YA – Cut Off

Finlay, Adrianne. Cut Off. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-00645-9. $17.99. Grades 7-12.

Contestants on the new virtual reality television show Cut Off have their own reasons for competing. Part I begins with contestant interviews as each player is introduced at their current location on a remote island. Readers get to know River, a natural survivalist whose parents died in a car accident; Cam, who feels responsible for her little brother due to their mom’s is incarceration; Trip, whose technology is what makes the show’s virtual reality experience unmatched; and Liza, who seems to know a lot but isn’t inclined to share much about herself. As the contestants are forced together to survive, they begin to realize that they may be more cut off than they signed up for. When technology begins to fail and fears become real, they have to rely on each other to survive. But they signed on to compete for a one million dollar prize, and they each have fears, some that may be too difficult to overcome.

THOUGHTS: Told in several parts this action-packed adventure begins with meeting basic survival needs and evolves into a high tech world of survival. Fans of stories like Warcross by Marie Lu, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, The Eye of Minds by James Dashner, and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline will get their tech adventure fix in this stand alone title.

Science Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

 

YA – All These Monsters

Tintera, Amy. All These Monsters. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-01240-5. 450 p. $17.99. Grades 9 and up. 

The world has been overtaken by vicious man-eating monsters that randomly pop up from underground. No one knows where or when they’ll attack next, all must be on guard, and deaths are staggering. Clara Pratt’s home life is still worse. Her abusive father is violent, angry, and manipulative, and anything can set him off in an instant. When Clara discovers her brother is about to leave, she knows she needs to too. After learning about Grayston St. John’s plan to send teams to fight the monsters (the scrabs as they’re called) overseas in Europe where America has refused to send help, Clara knows that’s her way out. Only if she can make the team and leave the country. But all is not as it seems in the world of the scrabs, and to face it she will have to fight her inner demons.

THOUGHTS: An action-packed novel, All These Monsters has earned a spot on my shelf right between The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner.

Dystopian            Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD
Science Fiction

YA – Ready Player Two

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player Two. Ballantine Books, 2020. 978-1-524-76133-2. 370 p. $28.99. Grades 9 and up. 

Wade Watts has won the contest. He’s rich, he’s famous, he’s living the life of his dreams? Inheriting billions of dollars and taking control of GSS has left Wade wrapped up in a lavishly padded but empty life. With robotic staff at home and avatars inside the Oasis, Wade very rarely interacts with actual, physical people. While the rest of the High Five move on, creating great lives and names for themselves, Wade is left behind. That is until the unexpected happens and the High Five are thrown back together again, with a new race to save the Oasis. One with even greater consequences than before.

THOUGHTS: Ready Player Two is as much an action-packed whirlwind as the first. Readers will delight in meeting friends, old and new, that change the face of humanity.

Science Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

Wade Watts has just won James Halliday’s contest and, along with his friends, the high five, has become one of the new co-owners of Gregarious Simulation Systems. As James Halliday’s heir, he now wears the robes of Anorak while in the Oasis, giving his avatar Parzival unlimited power. Days after winning the contest, Wade also discovers a new technology called ONI (Oasis neural interface) which has never been released to the public. Halliday specifically left this technology to his heir, and Wade, along with his co-owners Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, has to decide if the world is ready for this technology. Only Art3mis objects, and soon the world starts experiencing the Oasis in a new and improved way. Wade quickly becomes addicted to the new ONI experience, and lives a very solitary life, always waiting to get back into the Oasis. However, when a new quest is revealed, similar to Halliday’s egg contest in the previous installment, Wade needs all of the help he can get, from both old friends and new, and Parzival must once again step up to the challenge to save the Oasis while keeping ONI users out of danger.

THOUGHTS: The futuristic setting of both Ready Player One and Ready Player Two doesn’t seem as unrealistic as it did to me when I first started this series. One of the benefits of the Oasis is that people can interact safely without the fear of spreading disease, and they often reference a terrible flu that killed millions before the Oasis became so widely used. Since so many of our interactions in 2020 were virtual, it makes me wonder if something like the Oasis will be in our future as well. I’m glad this book picked up right where book one left off, and the events that transpired after didn’t come as too much of a surprise to me either. Readers must remember how young Wade Watts is, and after inheriting everything from James Halliday in the previous book, it only makes sense that he’s not always going to make the right choices after becoming a billionaire overnight. Mostly, I loved all of the 80s pop culture references, especially the John Hughes planet inside of the Oasis! It was a nice wrap up to events set in motion in Ready Player One, and a perfect book to read during these primarily virtual times.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Skyhunter

Lu, Marie. Skyhunter. Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 978-1-250-22168-1. $19.99. 384 p. Grades 9-12.

