Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: YA Science Fiction

Review: The Duplicate – Helen Fitzgerald

The Duplicate book coverThe Duplicate was introduced to me as a story that had been inspired by Carrie and Frankenstein. With that first impression, I just had to read it! The author, Helen Fitzgerald, refers to it as her “short, dark, weird one” and I was pleased to find that both the literary references and the promise of weirdness were supported.

Although written for the young adult market, The Duplicate should prove equally pleasing to adult readers. What teenagers will consider an entertaining read, will likely provoke greater thought in an older audience. There are many ethical and philosophical questions raised here, albeit in a black and quirky manner, and the things that are left unsaid nonetheless stick with the reader for a while.

My introduction to Fitzgerald’s work was Amelia O’Donohue is So Not a Virgin, which wowed me with its understated style and ability to convey character and plot without shoving them in the reader’s face. The Duplicate goes even further, with much of the story being implied, rather than outwardly told, especially in the sections told from the perspective of Barbara. It’s a stylistic choice that I’m always a big fan of, and it works particularly well with the science fiction edge to the novel.

I think the key similarity to King’s Carrie lies, not in the depiction of an unpopular girl who is tormented by the popular crowd at school (because, let’s face it, that’s a common theme in YA and real life), but rather in Barbara herself. It’s easy to feel sympathy for her as a character, but also easy to dislike her. It’s not that she’s weird: that’s actually a mark in her favour. Rather, it’s her overwhelming determination to buy the favours of the very people who make her life hell, changing her appearance and losing her dignity in the process.

In comparison, Rowena is likeable, surprisingly well-adjusted and, well, normal. The build-up of tension during her section of The Duplicate is very cleverly done, to the point of me being on the edge of my seat expecting a ghastly murder to eventuate at any moment! Sometimes I find dual protagonists unnecessary and a little irritating, but here they are used authentically, and I think Rowena’s voice forms a positive contrast to that of Barbara. I don’t think the book would have been nearly as effective if it had been told solely from the latter’s perspective.

The Duplicate is a clever, engrossing story, with a concept that I loved. The ending is fantastic, and my imagination is still running wild, thinking about what happened after the final page. A quick read, but an enjoyable one.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: A Long, Long Sleep – Anna Sheehan

When Rose wakes after spending 62 years in stasis, her body is wasted and her organs damaged. Much worse, however, is the knowledge that her parents and Xavier, her best friend and first love, are long dead. As she learns to adapt to a world that has changed greatly after the Dark Times that occurred while she was asleep, she discovers a deadly threat to her safely – and some life changing truths about her own past.

After finishing A Long, Long Sleep, I jumped online to see whether Anna Sheehan had written anything else and was amazed to discover that this had been a NaNoWriMo project for her several years ago. Having participated in NaNo myself and making the word count target but otherwise ending up with an unfinished mess of writing, I’m amazed and impressed that such a great book was the product of her own NaNo efforts.

Because A Long, Long Sleep really is a fantastic book. I made it through right to the end of December thinking that Divergent was going to be the best YA book I’d read in 2011, and then I finished A Long, Long Sleep and felt like it just squeezed Divergent into second place. This isn’t as action-filled a novel, and the action scenes that are here aren’t quite as gripping, but I loved the way that the truth of Rose’s former life was revealed, layer by layer, eventually revealing a darkness that I would never have expected at the beginning of the novel.

It’s hard to name a definitive genre for A Long, Long Sleep. It’s futuristic science fiction, complete with all the tech, off-planet colonies and aliens that you would expect from that genre, but its heart isn’t in these elements as much as it is in the exploration of Rose’s character and the ways in which humans treat – and fail – each other. The tech is intrinsic to the storyline, but the characters can be recognised just as easily in the present era as in a future setting.

Rose is not a simple protagonist. The holes that Otto sees in her mind distance her a little from the reader at first. Although the novel is told in first person, we learn more from flash backs than from Rose’s own accounts of her feelings and personality. While this means that she is not immediately likeable, it also means that we discover who she is as we discover why she is. As the book progresses, she becomes more and more sympathetic and more and more impressive as the novel’s lead.

