Bitter Sixteen by Stefan Mohamed
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Publisher: Salt Publishing
Release date: April 15 2015
Source: Finished copy from publisher
The nitty-gritty: A unique take on the superhero story with a funny cast of characters and one talking dog.
If coming into London had felt like being swallowed, heading down into its hot, stale-smelling bowels, a maze of clanking echoes and indistinct announcements over crackly tannoys, was like the final stage of digestion. I’d been on the Underground once when I was little, but I’d forgotten how strange it was, and how many people there were. How many people there were everywhere. Daryl and I stuck close together, and I distracted myself by thinking about zombies and wondering if I looked cool wandering around with an electric guitar.
Superhero stories have been a mixed bag for me, so even though I was excited to read Bitter Sixteen, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2010 in the category for unpublished writers, I was also a little leery, knowing that I’ve been disappointed in the past. But I needn’t have worried. Bitter Sixteen was an engaging, funny and heartwarming coming of age story that took tried-and-true tropes in new directions. Mohamed’s Stanly at first seems familiar: a geeky teen with few friends who is constantly bullied in school, discovers on his sixteenth birthday that he can levitate and move objects with only his mind. But Stanly has to work hard to figure out how to use his powers, which don’t come easily. Add in the bestest side-kick ever—a talking beagle named Daryl—and you have a winning combination for a story.
When Stanly (and yes, that’s “Stanly” without the “e”) discovers that he can suddenly float, he is at first terrified but later delighted by this sudden turn of events. With the snarky advice of his talking dog Daryl, Stanly begins sneaking out of his house at night to practice levitating, and later full-out flying. He also has the power of telekinesis and can hurl balls at the heads of the mean boys at school and even throw punches without moving a muscle.
Stanly’s school life isn’t going well until a couple of things happen. First, he learns how to defend himself with his powers. And second, he’s given the part of Romeo in the school play and finally finds a place where he fits in. But an attack during open night of Romeo and Juliet forces Stanly to use his powers in front of the audience, and he realizes his cover is blown. He races off to London with Daryl in tow, to stay with his cousin Eddie, a nervous sort who might also have his own powers. In London, Stanly is happy for the first time in his life: he is surrounded by people who understand him—Eddie and his friends Sharon and Connor who have powers as well—and he’s determined to help people in need. Because that’s what superheroes do, right? But a rash of child abductions brings the dangers of the city to light. Stanly and his friends must track down an urban legend named Smiley Joe before any more children go missing.
My favorite part of the story was definitely the relationship between Stanly and Daryl. Mohamed never gives us insight as to why Daryl can talk (he can also put DVDs in the DVD player, use a remote control, and drink beer!) but honestly, I didn’t really care. Daryl loves to watch movies, can recite all the lines from Fight Club by heart and worships Humphry Bogart. He also swears a blue streak and has a sarcastic comeback for just about everything Stanly says. In short, I adored him, and I fervently wish my own dog Otis will start talking to me one day:-)
I also loved all the pop culture references. At one point, Daryl interviews for a job in a comic book store, and the owner asks him which episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is his favorite. The story is brimming with cool references like that, and I was in geek heaven.
Typical in YA stories, there is a romance brewing between Stanly and a girl named Kloe who plays Juliet in the school play. This part of the story was just OK for me. I didn’t think Kloe was that interesting of a character, since she wasn’t around much. Mohamed seems to be a genius at developing his male characters, but his female characters could use some work, in my opinion.
The British and Welsh slang tripped me up occasionally. Clearly this book has not been edited for an American audience, but that’s OK. Salt Publishing is a UK publisher and there’s absolutely no reason for them to do so. What matters here is the story, and after a while, my brain started to understand the rhythm of the unfamiliar words, if not the exact meanings, and they simply became an integral part of the reading experience.
Bitter Sixteen was going to be a four-star book for me, but a couple of things pushed the rating up. At some point in the story, the funny banter drops away and Mohamed gets into the raw emotions that flare up between the characters. For example, what starts as an amusing buddy relationship between Stanly and Daryl turns into something much more sobering, after Daryl makes a confession to Stanly late in the story.
A wonderfully unexpected twist near the end, having to do with a little girl who Stanly saves from Smiley Joe, gave me chills. It also gives the author plenty of fodder for the next book in the series, which I am dying to read! Stefan Mohamed’s name may not be known on my side of the pond, but it should be. He’s a young writer with so much talent, and I hope you’ll consider picking up this book.
Big thanks to Salt Publishing for supplying a review copy!
Stop by next Wednesday April 15th, when I’ll be interviewing Stefan, and giving away copies of Bitter Sixteen!
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