Tag Archives: Neal Shusterman

Downsiders

Author: Neil Shusterman

Downsiders, vol. 1

My rating: 4 of 5

In the wake of her parents’ separation and her mother’s latest whimsy (a long-term trip to Africa), Lindsey finds herself shunted off to New York to live with her distracted father and her odious step-brother Todd. Meanwhile, deep beneath that same city, Talon finds himself challenging the precepts and perspectives of his own culture–a people who live beneath the city with their own noble way of life, isolated from the Upsiders whom they view as stupid. And when these two teenagers’ worlds collide, the result is staggering . . . possibly even devastating to both worlds.

Shusterman is one of my favorite authors, as is pretty obvious just from this blog. His books have such a different way of viewing things; they’ve very unique. Downsiders is true to his norm in that it’s quite different from anything I’ve ever read, but it’s also pretty different from any of Shusterman’s other writing. While there are aspects that are similar, I’m not sure I could have picked him out as the author if I hadn’t known. The pacing, while great for this story, is slower than in a lot of his books, and there just isn’t quite as much spark . . . I don’t know how else to put it. Also, the flavor is almost–I want to say Dickensian, but that’s not quite right–it’s as close as I can get to describing it, in any case. Still, while all that sounds kind of negative, I did actually enjoy this book. The concept of a complete, isolated culture living in the abandoned tunnels and forgotten structures beneath New York City is fascinating, and the actual development of this culture in the book was well written. The characters were also believable, and the choices and changes they went through during the course of the story felt true, honest–and important to us as readers because of that. The ending, largely due to those decisions being honest choices not fairy-tale ones, is both beautiful and bittersweet; the story is better for its being so. I wouldn’t recommend Downsiders for everyone, but if you’ve got the patience to dig into it, this book is a rewarding read.

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Scythe

Author: Neal Shustermanscythe

Arc of a Scythe, vol. 1

My rating: 5 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience

In a world where all the needs of humanity are met, where even death is reversible, Scythes stand apart as essentially the only remaining source of true death. Established as a sacred trust to ensure that the booming and aging population does not completely overrun the earth and exhaust its resources, Scythes kill–or “glean” as they call it–although not nearly enough to mimic the effects of normal death in the past. One such Scythe, Faraday, has chosen to take on not one but two apprentices, in opposition to the traditions of the Scythedom. But the other Scythes turn his decision against him, deciding that only one of his apprentices will survive the apprenticeship, killing the other apprentice. Scythe apprentices Citra and Rowan will not readily bend to this edict, however, regardless of the pressure put upon them–particularly considering the feelings they have for one another.

I know all the premises of Scythe sound really weird and dark and complicated–and they are. A huge chunk of this book is set up and world building and background, which is completely necessary to understand the story as it develops. But Neal Shusterman is such an incredible author that the background doesn’t feel like an info dump at all; rather it’s interwoven as a part of the story such that you don’t even realize you’re being fed these huge chunks of backstory. As for the premise, strange as it is, it works remarkably well and allows the author to focus in on several interesting philosophical and psychological points. In this world, humanity really wants for nothing. Death–however much focus may be put on it due to the Scythes’ part in the story–is incredibly unlikely for any given individual within the next century or so. Even apparent age can be turned back so that a centenarian can appear (and feel) twenty again. In this state, Shusterman draws attention to the stagnation that occurs when people don’t have anything to struggle for, any clock to race against. On the other side of society, he brings in some interesting observations regarding the sort of people who would be chosen to be Scythes–and the effect that such a horrendous job would have on those people. Add to all the interesting world building some absolutely stellar characters and an intense, rather horrifying plot, and you’ve got an incredible book. I would highly recommend Scythe, although I would also caution a certain level of reader maturity due to the violent focus of the story at times. I’m definitely looking forward to the next volume in this set!

As an aside, is the cover of the book not just fabulous?!

 

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Challenger Deep

Author: Neal Shustermanchallenger deep

My rating: 5 of 5

“Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench. Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior. Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence, to document the journey with images. Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head. Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny. Caden Bosch is torn.” (I’m using the Goodreads summary here, because it’s perfect and I don’t want to change anything.)