Xavier is seen mostly in flashbacks, and entirely through Rose’s eyes, which makes him something of an enigma, even by the end of the book. I felt very much that his value was in who he was to Rose and what he represented in her life, rather than in his own personality and actions. In contrast, I adored Otto. I thought he was the perfect foil to Rose and, while I was a little doubtful about the text-based conversations between the two at first, I do understand the benefit of this technique with regard to the progression of two characters who are closed to their peers in very different ways. I thought Otto was good for Rose and very important for Rose and I feel that his story serves to temper her own in a way.

I picked up A Long, Long Sleep because it looked mildly interesting and I thought it might be something that my partner would enjoy. I’m glad I did so, because it was clever and thoughtful and dark and hopeful – all the things that I love to see in a book. A fantastic debut by Anna Sheehan. I hope to see more from her very soon.

Review: Across the Universe – Beth Revis

When Amy agrees to accompany her parents to a new life on a new planet, she expects to wake up there in three hundred years’ time. But then, fifty years before their planned arrival, she is woken from her cryogenic slumber and almost killed in the process. With her parents still frozen, she feels overwhelmingly alone. Can she trust Elder, the ship’s leader-elect – and can Elder trust everything he’s ever known?

Across the Universe combines two things I love – science fiction and a dystopian society – so I was pretty much fated to enjoy it. I’m a sucker for books that are set in space, and this first novel in a trilogy combines the spaceship location with an intriguing mystery that kept me reading with interest right through to the end of the book.

The narrative of Across the Universe is split between the perspectives of Amy, who grew up on Earth, and Elder, who was born and raised on Godspeed and is destined to be the ship’s next leader. Amy feels very real for a teenager who has been thrust into circumstances she didn’t choose, without the support of her family or the friends and boyfriend she left behind on Earth. Her feelings of displacement and loss are well-portrayed and her determination to understand her new world helps her to be a likeable character. At times, I wished for a deeper insight into her personality and past, but it is likely this will eventuate later in the trilogy.

While Amy is easy for the reader to identify with, Elder is less familiar a character. Despite this, it was he whom I found the more interesting and enjoyable of Beth Revis’s two protagonists. The development of Elder over the duration of the novel is very well done, and his struggle with the conflict between the truth that he’s always known and the protests of his conscience is cleverly described.

The book’s supporting characters were generally enjoyable as well. Eldest is overbearing and rather sinister from the beginning, while I never entirely knew how to feel about Doc. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of Harley, because I liked what we did get to see, but didn’t learn quite enough to truly feel for him.

One thing I really enjoyed about Across the Universe was the lack of romance. I love YA romance, but sometimes it’s nice to have a book from a non-romance genre that doesn’t feel the need to make love a focus. While I realise that this won’t be the case for the whole trilogy, for this book I enjoyed being able to concentrate on the science fiction, dystopian and mystery elements of Revis’s world without having to dodge a love triangle to do so!

My main issue with Across the Universe was the fact that I found the chapters dealing with Amy’s dreams and thoughts while frozen dull and repetitive. It reached the point where I was just skimming them, and I feel like one short chapter could have given the same impression without detracting so much from the more interesting Elder chapters in between the Amy ones.

Although Across the Universe is the first book in an intended trilogy, it stands apart from other recent books in that, while there are some questions left unanswered, it nonetheless feels like a complete novel without the need to read the next two books. The main plotlines are all resolved and it is the universe that entices the reader to continue with the trilogy, not one of the oh-so-fashionable cliff-hangers that always leave me feeling like I’ve paid for a product that isn’t complete.

Across the Universe is a solid sci-fi addition to the young adult market.

Warning: Contains an attempted rape scene.

Review: All These Things I’ve Done – Gabrielle Zevin

All These Things I've Done book coverAnya is the orphaned daughter of the former head of the Balanchine family, infamous as one of the big-five families that supply chocolate to the populace despite its prohibition. Due to her family, her life has been filled with crime and even murder, but her own focus lies in taking care of her younger sister and her older brother, whose acquired brain injury makes him younger than his physical years. Anya’s life is fairly routine until the new Assistant DA’s son, Win, arrives at her school. When she falls for Win, however, she finds herself caught between protecting her family and protecting her heart.

