Book Review: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_scytheIn a world where an artificial conscience maintains peace and prosperity, death has been conquered; no longer are you likely to die from disease or fatal accident, even age can be reversed. The only hand dealing death are the hands of the Scythes: humans selected specifically to keep the population stable and to maintain balance. It feels like a Utopia.

It is not.

Our female protagonist Citra Terranova’s life changes the day the Scythe knocks on her door. He’s not there to glean any of her family, but to take the life of her neighbour. While he waits for her to come home, he joins them for dinner. For no-one denies a Scythe anything. Male protagonist Rowan Damisch meets his first Scythe when he comes to glean a classmate. Rowan’s act of compassion – sitting with the boy as he dies – leads to alienation amongst his peers.

Both are soon recruited as apprentice Scythes: weighed down with the responsibility of selecting victims, and learning the art of killing. But corruption is growing within the Scythe society, and Citra and Rowan must band together to fight it – then they are informed of the final test: There can be only one, one of them must glean the other…

Utopia-turns-dystopia in a world where death has been defeated, but with it, some of the passion has leaked from the world. This story has been branded (by Young Adult author, Maggie Stiefvater) as “A true successor to The Hunger Games” and it does live up to that tagline, whilst retaining an intriguing freshness, despite following what is a very common theme within Young Adult fiction (the apprentice learning their trade).

The Scythe society is particularly novel: here is a profession in which you are truly forced to a distance by the general population, you are something of a celebrity, but everyone fears the day you turn up on their doorstep. The characters are each their own individuals, and watching the effect of their new responsibilities and how they react is both inspiring and terrifying.

For a fresh take on a tried-and-true formula, I would recommend Scythe to fans of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other dystopic novels.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Scythe
by Neal Shusterman
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406379242

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Book Review: The Dangerous Art of Blending In, by Angelo Surmelis

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cv_the_dangerous_art_of_blending_in.jpgAs painful as it is powerful, The Dangerous Art of Blending In is not a story to be read lightly. It is one that will reach deep within, and squeeze painful fingers around your heart, making you ache with sorrow for the protagonist Evan Panos, rage with anger at his mother, and slap his father until he does intervene. It is a story about struggling with identity in a world that doesn’t readily accept you, about struggling to live up to your parents’ expectations, even though your mother will never accept you, about learning how to fight just to be yourself. Thus it will almost certainly kindle the emotions of the modern-day teenager, who will be able to identify with some, if not all, of Evan’s struggles.

Evan Panos is still coming to terms with the fact that at summer camp he kissed a boy, and he liked it. He’s gay, but terrified of his mother. Strongly religious, with a troubled past of her own (which is, obviously, no excuse for how she treats her son), she bullies, belittles and outright abuses Evan. His father, also afraid of his wife, seeks to comfort Evan in small ways – such as stealing him away to treat him to early morning donuts – but does very little to stop the abuse, or to reveal it. Instead, Evan must hide it, shrouding his bruises and cuts with lies of bicycle accidents and general clumsiness.

His only way to live is to blend in, to remain invisible, but events will conspire against him. It begins with a growing attraction to his best friend, Henry. An attraction that Henry reciprocates. But as their relationship heats up, so does his mother’s abuse, and some of his fellow students are, likewise, less than accepting. Evan’s only escape now lies in casting off his camouflage, and finding his voice in a world where he has survived by avoiding attention at all costs.

For anyone struggling in similar situations, Evan’s tale will likely be a painful but inspirational read. The author, Angelo Surmelis, is an award-winning designer and TV host, and, judging by the author’s note, although this is not intended as an autobiography, he “gave” Evan his story.

So how much of it is fact and how much fiction? I cannot say for sure, but I know that you will yearn for Evan to make his stand against his mother, to finally say “Enough”. That you will love the touching moments between he and Henry. And that you won’t want to put this down until you’ve turned that last page.

Recommended for fans of John Green, Jennifer Niven (who inspired Surmelis to write the story), and Rainbow Rowell.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Dangerous Art of Blending In
by Angelo Surmelis
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143790150

Book Review: Air Born, by J. L. Pawley

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cv_air_bornJ.L. Pawley is a young writer, hailing from Auckland, New Zealand. Air Born first found its wings via Wattpad, where Pawley established quite a readership – and with good reason – before self-publishing her book, then having it picked up and refined by local publisher, Steam Press, and it can now be found in bookstores across New Zealand.

