Unwind (Book 1 of the Unwind “Dystology”)

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This book could change your life.

Imagine a world in some not-so-distant future where parents can choose to end the lives of their inconvenient children—the troublemakers and underachievers—between the ages of 13 and 18. This is the world after the Heartland War, an American civil war fought over reproductive rights and resulting in a frightening truce. This is the world of Neal Shusterman’s Unwind.

The rejected children don’t technically die; they are “unwound”—that is, they are surgically taken apart, one piece at a time, while they’re still alive. The authorities argue that this is not murder because “unwinds” are kept alive “in a divided state” and their “parts” sold for medical and cosmetic transplants.

Unwind is the story of 3 runaway unwinds fighting for their lives in a world that only wants them in pieces. Connor is a troubled youth whose parents choose to unwind him because they’re tired of him getting into fights at school, even though the fights are usually for a good reason. Risa is an orphan, a ward of the state, being unwound because she wasn’t considered to be exceptional enough for the state to justify supporting her any longer. Lev is a tithe whose religious parents give away 10% of everything they have, including their 10th child.

Connor runs away from home after discovering his parents’ intent to unwind him, and Risa escapes her unwinding sentence when the bus transporting her to the harvest camp suddenly crashes. Lev, on the other hand, has known all his life that he is destined for unwinding, and he is at peace with this until he is roughly torn from his destiny by a kidnapper trying to save him. Our heroes inadvertently happen upon a sort of “underground railroad” intended to save unwinds from their fate, but they don’t know who is in charge, whom they can trust, where they’re going, or what will happen to them there.

Since this book is about 13- to 18-year olds, I suspect this is its target audience. Personally, I probably would not have appreciated it until I was about 16, when I attended a Catholic high school and began to realize that my own beliefs did not match those imposed on me at school. Like many teens, I was preoccupied with ethical questions and finding my place in the world.

No matter what side of the abortion debate you sit on, this book asks provoking questions about when life begins, what sorts of supports exist for kids once they are born, the nature of the human soul, who gets to make life and death decisions, whether anyone ought to profit from the death industry, and about the nature of death itself. I recognize that this sounds really heavy, but it’s often presented in a simultaneously humourous and honest way. Answers to these questions are still very raw and rough and unfinished for most teens; the book doesn’t seem to push a specific political agenda, but instead provides fuel for readers to sort out their own beliefs.

Unwind is an exciting tale of adventure, heroism, survival, protest, friends, family, life, death, and doing the right thing even when it’s most difficult. Fans of the Hunger Games or Divergent trilogies will love Unwind for its strong sense of social justice and youth fighting for their survival in an unjust world. Teens who enjoy this book might also enjoy The Knife of Never Letting Go (of the Chaos Walking trilogy) because it, too, is set in a dystopian future that is a bit like our own world but different in some very important ways; it is also a story about teens trying to escape a terrible fate only to find themselves facing it head-on.

While Unwind successfully stands alone as a complete work, it will leave you aching to find out what happens next. Luckily you can! Unwind is only the first book in a 4-part “dystology” that ends in some incredible, unpredictable, but nevertheless plausible ways. While I found books 2 and 3 to be a little slower-paced and less interesting, book 4 grabbed me by the eyes and did not let go until I’d finished it. Unwind has become one of my favourite books (I’ve read it at least 4 times in the last 2 years) and I would wholeheartedly rate it 5/5 flashlights.

5-flashlight-rating

Divergent by Veronica Roth

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Divergent is a popular young adult novel by Veronica Roth, and the first in a series set in the same dystopian universe. It is similar in theme to other post-apocalyptic books, such as The Hunger Games. Divergent follows the character of Beatrice, or “Tris” as she is also known. She lives in a city divided between five factions roughly corresponding to personality types. These factions hold a balance of power that, while fragile, is better than the anarchic alternative.

