Wonderland by Juno Dawson

Wonderland is a thrilling and dark reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, set in the same universe as Juno Dawson’s previous two YA novels, Clean and Meat Market. Alice is a trans girl who goes to an exclusive private girls school, where she’s mostly invisible apart from her dyed blue hair and the fact she missed a few months of school last year (nobody knows it was due to mental health issues). When Bunny, a rich girl with a reputation for going missing who Alice spent an exhilarating evening with, disappears and nobody seems to care, Alice starts investigating and is drawn into the world of ‘Wonderland’, an elite weekend party for ‘old money’ teens. And suddenly she’s a gatecrasher miles from home and trying to work out what is real.

It was hard not to be excited for a third book to follow Clean and Meat Market, which both exposed dark realities in the modern world using sharp, witty characters. Wonderland takes the two a step further, looking not only at issues of mental health, gender, and privilege, but combining it with a tense thriller-like retelling of Alice in Wonderland set over a single weekend. One of the best things about the book is that is takes the teen horror plot, which often tends to paint the villain or perpetrator as having some unidentified mental health condition, and complicates it, so mental health becomes part of the narrative. It feels like a combination of elements of Clean and Meat Market (there’s some cameos and extended references to characters from both, but it also combines the drink and drug fuelled socialite world of Clean with a character who’s an outsider to it, like in Meat Market) with some of the tension and murderous drama of the Point Horror books I loved as a teenager.

Alice is a wonderful protagonist with her Doc Martens and cynicism, wanting to be accepted but also not to fit in with the people so rich they can’t even understand what her life is like as someone less rich and not born with it. A lot of the issues she deals with will be relatable to a lot of people (whether around fitting in, mental health, gender, or figuring out pansexuality), and will probably help others to empathise, even though the world of Wonderland is very unlike anything most people will ever experience. The Alice in Wonderland elements work well not only on a narrative level, but to bookend the whirlwind weekend as something that has changed Alice’s life, but also with the expectation she’ll return to school, her family, and her best friend Dinah at some point once she’s out of ‘Wonderland’.

There’s more you could say about the novel, which has a vibe that is fast, clever, and dangerous—exactly as expected—but it’s better to just dive into its maze (whilst heeding the content warnings at the start). Probably ideal for older teenagers who enjoy similar teen dramas with hard-hitting themes, but also ideal for anyone who used to love Point Horror and wants something that’s a bit more up to date and relevant (plus full of literary references). 

Hideous Beauty by William Hussey

Hideous Beauty is a YA thriller about first love, grief, and why people keep secrets. Dylan’s secret relationship with Ellis is exposed right before a school dance, forcing Dylan to come out to his parents. He knows they weren’t as okay with it as they acted, but maybe he and Ellis can be happy and openly together. However, a car accident leaves Ellis dead and Dylan trying to work out who saved him but not Ellis and what dark secrets Ellis was keeping from him.

Summarising the novel doesn’t really get across either the characters or the way it deals with a lot of intense themes, not only death and sexuality but also cancer and sexual assault (which are all warned about before the novel starts). It is the kind of dark and gripping young adult novel that I would’ve enjoyed as a teenager, combining mystery elements around what really happened and the pages of Ellis’ journal that keep being sent to Dylan with a lot of emotions that need to be dealt with. The love story at its heart features both sweetness and complication, and the ending gives Dylan a chance to deal with the intensity but also grief and the fact he needs to move forward with his life. Plenty of moments in the book are very sad, and Dylan’s relationship with many of the characters is complex and often troubled at some point, but there is also the titular ‘beauty’ to be found, in characters being themselves and in their deep connections (Dylan’s friendship with Mike is a good example of both sides of this).

Moving between the present of the narrative and events of the previous six months, Hideous Beauty manages to tell a complex story that touches on guilt, justice, and trauma as well as love and friendship. It is definitely one to be aware of the topics covered inside before reading, but it shows that the classic dark YA thriller (there are hints of some of the more guilt focused Point Horror books in this) can be updated to cover the lives of LGBTQ teenagers and to carry an undercurrent about society and acceptance.

