There’s nothing wrong with me that I can fix

will-graysonWill Grayson, Will Grayson
by John Green and David Levithan

This was my “a random book” selection for the Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo. I even closed my eyes. I had intended to read it for Banned Books Week back in September, but that fell while we were on holiday and I read all of half a book all week. I’m glad I came up with another excuse to read it before too long as it’s a really lovely book.

The premise sounds a little odd, so don’t let this put you off. Two teenage boys called Will Grayson meet by chance in a Chicago porn shop. The chapters are alternately narrated by the two Wills, and are written alternately by John Green and David Levithan, two big names in young adult fiction.

The first Will we meet is best friends with Tiny Cooper, who is not just gay but ostentatiously super-camp – so camp that he’s writing a musical about his own life that he wants the high school to help him produce. Will has lost some friends over standing by this friendship and is feeling anxious about that, but he still has Tiny’s friends from the Gay–Straight Alliance – Gary, Nick and Jane – to hang out with, even if he is possibly the only straight one in the alliance (he’s not sure about Jane).

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The early summer sky was the colour of cat vomit

ugliesUglies
by Scott Westerfeld

This is the first part of a sci-fi young-adult trilogy – not my usual fare, but having sampled and quite liked The Hunger Games earlier this year, when my book club picked this title I figured it couldn’t hurt. It got a similar reaction from me: quick easy read, engaging, characters I cared about the fates of, but occasionally clunky and/or predictable.

The Uglies of the title are all the people born in the City from the age of 10 (I think) to 15, between being a Littlie (i.e. a child) and a Pretty. On their 16th birthday, everyone has the operation – a kind of extreme plastic surgery with the aim of making everyone look, while not identical, an identical degree of beautiful. (As the operation is so extreme I was a little bothered at the lack of detail about how it could possibly be done in a single day and with zero recovery time, but I guess I can let that go.) New Pretties live a life of drinking and partying, indulging in clothes and other superficial delights for a few years until they choose whether they want to return to studying.

“The early summer sky was the colour of cat vomit. Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavoured cat food for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by a high-altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold”

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Secrets and gangs

20 Years Later
by E J Newman

The synopsis of this book greatly appealed to me – a story for young adults about people trying to survive in London 20 years after a mysterious event has destroyed humanity as we know it – so I jumped at the chance to get an advance copy. I may also have been attracted by the fact that one of the rival gangs in the story is called the Gardners. Sadly they turned out to be nasty nasty people. Darn.

Newman does a good job of eking out the details, both of what happened in the past and of what is happening now. The central characters are all 15 years old (or thereabouts, they don’t really know; they don’t bother with such things in this version of the year 2032) and therefore never knew the world before “It” happened, though there are older people around who occasionally drop a fact or two.

The story starts with Zane, a boy living with his mother Miri in an uneasy truce with two of the neighbouring gangs – the Bloomsbury Boys and the Red Lady’s Gang. They are unusual for not being part of a gang themselves and are often caught in the middle of vicious animosities. Zane’s longing to belong makes gang membership seem attractive but he is aware that he is not like other boys – he has an instinctual hatred for violence.

When Titus and his sister Lyssa stray unknowingly into Bloomsbury Boys territory a chain of events begins that leads Zane to the truth behind everything – including the fact that he is different from other people in more than just his attitude to violence.

I am reluctant to reveal much more than that, though the publisher’s blurb on the back cover gives away almost everything. I hate that. But it didn’t stop me enjoying the story. Actually, I raced through it, eager to know what happened next. A lot is packed into just over 300 pages and there are sequels in the works, so there were questions left unanswered and story threads left hanging.

One thing that stood out was that these 15 year olds are very different from the teenagers I have ever known, but this is a clear authorial decision. These characters are fighting for their lives, literally. They have no formal education, no early years of being carefree children; their intellect is dedicated to self-preservation, mastering weapons and early-warning systems. Most of the boys have never met a girl (aside from Miri) and so have never faced that side of being a teenager. Which makes them oddly childish; in fact one adult character in the book remarks on how young Zane is, compared with when he was a teenager, back before It happened. It makes the characters an odd combination of capable and self-reliant beyond almost anyone I know, and shockingly but sweetly naïve.

If you’re thinking that the author’s name seems familiar, why yes this is the same “E Newman” of the Split Worlds project. You see, a couple of months ago, I saw a Tweet from a local author about something called BristolCon, which sounded fun (and indeed was) and also that she would have copies of her new book there for reviewers. So I went along and I picked up a copy and then it was NaNoWriMo so I didn’t do a whole lot of reading for a month but I did interact with @EmApocalyptic and read a bunch of her short stories (and indeed featured one on this website). I am glad that I finally had time for her novel and look forward to the sequels.

Published 2011 by Dystopia Press.