Young adult fiction: Prison, dragons, drama and a love letter to Tolstoy

The story of a US president in her teens, and a trilogy on a plausible dystopian future

Sarah Watson’s Most Likely follows four teenage girls, one of whom is destined to become US president. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah Watson’s Most Likely follows four teenage girls, one of whom is destined to become US president. Photograph: Getty Images

 

“Every happy teenage girl is the same, while every unhappy teenage girl is miserable in her own special way.” The marketing of Jenny Lee’s Anna K (Penguin, £7.99) – with its tagline “Young. Rich. Crazy in love.” – draws on the success of Crazy Rich Asians, but its formal structure is a love letter to Tolstoy, moving his tangled web of infidelities and scandals from 19th-century Russia to 21st-century New York. Here, all the central characters are teenagers, and mostly incredibly privileged; this wealth allows them to act like adults when needed for plot purposes, while at other times serving as a constraint on their behaviour.

Anna K, by Jenny Lee
Anna K, by Jenny Lee

There are echoes of Gossip Girl throughout, particularly in the endless references to designer labels regardless of the occasion (sex, one character chirps, is supposed to be “better than a shoe sale at Bergdorf’s”). Alongside this, the exposition is often clunky – surprising, as it’s by no means the author’s first book. (Less surprisingly, the book has already been optioned for TV, where the glossy, glamorous elements will be a visual treat.)

And yet, as the story progresses, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the sheer fun and drama of it. Lee redirects the threads of the original text to weave something familiar yet new, enchanting and distracting.

Dystopian trilogy

Welcome to The Loop (Chicken House, £7.99). Welcome to what happens “when you take compassion out of leadership, when you take mercy out of judgement, when you let the machines decide the fate of humans”. Ben Oliver’s debut, the first in a new dystopian trilogy, is centred around 16-year-old Luka Kane and a band of fellow prisoners, locked up for crimes both minor and major, and destined to serve as guinea pigs for government experiments as a way of delaying their impending executions.

The Loop, by Ben Oliver
The Loop, by Ben Oliver

This is a grim world in which prisoners undergo a daily “harvest” so that their biological energy can be used to help power the infrastructure; it gets even bleaker when there’s the possibility of escape but uncertainty over who can be trusted. The backstory is woven in neatly, and Luka’s concern for others is compelling and believable. This novel depicts one of those futures that feels entirely plausible, and is all the more terrifying for it.

Plane crash

Elizabeth Acevedo won the Carnegie Medal for her last YA verse novel, The Poet X; her newest poetic offering sets itself a more challenging task than depicting a single journey of self-discovery. Clap When You Land (Hot Key Books, £7.99) is inspired by the real-life crash of AA Flight 587, from New York’s JFK airport to the capital of the Dominican Republic, in November 2001. The mostly Dominican passengers, as well as the entire crew, perished.

The incident was deemed to be an accident rather than a terrorist attack, moving it down the priority list at that time. For Acevedo, who remembers the crash from her own teen years, it was always a priority. Her new novel, told from the perspective of two different yet similar teenage girls, imagines an accident today, and its effect on the communities involved.

Yahaira and Camino are both scarred when they learn of their father’s death on that flight. What they don’t know, at this point, is that the other exists – that they have a sister out there, in another country, who might understand their grief, frustration and anger.

Through careful and delicate free verse, Acevedo gives voice to both girls, identifying their resentments and insecurities, their fears and their mutual protectiveness. She manages to draw comparisons without insisting on equivalence of trauma; to find common ground without suggesting that economic differences don’t exist. It’s an impressive and moving read.

Presidential

For something wondrously wholesome and heart-warming, Sarah Watson’s Most Likely (Scholastic, £7.99) is the way to go. We witness four best friends in their final year of high school, one of whom will become president of the United States – but which one, we wonder, as all four become caught up in the fight to save a local park, alongside their own particular anxieties?

Watson, who created the TV series The Bold Type, makes her bookish debut here, and it’s one to hug close to your heart. Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha quickly establish themselves as distinct individuals and their intense, loyal friendship is endearing and inspiring. If Parks and Recreation were a book, it would be this.

Gripping universe

“On the whole, one should worry less about prophecies and more about the lunatics who believe them.” The award-winning Patrick Ness dives into a takedown of fantasy tropes in his latest novel, Burn (Walker Books, £12.99), as he did with The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, although in this instance his concern is less about focusing on what’s going on with the “bit players” as it is with what might be happening in alternate worlds.

Burn, by Patrick Ness
Burn, by Patrick Ness

The concept of the “multiverse” – a set of multiple universes linked to our own, changed only by decisions as small as the toss of a coin – was first discussed by Edwin Schrödinger (yes, the cat-in-the-box guy) in Dublin in 1952. Ness’s novel, set five years later, introduces dragons into the mix, among other things (including the cold war, homophobia, racism and some fierce cruelty to pigs).

“Were all relationships like this?” one character wonders. “So predicated on absolute chance?” The fact that we see inside more than one universe tells us that some things, at least, are not inevitable. (But there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…)

Ness always writes well, but he is particularly sharp and astute in this latest tale, and his depiction of teenagers caught up in an ancient battle they don’t or can’t entirely understand is gripping until the end. YA rockstar, I suppose.

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