The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers

The Magnificent Sons is a funny, compelling novel about a man dealing with his relationship with his family and coming out as bisexual. Jake is twenty-nine, in a relationship with a nice woman, and feels completely different to the rest of his loud, in your face family. When his younger brother Trick comes out as gay on his seventeenth birthday, Jake realises his own response might be to do with his own repressed self. People already think they know Jake, though, so he finds himself navigating old and new relationships, as his family and friends work out their own lives too.

I knew of Justin Myers from his commentaries on The Guardian’s Blind Date feature on his blog The Guyliner, and he combines the sharp wit of those posts with the underlying sweetness of wanting people to have a nice date in The Magnificent Sons. This isn’t a lingering musing on emotions or even really a brooding look at coming out (regardless of how much people see Jake as brooding), but a funny, sharp book that focuses on character relationships and the quirks and differences that people have. Other characters’ points of view are brought in at times to highlight where Jake is holding prejudices and assumptions about not only their lives, but how they see him, and the novel in general is not only about Jake, though focused on him. The characters, style, and a few unfinished storylines left me wishing the book didn’t end, but it was also well-pitched to show that events were still a work in progress and that things wouldn’t be easy for Jake, Trick, or anyone else just because some things were more resolved.

This is a fun book that is great to sit down and devour in a short space of time, but it is also a great look at how people of different ages deal with sexuality and relationships, how assumptions don’t help people get along or support each other, and how people can react to bisexuality. There’s also hope that the novel will help people in similar situations to Jake to think about their own lives and what they want, because coming to terms with sexuality isn’t something restricted to a particular age group.

Music From Another World by Robin Talley

Music From Another World is a young adult book set in 1977 about teenagers in California becoming friends, getting into music, and dealing with the realities of sexuality in late 70s America. Tammy’s strictly religious family don’t know that she’s gay, but she writes unposted letters to her hero Harvey Milk to describe her situation to someone. When a school project forces her to have a pen pal from the state, she didn’t expect to get someone from San Francisco. Sharon is getting into punk and hiding her brother’s sexuality from their mother, and Tammy becomes someone she can start to share things with via their letters. When things escalate, it turns out Tammy and Sharon might need each other more than they realised.

Robin Talley has written another young adult book that combines important historical moments—in this case, Harvey Milk’s political career, and parts of the battle for LGBT rights—with a story of friendship and love and people standing up for who they are. The novel is entirely written in letters, both unposted ones and those between the two protagonists, and the style works well both to bring across the perspectives of the two characters and the ways they’re being honest or not so honest with each other and themselves, and to frame the novel’s setting as a time before an easier way to get to know a remote stranger. In a world where people use the internet to find other people like themselves, Music From Another World shows how people did the same thing before it.

This is the sort of novel that allows people, both young adult and otherwise, to enjoy the empowering narrative and also think about important movements and milestones of the twentieth century that it is worth finding out more about. It is gripping and readable, showing how struggles both political and personal haven’t necessarily changed a huge amount, and how people can fight to be themselves.

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

The Disaster Tourist is a darkly funny novel about a company that arranges holidays to disaster sites. Yona has worked for years for Jungle, a travel company for package trips to disaster sites, but it seems like her job is less secure these days. When her boss behaves inappropriately towards her, she tries to quit, but the company makes her an offer to visit one of their destinations, report back on whether it is good enough, and not leave just yet. She goes to the remote desert island of Mui, where there’s supposed to be a great sinkhole, but her and the other travellers are disappointed by the small scale of what they see. However, Yona starts to realise that there’s a plan to make a much more impressive disaster occur, but she might be part of it.

This is a short, engaging novel that places a fed up employee in a strange unfolding situation and pokes fun at people who holiday in other people’s disasters whilst also considering the environment and social impact of this. It is fast paced and easy to get into, and ironically could be quite a fun holiday read that still leaves you with things to think about. I found myself near the end imagining how it could be adapted into a film, with an extra layer of thought about voyeurism and disaster.

