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YA Round-up: The Best Lies, The Kingdom and Girls with Sharp Sticks.

TW: abuse, rape.

Debut YA thriller The Best Lies by Sarah Lyu is a portrayal of a toxic friendship, abuse cycles and the frayed, complex in-betweens. It opens with the death of Remy’s beloved boyfriend Jack. Remy is a witness to this accidental shooting (or was it a murder?) supposedly committed by her best friend Elise but Remy, in the traumatic hours following it, has no immediate memory of the event. In between police interviews and flashbacks to the months leading up to Jack’s devastating death, we come to learn about Remy and Elise’s friendship in detail.

When Remy’s insecurity and troubled home life met fierce, trouble solving Elise it was like day after a long night and Elise and Remy become everything to each other. But soon Remy starts to question Elise’s actions, her tendency for pranks and more. And then she learns about Elise’s background, her home life and the domestic abuse she endures. Given that background, The Best Lies expertly looks sympathetically at Elise’s actions without excusing her toxic behaviour. Remy’s own life is deftly explored, her traumas as well as ensuing guilt over Elise – and her growth and positioning over not being a secondary character in her own life are the novel’s greatest strengths.

Rating: 7 – Very Good.

Westworld meets Handmaid’s Tale meets my disappointment in The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg.

In a vague near dystopian future, The Kingdom is an amusement park with the usual awesome rides plus the less usual bioengineered extinct species in their animal park. Also bioengineered are the seven Fantasists, beautiful princesses that have been created to be perfect, fair, dreams come true. Ana is one of them and life had been very peachy until she starts questioning her role as a Fantasist. Why must they be inside the park at all times? Why are they bound to their bed every evening? Why do sometimes her sisters go away then come back without memory of where they had been? What kind of nightmare are they really living?

When Ana meets new part employee Owen her questions turn to: is she capable of love? Is she a real person? Then Owen is murdered and Ana is accused of his murder but can robots have that kind of free will? Taking place between Ana’s now (at court) and Ana’s then (falling in love, discovering the truth behind the Kingdom), the story examines the questions of agency, humanity and artificial intelligence.

I came for close relationships between girls in peril and got only some of that – the closeness between Ana and her sisters may be what propel her to open her eyes but change and salvation only come with a great deal of help from Owen. Given the set-up, I had hoped the novel would take its darkness and run with it but sadly it was not to be.  It all starts with a super promising set-up that includes MURDER AT DISNEYLAND and KILLER ROBOTS and BFF ROBOT PALS but eventually it fizzles out, under-developing everything else in the name of #hetlurve.

Rating: 5 – Meh.

Everything I wanted from The Kingdom, I got from Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young. With a very similar setup of Westworld meets Handmaid’s Tale, Girls with Sharp Sticks presents a fresh take on both comparisons with a gloriously empowering ending and well-developed friendships between girls at its core.

The girls of Innovations Academy are the perfect girls: well-behaved and beautiful and above all, compliant. Their parents have left them there hoping their upbringing would lend them good husbands (or guardians). If they misbehave, there is always therapy to help getting them back on track.

Mena has been ok with her upbringing, trusting that the teachers, the doctor, the guardians and sponsors know what’s best for her and her best friends. But one of her friends starts showing disagreeable opinions and then she disappears leaving behind a little book of poems – one of them, the Girl with Sharp Sticks of the title. Upon reading the poem, a fire starts in Mena’s heart which will lead to her questioning everything, eventually finding out the truth of their lives and of the academy.

Harrowing and horrific, there is so much misogyny and abuse in this girls’ lives, Girls with Sharp Sticks is not an easy read – there are chapters I had to take breaks from reading. The school is immersed in rape culture involving every single aspect of the girls’ upbringing. But as much as their environment tried to crush their agency, their spirit and above all, their closeness, the more the girls question. Everything leads to an explosive ending in a book full of awesome twists. I listened to the audiobook and highly recommend that.

I cannot wait for the sequel, Girls with Sharp Hearts. Pair this read with the super dark and discomfiting Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill.

Rating: 8 – Excellent.

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