YA Review: The Upper World

Title: The Upper World
Author: Femi Fadugba

The Upper World is an intriguing time travel story that doesn’t quite stick its landing. The book combines ancient philosophy with hardcore maths and physics to explore the relationship between matter, energy, and perception. It takes the Socratic idea of the ‘Upper World’ – a place beyond our everyday experience where, if we can reach it, we can perceive time and space from the outside and find a deeper understanding of the workings of the universe. The characters use this knowledge to attempt to change the past, with unexpected consequences.

It is the characters who hooked me into the story. Esso is a believable teenager, navigating the gangs and complex loyalties of his South London comprehensive school alongside the expectations of his teachers and his West African mother. Fifteen years into the future, Rhia is juggling her unreliable home life in foster care with her ambition to become a professional football player. When she meets the maths and physics tutor her foster mother hired to help with her GCSEs, she finds herself diving into complex concepts – relativity, energy, and time travel. But why does Dr Esso think these ideas are important, and what, exactly, does he want from her?

The structure of the story builds the tension between the characters and the events they are trying to change. Esso’s present-day chapters alternate with Rhia’s future experiences. We know from early in the book that teenage Esso is heading for a dramatic, gang-related punishment, and as the story progresses he does everything he can to avoid disaster. In the future, Dr Esso’s interest in time travel starts to make sense, as Rhia begins to understand who she is, and her connection to her tutor’s past.

Rhia’s foster sister provides an effective sounding board for her theories, and the genuine friendship between the girls provides a contrast with teenage Esso’s companions – a group of boys who would rather taunt each other than show weakness. Esso’s relationship with his classmate Nadia allows him to demonstrate a softer side to his character, and her pivotal role in the story develops across both timelines. Both Esso and Rhia are sympathetic characters, and I found myself heartbroken alongside them when the plot twists and injustices kicked in.

While the climax of both stories is extremely well written, I wasn’t convinced by the plot leading up to the final moments. While I enjoyed the idea of weaving Einstein’s theories and the philosophy of Socrates and Plato into a YA time-travel narrative, the plot stretched the science and the philosophical ideas beyond breaking point, and this threw me out of the story.

I’m aware that I am not the target audience, and that I have read (and wrestled with the concepts of) a lot of time-travel stories. For YA readers with less exposure to maths, physics, science fiction, and the various fictional theories of time travel, The Upper World may well provide a gripping and satisfying read. If you don’t mind a bit of hand-waving and magical thinking with your real-world physics, this is an exciting story with clever twists, interesting ideas, sympathetic characters, and convincing real-world settings. If that sounds appealing, don’t let my review put you off!

The Upper World will be published on August 19th. Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read The Upper World? What did you think of the story? Did the science keep you hooked? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.

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YA Review: An Abundance of Katherines

Title: An Abundance of Katherines
Author: John Green

Every so often I need to find a new John Green book to read, to remind me how much I enjoy his writing. Several people have recommended An Abundance of Katherines to me, and I can see why.

Colin is heartbroken over the end of his relationship. He’s been dumped, again, by a girl named Katherine, again. In fact, it’s his nineteenth dumping by a girl named Katherine, and he’s wondering why this keeps happening. In an attempt to escape from his post-high-school misery, he heads off on a road trip with his best friend Hassan. Their plan to keep moving and discover themselves on the road quickly comes to a halt in Gutshot, Tennessee, where they both find work – and girls who are not named Katherine.

Colin is a former child prodigy, and throughout the book he attempts to build a single mathematical model that accurately describes all nineteen of his Katherine relationships. If the model works for his previous experiences of being dumped, he’s hoping it will predict the course of his future relationships. It’s a girl called Lindsey who helps him to perfect his model, as he explains the circumstances of every relationship and breakup.

This is a quirky, fun read that doesn’t sidestep the very real pain of being dumped – and being dumped repeatedly. Colin’s attempts to understand his experiences feel constructive and pointless at the same time. He’s used to being able to think his way through problems, and while building a mathematical model for his relationships feels like an effective coping mechanism, Colin struggles to see past this cerebral response to an emotional solution.

Colin is a relatable character. He’s a fundamentally good person, but he is plagued by the fear that he has wasted his childhood potential. He knows that being a childhood prodigy does not automatically guarantee a successful career. Adult geniuses were not necessarily outstanding as children, and intellectually brilliant children are no more likely to become adult geniuses than anyone else. It’s a tough situation, and his obsession with the mathematical model feels like a genuine and understandable reaction to his fears for the future as he graduates from high school.

There’s an engaging cast of supporting characters. Hassan embodies everything that Colin struggles to accept. He is happy to sit and watch daytime TV, and let life happen around him, while Colin spends considerable energy on being brilliant and earning the good grades he knows he deserves. He’s the easy-going best friend who highlights Colin’s highly strung approach to life. Lindsey and her friends provide the companionship Colin and Hassan need as they navigate the summer between school and college. Their relationships are complicated, and not entirely obvious to the outsiders. Lindsey’s mother is a high-powered businesswoman with a heart, and her employees and former employees shape the small-town community of Gutshot. Every character feels real, and it is a pleasure to spend time in their company.

John Green’s positive portrayal of characters experiencing mental health challenges (in this case a crisis of confidence and a fear of the future) are always engaging and sympathetic, and Colin is another wonderfully realistic example. Like his other books, this is a quick but haunting read. There may be an appendix explaining the mathematical theory behind Colin’s relationship model (and I love John Green for providing that!), but it is the emotional impact of the story that stays with you, long after you’ve turned the final page.

Have you read An Abundance of Katherines? What did you think of the story? Did you enjoy the mathematical elements? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.

Please keep your comments YA appropriate. Be patient! We want to hear from you, but comments are moderated, and may take some time to appear.