Above

Title: Above

Author: Isla Morley

Release Date: Available

In Eudora, Kansas, a local librarian and survivalist, Dobbs, lives in a mindset of conviction and certainty that the world is on the brink of collapse. In response to this, he constructs an underground bunker in an abandoned missile silo, storing everything from food and supplies to copies of historical documents and various seed samples. He’s also decided who will be his perfect mate — who will be the Adam to his Eve once the world needs rebuilding.

The novel opens with our sixteen year old protagonist, Blythe Hallowell, waking up in her new home.

Abducted and afraid, Blythe attempts to come to terms with her new situation, reacting with fear and confusion, attempting escape and pleas before eventually setting into a sort of resignation. She spends the next eighteen years of her life trapped in the silo, treated to Dobbs’ deranged ramblings about the end of the world, futilely trying to convince Blythe that everything he’s done is for her own good. A few years into her imprisonment, she has a child, and must then struggle with the additional burden of trying to raise and protect her son from the hell they both occupy. Once her son, Adam, reaches the age of fifteen, though, Blythe’s flimsy excuses and explanations no longer satisfy him. He becomes determined to see the world above, and when Dobbs’ refuses, becomes determined to escape.

All of this occurs in the first half of the novel — which I really enjoyed reading. It was thrilling and suspenseful, and Morley does an excellent job of building tension as Blythe makes her numerous escape attempts. The opening half is both page-turning and captivating, compelling and horrifically believable.

But the second half of the novel is where the story loses me.

Okay, quick heads up, massive spoiler alerts below. You’ve been warned.

Adam and Blythe manage to escape by killing Dobbs, finally experiencing a taste of freedom in the world above. Adam is mystified and blown away by this wide, wide, world — but Blythe can tell that something is different —- wrong. Because as it turns out, all of Dobbs’ deranged ramblings about the end of the world turn out to be true. Power failed, nuclear reactors melted down and coated the country in radiation, governments and systems have collapsed and the entire country is poisoned. Adam and Blythe stumble through this new world of unpredictability and danger, eventually managing to settle themselves in Blythe’s old hometown with some familiar faces from Blythe’s past, and, in a sense, live happily ever after.

Now, I’ve heard comments that Above feels like two stories squeezed into one, and I do agree with that. But that’s not my main problem with the book. My main issue is Dobbs, and the treatment of his character.

For the first half of the novel, the reader is led to, reasonably and understandably, revile him. He kidnapped a sixteen year old girl and trapped her underground for over 18 years, removing her from everything she knew and loved and raping her along the way. But then Adam and Blythe discover the world above, finding out that everything Dobbs said is true — that he in fact saved both of them from radiation poisoning and the chaos and misery that plagued the country for years. By raping Blythe, he gave her a son free of mutations and disabilities that define every other child born in recent years. He gave them both a chance at life.

So how am I supposed to feel about him? Blythe herself does very little consideration of Dobbs after emerging aboveground, just the occasional though here or there, leaving Dobbs actions as very morally open ended. He’s also praised later in the novel for remembering to save important historical documents that all others overlooked.

Is he the hero or the villain? As it turns out, he did a number of tremendously good things for Blythe and Adam, by doing a number of tremendously horrific things. Or do they only seem horrific because Blythe/the reader were blind to the truth? After discovering how awful things have become above, the little consideration that Blythe gives to Dobbs seems almost approving and accepting of his actions.

But that can’t erase all of Dobbs horrible actions, can it? Or do his actions only seem horrible because of the reader’s limited perspective?

I walk away from Above treating Dobbs as the villain – because perhaps it can be argued that his actions were justified, but at the heart of the issue, he never gave Blythe a choice. Maybe if she’d been aware of everything that would have happened, she would have chosen life in the silo — but regardless, it should have been her choice to make. By depriving her of the opportunity to make her own decisions, taking it upon himself to do “what’s best for her” Dobbs casts himself in the role of the villain. In the end, his actions aren’t justified by the end of the world.

So overall, I thought the book was interesting and certainly unique. I was frustrated by the moral ambiguity, but all of this is just my take on the novel. I’d be curious to hear other interpretations and views on Dobbs actions. Regardless, it is a gripping and fast-paced read — exciting and intriguing from the first page.