I was absolutely blown away by Challenger Deep. I mean, I always enjoy Neal Shusterman’s writing, but this particular volume is something special even for him. It clearly comes from a very personal place, as he mentions in the afterword that a lot of the ideas come from his son’s own experiences with mental illness. And that personal connection really shows, inviting the reader into the world as it appears to someone struggling with a brain chemistry that isn’t working normally. I still can’t say I understand . . . I don’t think anyone who hasn’t actually lived there can really understand. But I can definitely be more accepting and willing to try to understand for having read this book (which is really helpful since I’m dealing with mental illness of a different sort with my Grandfather who has Alzheimer’s). I loved the was Shusterman wove together Caden’s “real world” experiences with life on the “ship” on its way to Challenger Deep. As you go, it becomes more and more clear that the “ship” is just another way in which he sees the world, you begin to see parallels between actually people, events, and choices. But because it’s presented in that way, you get this additional, interesting story that not only increases the reader’s understanding but is also really engaging in its own surreal sort of way. The writing, in Caden’s first-person view, is brilliant and easy to read in a strange, surreal way, even though the events are constantly flipping between “realities” sometimes even within the chapter. A nice plus also is that the chapters are really short, so it feels like a quicker read–and it’s easy to read a chapter or two between other things, even if you don’t have much time. I think I would highly recommend Challenger Deep to anyone, and particularly to anyone who has someone in their life who is dealing with mental illness.

 

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The Eyes of Kid Midas

Author: Neal Shustermanthe eyes of kid midas

My rating: 4 of 5

Kevin Midas knows what it is to be the kid everyone else picks on. It seems to be his lot in life to be the favored punching bag of the all-school bully. So it’s no surprise when a scuffle during the class camping trip (seriously, what kind of teacher takes their class on a camping trip?!) ends in Kevin’s glasses being totally destroyed. When a teacher’s spooky campfire tale leads to Kevin and his best friend Josh climbing the mountain nearby though, things become a bit more surprising. At the very top, Kevin discovers a sleek pair of glasses, just like they were waiting for him. And not only do those glasses fit his prescription perfectly, they instantly make him feel cooler, more confident. But that’s not all they can do, as he’s about to find out. . . .

I love Shusterman’s writing–always original, refreshing, and meaningful. The Eyes of Kid Midas has the feeling of a cautionary tale or a fable without ever being demeaning or pedantic. It reads like an exciting middle-grade slice-of-life adventure with a crazy fantasy element thrown in . . . except that the further you read, the more you get the picture that stuff and power just aren’t worth as much as we sometimes think they are. The costs of seeking them too much are just too high, as Kevin quickly found out. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t addictive–another thing Kevin discovers to his horror. This story does get quite terrifyingly end-of-the-world disaster-zone towards the end, but it’s all middle-grade appropriate in tone. The characters are well-written, although more of the focus in this story seems to be on the plot; it’s still definitely a plot that wouldn’t have developed as it did unless the characters were who they are, that much is obvious. I don’t think I liked The Eyes of Kid Midas quite as much as I have liked some of Shusterman’s other stories, but it’s still an excellent read and one I’d definitely recommend.

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The Schwa Was Here

Author: Neal ShustermanThe Schwa Was Here

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Antsy Bonano can’t remember the first time he met Calvin Schwa, known to one and all as “The Schwa”. But then most folks can’t; the Schwa’s just like that. You can be right next to him and forget he’s even there . . . sort of like he chameleon’s into the surroundings. And he’s hard to even think about for long, your thoughts just sort of wander off to other things. The Schwa has been aware of this circumstance–something Antsy refers to as being “functionally invisible” or “The Schwa Effect”–for most of his life, but it’s only when Antsy notices him enough to actually pay attention that someone finds a way to capitalize on this phenomenon. The two quickly become partners, raking in money from jobs and dares. But even in the midst of his newfound popularity, the Schwa still worries what will happen if his deepest fears come true and he’s forgotten altogether . . . a fear that seems less unlikely the longer Antsy knows him.