Talin lives in the futuristic nation of Mara, and she is a striker. Every striker has a shield, a partner during a fight against the ghosts, the once human turned zombie experiments created by the Karensa Federation. If a striker’s shield is attacked by a ghost, it becomes their responsibility to end their shield’s life before he or she turns into a federation ghost as well. Mara and Karensa are at war, but Mara is losing since they do not have the technology of the “early ones” that Karensa has discovered and used to its advantage. Although Talin lives and fights for Mara, it hasn’t always been her home. Talin and her mother fled from Basea to Mara years ago when it was under attack from Karensa, and after inhaling poisonous gas, she lost her ability to speak when her throat was badly damaged. Referred to as a “rat” by many Marans, she found her place among the strikers who commonly communicate with sign language in order to sneak up on the ghosts they hunt. When the strikers capture a strange Karensa prisoner, Talin steps in to save his life, and as a punishment for her actions, he becomes her shield and her responsibility. It doesn’t take long for Talin and her fellow strikers to discover that this prisoner, called Red, is a new “weapon” of the Federation and possibly the key to their salvation from Karensa. Talin and Red soon form an inseparable bond, and together, they plot to bring down the Federation that has taken so much and caused them both so much pain.

THOUGHTS: Readers will quickly discover that when Talin speaks of “the early ones” she is speaking of the world in which we currently live. It certainly adds some mystery to the story since Talin isn’t sure exactly what destroyed the early one’s civilization and brought upon the current nation of Mara and the Federation of Karensa. Talin, who is Basean, not Maran, must endure some pretty harsh racism from the Marans who consider her to be beneath them, along with the rest of the Baseans living in poverty within the nation of Mara since Basea was destroyed and conquered. So many of the same issues that exist in today’s world are present in this futuristic society, and fans of Marie Lu, science fiction, action, or popular shows like The Walking Dead will enjoy Skyhunter. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – City of Secrets

Ying, Victoria. City of Secrets. Viking, 2020. 978-0-593-11448-3. 252 p. $22.99. Grades 5-8.

In the city of Oskar there is a switchboard that connects more than just phone calls. Ever Barnes, an orphan, hides in the switchboard building and protects a secret that not even he knows. When the owner of the switchboard brings his daughter Hannah to see how it works, she discovers Ever and is instantly intrigued. When a secret society threatens to kill Ever and take the secret for themselves, Hannah, Ever and a switchboard worker must go to great lengths to protect the secret and the city.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel delivers a beautiful storyline and will captivate readers who love adventure and spy stories! Both of the children in the story play a vital role, and it is a breath of fresh air to see a girl protagonist. This graphic novel does not disappoint!

Graphic Novel          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

YA – The Loop

Oliver, Ben. The Loop. Chicken House, 2020. 978-1-338-58930-6. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 9 and up. 

The Loop. The high-tech prison serving adolescent death-row inmates is a unique hellscape. With torture every night and isolation most of the day, these juveniles are the dregs of society, committers of crimes so unspeakable as to be sentenced to death before they ever turn 18. But one thing can “save” them; choosing a ‘Delay’ extends their sentence by 6 months. Another 6 months to live, but only if they partake in scientific experiments including experimental surgeries, that’s assuming they survive. Everything runs like clockwork, down to the minute the same thing happens every day. Until it doesn’t. Until the rain doesn’t come. Set in a society where the government has the control, even over the weather, what will happen when things go awry, when the people revolt?

THOUGHTS: A thrilling-fast paced dystopia, The Loop will appeal to fans of The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games.

Dystopian          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

MG – The Middler

Applebaum, Kirsty. The Middler. Henry Holt and Company, 2020. 978-1-250-31733-9. 262 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Eleven year old Maggie is a middler, nothing special like an eldest, and is mainly ignored and invisible in her town of Fennis Wick. When Maggie meets a “wanderer” who lives outside the boundary, she decides she wants to step up and get noticed by trying to capture her. Once Maggie steps outside her town and into the boundary that has always kept her isolated, everything she has ever known and believed gets turned upside down. Join Maggie in this dystopian adventure that exposes the lies her town has told for years and changes the way of their world forever. Fans of The Giver will love this debut novel!