Reviewed by Kayla

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The End Games

Title: The End Games

Author: T. Michael Martin

Release Date: Available

There is a world painted by darkness – a world home to the echoing, mindless, shambling cries of the Bellows – a world of shotguns and screams and chain link fences, of destruction and chaos – a world defined by death.

In T. Michael Martin’s upcoming novel The End Games, there are two brothers who call this world home.

In some ways, The End Games bears remarkable similarities to the ever rising numbers of zombie apocalypse novels, movies and television shows – in some ways, it fits the formulaic plot lines and patterns we’ve come to know and love and that define this new culture of gore and violence and the all-consuming desire to feast on human flesh. But The End Games also contains elements and plot lines serving to set it apart from its fellows – one of the most compelling being the relationships between the two brothers, as well as all the characters and their interactions. Martin takes an uncertain 17 year old, driven by his unconditional and fierce love for his fragile, unstable 5 year old brother and throws them into hell, with the result being a series of unpredictable twists and turns and fascinating insights into the depths of human resilience and courage.

However, when every facet of our society is seemingly infected by this new apocalyptic trend – it becomes imperative that anything new – be it a novel, show, or movie – must go above and beyond to distinguish itself from the others, and while Martin does find ways to set The End Games apart, I don’t think he goes quite far enough. Throughout the book, there were more parallels than I would have liked between The End Games and another new cult-like phenomenon, The Walking Dead. The End Games didn’t really start proving itself to be unique until the very end, at which point things seemed to speed up and snowball into what felt like a hasty conclusion.

That being said – The End Games is still a compelling and suspenseful read – and seeing as how I found myself unable to put it down, needing to know what would happen next, then clearly Martin’s The End Games is doing something right.

Review by Kayla

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We Were Liars

Title: We Were Liars

Author: E. Lockhart

Release Date: May 2014

Along with this book came the instructions to lie — lie about the ending, be spartan with descriptions, reveal as little as possible. Yet E. Lockhart’s uniquely beautiful and undeniably stunning book both deserves and demands to be read, and somehow, I don’t think a review completely devoid of explanation is going to be very convincing. So I’ve decided to stick with lies of omission and hopefully that still counts.

We Were Liars pulls back the curtain on the world of the fabulously wealthy and utterly mysterious Sinclair family.  Split and divided into generations of children and grandchildren, every summer the Sinclairs are pulled together to their private island of Beechwood, home to years of memories and sentiment and an abundance of golden retrievers. Beechwood is also the birthplace of the Liars — four friends connected by bonds of both blood and love, united in their penchant for curiosity and mischief, defined by a steadfast faith in one another and the summers at Beechwood that shaped and determined their relationship.

Narrated by the oldest Sinclair grandchild, Cadence, the plot primarily revolves around the enigmatic and hazy summer fifteen,  the vast, unknowable pieces of memory that Cadence has lost from that year, and, of course, the Liars. There is little from summer fifteen that Cadence knows with certainty, and what she does remember is mostly due to the constant reminders and stories from her mother. Everything else is gone, kept hidden from Cadence until she remembers on her own. And she does — often slowly, sometimes blindingly — piece together the shattered fragments of summer fifteen.

From the start, it’s made clear that Cadence is an unreliable narrator — her statements drenched in hyperbole and colored by shades of shock and confusion. She stumbles blindly through unpredictable turns and agonizing, unanswered questions — and as she’s our guide, so do we. We Were Liars is not just unexpected and compelling at every turn, but brilliantly and beautifully written, propelled by the gorgeous and enticing mystery of Beechwood and the Sinclairs, and the undeniable pull of the Liars. It’s something different and something fantastic, full of rich and complex and varying characters that are each fascinating and powerful in turn.

We Were Liars is something new, something startling — a hauntingly memorable and wonderfully gorgeous read.

Review by Kayla

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The Here and Now

The Here and now

Title: The Here and Now

Author: Ann Brashares

Release Date: Available

In Ann Brashares’ bleak vision of the future, humanity has been near extinguished thanks to a mosquito-borne virus that’s decimated the population and left the rest in ruins. Facing extinction, the only hope of survival lies in the past —  in attempting to somehow prevent the future before it occurs.

