Our Picks for May 2017
This month Kelly reviews titles she read over April vacatio
Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Summary: A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control. Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own
Kelly's review: I love everything about this futuristic science fiction story. Not a sci-fi fan? Have no fear because the book offers so much more than that with its familial obligations and relationships, corruption of power in a supposedly perfect world, moral dilemmas, definition of love, role of religion when death has been conquered, and the meaning of life and death.
Society has mastered death, famine, and disease, all the ills that plague our world. The Thunderhead, an altruistic and magnanimous computer/cloud based technological marvel, provides for every human need, so we live in a utopia. Ah, there have been enough books written about utopian societies and worlds to raise suspicion from the opening chapters of this story. When we live forever and can "turn the corner" to revert to as young as 24 (but don't worry, a company is working on making it possible to revert to 16 in the future) then what happens when we outgrow love? When we choose to remarry and have more children (who are decades younger than their half siblings)? What does this do to the good old family tree? And what about population growth? Can the earth sustain us when there are no deaths? Enter scythes who are trained in the art of death and must perform 200 kills per year. Each scythe, revered by all, chooses the manner of selection and death, but what happens if the scythes become corrupt? Teenagers Citra and Rowan apprentice with a master scythe, one from the old school of beliefs, and this garners their families one year of immunity from being culled (and a lifetime if they are chosen to be scythes themselves after the apprenticeship). Each has his/her own reasons for agreeing to master the burden of killing others. The old guard who view their task as a necessary burden vs. the new, less experienced scythes who enjoy killing (we can't say younger when anyone can turn the corner to become younger, can we?) sets up for a great conflict
Nonstop action, adventures, and thrills make for a fast read (so don't be intimidated by the length of the book although I think it could have been shortened a bit). Despite this brisk pace, readers will still be compelled to pause and ponder the many dilemmas the story provides. I was fascinated with the art museum visits and the complaint that art has no depth of emotion anymore because there is no sense of immediacy of death; everyone has all that s/he requires (but there are still socio- economic levels, just not poverty); therefore, art does not touch the soul as it once did. Society is actually bored because the Thundercloud takes care of and even anticipates their needs (and theoretically there probably isn't a need for culling because the Thundercloud can create supplies for an ever growing populace). I chuckled over one tiny reference to the "spinning beach ball" we sometimes experience with our computers today, but not so for the omnipotent Thundercloud.
This would be a marvelous book to teach. I can't wait until the next volume in this series is published.
Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
Summary: Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: A white baby had died while under the care of a churchgoing black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it? She wouldn’t say. Mary survived six years in baby jail before being dumped in a group home. The house isn’t really “home”—no place where you fear for your life can be considered a home. Home is Ted, who she meets on assignment at a nursing home. There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary must find the voice to fight her past. And her fate lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But who really knows the real Mary?
Kelly's review: This is a debut novel that reads as if a seasoned author has written it, and I'm still reeling from the ending of this book. Wow. Simply wow.
With a strong voice, Mary narrates her own story in a vernacular that contributes to the story perfectly. I love how the author forced me to question Mary's reliability given the many versions of her story and how the world has judged her since she was 9 years old. I could not read this book fast enough to uncover the truths. This is a sad, melancholy story that also instilled great rage in me at our penal system and the lack of resources available to teens who are "in the system."
There are shocking revelations in this tale with plenty of twists, but they are not done for titillating purposes. Peopled with a myriad of personalities, some may feel like caricatures, but they are supposed to feel like that, and it works for the story. With numerous topics to explore, this book is fabulous fodder for lengthy discussions around nature vs. nurture, the legal system, parental influence and parental rights, good vs. evil, and perception vs. reality. I don't want to give away too much in this book, but it's meant to be experienced. Just read it. I predict that when you finish the last page, and gasp with shock, you will be compelled to read the story again (or at least flip through pages to determine if you read the ending correctly!).
Still Life With Tornado by A. S. King
Summary: Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future. But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.
Kelly's review: Another fantastic book by an author I revere. Sixteen year old Sarah's existential crisis is one that most of us can relate to, but how Sarah's crisis manifests itself is what makes this story so intriguing. King amazes me with plots that are devices that are fantastical and sometimes mind boggling, but her characters keep us grounded in reality despite the chaos surrounding them.
Sarah's first person narration forces us to relive her past with her as she slowly remembers what happened on a family vacation to Mexico when she was ten. These flashbacks contrasted with present day entries provide a surreal feel to the story that begs us to question Sarah's reality and perhaps even her sanity. Ah, but just go along for the ride and accept it all because King never disappoints.
A few additions (first person as well) from Sarah's mom Helen add insight into the story, and the titles of the chapters are marvelous. The tornado in this story may be a figurative one, but its destruction manifests itself physically. Layers of metaphors in this story, I love that art is what originally sends Sarah on her quest and causes her so much anguish but ultimately is what saves her.
King is labeled a YA author, but don't let that stop you from reading her books. Adults will love her stories as much as teens do or even more so!
Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow
Summary: Charlotte Davis is in pieces. At seventeen she’s already lost more than most people lose in a lifetime. But she’s learned how to forget. The broken glass washes away the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don’t have to think about your father and the river. Your best friend, who is gone forever. Or your mother, who has nothing left to give you. Every new scar hardens Charlie’s heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen before you can find your way back from the edge.
Kelly's review: A debut novel that deals with self-harm, a topic that has been told many times before, but the author keeps the story from feeling stale or repetitive because Charlie's voice is genuine. She makes the same mistakes that others have made before her, but the secondary cast of characters (a destructive BFF, an unrequited crush, a relationship with an older has-been rock singer, and quirky co-workers at a coffee shop) keep the story fresh. Short chapters create an immediacy to this gritty story that doesn't shy from detailing the horrors of life.
Charlie's story reminds us that humans are equal parts haunted and redeemed, angel and monster, and her story proves that we can be broken into a thousand pieces but with the help of others we can mend ourselves. The scars may remain, but if we are brave enough, the scars are proof that we not only survived but also overcame great tragedy and trauma.
Don't be afraid to read this dark tale. Don't assume you've heard the story before (I was reminded of Ellen Hopkins' books at first). Don't enter the story with preconceived notions. Just read it from cover to cover (I challenge you to take more than a day to do so) and marvel over the fragility of life, the awful beauty of it all.
The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli
Summary: Cammie O'Reilly lives at the Hancock County Prison--not as a prisoner, she's the warden's daughter. She spends the mornings hanging out with shoplifters and reformed arsonists in the women's excercise yard, which gives Cammie a certain cache with her school friends. But even though Cammie's free to leave the prison, she's still stuck. And sad, and really mad. Her mother died saving her from harm when she was just a baby. You wouldn't think you could miss something you never had, but on the eve of her thirteenth birthday, the thing Cammie most wants is a mom. A prison might not be the best place to search for a mother, but Cammie is determined and she's willing to work with what she's got.
Kelly's review: Oh what a wonderfully sweet story that is obviously written for younger teens, but I expect adults will find the book more appealing and charming than teen readers. Nostalgic with its 1950s setting of American Bandstand, children playing and roaming free until dark, and innocent pranks, we follow Cammie for one summer when she's on the cusp of leaving childhood behind and discovering a grief and anger she never knew she harbored. I delighted in Cammie's descriptions of the female prison and her interactions with the inmates (especially Boo Boo and Eloda) and her attempts to make one of the trustees into a mother figure. Cammie's independent and headstrong spirit is tempered by her kindness and moral compass. Best friend Reggie and Cammie's father sometimes can do nothing but follow in her wake, but their unconditional love and support allow Cammie to finish her quest.
It's unnecessary and actually detracting to include Cammie as a grandmother sharing her story with her granddaughter when she returns to the prison. I found the few adult interjections in the story an interruption to the flow of what was otherwise a delightful tale.
We Are Okay by Nina Lacour
Summary: Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.
Kelly's review: Short and easy to read, this book grapples with grief in its many forms. Marin's odyssey to rediscover herself after losing everyone and everything she believes in is quietly and subtly told, sharing her pain with us in layers. Rather than overwhelming (and possibly distancing) the reader, these revelations, provided in flashbacks, draw us closer to her. We feel an affinity with her rather than mere sadness or pity. First person narrative increases our connection to Marin; her clear voice sings to us and compels us to follow her on her journey. References to famous classics such as Jane Eyre further endear Marin to us. A wonderful little story that is so much bigger than its size.
The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
Summary: Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence. While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways. But Jack Fisher sees her. He’s the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered hasn’t let him forget Alex over the years, and now her green eyes amid a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn’t want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.
Kelly's review: What happens when we plumb the depths of a loved one's soul? Are we willing to accept what we see when we look into the abyss? Can we overlook the flaws no matter how heinous they may be? Can we forgive? Can we forget? Can we move on? This YA novel has everything that a teen (and adult) should love. It's dark and mysterious, shrouded in pain, rejection, and revenge with mere glimpses of hope and light. Despite finding love and a true friend, Alex's demons continue to gnaw at her psyche. The horrific aftermath of her sister's rape and murder three years earlier seem to be the impetus for her plight, but Alex herself leads us to believe that it's more than that. She's a fantastic character - we equally pity her and are disgusted by her all while we pray for her happiness.
Living in a small town affords little opportunity for teens to move beyond their incestuous-like swapping of lovers and friends. I struggled at first to accept the easy hookups, cheating on boyfriends, drinking fests, opioid tweakers, date rape assemblies, alcoholic parents, and stereotypical cliques at school. But early on, it melded into a story of stifling confinement in a small town where high school super stars graduate to flip burgers and behaving badly is the only recourse a teen has to find empowerment.
Sharply drawn characters, striking prose, and an unwavering plot all cause readers great trepidation. This is a darkly violent book, one that left me raw, bereft, and tender, contemplating Alex's, Jake's, Branley's, and Peekay's predicament long after I turned the last page. A great read alone book but equally compelling to discuss in a book group or class.
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