This setting seems formulaic and is never adequately explained. How did a society in turmoil develop such a strict division of society, and is this division present anywhere outside of the city? The Factions seem to live in an uneasy balance, but how can this balance be sustained when contact between the factions is effectively forbidden? Nevertheless, Roth uses this cheesy backdrop to create engaging characters and to move the plot along quickly.

The characters and their challenges will hold the most appeal to a young reader. Divergent follows the protagonist and her colleagues through an initiation process that brings a cohort of 16-year-olds together, and sometimes sets them into conflict with each other. There is a real sense of satisfaction the reader will gain from discovering how the protagonist grows and adapts. Themes of alienation, fitting in, new environments, and relationship to authority are explored in detail.

All of this character growth is done while the plot builds up to a breakneck pace. I think any reader who makes it past the stumbling first half will devour the second half in one sitting.

This is a book that will appeal to older teens. Sex and violence feature prominently in Divergent, both as part of the setting and as pieces inherent to the plot. It might be too much for younger readers to handle. The themes in general revolve around interaction with and integration with the adult world, and making sense of the rules of society, so a reader of 15 or older will find Divergent speaks to them.

Artificiality of the setting aside, this is an entertaining novel with plenty going for it.

3-flashlight-rating

S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders

the-outsiders-by-s-e-hintonIt can be difficult for teenagers to delve into young adult fiction. Generally, teen fiction is written by adults who are trying to appeal to a teenage audience. This is not the case for S.E. Hinton who wrote this award-winning novel when she was only 15 years old.

S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is a book that can appeal to all ages, but it is particularly for teens around the age Hinton was when she penned the story. Very much like the author herself, the narrative is told through the voice of Ponyboy Curtis, a young teenager who struggles with being a part of the ‘out-crowd’ and the artificial identities that are placed upon him in result of his socio-economic status: an effective example of Erikson’s ‘morality vs. role confusion’ stage of teen development.

After experiencing a violent ordeal, Ponyboy and his friend Johnny are forced to hide themselves from the rest of society. The remainder of the story follows the boys as they experience hardships that are very different from the hardships of both children and adults alike. The novel also boasts a great cast of both male and female characters. Hinton does a wonderful job at avoiding the “good”  and the “bad”, and instead highlights the grayness in humanity that stops us from being wholly good or wholly bad. This aspect touches on the rising moral development of its teen readers (as explained in Kohlberg’s ‘post-conventional morality’ stage) who are beginning to understand decision-making based on moral development and nurtured values. This is a novel about teens, told through the eyes of a teen, and written by a teen herself. It plainly grasps the difficulties that come only during the transitioning time in a young adult’s life.

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S.E. Hinton

Another wonderful thing about this novel is the timelessness of it. The novel was set and written in the 1960s. Although some of the styles and slang have changed drastically since then, the social issues in the novel have stayed pertinent over the fifty years since its release.

Readers who enjoyed S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders may also enjoy Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak. Both novels deal with young adults as they struggle with the fear of being a social enigma and the hope of finding one’s identity through harrowing experiences.

Although it could be read by pre-teens, this novel involves mature themes such as cursing, theft, gang violence, gun violence, and the smoking and drinking of minors. So much so that this novel was placed on the Top 100 List of Banned Books in the decade before 2000. Despite that, or maybe because of it, teen readers have resounded with this novel over the years.

S.E. Hinton’s novel is far from a romanticized view of teenage life. In a genre flooded with fantasy and fairytale endings, Hinton’s The Outsiders is a glimpse of a once reality and, in a way, an existing one.

 

5-flashlight-rating

Orange: Volume 1

9781626923027_manga-orange-1-primary.jpgNaho Takamiya has a secret. She has received a letter from herself, ten years in the future. Naho’s future self implores her to value and support her new friend, Kakeru Naruse. Naho of the future reveals a number of regrets and offers suggestions to improve how certain situations pan out. In doing so, Naho believes she will be able to save Kakeru’s life.