The Disaster Tourist combines dark and ridiculous with thought-provoking questions about the nature of disaster tourism, particularly in the wake of interest in places like Chernobyl. 

The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

The Gravity of Us is a YA novel about journalism, media coverage, and astronauts with a romance at its heart. Cal has amassed a lot of followers on the FlashFame app reporting on NYC news and election candidates and is all set for an internship at Buzzfeed as he prepares for his final year at school. However, when his father is selected for an astronaut training programme for the highly-publicised Mars mission, Cal’s life is upended as he moves to Texas and becomes part of the astronaut families reality show. Feeling like he has to give up his dreams, Cal finds an alliance with the children of another astronaut, Leon and Kat, and quickly finds himself falling for Leon. The new life he’s found in Texas might be over before it begins though, as the coverage around the Mars mission becomes complex and fraught.

A YA romance with astronauts as a narrative point will undoubtedly attract a lot of people, though actually the NASA elements are perhaps less important to the overall feel of the book than the way a media outlet wants to paint the astronauts and their families as full of drama and intrigue. The highlight of the book was the look at mental health, through depictions of mental illness and also looking at the need to ‘fix’ people and how life can’t work like that. The message that Cal needed to learn that he couldn’t just fix everything was important, though clearly the character had further to go with that. In general, Cal can be a difficult protagonist to like as he makes a lot of rash or self-centred decisions that affect those around him, but that really brings to the forefront the fact he needs to stop trying to fix people and listen to what they actually need.

The narrative is fast-paced and the romance happens perhaps more quickly than you might expect from conventions of other YA romance books, but it therefore focuses more on the burgeoning relationship than the stage before that. Particularly considering the circumstances, it makes sense in the book, but some readers might prefer it to be more drawn out. The side characters are interesting and Stamper does try to work in little snippets of detail around their lives and skills, though again, Cal’s shortcomings occasionally make you wish you could see more of what they’re doing.

The Gravity of Us is a romance with a drizzle of space that is a good light read with a few messages that hit home. It will probably delight fans of similar YA romance novels, though perhaps not any looking for more of a sci-fi feel.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House is a lingeringly sinister novel about an American college cut off from the rest of the world. Students can only attend Catherine House, an elite college with conspicuously successful alumni and free tuition and board, if they agree to be cut off from the outside world. Catherine House is full of rules about meals and clothing, with the threat of the school’s ‘tower’ if rules are broken, but is also a place full of wine and sex and discovery. Ines is a new student, on the run from her past and directionless in this place of intense academic study. She skips classes and lacks interest, but when her roommate Baby doesn’t return from the tower, she becomes more intrigued by the school’s mysterious new materials research.

Thomas has written a dreamlike, ambiguous novel with a writing style that seems to really reflect Ines’ state of mind (and frequent intoxication). The book combines the low claustrophobia of exclusive environments with the kind of decadent detail often found in books set in universities, and this results in something that is quite a compulsive read even though not a huge amount happens in it. Ines is a messed up protagonist, and probably people will be put off by her unlikeable nature and the way she just drifts through everything, but her character added to the atmosphere, and it would’ve been a quite different novel with a more likeable main character.

People will probably either really get into the novel, or not get along with it at all, due to the detailed yet meandering writing style, strange protagonist, and lack of answers. In tone and details it has similarities to The Secret History, though the writing style and narrative are very different, and it makes for an eerie read if you’re not looking for it to answer why things are happening, or why Catherine House has the rules it does. Maybe not one for lasting effect, but the reading experience was enjoyable.

Camp by L. C. Rosen

Camp is a charming YA novel set at a summer camp that looks at toxic masculinity, friendship, and being yourself. Randy is sixteen and the highlight of his year is spending his summers at Camp Outland, a summer camp for LGBTQ teenagers. He has his best friends, he stars in the yearly musical, and it’s where he first painted his nails. This year, however, he’s set his sights on getting his camp crush, Hudson, to fall in love with him, but Hudson is very masculine and seems to only like other masculine guys, so Randy reinvents himself as ‘Del’, a sports-playing guy with no interest in theatre or clothes. With his plan working, Randy has to work out whether his friends are right, and ‘Del’ isn’t really who he is.

