Unwind by Neal Shusterman

“Connor had known other kids at school who disappeared over the past couple of years.  One day they just didn’t turn up.  Teachers would say that they were ‘gone’ or ‘no longer enrolled’.  Those were just code words, though.  Everyone knew what they meant.”

The Heartland War is over now, a bitter battle over the sanctity of life.  As per the new agreement, life begins at conception and cannot be tampered with until a child reaches the age of thirteen.  However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, parents can choose to have their children “unwound”, by sending them to a “harvest camp” and having all of their organs  donated to others.  That way, life doesn’t technically stop; the teen keeps living, albeit in the bodies of many other recipients.  If you are not able to raise your baby until he or she reaches the age of thirteen, you can “stork” it: leave it on someone’s door stop and run away.  Finders, keepers, according to the law.

Unwind is the story of three teens.  Connor has behavior problems, and his parents have signed the unwind orders because they just can’t handle him acting out anymore.  Risa is a ward of the state, a piano player who simply wasn’t talented enough to be allowed to continue living (what with budget cuts and all, there isn’t enough money to invest in anyone but the most skilled).  Lev is a tithe, a child who was born to be a sacrifice under the tithing code, where ten percent of all wealth is given to the government.  They are all slated to be unwound, when Connor initiates a series of events (bus crash, human shield, lots of confusion) that allows all three of them to escape.  The three must then navigate the underground world of escaped unwinds, learning how to survive without drawing attention to themselves.  If they can make it until their eighteenth birthdays, they are home free.  But it certainly won’t be easy…

This futuristic tale is riveting; built around an interesting concept and driven by strong, complex characters.  Shusterman creates an elaborate world of these characters, and each one of them is interesting enough to merit a personal story.  His universe is populated by the Clappers, a dreaded terrorist group, a wizened antiques dealer whose shop is a front for the unwind version of the Underground Railroad, and an eccentric who creates a large-scale shelter for unwinds in the middle of the Arizona desert.  Everyone’s got a back story, and Shusterman lets us all in on it, which I absolutely love.  Even though it is a complicated world, with a lot of unfamiliar political and social situations, it is still very accessible to readers. That’s a tricky balancing act for many writers.  I really enjoyed that the story was not predictable, either.  I was expecting a daring escape, but there is just no way to guess where Shusterman will take readers next.  Awesome!

Unwind won two of the big awards:  it’s an ALA Best Book, as well as a Best Book for Reluctant Readers.  It also won about a billion state awards, including a placement on the Oklahoma Sequoyah Award list (my home state, folks!).  This is a fast-paced, engrossing read that covers heavy topics like the definition of human life, reproductive rights, politics, the ethical concerns of organ donation for profit, and governmental power.  I think you’re going to love it!  And if you do, you’re certainly in luck, because there’s going to be a movie version released, and also, Shusterman has written a ton of other incredible books!  So, while you’re waiting for the movie, you might want to try his crazy-popular Skinjacker series, which includes the books Everlost, Everwild, and Everfound.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.storyman.com

Movie website: http://unwindmovie.com

Shusterman, Neal.  Unwind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 335 pp.  Ages 13 and up.

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Impulse by Ellen Hopkins

“Pray

you could somehow stop

the uncertainty, somehow

stop the loathing,

somehow stop the pain.

Act

on your impulse

swallow the bottle,

cut a little deeper,

put the gun to your chest.”

Before you panic about that quote, I’ll explain:  it’s a description of past events, even though in the excerpt I realized it can come off as an order.  Don’t worry! It’s not as bad as you think.

Well, it’s pretty bad.  The novel takes place in Aspen Springs, a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents.  Vanessa, Connor, and Tony have all attempted suicide, and meet in the ward.  Vanessa has bipolar disorder, like her mother, and cuts herself when she cannot cope with her emotions.  Connor, even though he looks like the perfect, all-American star student, feels isolated in his own family, as though he were an object instead of a son.  And Tony has spiraled into the depths of despair after his mentor dies of AIDS.   In the hospital, the three begin the lengthy process of sorting through years of pain and fear, searching for the combination of medication and therapy that will help them emerge into the sunlight again.

The three main characters take turns relating their own experiences in the novel: the speaker is identified at the beginning of each chapter, or whenever the speaker changes.  Since the characters are all so fragile and desperately unhappy, it is (like Hopkins’ other works) a raw, harrowing novel.  I had to take frequent breaks when reading it.  The voices are so gripping that you feel them reach out of the book and suck you in.  I actually found it to be so intense as to be overwhelming.

That said, this is Ellen Hopkins.  That’s her style: she wields her words like a surgeon’s knife, slicing away at any extraneous padding in a story.  There’s no sugar-coating here, that’s for sure.  It’s an undeniably grueling read, but even as I was sickened and horrified about the experiences, feelings, and memories of the characters, there was a part of me that was able to stand back from the story and recognize the skill of the writer.

The three-voice-narrative was especially genius, I think.  Because of the emotionally intense, introspective nature of a person going through a life-threatening emotional crisis, a single narrator could telescope the story in on itself, and make the entire novel too centered around tortured ruminations of the sad mind.  But with three different characters telling the story, Hopkins anchors the story, and keeps it from being an unbroken personal manifesto of misery.

Oh, what can I say here?  The topics are rough: sexual abuse, drugs, self-injury, abortion, and suicide, all described in graphic, but poetic language.  However, Hopkins takes this dark side of the self and humanizes it, makes it understandable.  She also refuses to tie up the story with a neat “happily ever after” bow, too, which is something I really appreciate.  One gets the feeling that, to Hopkins, her audience is street-smart enough not to swallow a syrupy ending.  There’s this underlying feeling of respect for her readers: she speaks to them as though they were adults.  I think this one is definitely worth a read.  (And the ALA thinks so, too: this book is an ALA Best Book winner!)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenhopkins.com/

Hopkins, Ellen. Impulse.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007. 666 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  And while your 16-year-old is reading it, stick around for the tough questions that may come up.