Depressed Dystopia: The Program – by Suzanne Young

Dystopian, Romance

Often in dystopian books, one destructive force – usually an evil leader, government or science experiment – is held responsible for the world’s problems. In The Program‘s case, Sloane, the protagonist, blames epidemic teenage depression and the government’s extreme measures to combat it. She dreams of a better life without these issues, convinced that they are the root of her troubles. This is implausible, even in a fictional setting. If mental illnesses were somehow cured and the government was reformed or replaced, wouldn’t other difficulties still exist? Yes, life would be better – but it certainly wouldn’t be perfect. The irony of dystopian novels is their surprising proximity to utopian ones: they describe worlds in which everything would be perfect, if only for the elimination of a handful of difficulties. Sloane’s tunnel vision, perhaps due to the gravity of her circumstances, means that she is unable to look past them. Is this done to simplify the reader’s experience, or to encourage appreciation of their own reality? This naive approach makes for an enjoyable read. People like a black-and-white world, desperate to grasp onto something, or someone, to point the finger at. Although there’s no doubt that I love reading YA dystopias, this is their fatal flaw, a common feature that often defines them as lower-quality books.

Despite this fault, I enjoyed the book, finishing it in days (which is quick for me). Likeable – although complex and confused – characters, an interesting plot line and frustrating developments that, increasingly, create dramatic irony (the reader knows much more about the ‘bigger picture’ than the protagonist and her peers do) impelled me to read on. I struggled, however, to appreciate the extent – even the existence – of the depression experienced by many characters. From what I understand, depression is powerful yet ephemeral. It can’t simply be characterised (as this book does) by someone repeatedly doodling black spirals or vacantly staring into the distance. This lack of description and dimension diminished The Program‘s credibility and intrigue; although this could have been intentional (to make a mystery of the illness or suggest the government’s incompetence to properly cure the illness), I’m not convinced.

On the whole, I loved the characters and was captivated by the plot, but the writing is lacklustre, over-dramatised, and at times ‘world-building’ is flimsy. Read if you’re looking for a standard YA dystopia, but don’t be disappointed by its mediocrity.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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Buy on Amazon (US)

The Maze Runner (Book 1) – By James Dashner

Dystopian, Romance, Sci-Fi

The premise of The Maze Runner is complicated, but well-established: Thomas wakes up in a dark elevator, which eventually opens in a courtyard with dozens of teenage boys staring accusingly at him. He can’t remember his former life or why he was there, and is utterly confused about the other boys’ acceptance of their adversity. Even more perplexing is his innate attraction to becoming a runner – a dangerous job that involves running around The Maze to map it, in the hopes of finding an escape from their predicament. When Gally takes an instant dislike to Thomas, claiming he had seen him before, the others become suspicious and start to question the new boy’s innocence; as uncertainty and unrest propagate, blame is laid on Thomas, who many see as the trigger, the root of all their problems.

After seeing the film (shamefully, I often see the film before I read the book when it comes to YA), I was worried I’d find the book boring. But, although it took away from the suspense, I enjoyed it nonetheless – the plot and setting are what really made it. Dashner’s extensive ‘world-building’ and engrossing plot kept me reading when I otherwise would have given up long before – because apart from these attributes, it wasn’t a great book. Concise chapters are employed to maintain interest and anticipation, which, although effective, become tiresome and often feel forced. Additionally, suspense is sometimes unnecessarily (and clumsily) re-built at the end of a chapter:

“And then something rounded the corner… Something unspeakable. A Griever.”

Suspense had already been built – and with more skill – earlier on when the Grievers (fictional mechanical monsters) were approaching; Dashner’s by now familiar two-word sentences were redundant, even injurious. Apart from Thomas, who is somewhat credible and interesting, and offers an insight into a typical teenage boy’s mind, the characters are largely two-dimensional, underdeveloped and cliche: there isn’t enough opportunity for Teresa to be fleshed out, and I found sympathising with Chuck difficult because of his personality’s lack of substance and appeal.