Orange: Volume 1 is a realistic fiction manga with a sci-fi twist, written by Ichigo Takano. It follows the life of Naho Takamiya and her friends as they go through their eleventh grade year of highschool. Scenes cut between future and present Naho and her friends.

Naho is a lovable and friendly character. She is incredibly empathetic, always putting her friends and family first and working hard to contribute to her classroom culture. Naho’s friends, Hiroto, Takako, Saku, Rio, and Azusa are fun, energetic, and believable as a group of friends who have grown up together.

Naho often struggles with taking risks and her fear of embarrassment. A firm belief that doing so will help her friend helps her to overcome these fears. The storyline of friends working to prevent the suicide of Kakeru is relevant to the lives of todays’ teens, as suicide is the cause of about 20% of deaths in teens ages 15 – 19. Even in Ontario, a huge percentage of teens are diagnosed with mental illness. Despite these heavy topics being the backdrop, Takano keeps the story and characters bright and uplifting. The story is a balanced blend of heartbreaking and sweet.

Orange is appropriate for ages 12 – 17, though older readers will also enjoy the story and characters. Manga and graphic novels are quick, popular reads with teens and young adults. Orange has also been made into a beautifully animated anime series.

5-flashlight-rating

I give Orange: Volume 1 5 flashlights. Despite not personally being a manga reader, I fell in love with the characters and their mission. The artwork and dialogue is gentle and subtle, the perfect reflection of Naho’s character.

Teens who enjoy Orange: Volume 1 might also enjoy A Silent Voice, by Yoshitoki Oima. The manga focuses on another topic that remains close to the heart of teens: bullying. Shoya, the main character, is a bored student who tries to bring excitement to his life. When a new girl, Shoko, is transferred to his school, she becomes a natural target due to her hearing aids. A Silent Voice loudly crashes through the story, where Orange is slower paced and gentle. Both stories, however, are simultaneously tragic and heartwarming. A Silent Voice is a seven volume series and was made into an anime movie, released in September 2016.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian

693208Junior Spirit describes his home as “approximately two billion miles west of happy.” Yet in wanting to escape the alcoholism, poverty and despair that dominates life on the ‘rez,’ he becomes a traitor to his tribe by simply attending a better, whiter school.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a raw and honest look at
life on, and off, the reservation in Washington State.  An awkward but smart teen, Junior chooses to leave his underfunded, crumbling Indian school for a better education and hopefully a chance at a better life.  However, in doing so he is rejected by those he has left behind and never really accepted in his all-white, new school.  The dichotomy of his parallel lives is so deep he even takes separate names.  At home, he is Junior, a lifelong nickname that represents that his connection to both family and tribe.  At school, he is Arnold, a name given at birth but never used, at least not until stepping into this world that doesn’t recognize the tribal norms Junior has never questioned.

In trying to bridge his two identities, Junior struggles to grasp the world and his place in it.  Hispart-time-indian attempts to understand the flawed adults around him are relatable and often funny.  Readers don’t have to be a poor, Indian kid to connect with Junior and his journey. This is a book about being on the outside and looking for a way in, themes to which any teen can relate.  It explores issues of social justice and dignity, and takes a hard look at Junior’s so-called role models, all issues Kohlberg discusses as crucial issues in the post-conventional morality stage of development. It would appeal to ages of 13-16, though even an adult would enjoy the Alexie’s wry and raw writing style.

If readers have already tried and liked Diary, there are other great books on the market for picking up next.  If you were drawn to Junior’s cultural and personal identity struggles, Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos is a great next choice for you.  While grittier than Diary and set in the 1960, this book’s exploration of fitting in and standing out still resonate today.

Another next novel for Diary fans could be King of the Screwups: A Novel by K.L. Going.  Rich and popular, party-animal slacker Liam is kicked out by his dad and sent to live with his gay, glam-rocking uncle in a trailer park.  This is a book about reinventing oneself, high parental expectations and unexpected family bonds.  Liam and his Aunt Pete are unique characters that stay with you.

This is an excellent read!

5-flashlight-rating