In a futuristic, post-apocalypse city state the political system is ruled by women and a summer king is elected every five years—only to be killed when the winter ends. Yes, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson has a complicated, dystopian setup. In a nutshell, men couldn’t be trusted after ruining the world, so women held most of the power.
But this year’s summer king is pushing the rules and he inspires teenage artist June as she struggles to figure out her place. Like everyone else, she’s intrigued by the new summer king and begins to push the boundaries of her art, the technology the ruling class allows and the very rules of society.
This one is bizarre and intriguing. Set in what used to be Brazil, we’re constantly catching up with the future world and the South American setting. Not everything is explained immediately, which is OK. It also moves along at a good pace, frequently skipping ahead weeks or months and not getting derailed in daily detail.
But it also gets into strange technology and bizarre cultural situations where it’s hard to keep up with what’s happening. That kills any page-turner tendency the story was developing.
It’s been considered among the best—at least by Rolling Stone— but I’m not so convinced. It’s definitely different and breaks some new ground (a future not dominated by white Americans—gasp!), but it’s not the must-read I yearn for.
Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar was one of my favorite books growing up.
I read it to the kids and it wasn’t as magical and hilarious as I remember. It’s still fun and definitely quirky, but it’s also disjointed and sometimes just weird (dead rats?).
It makes me wonder how much of my enjoyment came because one of my teachers read it to us and those books always seem to be better?
It was also written 35 years ago and what was considered off-beat and quirky back then is pretty tame today. We have a lot weirder and more off-beat now, so it seems like a halfway approach.
It could also be that I’m no longer 8 and don’t laugh at the same stuff.
The second story in the Heaven trilogy, The First Part Last by Angela Johnson tells the story of Bobby and Feather and how this father-daughter duo from the first installment came to be together.
It’s just as quiet and simple as Heaven, but told in a then/now format that slowly builds to the climax. It’s the right amount of mystery and intrigue without spoiling things and without overpowering the story.
As a teenage father, Bobby is the hero we seldom see. We need more characters like Bobby. He’s a powerful, strong father in Heaven, and The First Part Last allows us to see how he gets there. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s worth the late nights and tired eyes.
When I carried Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac around while reading it people kept asking me about it and I struggled to summarize it: “Um, post-apocalyptic YA thriller starring a Native American female warrior?”
And maybe that’s the best way to describe it. It features genetically modified monsters and weird bits of telepathy, but it’s otherwise realistic, fast-paced and quite the page-turner.
Lozen is a bad ass. She’s got the survival skills of a good Western hero, but she’s living in the post apocalyptic Southwest where an interstellar electromagnetic pulse of sorts has put an end to modern technology. Much of the ruling class were killed when their enhancements fritzed out and their DNA-spliced pet monsters got loose (giant snake, anyone?).
It’s a great setting, a great hero and great fun watching her overcome all these crazy challenges trying to keep her family safe. The only downside is that the characters are a bit flat. There’s not a lot of growth or depth. I don’t think it hinders the story, but it probably keeps it from being a truly top-notch book. But it’s definitely fun reading.
Marley has a simple life in a town called Heaven, hanging out with friends and getting letters from her traveling Uncle Jack. Until she learns that her parents aren’t really her parents and she’s set adrift.
Heaven by Angela Johnson is really a simple, quiet story, despite the head-spinning topic. It’s slow building and has a subtle grace.
It’s not the typical urban black youth or witty teen story, and for that alone it’s refreshing.
It’s also the first in a trilogy, though they’re really more three inter-related books that follow connected characters. Each book is self contained and you don’t even need to read them in order. That’s also a refreshing change from the usual YA trilogies.
In A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott a teenage black girl inadvertently travels from modern day to Civil War-era Brooklyn. It’s reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, though it’s much slower paced. It’s more character driven, taking time to thoroughly introduce the reader to modern urban poverty and focusing on the racial differences between 1863 and the modern day.
While Kindred really dove into the time travel and let the social commentary speak for itself (more or less), A Wish After Midnight really chews on it. It’s interesting, but it’s not as satisfying or gripping of a read.
While not quite a slave in 1860s Brooklyn, Genna is still trapped with few options. In many ways, her choices and limitations aren’t that far off from modern days. There’s a lot to digest and in some ways that’s where it feels like there’s too much social commentary and not enough action. It’s good commentary, but it doesn’t have the page-turning wonder of Octavia Butler (which is a completely unfair comparison, but there it is).