I wasn’t sure whether I would like All These Things I’ve Done. The Australian cover is gorgeous, but I have never been a fan of fiction centred around the Mafia, whether in film or book form. It doesn’t hold the allure for me that it does for so many others. However, the focus of this novel is not upon the criminal activities of Anya’s extended family but, rather, upon her relationships with her immediate family members and budding romance with Win. Indeed, the normalcy of a good proportion of All These Things I’ve Done means that it is a book that should be enjoyed by lovers of contemporary YA fiction, despite its futuristic setting and crime-based plot.

For a book that focusses on a Mafiya family, All These Things I’ve Done is surprisingly low-key. While it easily retains the reader’s interest, Gabrielle Zevin accomplishes this not through constant action or page-turning suspense but, rather, through cleverly rendered characters who you can’t help but want to read more about.

Personally, I found Anya the easy stand-out. She is strong and independent and extremely aware of her responsibilities, but is not without her weaknesses as well. Zevin has created a character who truly reads like a sixteen-year-old who has been the protector of her siblings for several years, which is no small feat. Anya combines duty and mature insight with a tendency towards rash behaviour that exposes her youth at times. Above all, however, she is likeable and easy to identify with, despite her unusual upbringing.

All that said, it is Win who will likely prove the favourite of many readers. Kind, devoted and good-looking, he is just the type of romantic interest to gain a large following. For those who are not smitten by Win, Anya’s childhood crush, Yuji Ono, provides an intriguing alternative. I, for one, hope that we’ll see a lot more of him in the rest of the series!

I wasn’t entirely sure about Anya’s best friend, Scarlet, however. It’s hard to give my reasoning without spoilers, but her later alliance with someone who wronged Anya dreadfully towards the beginning of the book seemed unconvincing to me. Certainly, it wasn’t an action of the loyal friend she is painted as – and I’m not sure it sends a good message to Zevin’s readers. It will be interesting to see what comes of this plot point in later books.

Although it is the first book in the Birthright series, All These Things I’ve Done is surprisingly self-contained. While a few threads are left untied, in order to entice readers to continue with the series, those who do not read on will not feel robbed of a satisfactory (if not entirely happy) conclusion to the novel.

There is no reason not to continue reading, however. All These Things I’ve Done is a solid new offering from Gabrielle Zevin that is sure to appeal to a broad range of readers.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Glow – Amy Kathleen Ryan

Glow book coverWaverly and Kieran are the oldest of the first generation of children born on the Empyrean, a ship half-way through its journey across the galaxy on a mission to colonise a new Earth. Happy and in love, their greatest concern is whether or not it is time for them to marry. But a sudden attack from their companion ship, the New Horizon, changes everything, and Waverly and Kieran find themselves torn apart – and forced to find the strength and conviction to become leaders in their changed and dangerous lives.

In writing Glow, Amy Kathleen Ryan has achieved something that few writers manage: she has put forward a novel that offers readers both enthralling action and an intelligent commentary on human nature and behaviour. Just as it is extremely difficult to put Glow down, it is also difficult to come away from reading this novel without thinking deeply about the events within its pages and the beliefs, motivations and manipulations that inspire them. Readers looking for something fluffy and mindless should look elsewhere; here they will find the darker side of humanity, in all its many guises.

One of the most commendable aspects of Glow is Ryan’s respect for her audience. She does not shy away from topics such as sexual assault, parental violence and loss, but rather paints a futuristic world that reflects the failings of our own, simultaneously adding to the authenticity of her universe and characters and acknowledging the ability of young readers to cope with darker literary content. Indeed, it is this frankness that helps give Glow the “crossover appeal” that is so greatly coveted in the YA publishing world. I would have no hesitation recommending it to adult readers; while the novel’s protagonists may be teenagers, its themes and ideas are ageless.

Glow focusses on two main characters, Waverly and Kieran, with the novel switching between their (third person limited) perspectives. Waverly is a fantastic character. She is strong in all the right ways, without ever feeling too capable to the point of being unrealistic. When she is rash, her behaviour is motivated by her feelings for the people around her, and she does not cope easily with the darker side of fighting back. Her interactions with other female characters are cooperative, and she has worth in her own right, not just in relation to the novel’s male characters. There should be more YA protagonists like Ryan’s Waverly.

