Book review: LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

Jay Kristoff writes strong women really well and it is no different in his YA dystopian thriller LIFEL1K3.

She didn’t want to die here. She hadn’t liked it much the first time.

Seventeen year old Eve builds robotic gladiators to earn credits to buy medicine for her sick Grandpa, who is her last remaining family member. When her robot gladiator is destroyed in a fight and the opposition comes after her as well, she manages to stop the attack with the power of her mind and a raging scream. Unbeknownst to Eve, her powers of destruction have drawn the attention of the Brotherhood who decide to hunt her down and kill her because of this abnormality.

Look outside that door, and you will see a world built on metal backs. Held together by metal hands. And one day, those hands will close. And they will become fists.

On her way home with her gal-pal Lemon Fresh and her AI robot Cricket they discover the remains of an android boy in a scrap pile and take him home for parts. To her surprise the android boy, Ezekiel, comes to life and he recognises Eve and the those who are out to get her because of her powers. The motley crew of misfits, along with Kaiser, a fierce and protective robotic dog set off across their post-apocalyptic world to save Eve’s loved ones and discover the secrets of her past.

It’s simple to love someone on the days that are easy. But you find out what your love is made of on the days that are hard.

LIFEL1K3 is an action packed roller coaster ride through a world run by a couple of big corporations that use robots as slaves and leave everyone else to fend for themselves in the ruins of the Mad Max–like world. The story explores what happens when beings made with cybernetics and artificial intelligence become sentient and understand that they do not own their own minds, but want to.

Imagine having all your capacity for love and hate and joy and rage and only a couple of years to learn to handle all of it. Sometimes it feels like a flood inside my mind, and it’s all I can do not to drown.

In true Kristoff style, the story is full of twists and turns, a fast paced suspenseful action packed plot, incredible world building, great characterisation and humour, all used to tell a unique story about a girl finding her place in a world, not being defined by our past, and found family. Themes include exploration of corporate powers, resource depletion, AI and what makes us human (which reminded me of a mind bending subject I studied in philosophy at university), societal collapse, love and lies. And of course the story ends on a cliffhanger as there are two more books following it – DEV1AT3 and TRUEL1F3.

Your past doesn’t make calls on your future. It doesn’t matter who you were. Only who you are.

Book review: The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough

The Boy from the Mish is a queer First Nations bildungsroman fiction novel. This book is an important work as it represents diverse identities – both Aboriginal and queer. Young people who do not ‘fit’ the mainstream ideal need to see themselves in fiction as it helps to validate their lived experience. A lack of diverse representation not only influences how people see themselves but how they are seen (or not seen) by mainstream dominant cultures.

Go to your elders. You should ask them about your country and your totem. Because that is your identity. A blackfella with no identity is a lost blackfella. He don’t know where he belongs.

Individual and institutionalised racism, over-policing of Aboriginal youth, prejudice and lateral violence are confronted throughout this story told from the perspective of seventeen year old Aboriginal Jackson on a journey of self-discovery about who he is emotionally and sexually. On the cusp of adulthood and in his final year of high school, Jackson juggles a social life with his mates and his girlfriend with whom he has not had sex, but doing so hovers as an ever present expectation that he cannot meet.

I’m not too fucking drunk. I’m tipsy at best. And she isn’t ugly, I think she’s beautiful. Maybe my body is just broken, or maybe I’m destined to be an abstinent priest or something.

When he encounters fresh out of juvie Tomas, Jackson is unsettled by his attraction to the other young man and it triggers a change in how Jackson sees himself. The Boy from the Mish is a beautiful and heartwarming story that paints colourful insights into life in Aboriginal family homes, familial relationships and struggles, the emotionality of youth and the fears that make coming out difficult. It is also written in a way that shows white people as ‘the other’, which is refreshing.

If we don’t let ourselves be who we are, love who we are, where we come from, it’ll strangle ya until you can’t fight it no longer.

