Monday, April 7, 2014

YA Guy Reviews... Island Literature!

It’s not summertime yet, but YA Guy’s been reading lots of island literature.

Of the many debuts I’ve read in 2014, four have had island settings: Christine Kohler’s No Surrender Soldier (Guam), John Dixon’s Phoenix Island (the titular island, a military boot camp for troubled teens), Austin Aslan’s The Islands at the End of the World (Hawaii), and most recently, Lynne Matson’s Nil (an island in a parallel dimension from which teens have exactly one year to escape).

All of these books have been awesome. I’ve reviewed Kohler’s book here, Dixon’s here, Aslan’s here, and I’m reviewing Nil right now.

I totally loved Nil. At first I feared the premise might be too Maze Runner-y: trapped teens form their own society while fighting to return home. But Matson plays Nil from a totally different angle, focusing on love, romance, and what I can only call metaphysics. The island becomes a metaphor for the randomness and chaos of the real world, while at the same time it allows a newfound spirituality to blossom in these teens wrenched from familiar surroundings and thrust into hostile, alien ground. Here’s heroine Charley, who falls for hunky Thad though both know their odds of outliving the island are slim:

“Luck is personal; we all have our own. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s yours, and it follows you wherever you go--even to Nil. And luck can change, because as my nana always insisted, luck was a state of mind.

Chance, on the other hand, is different. Chance is a coin toss, chance is probability. My charts had increased Thad’s chances, but it hadn’t changed his luck.

And I couldn’t understand why.

As we left the meadow, I pondered luck and chance, labyrinths and personal journeys, island mazes and carvings and the eternal question: Why are we here?”

In light of this speech and others like it in Matson’s wonderfully realized tale, it becomes apparent why island stories are so popular among YAs. Teens frequently feel as if they’ve been cast away on an island where life is a struggle for survival against senseless rules someone else imposed on them. Or they feel as if they themselves are the island, isolated and unapproachable, misunderstood by everyone on the continent. Finding your soulmate on that island, as Charley finds Thad in one of the most powerful and tender (not to mention sexy) love stories I’ve read in YA, can seem like the only thing that gives life meaning. And the thought of losing that sense of cosmic rightness, as Charley and Thad fear losing each other, can seem like, literally, the end of the world.

So if you’re looking for a good island read, I’d recommend Nil. Or any of the other books named in this post. They’ll transport you, amaze you, ravish you--and at the same time, make you remember what it feels like to come home.


  1. Thanks for the mention and the recommendations, Josh! I loved the decade I lived on Pacific-Asian islands! My book is listed as a "beach read" on the Hawaii Project because the Honolulu Star-Bulletin did an article on NO SURRENDER SOLDIER. (I'm also an alum of U of Hawaii.) Your article would be a great addition to The Hawaii Project recommendations!

    1. Thanks, Christine! I'll look into that--and I also love your idea of proposing a panel on island/survival literature. Will get to work on it!

  2. Thanks for the mention, Josh. Nice to be in such great company!

    1. Thanks, John. Speaking of company, I'm wondering how well we writer-types would do on any of our imagined islands! (Of course, you were a gold gloves boxer....)