Prenna James belongs to the group of survivors sent back in time — strong-willed and stubborn, Prenna finds it difficult to consistently comply with the strict and structured rules of her community. While the survivors have assimilated into present day society, due to the inherent risks, contact outside of the community is kept to a minimum and relationships are strictly prohibited. For Prenna, this rule is made infinitely more complicated by her classmate and friend, Ethan Jarves, who, unbeknownst to Prenna, has a few secrets of his own. But despite the complications plaguing her life, things don’t truly start spiraling out of control until a seemingly insane homeless man confronts Prenna, not just aware of where and when she comes from, but aware of the date that changes everything.

With that information in hand and with the threat of humanity’s existence hanging over her head, Prenna and Ethan are left trying to fit the pieces together, to make sense of the ambiguity and obscurity and determine the cataclysmic event that could change and save the future.

Overall, I found The Here and Now to be enjoyable and compelling and unique. I loved the glimpses Brashares’ gave of the apocalyptic future, as well as the snippets of history that lead up to the disaster — it was plausible and interesting and I wish there’d been the opportunity to learn more about the world Prenna came from. Retrospectively, the time travel angle gets a bit messy and confusing and paradoxical in terms of the various branching timelines that occur, and I wish I could have learned more about the science and details and explanations — but I also understand how complicated and tricky such explanations can be. As for the characters — I thought Prenna and Ethan were both well developed and complex, and in particular, I thought Ethan was engaging and interesting, however some of the supporting cast lacked dimension and falls a little flat in comparison.

While The Here and Now is primarily marketed as a ‘forbidden romance’, I think that label is a little misleading. Yes, the romance between Ethan and Prenna grows and develops and is an important part of the plot, but it doesn’t dominate the story and is, in my opinion, far less significant than their primary challenge to save the future. Both plot lines are given equal attention, and support the other, and I appreciated that the romance was important and relevant without overwhelming the rest of the story — the balance between the two was perfectly executed.

Considering the overwhelming numbers of young adult novels that are beginning to blur and fade into one another, Ann Brashares has presented something new and captivating, with innovative details and compelling characters. A quick, but entertaining read.

Review by Kayla

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Grasshopper Jungle

9780525426035

Title: Grasshopper Jungle

Author: Andrew Smith

Release Date: Available

Okay so – holy shit.

I know that’s not particularly descriptive or enlightening and doesn’t really make for an incredibly helpful review, but bear with me. Having just finished Grasshopper Jungle the only words that come to mind are holy shit, because I honestly don’t know how else to begin putting that fantastically weird and wonderful experience into words.

Grasshopper Jungle takes place in the small town of Ealing, Iowa — a town that’s poor and broken and fading, first abandoned by industry, then slowly by its people. The story’s guide is a young Polish boy named Austin, self-appointed historian of his own life and narrator of the lives and roads that crossed and came together in Ealing the week the world ended. It opens with Austin and his best friend Robby, killing time as they often do, skating at Ealing’s deteriorating mall complex in the back alleys and concrete stretches that they know as Grasshopper Jungle. It’s a place without rules or codes — a place where Robby and Austin are soon punched and punished because Robby is gay and Austin is his best friend. And it’s because of a punch to the face and the bloody nose Robby receives as a result that sets off the end of the world.

It’s a story of testicle-dissolving unstoppable corn and unstoppable soldiers, a story laced with lemur masks and lawn flamingos and photoluminescent mold — it’s about the world’s end at the hands of six-foot-tall praying mantises who want to eat and breed and really nothing else.

But despite all of the magnificent absurdities, it’s primarily an exploration of the confusing world of love and sexuality, a coming-of-age story set during an unknowable and unstoppable apocalypse. It’s unexpected and moving and surprising and, considering the plot revolves around an army of violent and near-invincible insects, incredibly beautiful.

This story is something new and so very different from its YA fellows, filled with fascinatingly complex and rich characters and compelling, easy prose. It’s a novel that I’m currently recommending to anyone I come across, because it’s so worth the read — a phenomenal story that I don’t want anyone to miss out on. Andrew Smith has taken a ridiculous setting and turned it into the backdrop for an almost indescribably captivating and thought-provoking piece.

Simply put, this book is wonderful.

And that’s the story
You know what I mean.