Many of us have dreamed of flying, and for American teenager Tyler Owens, that desire is about to become heart-racing reality.  Despite suffering from recent, almost debilitating back pain, he’s not about to let that stop him from experiencing his first solo sky dive. But it all goes horrendously wrong, when the swelling along his spine ruptures into a glorious pair of wings. With the entire event captured on video and broadcast across the world, Tyler does not have much chance to enjoy his new mutation – instead he’s running for his freedom, pursued by the sinister Evolutionary Corporation and heralded by the  impassioned Angelists.

But Tyler is not alone, because across the world other teenagers – all recently turned 17 – are experiencing similar “wing births”.  These seven teenagers are drawn together, to become a flock (or rather, a flight). Together, in the Californian desert, they must learn how to control their newly-sprouted limbs and master the art of flight, before they are hunted down.

Adrenalin-fueled and engaging, this is an action-adventure that should appeal to fans of the CHERUBS series, and James Patterson’s Maximum Ride. Flying is no easy feat, and Pawley has put a lot of thought into the biology of her icarian race. Whilst the story is fast-paced, and the characterisation strong – I particularly liked the character of Tui, a bold and out-spoken girl from New Zealand – there are perhaps not as many questions answered as I would have liked; there is much to be learned of the background behind these winged teenagers, which I suspect will be explored in further novels.

A strong debut, and I look forward to following the adventures of this Flight further.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Air Born
by J. L. Pawley
Published by Steam Press
ISBN 9780994138798

Book Review: Book of Dust Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

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cv_the_book_of_dust_la_belle_sauvage.jpgIn 1995, Philip Pullman’s novel, Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) was released. The trilogy that followed has won numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal and Whitbread Book of the Year, as well as spawning a (rather disappointing) movie, and capturing the hearts and imagination of thousands of older children, teenagers, and adults alike. It took us to an alternate universe, where every human has their daemon – an animal companion that is an extension of your soul made flesh. Whilst a child, daemons are fluid shape-shifters, but once matured, they settle into the form that most truly reflects their human’s personality.

Now, 17 years after the release of the final book, Pullman invites us back into Lyra’s Oxford, and once more immerses us into her world. There is an aspect of an origin story here, with Lyra being a baby, on her journey to Jordan College. Our hero is Malcolm Polstead – an eleven-year-old who works in his parents’ inn. When he hears world that the local Priory of St Rosamund has taken into their charge a baby, his interest is immediately kindled. Meanwhile, the appearance of imposing and frightening outsiders within their small village is causing conflict and fear. Children are encouraged to spy on their parents, and it is difficult to know whom to trust.

Everything draws to a dramatic climax when a terrible flood strikes the village, and Malcolm is cast adrift, in the company of Alice, an older, outspoken girl with whom he has a strained relationship, and with little Lyra in their care. They flee across the country, facing a series of challenges: some natural, some supernatural, all the while being pursued by a charismatic scientist and his foul daemon.

With elements of fable, La Belle Sauvage is a spell-binding return to a world we can never forget, with a new cast of characters – and a foul villain – whilst many familiar faces, and hints at what the future will bring. Whilst one can read it independent of His Dark Materials, I believe the events will hold a greater gravitas if one has already enjoyed that series.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Book of Dust Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage
by Philip Pullman
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780857561084

 

Book Review: Landscapes with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_landscape_with_invisible_handWeird, bleak and oddly compelling. Landscape with Invisible Hands is more closely aligned to social satire than science-fiction. It asks what would happen if the aliens came offering the ability to cure all illnesses and replace the jobs so that you need never work again? Sounds ideal? Well, it’s not.

The gap between rich and poor increases. The rich — and those who’ve managed to work their way into vuvv society — succeed. The others, left below to scrap over the few jobs that remain, suffer. Adam is one of those left below, living in the shadow of the vuvvs floating city. He is an artist, a painter, and something of a dreamer. Not the most ambitious of youths. After falling in love with a neighbour, the two of them decide to earn an income by starring in vuvv reality TV shows. The vuvv don’t form pair bonds but they do enjoy watching human courtship, circa 1950. It doesn’t end well, and thus Adam’s downward spiral begins…

This is a very readable, and quite relatable look at society — at what makes humans human and the lengths that we will go to both to make money and to please our mostly benevolent (but selfish) overlords. It acts as a social commentary on the division between the wealthy and the poverty-ridden, and how the latter are sometimes dehumanised. The ending falls a little flat but given the characters and the circumstances, I wasn’t expecting it to be dramatic. Overall, quite compelling (with short chapters) and one to make you think.

Review by Angela Oliver

Landscape with Invisible Hand
by M.T. Anderson
Published by Candlewick Press
ISBN 9780763687892

Book Review: Annual 2, edited by Kate de Goldi & Susan Paris

Annual-2-cvr-72dpi-max-800Available in bookshops nationwide.