As a whole, The Maze Runner has a great, engrossing plot and intriguing setting, but is clunkily (see what I did there? – you’ll know what i’m referencing if you’ve read it) written. For someone like me who enjoys character- over plot-driven books, it’s disappointing. However, I think you’d enjoy it if you like Hunger Games-esque books and a lightning-fast pace.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAA (4)

Pace: Fast

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Top Five ‘Coming of Age’ books

Top Five books

This is a little different to what I usually do, but as we’re coming to the end of the academic year, I thought it was appropriate – we can all get a little sentimental. Here are my favourite coming-of-age books, spanning from beloved classics to iconic YA’s.

to_kill_a_mockingbirdInspiring classic: To Kill a Mockingbird – By Harper Lee 

I have this book to thank for inspiring my sense of justice and love for books. I read it for the first time when I was around ten, and have since re-read it, regarding it from a completely different perspective; I’m sure I will go on to read it many more times. Scout Finch, the protagonist, lives in Alabama with her brother Jem and doting father Atticus. The book accounts parts of her childhood, including a devastating trial that Atticus, an esteemed lawyer, was involved in. A tale of life in the South, justice and morality, it’s one for the ages.


Humorous and thought-provoking: Holes – By Louis Sachar

515ml3nzwxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This is another book that was a big part of my reading ‘career’ – I’ve read every one of Sachar’s books at least once. There’s something fantastic about a well-written tale of misfortune, and this one’s no exception. The Yelnats’ curse was passed on to Stanley, who was unjustly sent to a juvenile detention centre because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At Camp Green Lake, where he’s sent, there’s no lake – only countless holes, where boys have dug holes to ‘build character’. Soon, Stanley and his newfound friends realize that the holes aren’t just for character improvement – the warden is looking for something, and the boys embark on a mission to find out what. A funny, creative story of punishment and redemption, Holes is the quintessential light read for all ages.

61t67xhl2cl-_sx321_bo1204203200_
Eye-opening and reflective: Perks of Being a Wallflower – By Stephen Chbosky

Part of the reason that I’m so crazy about this book, and film, is that I really relate to it; I could see myself in Charlie, the protagonist – and I know that a lot of people feel the same way. An awkward, introspective freshman (in high school – equivalent to a year 10), Charlie is a wallflower attempting to find his way around the unchartered realms of new friends, parties, dating and mixtapes. But his story is deeper than that, as the reader quickly deduces, because he has deep-rooted, previously unaddressed issues that have a had a huge effect on his life. You’ll love, laugh and cry reading this moving book.

Entertaining: The Manifesto on How to be Interesting – By Holly Bourne

I owe much of my perspective and knowledge on popularity and ‘being interesting’ to this book, which I have read so many times I’ve lost count (that seems to be a recurring fact in this list – take it a22533460s a good sign). The protagonist, Bree, takes it upon herself to become more interesting to write better books – she’s an aspiring – in her words ‘failed’ – author whose books have been rejected by every publisher in the country. She’s also a cynical teenager who’s considered a nobody at school. Determined to leave behind her insipidity in search of popularity (for book success), Bree resolves to become someone worth reading about, infiltrating the popular set and becoming a new, more confident – and bitchier – version of herself.


Haunting and enlightening: The Bell Jar – By Sylvia Plath

‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

The Bell Jar is an iconic, semi-autobiographical account of Esther Greenwood’s slide into plath04depression and her consequent rehabilitation. Famed for its wry humour and intense, credible descriptions of mental illness, Plath’s only novel questions the roles of women in society and the meaning of life. This book is deeply haunting – I’m not sure I truly understood everything that was going on, or picked up on every metaphor, but the story and the characters ‘spoke to me’ in a direct way; I felt guided by the book. Famed as a rite of passage, t
his book is a must-read for those looking to branch out into the world of ‘readable’ classics about being young.

 

What are your favourite ‘coming of age’ books? Comment down below 🙂

Another Hunger Games? The Selected – by Kiera Cass

Dystopian, Romance

The Selected, a dystopian YA romance, sounds anything but unique. Lovable, grounded female lead? Check. Two attractive love interests? Check. A protagonist who gains fame and opportunity by chance, yet wants neither? Check. Its similarities with The Hunger Games are unnumbered – I felt like I’d read parts of it before. Yet despite all of these things, I powered through it at break-neck speed: I was desperate to know what would happen, even though the plot was fairly predictable; I couldn’t help myself loving it, sucked into the fandom like so many others.