This is very much a romcom novel: fun, happy, and with a narrative that works to bring everyone together. The premise can make it a bit frustrating to see Randy making the choices he does, but that is part of the book’s power, that Randy makes the kind of bad decisions teenagers (and indeed adults) make to try and impress someone. The range of supporting characters are great and it was a shame to not see more of a lot of the characters, partly due to the fact that Randy was so focused on Hudson that sometimes he forgot his friends. Showing the different friendships and the way the teens fell back into them each summer was a real highlight of the book, and it almost feels like Camp needs an ensemble-style sequel to give more of them a chance to shine. The setting works really well to highlight some of the issues around gender stereotypes and masculinity within a specifically LGBTQ space, but also make mention of other issues in a light way.

After Rosen’s previous Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts), it’s not surprising to see another YA novel that tries to address issues for teenagers but also be funny and modern. Camp is on the cheerful, romcom end of that scale, and the predictable happy ending is what you want from it. I could see it being adapted into a film (or a Netflix series expanding some of the supporting characters), as it feels like a very visual novel with a lot of colour and excitement, but also would benefit from a soundtrack (I finished reading it with The Shoop Shoop Song stuck in my head).

Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control by Stuart Russell

Human Compatible is a book by an eminent AI researcher that looks at how AI works and the questions that need to be considered, philosophically and practically, to try and ensure AI follows the right objectives and control. Russell runs through ideas of intelligence, how AI might be used and misused, key debates in AI, and the complications of humans themselves, in a mostly approachable way, with more complex explanations put in appendices at the end. As someone who co-wrote a popular textbook on AI, Russell knows how to point towards examples and thought from a range of fields to consider the problems of AI, defining goals, and trying to create AI that has regulations and can handle the complexity of human thought and preferences.

There are a few sections and explanations that need either a bit more concentration or some prior knowledge, particularly around logic, but in general the book serves as an in-depth look at how artificial intelligence works and might work, and the issues around the choices AI does and might make. What makes the book particularly good as either an introduction to AI or as an introduction to the philosophy and ethics around AI is that Russell believes in the importance of AI research, but also on the need to look at the ethical issues and background from other disciplines to inform choices made about AI. The fusion of explaining the past, present, and future of AI, and also laying out of the complexity of issues including bias, ethics, and preferences, makes this book both harder to read at times and more useful than other popular science type books on AI.

As someone who reads about AI rather than understands or works on it from a technical point of view, I don’t know if what Russell raises here can be included in the AI of the future, but that doesn’t necessarily seem like the point. The book is here to present these key issues and to suggest how, broadly, different kinds of thinking may be needed to further artificial intelligence in ways that are actually useful to humanity.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel is a novel about connections, guilt, and how the past bleeds into the present. One day at Hotel Caiette, a hotel on Vancouver Island designed so rich people can see the views without stepping outside, the bartender Vincent meets financier Jonathan Alkaitis who owns the hotel. Things suddenly change for her as she becomes part of his life, but his dealings are not all they seem. Also in the hotel bar at that time, her brother Paul is accused of writing a threatening message on the hotel window, and a shipping executive is disturbed by it. Their lives unfurl, together and alone, and their coming together at the hotel at that time becomes a lens for how theirs and others’ lives connect.

The narrative spans the 1990s to the future, moving between characters and foreshadowing or teasing events as the ghosts of the past haunt people. The atmosphere can be strangely eerie, whether on a remote ship, a strangely desolate hotel, or in the midst of finance in New York City, and it is this atmosphere and the mysteries with answers lurking not far from the surface which make the book an enjoyable read. At times the different narrative voices get confusing, but the book in general comes together well to form what is not quite a complete story told from different perspectives.

This is an intriguing book which leaves you still asking questions after it ends and wondering what it all means, a business scheme wrapped up in isolation and asking what is real. From the description, and indeed from the start of the novel, it can be hard to know what to expect, but it is worth giving The Glass Hotel a try as it keeps evolving as the narratives progress.