the end, overlapping narratives portrayed side by side in double-page spreads in the book are read consecutively, so as to maintain the intended connections.

This second outing in the saga gets slightly more fantastical than the purely scientific first book, especially involving the climatic solution to a problem that seems unsolvable. The death scenes are also more graphically rendered, partially as a result of the cargo being stowed on ship. That’s really all I can say about either event without giving too much away. While I enjoyed the continued use of transcripts, typed analysis, and other written communications to convey the story, the commentary provided during some of the more intense scenes stretched credibility. When trying to deter a hacker, would Nik’s cousin Ella, a skilled hacker in her own right, really take the time to type exclamations like “I TOLD YOU I TOLD YOU I TOLD YOU NOT TO DISTRACT MEEEEEE AAAAAAAHDB#OWALEKVNLAKENLQWENVLQKENV”KQENV”LQENV”LAV ” while trying to save her cousin’s life? In my experience, it might have been more of a vocalization as opposed to an actual typed response, especially when your fingers are otherwise occupied. Ella’s disability is touched upon in a matter-of-fact manner, but never belabored.

Having read the first book, readers will be not be surprised by the blooming romance between two of the characters, but like the first one it is relatively tame and PG compared to the violence and death of the numerous assaults on the characters. In that respect their attention is appropriately focused on staying alive rather than developing a relationship, although there are some tender moments between the two. Nik and Ella’s back and forth rapport also brings some lighter moments to the gripping suspense of when they are going to die.  There is some drug use that might not be appropriate for younger readers, but all of the frequently used swear words have been censored out of both the written and audio versions. Overall, an excellent addition to the sci-fi series, and I’m eagerly anticipating the third and final book in the trilogy.