YA Review: The Ones That Got Away by Zana Fraillon

ones that disappearedThe Premise: (from NetGalley) Kept by a ruthless gang, three children manage to escape from slavery. Together, they will create a man out of mud. A man who will come to life, and lead them through a dark labyrinth of tunnels, until they finally have the courage the step above ground. Come and find the ones that disappeared…

Thoughts: I am a big fan of Fraillon’s previous book, The Bone Sparrow, and the delicate but hard-hitting way in which it dealt with big issues like the refugee crisis and detention of children. The Ones That Disappeared takes on another challenging and topical subject in modern slavery and the terrible risks taken by people in search of a better life.
The early chapters show Esra, Miran and Isa trapped in a basement, forced to pay off the debt of their journey by looking after marijuana plants for Orlando, their terrifying ‘owner’. There’s a palpable sense of claustrophobia and fear, culminating in an accident and the children’s escape.
Obviously I was very pleased the children escaped (I hope it’s obvious, anyway). I did, however, feel like the story came part a bit once the trio escaped captivity. Miran is arrested and hospitalised, while Esra and Isa find shelter in a cave and befriend a local misfit. The narrative became a bit confusing here, with multiple PoVs, and it didn’t seem like much was really happening. I was expecting a more sustained use of the hard-hitting style of the novel’s opening, but the children’s arcs became a bit meandering once they escaped.
In Conclusion: a YA book that tackles such difficult issues is clearly something that should be read, and in that respect, The Ones That Disappeared is a vital read. There is a definite and quite odd shift in the tone and action early on which didn’t work for me, but this shouldn’t deter anyone else from reading it.

YA Review: Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence

indigo donut.pngThe Premise: (from NetGalley) Seventeen-year-old Indigo has had a tough start in life, having grown up in the care system after her dad killed her mum. Bailey, also seventeen, lives with his parents in Hackney and spends all his time playing guitar or tending to his luscious ginger afro.

When Indigo and Bailey meet at sixth form, serious sparks fly. But when Bailey becomes the target of a homeless man who seems to know more about Indigo than is normal, Bailey is forced to make a choice he should never have to make.

Thoughts: as with her YA Book Prize-winning debut, Orangeboy, Lawrence has crafted a story that is simultaneously topical, hard-hitting and emotive, with the character of Indigo and her traumatic backstory. Indigo’s a really compelling character, battling the rage that bubbles inside when she’s picked on at school (on a side note, are there seriously teenagers who bully someone about their murdered mum? Like, actually? I really want to believe that this is artistic licence). ┬áHer relationships with her foster mother and foster brother are sweet without being cloying, which is right for a character as prickly as Indigo. Her love of Debbie Harry and Blondie was another aspect of the character that really appealed to me, and it’s this which sparks the friendship between Indigo and Bailey.

Bailey’s sections of the story have plenty of intriguing material too. The contrast between Indigo’s life and Bailey’s affluent, supportive parents is stark and plays an important part in highlighting the various injustices Indigo has been exposed to. I didn’t care about Bailey quite as much, but his privilege in contrast to Indigo’s troubles probably makes this inevitable. The addition of the homeless man with a weird amount of knowledge about Indigo’s life adds impetus to the plot, and leads to satisfying revelations at the end.

In Conclusion: Patrice Lawrence gets it right once again, with another YA novel that explores race and class and their continuing impact on teenagers’ lives in 2017. Her writing is vibrant but uncompromising, making Indigo Donut a compelling read.


YA Review: Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

moxie.jpgThe Premise: Vivian is becoming quietly sick of the everyday sexism she witnesses at her school. From boys shouting at girls to make them a sandwich to physical harassment and the school’s refusal to do anything about it, enough is enough. Inspired by her mother’s past as a Riot Grrrl, Viv secretly channels her anger into Moxie, a zine dedicated to bringing together the girls of her school.

Thoughts: I knew within a few pages of Moxie that I was going to love it. Mathieu has crafted something really special here: something inspiring, positive and all-too-relatable. You can tell how important the story and subject matter are to the author; there’s such affection in the representation of Viv and the other characters, and I really loved how strong the friendships and support networks of girls are in the book. It made me feel all warm inside.