Terrorism turns to government conspiracy and much, much worse in Adaptation by Malinda Lo. It’s basically a quick-paced teenie-bopper thrill ride.
It explored some interesting concepts (SPOILERS: Birds breaking planes! Genetic testing! Intergalactic hanky-panky!), but in the end the giant conspiracy saga was completely overshadowed by the teen romance. The lesbian teen romance—well, the xenosexual teen romance.
Yes, Adaptation includes a little human-alien romance. It’s not nearly as weird as you think, especially when the aliens look like humans and the human involved had no idea about the alien bit).
But as you can imagine, that part gets really interesting. Especially when the human involved thinks she’s gay. All the while struggling with feelings for her male debate partner. Never mind the lies and betrayal happening with the alien/human lover.
With all that going on it’s a bit anti-climactic when the president fesses up to first contact and Area 51 and all that. Forget the intergalactic conspiracy, I wanted more drama.
And be warned—it’s a trilogy. There’s a fair amount of closure at the end of the first volume, but there are still plenty of questions to be answered.
When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds has the gritty, urban feel of Walter Dean Myers, but feels a little more intentional and unique.
It’s the story of a teenager in the hood, trying to stay on the straight and narrow, while still being a teen. It’s a powerful story of family and loyalty that doesn’t descend into the worst of urban stereotypes where everyone gets shot, does drugs and ruins their lives.
Instead it’s about redemption.
I love the character Needles who turns to knitting to control his Tourette syndrome. It’s a realistic coping mechanism and it’s just so wonderfully out of place for these tough urban characters.
Astrid Jones has never felt safe since moving to a small town. Her mom is image-obsessed, her dad is checked out, her sister is a people pleaser, her best friend lives a double life and, oh yeah, Astrid has a girl friend and hasn’t told anyone she’s gay. Not even herself. Since she can’t confide in anyone, she spends a lot of her time lying on picnic tables, sending her love to random passengers soaring past at 20,000 feet.
In many ways Ask the Passengers by A.S. King is the story of your typical teen finding out who they are, but it’s so well-written and funny and fresh that there’s nothing typical about it. It’s just a beautiful story. I listened to the audiobook and I think that always helps, but it just forged a great connection.
I think that’s the real strength of A.S. King’s writing. Please Ignore Vera Dietz was one of my favorites last year and made my top 10 list (tough competition kept it from going higher). That story had great characters and just pulled you into their real life. Ask the Passengers has the same feel, and it has that great teen wit and wonder.
As you can imagine it explores the many issues raised by coming out and the resulting reaction. Some of that is maddening, but realistic. It also has an interesting take on sexuality, with Astrid’s mother pushing her to have sex but Astrid is looking for love, not just sex. There are some frank and honest discussions about when a teen is ready to have sex. Refreshingly, it’s Astrid doing all the smart thinking, including telling her eager girl friend to back off.
There’s a lot to like about Ask the Passengers and I’ve now added A.S. King to my list of ‘read everything they write’ authors.
Desperate and depressed, Seth commits suicide and wakes up in an abandoned world. He finds himself inexplicably in his childhood home in England, across the world from where he drowned, and the world is dusty, overgrown and empty. Is he in some kind of hell? This one is weird and deep, but really good as you start diving down the rabbit hole.
And you can hardly say much about More Than This by Patrick Ness without dipping into SPOILER territory. So be warned, cuz that’s where I’m going.
I think the beginning starts off a bit weird. It’s really unclear what’s happening. We get this drowning scene and then quickly learn it was suicide. Then he wakes up in this weird space and it’s familiar but not real. It’s very Twilight Zone. We get flashbacks to his life in dream form, telling us how he got to suicide, including how he blames himself for his brother’s abduction and resulting trauma. Then there’s his secret gay romance that is revealed to the world.
Just when this weird empty world is starting to feel like some kind of metaphysical hell, he runs into other people (it’s about 150 pages in, so it takes a while). Now it really starts getting weird. Ultimately it has a Matrix-like quality where his previous life was a simulation and the empty, abandoned world is reality. It’s a trippy post-apocalyptic story, disguised as a guilt-ridden trip to hell.
How it all plays out is just gripping—I had to start covering up the right side page so I wouldn’t skip ahead. The characters he runs into are also fascinating, well-fleshed and very real.
More Than This is really weird, but it’s pretty amazing. It’s early to call it, but I’d expect to see this one in my top 5 for the year.