Neal Shusterman’s novels are always exceptional and original, and The Schwa Was Here is no exception. This is a delightful middle grade/high school contemporary novel that slips comfortably into the realm of the tall tale, similar to how Louis Sachar and Daniel Pinkwater’s stories tend to. The characters are robust and interesting, and as long as you accept the premise of “The Schwa Effect” the story is absolutely fascinating. It makes you take a slightly different look at daily life and the people around you. Plus there’s that element of mystery scattered throughout. The story ranges from enigmatic to funny, commonplace to philosophical in an instant, examining a variety of situations and relationships and surprising the reader in wonderful ways. Plus, the whole tale is told in Antsy’s delightful Brooklyn tone–his voice is really fun to read. And I love the way he sometimes wanders off topic, clearly illustrating his point about how forgettable the Schwa really is. I would highly recommend The Schwa Was Here to basically anyone, but especially to those who enjoy a fresh, fun look at middle grade stories.

Note: The Schwa Was Here is connected to Shusterman’s Antsy Does Timetechnically it precedes Antsy Does Time–but it’s totally ok to read them in either order. No major spoilers or plot problems either way.

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Everlost

Author: Neal Shustermaneverlost

My rating: 5 of 5

Nick and Allie were complete strangers until they were thrown together–quite literally–by the car crash that killed them both. They were supposed to get to the light at the end of the tunnel, but their mid-tunnel collision sends them off course and into the in-between, to what its residents call “Everlost”. This ghostly world, which seems to them now more real than the living world, is full of strangeness, rumor, rules, and confusion. And despite their differences, Nick and Allie must together find a way to make it in a world where none of the known rules apply.

I first discovered Neal Shusterman’s writing with his fun book Antsy Does Time, but I didn’t even realize until recently that there were other incredible books by him right next to it on the shelf . . . mostly because the covers are in a completely different style! I was delighted to discover that Everlost is also written by him, and was equally delighted when I finished reading it. The world building in this unusual ghost story is exceptional. I think that’s probably what stood out most immediately–the author put a lot of thought into all the “physics” of this world, the rules that govern how it works, to craft a world that’s convincing and that allows for unique plot occurrences that could never happen in a normal book. And because of his world building, the plot really does give a different perspective on our fears, our personalities, our characters, what makes us human even. Especially in a world where everyone is, say, 16 or younger–but no one ever dies (being already dead and all). The feel and flow of the story remind me a lot of Peter Pan in many regards. There are a lot of great characters here as well, characters who grow with the story and whose growth powers the story along swimmingly. I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel (this is the first of a trilogy). Highly recommended for all readers, say, 11 and up.

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Antsy Does Time

Author: Neal Shusterman

Fourteen-year-old Anthony Bonano (better known as Antsy) is having a relatively uneventful Thanksgiving day, watching football and parades with his friends–basically just killing time until he has to be at his parents’ restaurant to work that evening–when a parade float gets loose, taking some of its handlers along for a dangerous ride. Of course, Antsy and his friends get the bright idea to go see the action first-hand . . . which is all well and good until someone actually dies falling from the wreckage. Wow. Vastly deflated, the boys return home, only to have their friend Gunnar confide on the train-ride home that he has contracted a rare but deadly disease and only has six months to live. As news of Gunnar’s condition spreads through their school, Antsy comes up with the bright idea to sign a month of his life over to Gunnar–to show solidarity and cheer him up, mostly. However, Antsy’s altruism has some unexpected consequences . . . such as the idea going viral, with everyone at school giving contracts for months of their lives. Also, such as Gunnar’s older (gorgeous) sister Kjersten suddenly thinking Antsy’s a really great guy . . . maybe even great enough to date.

Antsy Does Time was one of those random books I picked up just because the cover looked interesting–it was nothing like what I expected from the cover, but was well worth the reading. I think if you mixed Daniel Pinkwater, Bill Myers, and maybe just a bit of Jasper Fforde or Garrison Keillor together, you might get a story something like this one. It is ridiculously zany–so much so that I made myself cry from laughing several times while reading (which is weird, since a lot of the story focuses on death, but there you go). In spite of being so hilarious, this book also deals with difficult issues like death and family tensions in a clear, gracious, insightful manner–surprisingly so. As an extra fun bit, there are random literary and grammatical allusions scattered throughout, just enough to make it amusing. All in all, I think Antsy Does Time is a great story for middle-school readers and up; I’d definitely recommend this story.

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