A couple of genius aspects of Moxie: the book includes the zines themselves, nicely breaking up the narrative and also including the reader in what’s going on. I also love any book book that comes with its own internal soundtrack and, in Moxie, Viv frequently references Riot Grrrl, especially Bikini Kill, and this all makes my heart sing (in a shouty kind of way, obviously). Mathieu has even compiled a playlist which you can find on her Tumblr and I am in love with it.

There was plenty in Moxie that I found very relatable; the emphasis on boys’ sport, for example, and the impetus placed on the girls in the book to dress appropriately to ensure they’re not distracting the boys. I loved the way the girls in Moxie slowly came together to fight the good fight. There’s discussion between Viv and one particular friend about ‘feminism’ as a concept, and Mathieu does a sublime job of highlighting the problems of definition and the misconception that feminism is anything other than a desire for equality. I think this is such an important part of a book like this.

In Conclusion: I’ll be swooning about this book for a very long time and strongly recommending it to people, especially the girls I teach. Moxie made me nod along, tut in recognition and, ultimately, smile for a long time. It’s revolutionary and witty, topical and lovely; I can’t think of a YA book, or book dealing with feminism, I’ve enjoyed so much. It should be essential reading.

Review: Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

borne.jpgThe Premise: before I start, be assured that I am not making any of this up. This is genuinely the plot of this book. In a futuristic, post-apocalyptic wasteland of a city, Rachel scavenges to stay alive in the midst of a seemingly endless power struggle between a shady drug dealer, an even shadier corporation called the Company, and a giant, winged bear called Mord. Yes, you read that right. Everything changes for Rachel when she finds Borne, a weird alien-creature-thing that she brings home to the Balcony Cliffs, the decimated home she shares with Wick, her mysterious scientist lover. Then loads of weird stuff happens.

Thoughts: it is hard to put into words exactly how much and why I enjoyed this book. Jeff Vandermeer is a literal genius at creating mindblowingly peculiar worlds and inhabiting them with a combination of terrifying monsters and lunatics as well as everyman (or, more specifically, everywoman) type characters with whom the reader can relate; he did it with the astounding Southern Reach trilogy, and he does it again with Borne. There’s so much that’s great about this book, and I don’t use the term lightly (my former head of faculty had a pathological hatred of anyone using the word ‘great’ in their reports and I hear his voice telling me off every time I say it – here, even he would have to agree).

Firstly, the world-building in Borne is exemplary. We’re given just enough information about the collapse of civilisation to prevent frustration, but so much remains an enigma. Rachel’s city is decimated, both under the protection of and under attack from Mord, and the circumstances of his creation are gradually unravelled as the book goes on; let’s take a moment to admire a writer who can make a three storey-high flying bear a central part of a story without it rendering the whole thing ridiculous. The ravaged city itself is a scene we’re familiar with from so much post-apocalyptic writing, as well as both films and TV, but this familiarity is both used and subverted in Vandermeer’s novel; I still can’t get some of the images – like the Company building destroyed by Mord, or the warehouse where Rachel and Borne witness the effects of this broken world all too clearly – out of my mind.

Vandermeer’s characters are exquisitely drawn too. As with Annihilation, a female character is our representative in the fictional world, and I’m obsessed with the way Vandermeer creates these women; Rachel is tough but damaged, not a cliched way, but in a fashion that creates a whole world of contradictions, just like a real person. I felt really invested in her fight to survive, as well as her relationships with Borne and Wick.

The plot of Borne is spellbinding; there are so many intense developments, terrifying events and unpredictable twists that the book took me by surprise repeatedly. The premise is dizzying enough, but, suffice to say, the craziness continues throughout.

In Conclusion: Borne is a really, brilliantly creepy book. It’s not realistic (one would hope), but creates such profoundly and tangibly unsettling imagery that it’s hard to tear yourself away and refocus on the real world. Vandermeer’s brand of sci-fi is so effective and inventive; there’s no way this isn’t going to be on my top ten list at the end of 2017.