Run, Rebel by Manjeet Mann

Run, Rebel is young adult novel in verse about a girl looking for a way to start a revolution in her life. Amber lives on a council estate with her parents, her abusive, alcoholic father and her mother who works long shifts at an exploitative job. She used to have her sister, but she’s married now, her dreams of university long gone, and Amber is left to read out receipts to her illiterate mum and go to appointments to translate for her father. She can’t tell her friends exactly what goes on at home and she can’t explain to her teachers why she’s not allowed to continue athletics training despite her love of running. Now, though, Amber is ready to fight, inspired by learning about revolutions and by her mum’s growing rebellions.

The verse style is vital to the novel, allowing the story to flow forward and the narrative to cut deep into Amber’s emotions. It makes it a very readable book, despite the difficult subject matter, and feels like it is pulsing forward like the running that keeps Amber going. The story is a powerful one that shows that people can find ways to get out of terrible situations and that it isn’t always as simple as wanting to leave. Run, Rebel will hopefully not only share an important narrative, but also give teenager readers examples of how poetry can be used to fight back and to tell a story in a fast-paced, engaging way.

The Reality Game by Samuel Woolley

The Reality Game, subtitledHow the next wave of technology will break the truth and what we can do about it’, is a book about what Woolley and his colleagues have termed ‘computational propaganda’, or what other people might think of as online disinformation or ‘fake news’. Rather than focusing mostly on what has already happened, Woolley tries to sketch out where different areas—deep fakes, VR, machine learning—might go in the future, and then suggests ways that this might be combatted in the fight against this ‘computational propaganda’ that threatens our sense of what is true and real. The book looks at tools, but also the human side: what people do and the choices they make that affect how these tools and techniques have been developed and are used.

This is a book about technology that is both pessimistic and trying to offer up possible responses, and is not confined to the usual main points of similar books which focus on AI, big data, and the spread of disinformation on Facebook, but also looks at faked videos and how virtualising humans—through voice or otherwise—may be the future of this kind of falsified content. Woolley does occasionally fall back to imagining (or recounting, at one point) plots for Black Mirror, but he uses this as a way to engage the audience with the occasionally dry topic of technological threat to politics. What makes The Reality Game engaging is both the way that Woolley talks with people involved with many different areas of the issues and tech covered, meaning that the book goes beyond his research, and the way that the concepts are clearly laid out and the buzzwords explained, furthering one of Woolley’s later points that digital literacy is crucial for the future of reality.

There are a lot of books out now about ‘fake news’ or various threats that technology poses to politics, democracy, and reality, but The Reality Game is a good one to go to for a clear summary of some of the existing tech, some speculation about where it could go, and discussion of what might need to be done to improve the prospects for ‘reality’. The message isn’t that all technology is bad, but that humans have been utilising it in bad ways, and that something needs to change.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa is a novel about a relationship between a fifteen year old girl and her English teacher, looking at what happens when she has to confront what occurred between them in the wake of various sexual abuse allegations against powerful men coming to light. Vanessa is fifteen and lonely at her new boarding school. Her English teacher seems to understand her, though. When they end up in a relationship, she believes that it is love, and he desperately tells her that. But now she’s thirty two and the teacher, Jacob Strane, is being accused of sexual abuse by another ex-student, she has to think about everything that has happened between them, through layers of trauma and what he managed to convince her was true.

This is no easy book to read. It has been described as a kind of reworking or subversion of Lolita, and Nabokov’s novel is a central theme throughout as Strane uses it as a way of grooming Vanessa to see herself as the one with the power, and it is important that people are aware of this similarity and of the content of My Dark Vanessa before picking it up. It is, intentionally, deeply uncomfortable, as the novel is from Vanessa’s point of view so the reader gets to see the ways in which she is manipulated and how this cannot be undone years later. Russell does well to get across the trauma and abuse that Vanessa suffers through the prose style, making scenes between her and Strane disturbing even whilst Vanessa is claiming it is love and it is what she wants.

It was difficult to read the novel without keeping an eye towards how it might end and how it would present Vanessa’s story as a whole. Overall, it delves into the complexity of what Vanessa suffers, including the hard facts of facing up to a movement standing up to sexual abuse when someone was groomed to believe it wasn’t abuse. In some ways, it feels like it highlights how certain elements of art— like Lolita, but also other references made in the novel—can be wilfully misread or interpreted to justify abuse and to manipulate people. It isn’t a novel that ends with a big, unambiguous statement, and there is a lot to take in and think about rather than easy answers given.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is a novel about transactional relationships, race, and making the right decisions. Emira is nearly twenty-six, about to lose her health insurance, and works as a babysitter for Alix Chamberlain, a wealthy white woman who built a brand around female confidence. One night, Alix asks Emira to take two-year-old Briar to an upmarket supermarket whilst they deal with a situation at home, but whilst there Emira is confronted by a security guard who thinks Emira has kidnapped Briar. In the aftermath, Emira deals with the fact a bystander filmed the moment and Alix desires to help Emira but doesn’t know how, and things are complicated when Emira meets someone from Alix’s past.

This is a clever novel that looks at the ways interpersonal relationships work and how they can be seen differently by the people involved, using Emira and Alix’s viewpoints to unfold the narrative but also get across the gulf between how they view their lives. Emira is a complex and relatable character, aimless but given purpose by the bond she has formed with Briar whilst babysitting, particular as Alix ignores her eldest daughter in favour of her younger one. This relationship formed of necessary mirrors the way Alix desperately wants to be friend with Emira, all whilst Emira isn’t really aware of this fact. Reid writes the characters and situations carefully to show not only how Alix tries to be a ‘white saviour’, but how Emira views her actions and ultimately uses it to work out what she wants. Summary-style endings can be a let down, but in this case it feels important to cast a look at what happens to the characters after the events of the main narrative.

Such a Fun Age is social commentary with gripping character and a protagonist who you really want the best for, and is being quite rightfully hyped as a book that shines a light on power and race in a fresh, sharp way.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments was a surprise in some ways, and not at all surprising in others. As a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, it is positioned as containing the narratives (‘testaments’) of three more characters, women tied up in some way with Gilead and a particular point in its history. Most of the plot is standard dystopian fare, and it goes over many of the things found in The Handmaid’s Tale but with more of a focus on Wives, Aunts, and other elements of the power structure that aren’t Handmaids. One of the narratives is by a character who has a lot more power and knowledge about the regime, which gives more context to Gilead and gives the book quite a different feel to its precursor, which slowly unveils elements of Gilead rather than assuming readers are already aware of most elements.

At this stage it is worth saying that I’m not a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it (multiple times) for my AS Level English Literature coursework, found the writing annoying and too obvious, and then reread it last year and came to the same conclusions. I think Atwood has written better things, and better dystopian fiction (the MaddAddam books are at least occasionally more subtle than the puns and concepts in Gilead). I was therefore surprised to discover that I got quite engrossed in The Testaments, with the writing style less grating and the movement between three different narratives providing tension. Initially it took some time to get into the world of the books again, and it was hard to know at first if I was missing a lot from not remembering The Handmaid’s Tale well enough, but after a while I settled into it.

The story is predictable and clearly written to provide elements of hopefulness in light of how prescient The Handmaid’s Tale is sometimes thought as being in relation to the modern day. This doesn’t stop it from being a gripping read, perhaps partly because I wasn’t invested in how good it was as a sequel but just interested to see if I liked it more than its precursor. However, after finishing it, it does seem a bit too neatly tied up and lacking in the kind of dramatic moments that at least make The Handmaid’s Tale hard to forget. The Testaments is bonus material to The Handmaid’s Tale which fleshes out more wider context and how society works and has a narrative which makes a decent read but doesn’t really do anything interesting.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls is a dark YA novel that combines a kind of lockdown tension with body horror and female relationships. It is a year and a half since Raxter School for Girls was put into quarantine after everyone there was slowly turned by the Tox, become wild and strange and having their bodies morphed in different ways. Trapped in the school’s boundaries on an island off Maine, they wait for a cure and live under the new rules forged by those remaining. When Hetty’s best friend Byatt disappears, she’s determined to find her, but the horrors of their situation don’t just seem to be the feral animals outside the fence also taken by the Tox.

Rory Power takes the mysterious outbreak trope and uses it to explore the bonds between teenage girls—friendships, romance, power struggles—whilst implying a lot about the darkness not only within people, but that might come from the outside when disaster strikes. This is a different kind of book set at a girls’ school, and it is not one for the squeamish, with much of the horror being around what happens to their bodies and the violence of what they must do. The tension is gripping, and the narrative is more focused on the here and now than on explanations or deep exploration of characters’ pasts; it is easy to see from this how it could be adapted into an (admittedly pretty dark) film. The romantic subplot and the depiction of Hetty and Byatt’s friendship are two elements that make it more than just a kind of shock horror story, and though some people might not like the ambiguity of the ending, it suits the outbreak narrative to not have a neat conclusion.

This is visceral YA fiction, real in its character relationships and bloody and dark in its content. It combines some of the best thing about young adult novels with cleverly used body horror, and though it will make some readers wish there was more explanation, it is a thrilling read.

Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin

Foul is Fair is a gripping teenage revenge thriller based on Macbeth set in an elite LA world. Jade Khanjara and her three best friends Mads, Summer, and Jenny are powerful and dazzling, rich and always there for each other. When Jade’s drink is spiked at a party and she is attacked by a group of boys from a different school, the four know that these boys will face no consequences unless they take matters into their own hands, and they scheme a plot to bring them down. Jade has to disguise herself, go into their school, and rip them apart from within, using their muddled conscience Mack to enact the violence.

This is a vicious and dark book, combining the danger of teenage horror and thriller books with the revenge violence of Kill Bill, and taking the control back from fate into the hands of teenage girls who know how to do damage. Jade and her best friends are the heart of the book, ruthless and clever, though the story is about what they do rather than focusing on who they are. The narrative is clearly Macbeth in many ways, but also Capin takes it in different directions, playing around with Jade’s role in particular, and there’s a lot of potential for people who study and love Macbeth to look at how Foul is Fair plays with the original. On the other hand, you don’t necessarily need to know Shakespeare’s play to get into the novel, which has been compared to a range of TV series based variously around revenge, violence, assault, and teenagers.

The writing style is unusual, giving Jade a specific voice and combining elements from different genres, and the use of character feels quite cinematic, where certain shorthands or details are shown to build character rather than more in-depth depictions. The pace of the narrative and events match the sense of time in the play, and bring a sense of unreality which suits the novel as a revenge fantasy. Foul is Fair could easily be adapted into a TV series or film (TV series would allow the space to give Jade’s friends space for their characters too, and it would be good to see more of Mads, Summer, and Jenny and their privileged yet complex lives).

Foul is Fair is gleefully dark and vicious as it depicts teenage girls having the power to enact bloody revenge. Take heed of content warnings and be aware that some people are going to find the violence too much or too unrealistic, but this is a book worth picking up if you’re interested in Macbeth meets Heathers with a scheming, diverse quartet enacting vengeance.

Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas

Oligarchy is a sharp, dark novel about rich teenagers, eating disorders, and the secrets of a boarding school. Tash is the daughter of a Russian oligarch and has suddenly been sent to an English boarding school. The wifi use is restricted, the hierarchies are strange, and everyone is obsessed with looks and eating even though they can barely get on Instagram without surreptitious means. She ends up part of the group of troublemakers, all willing to go further than the rest, but when one of them, Bianca, vanishes and the school seems weirdly inept at dealing with the eating disorder epidemic, it seems there could be more at play.

The first things to know about this novel are that it is very much focused around disordered eating in various ways, and that it is a kind of twisted adult novel rather than the YA title some people might assume from a very brief summary. Coming into the book with the right expectations seems important, as then its blend of fantastical and deeply cutting will be making points and exploring darkness rather than seeming in strange taste. The third person narration is mostly around Tash’s perspective, with a side plot of Russian-backwater-to-riches and a shady aunt who lives in London that you almost want more of. In general, the book is more focused on small details and dark, witty moments than the overall pace of narrative, and these are what creates its tone, taking both teenage peer pressure and power abuse in boarding schools to particular heights for effect.

Oligarchy is an in-your-face novel that won’t be for everyone, a dark look at body image and how the internet can exacerbate mental states around things like eating disorders that also manages to be witty and strange.

Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World by Christopher Wylie

Mindf*ck is the story of Cambridge Analytica as told by Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who helped to break the story of what happened when data was used to manipulate people with targeted Facebook pages in the name of election and referendum campaigns. The scandal around Cambridge Analytica is something most people are aware of at some level, but the book details the sheer worldwide scale of the work the company was involved in and the key players involved in getting and using people’s data. It starts with how Wylie ended up involved in working with data for political ends, and concludes with the realities of being a whistleblower and his manifesto for better tech companies and use of data.

There are a lot of books about technology and politics around at the moment—unsurprisingly—but this one stands out as being direct from someone deeply involved in it, covering a lot of content without delving too far into technological points or jargon, and also being a kind of memoir of how someone who is more of an outsider could be helping Steve Bannon reach the minds of Americans. It is fascinating in its content, but also in how Wylie presents himself, and the people he knows and knew. Wylie’s concluding manifesto about ethical design and regulation for tech companies serves as a useful introduction to the more positive side of the current technological moment: the potential for doing better in the future and finding ways to break the current potential for things like the use of data by Cambridge Analytica.

For people already interested in books about tech companies, politics, and the future of the two, Mindf*ck gives a specific insight and a chance to think about how everything with Cambridge Analytica unfolded. For those who are newer to the topic, it is engaging and written in a style that doesn’t need tech knowledge, but only an interest in what Wylie might have to say, good or bad. The memoir aspects look at whistleblowing on a personal level and in general it is a fascinating, at times horrifying read.

Royals by Emma Forrest

Royals is a novel about a fast, unlikely friendship, about finding someone who believes in what you can create, and about the tragedy of living too fast. Steven is eighteen, Jewish, probably gay, into fashion, and lives in the East End of London. When he is beaten by his father on the day of Charles and Diana’s wedding, he ends up in hospital, where he meets Jasmine, an heiress who tried to kill herself. Drawn together by their interest in fashion and faded Hollywood stars, they begin an intense friendship, becoming inseparable despite their differences. But lurking behind Jasmine’s quirkiness and frivolity lies more, and maybe her and Steven’s schemes and plans aren’t meant to be.

The early 80s setting of the novel is vividly depicted (though the odd Americanism does distract a little) with a distinctive style, drawing somewhat from Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty but more obsessively focused on the two central characters. It took until the end to realise that it was carefully crafted to present a very short space of time with what seems to be a meandering narrative until you see where it was going. The novel has a lot of focus on identity—on defining or not defining things, on how different identities interact—which makes it feel more like it is doing something fresh and exciting, not just another story about someone working class meeting someone very rich.

This is the kind of book where you want to immerse yourself in its aesthetic for a moment, but also remember that the point is that it isn’t all as rosy as dreaming of living like that might make it seem. It feels aimed at both the millennials who enjoy the 80s vibe without having experienced it, and those who remember the names dropped throughout. Royals is a stylistic jump into a fictional summer filled with real detail.