Set in the future United States, The Selection is about America, who works as a musician, born into a family of artists with low social status. The book opens soon after a notice has been sent out to the teenaged girls of Illéa (their country), inviting them to sign up to a competition, the Selection, in the hopes of winning the heart of Prince Maxon, and being made his wife and Queen. 35 girls are chosen – ostensibly randomly – to live in the palace, where they will meet the prince and train to become a member of the aristocracy. However, America might be the only girl in the country who has no interest in being one of the Selected – in fact, it’s her worst nightmare, because it would mean leaving her secret love Aspen; after a series of unexpected events, she meets Prince Maxon, and all of her certainties disintegrate.

I’ll be the first to admit that the book doesn’t sound especially promising from the synopsis, and there’s no question that the plot is often predictable, and the characters two-dimensional. As I’ve said, the book definitely has its problems, but – not to be condescending – you kind of expect these things from a YA book. As I approached it with such low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised: the characters were more realistic, the plot was more interesting, and the setting better established than I had hoped; what really made the book was that it exceeded my expectations. So what if it’s not the next War & Peace? It’s not meant to be! It’s a fun, enjoyable YA book that offers an entertaining, easy-to-relate-to escape from life; it does its job well!

Regarding its likeness to The Hunger Games, it’s important to point out that, although the worlds and plots are alike, they are portrayed in different lights and from contrasting perspectives. America isn’t looking to lead a rebellion – in fact, she fears the rebels and is perplexed as to what they’re angry about (despite being a slave to the country’s merciless caste system). Unlike the famed Katniss, The Selection‘s protagonist is only interested in love, and perhaps charity – they’re all she knows.

I commend this book to anyone who loves a good dystopian YA, especially The Hunger Games – but with plenty of romance and no gruesome fighting. It’s short, fairly fast-paced and very easy to read; I don’t suggest it to those who don’t like YA books, or those which are ‘plot-based’ (rather than ‘writing-based’: merited for their good writing, not an interesting plot).

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Fast

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A new take on the teen-cancer novel: Side Effects May Vary – By Julie Murphy

Romance

Side Effects May Vary is about Alice, a teenage girl who is diagnosed with cancer. Knowing that she is going to die soon, she feels free to do whatever she wants, unburdened from the threat of her actions’ consequences. Consequently, she resolves to complete a bucket list, which includes performing an unexpected act of kindness and seeking revenge against people who have wronged her. She enlists childhood friend and persistent admirer Harvey for help, who reluctantly obliges, driven by the prospect of spending time with her. Fully aware of his this, Alice manipulates him into doing things for her; although Harvey is semi-conscious of this, he doesn’t care – he’s in love. Alice suppresses her true feelings for him, fearing the temporary, short-term nature of her life and succumbing to the effect this has on her decisions.

Moreover, Alice isn’t your typical cancer patient/survivor: unlike so many idealistic, exceptionally talented or love-obsessed YA characters, she is unbelievably pessimistic, self-absorbed and manipulative. She hates many of those around her, and mistreats the people that care about her. It comes as a big, not entirely pleasant shock for her when she goes into remission, as she must face up to everything she’s done, as well as figuring out her relationship with Harvey. Alternating chapters are set ‘Then’ (when Alice had cancer) and ‘Now’ (after she went into remission), with both Alice and Harvey narrating. Although officially the novel is about Alice’s bucket list and its effects, the majority follows Alice and Harvey’s complicated, ever-changing relationship.

This book is a quick, easy read, and a welcome relief from the heavier books I had been reading. I stayed interested in the story the whole way through, partly because of the suspense and interest that the unique structure brought to the novel (although at times they confused the plot), but also because it was simply enjoyable to read. It wasn’t particularly cringeworthy or unrealistic, despite its somewhat simplistic plot. It was well-written (for a YA book) – I can say this not because I noticed it, but because I didn’t: it wasn’t irritating or clunky, or even noteworthy at all, but it did its job by remaining unnoticeable, letting the plot take centre stage. This often happens in YA literature, or at least is aspired towards – and I think Murphy achieved it. 

