The Testing

by Joelle Charbonneau
First sentence: “Graduation Day.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s violent, but not graphically so. And there’s kissing, but no sex. Which means it’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore. However, much like Hunger Games, I’d be wary of more sensitive readers liking it.

This book has been out for two years now, and I’ve been putting it off for just as long. Mostly because the whole post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre has been SO overdone, that I really didn’t want to read yet another one.

Then we scheduled Charbonneau to come to the store — they’ve been working on it since the first one came out and the rep mentioned it was set in a futuristic Wichita — and I was tasked with reading and reviewing the book before she gets here. And so I did, smacking myself when I finished for waiting too long to get around to this one.

Sixteen-year-old Cia Vale has just graduated from her colony’s small school near the top of her class. She’s excited: in this post-Seven Stages War America, now called the United Commonwealth, that means she’s likely to be chosen to attend The Testing in the capitol, Tosu City (aka Wichita, though it took me nearly the whole book to figure that out). Except her father — a former Testing candidate and University graduate himself — doesn’t want her to go. However, once Cia’s been chosen, she can’t say no; refusing the Testing is an act of treason, punishable by death.

So, Cia travels to Tosu City with her father’s warning — TRUST NO ONE — echoing in her ears, and discovers what he meant. The Testing is not just high-pressure and high-competition for the twenty university slots. It’s deadly.

While the plotting and writing isn’t as tight as Suzanne Collins’s, it’s still a quick, engaging read. Charbonneau sets the stakes high right away, with Cia’s roommate committing suicide, and doesn’t let up until the final pages of the book. There are twists and turns — some of which I saw, some of which I didn’t — and Cia is a good, strong narrator to carry this story on her shoulders. It’s definitely post-apocalyptic; Charbonneau cleverly gave us a brief history of how this country came to be in a series of short written test questions early on. The dystopian part is harder to see — Cia comes to hate the Testing officials, and the government as an extension, but I’m not sure I ever felt the way she did about the officials. Unlike, say, President Snow in The Hunger Games. (Yes, comparisons are inevitable.) I do think, on the other hand, that it’s a tighter, more interesting story than Divergent (yes, there’s a love interest, which I think was mostly unnecessary).

But the best thing about waiting to read this one is that the whole series is out already. And I don’t have to wait to read the second one. And I’m invested enough in Cia’s story that I’m quite curious to find out what happens next.

Advertisements

The Inventor’s Secret

by Andrea Cremer
First sentence: “Every heartbeat brought the boy closer.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a couple of intense romantic moments, and the characters talk of “wanting” each other, but no actual physical contact takes place other than kissing. There is talk of an affair a character’s dad had, and there is quite a bit of violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8th) but I wouldn’t blink at giving it to a savvy 5th grader.

It was the cover that caught my eye. The steampunk dragonfly with the explosion in the background promised really cool things. And since I hadn’t read any Cremer before (she of the Wolf series), I wasn’t really expecting anything.

So, I was more than blown away when I was pulled into an alternate history where the American Revolution failed, Boston converted to a maximum security prison, and the “traitors” were hanged for their crimes against the crown. And they were the lucky ones. In the years since the failed revolution, the Empire has just become stronger and more stratified. The elite live in the Floating City, New York City, in levels rising up into the sky. The lower you are, the worse off. There’s still a rebellion, out in the woods outside of the city, where the adults are trying to topple the Empire. And the children? They’re in the Catacombs, underground, safe from harm until they turn 18 and go to join the rebellion.

The Catacombs is all Charlotte remembers. She and her older brother, Ash, have been there since they were 5 and 7, respectively. And now, at nearly 18, Ash is in charge. This is where the plot gets a bit tricky to describe. Too much, and it sounds silly. And maybe it is.  I do know there was more romance than I was expecting, and it was a bit hackneyed and overwrought as well. But I loved the world. I loved the combination of history and mythology and technology. I loved how the class issues were at the forefront. I loved the imagination that Cremer put into the book, the cool little things — like mice bombs, or Pocky the gun — she littered everywhere.

No, it’s not perfect. Far from it. But it IS fun. And that’s exactly what I needed right now.

The Tyrant’s Daughter

by J. C. Carleson
First sentence: “My brother is the King of Nowhere.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy downloaded from NetGalley
Content: Some mild language, and some indirect violence. It sits in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore. I don’t know if I’d give it to a 5th grader or not. I think it depends on how news-savvy the kid is.

Laila is the daughter of the ruler of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. She has a good life — trips to Paris with her mother, a private tutor, a resort by the sea. Then one day her world turns upside down when her father is assassinated right before her eyes.

Suddenly Laila, her mother, and her younger brother, Bastian (the “little king”) are exiled, taking refuge in the United States as Laila’s fundamentalist uncle takes over the country. Not only is Laila exiled from her country, she’s thrown into a world that — for all the riches and opulence she was used to — is vastly different from her own. And, on top of that, as she meets other refugees from her country, she discovers that her loving father was actually a brutal dictator.

I think the publishers are billing this as a thriller — J. C. Carleson is a former CIA operative, after all — but it’s not. It’s much more one girl’s story of awakening, and the harsh realities that brings, as well as of the plight of immigrants and how difficult it is to make a new home. Although she makes friends in her Washington D. C. school, Laila never quite belongs here, being uncomfortable with little things: from wearing short skirts to the dance to the seeming nonchalance that the students have to a bomb threat. Laila is constantly a fish out of water, and I think Carleson captures that perfectly.

There are some thriller-esque elements; Laila’s mom is a constant schemer, and there’s a CIA guy hanging around ominously. And I felt the ending was a bit too pat, not quite fitting in with the rest of Laila’s story. But, for the most part, it was a fascinating exploration of one girl’s attempt to come to terms with her family and the outside world.

Audiobook: One Summer: American 1927

by Bill Bryson
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s popular history. And because of that, there is talk of sex and some swearing (maybe 4 or 5 f-bombs). It’s adult-oriented, but I’m sure an inquisitive high schooler could read it.

I adore Bill Bryson. Sure, he’s a former journalist and a popular historian, but he comes at history in such unique ways that I can’t help but love him. Rather than Another Dry Biography of any of the people he talks about in this book — Charles Lindberg, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Al Capone, Calvin Coolidge, Ruth Snyder, Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, among others — he realized that talking about a summer, the summer where everything seemed to gel, would be so much more interesting.

And he was right.

He had me enthralled from the prologue when he talked about the failed attempts at flying across the Atlantic in the early 1920s. And he kept me enthralled (for the most part; I did tune out the banking parts) for the whole of the entire book. (Granted, that may be because I listened to it, and I love listening to Bill Bryson read his books. Kind of like Neil Gaiman.) It was chock full of trivia (the one thing I remember is that the summer of 1927, Memphis had the highest murder rate in the country, not Chicago), sure, but also of insightful passages. (I would quote them, but again: audio book.) That’s one of the things I love about Bryson; the way he throws in asides and commentary about his subject, but you never quite feel he’s being didactic. Snarky, yes. But didactic or preachy? No.

One of the things that I kept thinking as listened is just how much history repeats himself. And how much we ARE. Racism and trying to block immigrants? Check. (Except it’s south of the border and Middle East rather than Ireland, Italy, and Jews.) Banking bubble because politicians won’t regulate it? Check. I’m sure there are others, but (audio book, dangit!) I can’t think of them right now. I’d say everyone needs to read this for that reason — so we can grow and change and become better — but really? Read it because it’s Bill Bryson and it’s fascinating and a lot of fun.

You won’t regret it. Promise.