Saturday 13 August 2022

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Review: The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester by Maya MacGregor (#Ad)

The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester by Maya MacGregor held up by a white hand in front of rainbow shelves.

I was sent this review copy for free by GMC Distribution on behalf of Astra Young Readers for the purposes of providing an honest review.

Links with an asterisk (*) are Ad: Affiliate Links, which means if you make a purchase through them, I'll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester by Maya MacGregor

Published: 8th August 2022 (UK release date) | Publisher: Astra Young Readers | Source: Publisher
Maya MacGregor’s Website

In this queer contemporary YA mystery, a nonbinary teen with autism realizes they must not only solve a 30-year-old mystery but also face the demons lurking in their past in order to live a satisfying life.

Sam Sylvester's not overly optimistic about their recent move to the small town of Astoria, Oregon after a traumatic experience in their last home in the rural Midwest.

Yet Sam's life seems to be on the upswing after meeting several new friends and a potential love interest in Shep, the pretty neighbor. However, Sam can't seem to let go of what might have been, and is drawn to investigate the death of a teenage boy in 1980s Astoria. Sam's convinced he was murdered--especially since Sam's investigation seems to resurrect some ghosts in the town.

Threatening notes and figures hidden in shadows begin to disrupt Sam's life. Yet Sam continues to search for the truth. When Sam discovers that they may be closer to a killer than previously known, Sam has a difficult decision to make. Would they risk their new life for a half-lived one?
From The StoryGraph.

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I was super excited for The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester by Maya MacGregor from when I first heard about it. I believe it's the first YA book published in the UK by a non-binary author living in the UK. That's massive, and I was so keen to read it! And I loved it!

Sam is an autistic, queer, non-binary teen who is interested in people who died before they turned 19. They keep a scrapbook about them, their lives, and their deaths. After surviving a physical homophobic and transphobic attack, Sam and their dad have moved to Oregon to start afresh. But after only a few days, Sam realises they're living in the house of Billy Clement, one of the teens in their book. Everyone says it was a tragic accident, but there are things that just don't fit. With their new friends, Sam decides to figure out what happened to Billy, and get him Justice.

I honestly loved this book! I loved enjoyed MacGregor's writing; it flows so well, like water sliding over stones, and it was just so enjoyable to be carried along with it. I can't put my finger on exactly what, but there was something about the flow of the writing that's been missing from books I've read recently, so reading Sam Sylvester was like finding something you didn't know you had misplaced. Then there's Sam themself. I adored them! I cannot speak to the autism and non-binary rep, as I'm never, but Sam Sylvester is an #OwnVoices story, and it felt well done. It sounds like something that's really obvious, but Sam's autism is a part of who they are, part of their normal everyday life, finding it difficult to read people sometimes, or feeling overwhelmed on occasion, for example. This isn't something I've read before in books with autistic characters, and I think it's because this isn't a book about a person with autism, it's about a person solving a murder. Sam is autistic, and it's a big part of their life and who they are, but that's not what the story is about, you know? So it felt very different to me, that it wasn't the sole focus.

Sam Sylvester touches on many serious topics, some briefly, some longer. Sam has been through a great deal. Because they're autistic, they were in foster care until they were 7, when they were adopted by their dad, Junius. Sam is white, and Junius is Black, and the book touches on the question in people's faces about their family when they realise their relationship. Junius (who is aroace) is also a single father, adopting Sam on his own. The story even touches on the difficulties Junius experienced as a Black man having to deal with the police when Sam was attacked. He's also the best freaking dad to have ever existed! He's extremely supportive and understands Sam and their needs. I'm not sure I've ever read a more loving dad. But he's also concerned, because of Sam's attack and their trauma, and wanting to keep them safe. So when they're bullied at school, he becomes increasingly concerned - but Sam is actually feeling like they've found their place for the first time in their life, where they're fully accepted for who they are by their new friends and their teachers. Sam has experienced trauma, though, and it's almost ever-present in their life, even when they're doing ok. Sam also has anxiety, and because they're autistic, there are a few moments when things are difficult to process and overwhelming for them. Then there are instances of homophobia, biphobia and bi-erasure experienced by Sam's friends. There's this one moment when a boy admits to being attracted to Sam, but, as Sam isn't a girl, is confused about what that means about his sexuality. It was such a beautiful moment, because even though Sam is frustrated and uncomfortable by this guy asking them if they're gay now, you can still feel the tenderness towards this character in their confusion. There are actually a few characters in this book that you might think on first meeting them that they're going to cause problems for Sam, but actually turn out to be good people. They may not get everything right, but they're trying, and are accepting of Sam. It was refreshing, and really sweet.

The mystery itself is a major, major slow burn. This isn't really the kind of story where you can come up with many theories of what happened, because there isn't a huge amount of sleuthing. A conversation will be had, or someone will do something that has Sam connecting dots, but it seems mostly to come without any proper evidence. They're really small things, so it's almost a bit of a leap that Sam takes at times. To be honest, I wasn't really invested in the mystery. I don't think it was tight enough or developed well enough. This isn't really a story with twists and turns that will keep you sitting on the edge of your seat. If I was reviewing this book solely on the mystery, this review would probably be quite a negative review. The reveal was a little disappointing; I didn't see it coming, because it's such a slow burn mystery, there isn't much to base theories on, but once you do realise who was behind the murder and why, it just fell a little flat for me. I also didn't really feel the romance between Sam and Shep. Honestly, beyond Sam's relationship with Junius, I feel most of the relationships were underdeveloped to a certain degree. I could see why they all liked each other, I just didn't see what the fact that they're alls such good friends was based on.

But as I said, I adored the writing, and I loved Sam. They're such a fully formed character, reading this book was like hanging out with a friend. There were definitely aspects of this book that could have been better, but you don't really needs a reason to spend time with someone you like, and that's what reading this book was like for me. I'm not sure that really sells the story, but I loved this book a hell of a lot simply because of Sam, and I think that says something.

Thank you to Astra Young Readers and GMC Distribution for the review copy.

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