In contrast, I found Kieran more difficult to like and certainly more difficult to identify with. It is a testimony to Ryan’s ability that his sections of the text could be different enough from Waverly’s sections that they were able to leave me with a feeling of uneasiness, as opposed to my easy appreciation of Waverly. Kieran’s self-assuredness and conviction felt somehow dangerous. And yet Seth, whose actions should have made me despise him, seemed more likeable – and perhaps even safer. He is violent and dishonest, but somehow Ryan manages to convey that there is more to him than that. I loved the fact that I didn’t know how to feel where Glow‘s main male characters were concerned.

The most obvious example of Ryan’s talent for tearing reader assumptions into pieces can be seen through her exploration of the attitudes and actions of the religious and secular leaders aboard the two ships. There is no easy, black-and-white delineation of good and bad here. Glow is a study in greys. That is what makes it such a great book. My only real criticism is that this uncertainty extends to the novel’s conclusion. As the first book in a series, it lacks a solid ending, encouraging the reader to return for more – but perhaps leaving them a little unsatisfied in the interim.

I hope that Glow will receive the recognition and popularity it deserves. In a market that deals so often in reworks of the latest fad, it stands apart as a book with true depth. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Chasers – James Phelan

Chasers coverIn New York for a UN Youth Ambassadors camp, Jesse is on a subway with friends when an explosion and the subsequent fireball devastates their train and most of the people in it. They make their way above ground, only to find the city in ruins. The dead are everywhere, there is no sign of help and the other survivors have changed.

Wow, what a gripping novel Chasers is! It took me a couple of chapters to grow accustomed to Jesse’s first person voice but, once I got a little further into the book, it was extremely hard to stop reading. Now, having finished it, I’d be picking up the sequel right away if it weren’t for the fact that I have other books I’m committed to reading first.

In a lot of ways, the general storyline of Chasers is not particularly ground-breaking. It’s a fairly simple tale of post-apocalyptic survival (with added zombie-like creatures) and there isn’t a great deal that actually happens in the novel, but somehow James Phelan has managed to infuse his story with a power that goes beyond its surface appearance.

Chasers is more than the action-horror that it initially seems to be. Its strength lies in Phelan’s portrayal of the inner workings of his protagonist. The reader witnesses the changes that are wrought in Jesse by the situation he finds himself in – not so much through his own self analysis as through his interactions both with his companions and with the city around him. More than a tale of physical survival in a ravaged world, this is an exploration of the human mind and of the ways in which an individual, emotionally injured by a traumatising situation, constructs purpose and meaning in order to carry on.

Of course, Chasers is also a fast-paced novel, with plenty of suspense to keep the reader turning the pages until the mind-blowing ending. The reader is no more informed as to the circumstances leading to the destruction of New York than Jesse is, giving the book a constant feel of urgency. Chasers raises a lot of questions, few of which are answered in this, the first book in a series. Luckily, Phelan’s world and characters are interesting enough that I am more than happy to read the subsequent books in order to get some more answers.

Jesse is a sympathetic protagonist, with an authentic teen voice. He is supported by the carefully diverse characters of Dave, Mini and Anna. While it is Anna who Jesse is most enamoured of, she is possibly the least-defined of his friends. Dave is complicated and sometimes confusing, but he makes perfect sense in the end. Of the three, Mini is the most likeable. Her quiet presence adds much-needed warmth to the (necessary) bleakness of the novel.

The one thing that I struggled with while reading Chasers was the absence of quotation marks throughout most of the book. There was a reason for their exclusion, but I’m unsure as to whether the stylistic choice was clever enough to warrant the confusion it sometimes allowed.

That said, I’m willing to forgive a lot from a novel that gave me such a perfect punch to the stomach in its closing pages. It’s the ending that makes Chasers as good as it is. Once you get there, you realise just how artfully constructed the entire work is – and want to go right back to the beginning to read it all over again.

Chasers is Phelan’s first YA novel. In a growing teen market, he is definitely an author to watch.

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