Annual 2 is a beautiful book to behold. With its gentle green colouration, whimsically pop-art styled illustration and thick creamy pages, it is decidedly collectible. On opening the book one is treated to an Aladdin’s cave of the oddball and quirky, with a charming irreverence that is an absolute delight.

For this is no ordinary compendium of stories, compiled from an array of New Zealand authors, illustrators and other creatively-minded people. No, this is a figurative treasure chest to grab and engage the mind and attention. There are short stories, yes, and essays too, plus several comics.

But there is so much more: the board game of “Blended Families”, taking one on a ride roll-and-move through the hazards of step parents and siblings; a slightly twisted interview with a taxidermist (he took up the occupation so he could preserve his beloved cat, Mr Mallory); quirky craft activities (ever wanted to knit a digestive system? Or build an eye-catchingly garish mailbox?); a pancake recipe, complete with how to ferment your own sauerkraut; a double-page spread on the identification of ‘Common Household Biscuits and Slices of New Zealand’ complete with scientific names (Raisin biscuits are known as Deceptus terribloides); strange historic postcards; colourful illustrations; tips on how to be a rock star. There is something for everyone here, something to delight and entertain the young (and young at heart). I urge you to pick it up and take a look!

Annual 2 is a very modern, contemporary collection, with a sophistication one rarely finds in more mainstream annuals. It is the sort of book that will hopefully find its way into Christmas stockings all over the country, into the collections of book lovers, and be passed on through the generations.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Annual 2
edited by Kate De Goldi & Susan Paris
Published by AnnualInk
ISBN 9780473395230

Book Review: Alex Approximately, by Jenn Bennett

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_alex_approximatelyAlex, Approximately is sort of a modern-day novelised equivalent of the movie, You’ve Got Mail, aimed at a new generation.

Our protagonist, Bailey, loves classic movies and follows a strict habit of avoiding things that take her out of her comfort zone. So, when things become too uncomfortable at home with her mother’s new boyfriend, she moves to a small Californian coastal city, to live with her father. The fact that her online friend, fellow film-buff Alex, also lives there is just an added garnish.

However, not one to rush into things, Bailey determines to track down this mysterious “Alex” and suss him out before even tell him that they’re in the same city. The city, resting on the Californian Coast, somewhere near Monteray Bay and with the redwood forests as a backdrop, is a surfer’s paradise. It’s also home to a bizarre museum known as “The Cave” (which I feel was loosely based on The House On the Rock in Wisconsin). Here she picks up a summer job, and also catches the attentions of sexy, if infuriating, surfer boy, Parker. Their initial meetings are typical to the genre: he gently mocks her, and ultimately seems to be intent on trying to embarrass her. She bites back. They grow closer, become friends, and eventually Bailey decides she should stop trying to lightly stalk “Alex” in favour of her new relationship, and their already fairly infrequent online conversations cease.

If you’re reading this book for discussions about classic movies, I’m afraid you’re likely be disappointed. What you do receive, instead, is the awkward world of teenage dating and a frustrating case of hidden identity, interspersed with an intriguing array of background characters (Parker’s mother is most excellent!), and a somewhat-antagonist, Parker’s ex-friend, Davey. Davey is all kinds of messed up: he injured his knee a few years ago, became addicted to painkillers, and switched from there to harder drugs. He exhibits a variety of antisocial mannerisms, including a deep resentment of Parker, and Bailey has also caught his eye…

On the surface, Alex Approximately feels like a fairly light, superficial read. The twist, Alex’s identity, is easily figured out (and is pretty much spoiled on some of the promotional material, although not, fortunately, the blurb). It does contain frequent mentions of recreational drug use (although the main characters remain drug-free), violence, and some fairly descriptive sexual content. Thus I would not recommend it for the younger or more innocent reader (I would suggest, ages 14+).

It also fails to deal with some of the harder issues, such as Davey’s drug addiction, and he is cast more as the villain in need of taking out than the teenager in need of serious help that he clearly is. Bailey, for all that her father calls her “a good detective” at one point, is possibly the worst detective I’ve seen in a young adult novel, and completely fails to figure out who Alex is, despite the fact that even her father has guessed (but refuses to tell her or even drop substantial hints, presumably because the situation amuses him).

Whilst I would describe it as extremely readable, and quite entertaining, it could have been so much more.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Alex Approximately
by Jenn Bennett
Published by Simon & Schuster
ISBN  9781471161049