Review by Kayla

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Manor of Secrets

Manor of Secrets

Title: Manor of Secrets

Author: Katherine Longshore

Release Date: Available

Despite the seemingly endless number of elegant halls and chambers, despite the sweeping staircases and undeniable atmosphere of luxury, to Lady Charlotte Edmonds, the Manor has rarely felt like anything more than a prison. Because built into the walls of the Manor itself is the rigid social code and unflinching set of expectations that defines every aspect of Charlotte’s life — dictating her actions and decisions, determining her future with no room for questions or debates. And as Charlotte grows older, this certain future takes shape in the form of an expected marriage to an equally wealthy and well-bred individual, the promise of which fills Charlotte with anxiety, dread — with the urge to run as far as her feet can carry her. She dreams of a life filled with adventure and excitement and love, pouring these desperate wishes into pages of writing, casting leads who demonstrate both bravery and courage, who fight for opportunity and chances. But rather than act on her desires, Charlotte continues to be little more than a dreamer, until she follows kitchen maid Janie Seward into the woods one day and, for once, dares to try something different.

Janie, despite also calling the Manor home, lives in a world far removed from Charlotte’s. All Janie knows is a life of servitude, bound by its own set of laws, threatening loss of job and lack of security for any step out of line. Janie knows this and accepts it, quietly dreaming of a better life, but content with the uncomplicated certainty of her station. And then Charlotte arrives, pulling Janie from the confines of her comfort zone into the world upstairs, potentially risking her future for the promise of friendship and excitement. Manor of Secrets follows Charlotte and Janie as their two lives are pulled closer together, carrying all complications and rules in tow, threatening an inevitable collision between their upstairs and downstairs lives.

While at times it seemed that Manor of Secrets leaned a little too heavily on traditional YA cliches, especially concerning the romance aspects of the story and various plot twists, I have to acknowledge Katherine Longshore’s beautiful prose and stunning descriptions of the setting she built for her characters in 1911. Charlotte and Janie and the cast of characters move through pages of exquisite detail and vivid imagery, through seamlessly constructed and flowing sentences. I also loved watching the relationship between Janie and Charlotte grow and develop, inspired and affected by the characters’ own development. However, it seemed that with all the focus placed upon those two, the other characters ended up slightly lacking. I wish there’d been the opportunity to explore the secondary figures to a greater extent, to hear their backstories, to know them better, so that rather than being supports to Charlotte and Janie’s story, they could stand alone with their own motives and history.

I can’t call myself someone who’s heavily explored the ranks of YA historical fiction, and so have little comparison for where Manor of Secrets stands among its fellows, but between the covers of Katherine Longshore’s novel, I found an intriguing and beautiful story that, despite the hints of romance, was ultimately an examination of how people learn and live and grow through friendship. I found a YA story that didn’t beat me over the head with a boy-meets-girl plot line, and instead, sought to tell the story of two girls fighting not just for their own rights and beliefs, but fighting for each other. Elegant and engaging — to put it simply, Manor of Secrets is a novel that’s well worth the read.

Review by Kayla

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Reboot

Title: Reboot

Author: Amy Tintera

Release Date: Available

The backdrop of Amy Tintera’s Reboot is a country colored and shaped by disease – an environment defined by the illness that doesn’t end with death. For there are those that reawaken, pulled back to the world of the living; they are faster and stronger, less emotional and less than human. They are Reboots and they are the perfect soldiers. Tintera’s novel follows the story of Wren Connolly, whose 178 minute stretch of death has removed all shred of her emotion, of her humanity – until the arrival of Callum, the new recruit who challenges Wren to reconsider her preconceived notions of the carefully structured society she lives in, of her unflinching obedience to any and every assignment – to reconsider and reevaluate her very character and existence and all that she considered to be absolute.

When it feels as if nearly every new YA release is a dystopian novel of some kind, it becomes imperative that any new author find a way to distinguish themselves from the masses – and Tintera achieves that distinction with success. Reboot‘s initial premise and subsequent storyline felt innovative and interesting, and while at times employed familiar YA cliches, the story was never overwhelmed by them.

Reboot was one of the stories with all the right elements of a YA novel – the intriguing and suspenseful plot line, compelling and inspiring characters, and dashes of corruption and rebellion. It was a novel that had me turning pages until the end, desperate for a hopeful outcome, dangerously invested in the fates of Tintera’s heroes – a novel that, in the midst of a society controlled and policed by the undead, was above all else, beautifully and wonderfully human.

Review by Kayla

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