However, there were also some issues with Side Effects May Vary: firstly, many of the characters were two-dimensional. Although this is kind of understandable for secondary characters like Deborah, it’s not sufficient with the protagonist – much of Alice’s hatred and pessimism was left unexplained, and was therefore unconvincing. Secondly, as many people have found, I grew tired of Alice and her ‘spontaneous’, egotistical and sometimes gratuitous ways. The way she treated Harvey was awful, and it was frustrating that he put up with it for so long. Finally, the ending, although effective, was unsatisfying; the book didn’t feel finished. It was a really good part of the plot, but would have been better if it wasn’t the ending – perhaps the book would have benefitted from being longer, with more time on the end of the plot.

You would enjoy this book if you’re looking for a good-quality (although not exceptional or mind-blowing) YA book: it’s short, light and easy to read, with a relatively unsophisticated plot. It’s also interesting as an insight into life with a terminal illness, and its effect on one’s thoughts and decisions.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Medium

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A Summer Paradise: We Were Liars – By E. Lockhart

Fictional Memoir, Romance

We Were Liars is about the Sinclairs, an ideal WASPy family: the patriarch, his three daughters, and their families. In summers, the clan retreats to its private island off Martha’s Vineyard. We’re told that ‘no one is a criminal’, ‘addict’ or ‘failure’ in the family; that they’re all athletic, tall and handsome, with their wide smiles and square chins. The narrator, Cadence Sinclair, is the eldest grandchild; she’s sick of being forced to act ‘normal’ and composed, and feels – along with her contemporaries on the island – that the family focuses too much on money and competition.

We Were Liars is a readable, intriguing YA novel; it’s fairly well-written, and is based on an interesting story, which many readers will relate to. At times, I felt the plot was unrealistic; however, I don’t feel this took away from the quality of the book. The narrator’s wry, intelligent voice, characteristic to so many YA books is entertaining, although sometimes tedious. The only aspect of the book that made me cringe slightly was the sweet but annoying voice of Gat, always pondering morality in a naive and condescending way.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you are looking for a solid, good-quality YA book – but don’t expect much of it as an adult book. It’s funny, well-executed and has a clever ending that you won’t expect.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Medium

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Only Ever Yours – by Louise O’Neill

Dystopian

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian book about a world in which women, called ‘eves’, are designed and synthetically produced (instead of being born naturally), their sole purpose being to satisfy the needs of men. Eves are brought up in schools by strict teachers, called ‘Chastities’, who train them in the arts of pleasing men. At graduation, the most highly ranked eves are made ‘companions’, living with their husbands and breeding sons until no longer useful. The narrator, freida, (the eves’ names are not capitalized, highlighting their irrelevance in the society) has been best friends with isabel since her design, but as the pressure to be perfect mounts up, isabel starts to seemingly give up, gaining weight, and the girls who were once so close rapidly drift apart. freida, determined to remain popular, betrays her only true friend.

The world in which Only Ever Yours is set is an interesting and insightful exaggeration of our culture today; it warns us of what is to come if we don’t change our ways. After reading the blurb and the first couple pages, I had high hopes and an already strong interest in the book’s plot and characters. However, by its middle, my hopes remained unfulfilled: the characters lacked dimension, and the plot was repetitive and slow-paced. Overall, the book left me underwhelmed: characters needed more depth, particularly isabel, who was not as intriguing and intelligent as she evidently was intended to be. The icing on the cake for me was the irritatingly inconclusive ending: after suffering through 380 depressing pages, I was offered no mercy or closure. Perhaps it was for ‘effect’; I think, however, it was simply a cop-out. The book had great potential to be heart-wrenching and thought-provoking, but was unfortunately badly executed.

Despite this somewhat negative review, I think you might enjoy this if you like YA books, particularly those about women’s position in society. It’s quite slow-placed at times, so I definitely would not recommend this book for people who prefer fast-paced books.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Slow/Medium