Book review: Hideous Beauty by William Hussey

Hideous Beauty is a mystery about young love, trauma and being queer. Trigger warning – it’s heart wrenching, covers some challenging issues and will most likely make you cry.

Truth is dull and frightening and soul destroying. Art is about the wonderful lies we tell ourselves so we can bear to live the truth.

Dylan is forced to come out before he is ready after a video of him having sex with his boyfriend El goes viral. They decide to get on the front foot and got to the school dance together. It goes surprisingly well and Dylan thinks he has found happiness in being able to be himself with Ellis. Dylan’s euphoria is short lived when El starts behaving strangely, becomes angry and withdrawn. Driving home from the school dance Ellis loses control of the car and the two boys crash into a lake – Dylan is pulled from the car, but Ellis drowns. A grief stricken Dylan vows to find out why his rescuer left Ellis in the car.

We all wanted El to be something he could never be. And we thought us wanting that was somehow acceptable, but it’s not. It’s not about El fitting into some idea of what he should be. Tolerance isn’t conditional. It’s absolute.

A beautiful and sensitive account of first love, coming out, high school politics, illness, grief, and the effects of trauma. Reading it was an emotional roller coaster – and it did make me cry.

Book review: The Feathered Flames by Alexandra Overy

These Feathered Flames is a young adult fantasy reimagining the Russian folktale The Firebird. Alexandra Overy’s debut novel is about sibling relationships and politics. Twin sisters Izaveta and Asya are born into the royal family and separated at age ten. One is destined to become the next queen of Tourin and the other chosen to train as the new (reluctant) Firebird whose role is to ensure magic in the realm remains balanced. 

How was it that her sister had been taken to live with a monster, but somehow Izaveta had become one? A creature molded by her mother’s manipulations, by the constant betrayals of the court. Asya might have a monster beneath her skin, but Izaveta had one in her heart—in her very essence. So much a part of herself that she no longer knew how to separate one from the other.

When the girls are seventeen the queen dies unexpectedly. The Firebird, Asya, receives a Calling that the queen’s death was due to a magical imbalance and returns to the palace. The princesses must step into their respective roles prematurely and become reacquainted with one another as they work out who they can trust and who killed their mother. 

Whispers are enough to bring down a queendom

The fantasy genre is a fun way to escape the world entirely whilst still exploring the human condition, good, evil, power and morality. These Feathered Flames unfolds from the perspective of each of the sisters with political intrigue, swash buckling action scenes, magic and a little girl on girl romance. The story ends with a cliffhanger in preparation for book 2.

Book review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

I don’t read a lot of young adult fiction, but enjoy it almost without fail when I do. The Art of Being Normal is a story about a couple of teenagers on the outer. David is on the cusp of puberty and hasn’t told his parents that he is transgender – they just think he’s gay.

Leo is the new kid at school. He’s from the wrong side of the tracks and there are rumours he was kicked out of his previous school for doing something terrible. Most of the kids avoid him as they think he’s dangerous. David decides to try and befriend him. Leo doesn’t want (nor think he needs) friends and just wants to be left alone. His councillor talks to him about anger management and thinks he would benefit from making friends.

Participating?’ I ask, screwing up my face. ‘Participating in what?

Jenny sighs again. ‘In life, Leo. I want you to start participating in life.’

Author Lisa Williams was inspired to write the story after working in the national health service in England in a department focussed on helping teenagers who are questioning their gender identity. I would be interested to know the perspective of someone with lived experience, but for me it was a refreshing read. Diversity of representation is an important progression in fiction – stories like this did not have exist in mainstream fiction until quite recently. We all want to be ‘seen’ and being reflected in fiction contributes to that sense.

For someone so convinced that life isn’t fair, she plays an awful lot of bingo.

Told in first person, The Art of Being Normal is a funny and moving story about class, coming of age, and coming out in all its multi-colours. Told with plenty of surprising plot twists, the story is beautifully and sensitively written and had me laughing out loud in places. A great book for young people who don’t fit the mould and anyone who wants to engender a greater understanding and empathy for difference and diversity.