THOUGHTS: A must purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Fantasy          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – Imagine Me

Mafi, Tahereh. Imagine Me. HarperCollins, 2020. 978-0-062-67644-3. $18.99. 464 p. Grades 9-12.

“Imagine me, master of my own universe. I am everything I ever dreamed of.” Juliette Ferrars has survived abandonment, imprisonment, isolation, and loneliness, but she still learned to let people into her life as mentors, companions, and friends. She fell in love, became a leader, and almost lost it all. Although the reestablishment is still a threat, Juliette must now face her past in order to survive her future. Now that Juliette knows about Ella, she’ll need the support of her loved ones to help her understand who she truly is. When Juliette is captured, Warner and Kenji must find a way to bring her back and put an end to the reestablishment once and for all.

THOUGHTS:  Imagine Me is the final book in the Shatter Me series, and this is a series that gets better and better with each book! I wasn’t overly impressed with Shatter Me, but I was hooked after reading Unravel Me and Ignite Me. The series could have ended after Ignite Me; however, there was so much more to all the characters than I could have ever imagined, so I’m glad that Mafi decided to continue the series to tell the rest of their stories. Imagine Me reveals even more secrets, plot twists, and shocking moments that will keep readers on edge until the very end.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Nowhere on Earth

Lake, Nick. Nowhere on Earth. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 978-1-984-89644-5. 292 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.

Emily would do anything to protect her little brother, Aiden, even stowing away on a bush plane when the men in black start following him around town. But crashing in the Alaskan wilderness wasn’t in the plan. However, the rapid arrival of men with guns, shooting at them, propels Emily into action. She, Aiden, and Bob, the injured pilot, head out across the dangerous landscape, trying to put distance between themselves and the hunters, making their way towards safety. The book opens with the plane crash and the adrenaline doesn’t let down. Emily’s and Aiden’s backstories are revealed as the story unfolds, including Emily’s tempestuous relationship with her parents. Emily does come to appreciate the myriad survival lessons her ex-special-ops father taught her, as well as the beauty of the Alaskan territory, but deeply resents her parents for moving from Minneapolis and forcing her to leave behind her beloved ballet. The book begins as an adventure-survival tale, but then evolves into so much more, including a massive plot-twist and several thought provoking ethical issues. A few threads could have been more fully developed, including a hint that the plane crashed due to sabotage, but readers will be forgiving.

THOUGHTS: This hard to pigeon hole book should find a home with a wide variety of readers. Perfect for those who prefer a book that grabs you from the first page, but also gives satisfaction to readers looking for some depth.

Science Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Collins, Suzanne. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Scholastic Press, 2020.  978-1-338-63517-1. $24.99. 528 p. Grades 9-12.

The much-anticipated prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy begins 64 years before Katniss Everdeen enters the arena to fight for her life. The Hunger Games are only ten years old and are not yet the spectacle they go on to become. Coriolanus Snow, future president of Panem, along with his cousin and grandmother, have sold almost all of their possessions after the war drains their finances. The Snow name is synonymous with wealth, and they struggle to maintain a wealthy facade. The Snow family motto demands it: snow lands on top. Head gamemaker Dr. Gaul pairs each tribute with a Capitol Academy mentor. Coriolanus is paired with District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird, who immediately becomes a fan favorite due to her songbird voice. Coriolanus falls for her and, upon seeing the horrific conditions where the tributes are kept before the games, arranges for her to have food and medical care, a precursor to tribute treatment in the later books. But he still has strong loyalty to the Capitol. This is much different from his peer, Sejanus. He views The Hunger Games as unjust, and at times, Coriolanus sees his point. As his love for Lucy Gray deepens, he is conflicted. He believes in her but also in the Capitol. Most of all, he believes he needs to make something of himself in order to keep proving that snow always indeed lands on top.

Thoughts: Readers will want to simultaneously empathize and loathe Coriolanus. He wants to make the right decisions, but there are already glimpses of what he will become in later books. Fans of The Hunger Games will love discovering the origins of the trilogy’s most important symbols, such as the mockingjay and Victors’ Village. For those who have never read The Hunger Games, it serves as a good start. Similar to its predecessors’, the book does have a fair amount of blood and violence and is better suited for high school readers who are sure to enjoy this action-packed origin story.

Dystopian Fiction     Danielle Corrao, Ephrata Area SD