The Program by Suzanne Young

The Program by Suzanne Young

the program

Yes, another dystopian young adult novel book review from In Search of the End of the Sidewalk. I’m a sucker for them! All of the websites where I buy books or that I look at for book recommendations apparently have me pegged as an angst-ridden teenager because these types of books are always at the top of the “to read” lists and I never just click away to something else.

The Program is the first novel in a series by Suzanne Young, a newer (although not brand new, as she has a couple other books already published) writer who daylights as an English teacher. The book takes place in the not-so-distant future when an overuse of antidepressants is believed to have spawned an epidemic of suicides in the teenage population. There is no proof that the medication was the impetus, but as a generation of adults who were heavily medicated become parents of young adults, the rash of deaths is pushed upward of one in every four teens taking their own lives. As the country goes into panic mode over these cases, The Program is created to keep kids for ending it all.

Once a teenager is flagged for The Program, they are forced into a facility where their memories are taken away, one by one. The idea is that if the kids can’t remember the bad things, they won’t want to terminate themselves. The powers-that-be believe that the suicides are a plague and can spread from student to student, so as soon as one is infected, their friends are closely monitored for signs of negative changes and quickly flagged. This process leaves no room for true emotion or time to grieve over losses, as those difficult emotions are instantly interpreted as infection.

It is in this world that Sloane and her boyfriend James are trying to stick together and make it to their eighteenth birthdays, at which time they will be free of the threat of forced “treatment” through The Program.  As some of the people closed to them succumb to the infection or disappear into the blank-slate world of The Program, their ability to maintain facades of “normality” is challenged more and more frequently.

The premise of this novel is a good one and allows Young to explore some interesting areas of psychology, especially what makes someone themselves. If their memory has been wiped clean, are they still the same person as when they had a lifetime of memories? Or, how can one trust those around them when they have no background? Just because you were told someone was your friend, how do you know they really were? The chances for manipulation and abuse are rampant within these table rasa teens. These would be awesome discussions to have in a book group or classroom full of teenagers who already question who they are and what they want from life.

When I first downloaded this book, I didn’t realize that it was the first in a coming series of books, but it didn’t take long to figure out that the plot wasn’t going to come to a nice, complete ending by the final page. All along, it is setting the scene for future books, which I must admit is a bit of a downside. In theory, I don’t mind series (and I think they are great for reluctant readers who get caught up in with a tale and characters they love!), but when the book obviously feels like a set-up for what comes next, I must admit to being a bit disappointed. In the case of this novel, I think I may have liked it a bit better if it had been longer, but told a complete story, rather than stopping at what is clearly a jumping off point for book number two.

In the end, the series-format is the only thing that turned me off a bit to this slightly-futuristic novel. Suzanne Young’s exploration of self and memory is one that I found intriguing and created enough questions in my mind that I will definitely be downloading book two when it comes out, earning The Program a solid:

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When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke falls firmly in the young adult literature genre, but within that realm, its home is on the older end of young adults. The writing style and vocabulary are by no means out of reach of middle school students, but the themes and content definitely require a bit more mature reader.  I was drawn into the novel from the very start, loving the obvious references to The Scarlet Letter. (The allusions, both apparent and those that are a bit more concealed, were strong enough to make me want to go reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s magnum opus.)

The problem became, while I was intrigued and captivated by the first half of the novel, that level of enthusiasm wasn’t sustained throughout the second half.  While the beginning of the book introduces a series of ethical and moral dilemmas, ranging from tangled relationships and a woman’s right to decide what to do with her own body  to how criminals should be punished, the second half devolves into a mere love-story.

In the not so distant from now future, Hannah Payne is raised within the boundaries of a strict, religious family. The only world she knows of is the one her parents allow her to see. That is, until she falls in love with the preacher of the mega-church her family attends- the married preacher of the mega-church her family attends. When he returns her affections (and more!) and she becomes pregnant, she knows she can’t reveal the identity of the baby’s father, so rather than having the child, she decides it is best for all involved to have an abortion. In this future, abortion is illegal, punishable by a many years long sentence. (Prisons had become too pricey for the government to run, so other than the very worst of criminals, the punished are injected a virus that turns their skin a bright color- red for murderers- that identifies them as a felon. They are then released back into the public, where they must find a way to survive the ongoing hatred meted out to them by the state’s citizens.)

Hannah, now a “red,” must find a way to survive her term of coloration. After a failed attempt through a halfway-type house, she decides to make a run for the Canadian border, where she will be protected. It is at the point that the higher-minded discussion of women’s rights and unduly harsh punishment drop by the wayside and the story becomes a mere romance.

Maybe Jordan decided that the issues were just too big and too overwhelming to tackle in a young adult book. (Although, if she felt that way, I am not sure why she started down the path to begin with. Why not make it an adult novel and see those subjects through? Or if it was YA that she really wanted to create, why not choose a single subject and do it justice?) Whatever happened, I was sorely disappointed when Hannah’s storyline became more about seeing the man who would have been the father of her child rather than the societal problems that were the foundations of the novel.

I really struggled with how many shells to award this book, but because I would give the first half a solid four and the second half a generous two, I am going to split the difference. Hillary Jordan’s book When She Woke earns:

The Scorch Trials (Maze Runner #2) by James Dashner

The Scorch Trials  ( Maze Runner #2)  by James Dashner

Not only am I a sucker for the dystopian literature genre, but combine that with a young adult series and you’ve got me hooked!  After reading the first of James Dashner’s newest series, The Maze Runner, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the second.  The first book ends with nothing less than the epitome of a cliffhanger that leaves the reader clinging to the side of the mountain, scrambling and clambering to keep a hold on the ledge until book two shows up!  Well, book two showed up two days ago and I instantly morphed into a mountain goat, doing nothing but climb that rocky ledge as the story continued, forgoing both homework and housework to find out what lies around each turn of the page.

In this second book, Thomas is back, along with his allies from The Glade. Their rescue and relief at the end of the first novel is short-lived and they are soon placed in the middle of another experiment run by the shady group called WICKED. This time, rather than being in the confined and controlled spaces of a maze, the group is given a final destination, promised “safe haven” upon arrival at that point and told they have two weeks to get from point A to point B.

Of course, completing this task was not a mere matter of sticking out their thumbs and hitching a ride the one hundred miles, but rather a painful, and for some, deadly, trek across the burned wasteland left behind after sun flares destroyed everything on earth between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer.

Along the way, the motley assembly of adolescents faces obstacles that are unimaginable, even after what they went through in the Glade. But worse than the deformed humans suffering the ravages of the Flare (Cranks), the mind games that WICKED plays on the kids leaves them in a position where no one knows who to trust, no one knows who is working for the mystery agency or even which side is good and which is evil. More than once, messages are relayed saying the “WICKED is good.” But is it? Throughout the book, the basic tenants of their individual personalities, their beliefs and their friendships are suddenly called into question.

Like many series, the first book, The Maze Runner, sets a high bar, as it creates a new world, populated with interesting characters and unique situations. Subsequent books have to keep up the energy and excitement of the first, but at the same time somehow deepen the conflict and relationships within its pages.  In this trilogy, the follow up, The Scorch Trials, does an admirable job living up to the expectations.   I couldn’t stop turning pages, eager to find out what was to become of this group of hardy survivors and the manipulative government agency that controls them.  As I wait for the third and final installment in this trilogy, again clinging to the edge of the cliff I was tossed over by the end of book two, James Dashner’s The Scorch Trials earns: