Westworld meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this start to a thrilling, subversive near future series from New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Young about a girls-only private high school that is far more than it appears to be.
Some of the prettiest flowers have the sharpest thorns.
The Girls of Innovations Academy are beautiful and well-behaved—it says so on their report cards. Under the watchful gaze of their Guardian, they receive a well-rounded education that promises to make them better. Obedient girls, free from arrogance or defiance. Free from troublesome opinions or individual interests.
But the girls’ carefully controlled existence may not be quite as it appears. As Mena and her friends uncover the dark secrets of what’s actually happening there—and who they really are—the girls of Innovations Academy will learn to fight back.
Bringing the trademark plot twists and high-octane drama that made The Program a bestselling and award-winning series, Suzanne Young launches a new series that confronts some of today’s most pressing ethical questions.
About the Author
Suzanne Young is the New York Times bestselling author of The Program series. Originally from Utica, New York, Suzanne moved to Arizona to pursue her dream of not freezing to death. She is a novelist and an English teacher, but not always in that order. Suzanne is also the author of Girls with Sharp Sticks, All in Pieces, Hotel for the Lost, and several others novels for teens. Visit her online at AuthorSuzanneYoung.com or follow her on Instagram at @AuthorSuzanneYoung.
Read an Excerpt
Girls with Sharp Sticks
It’s been raining for the past three months. Or maybe it’s only been three days. Time is hard to measure here—every day so much like the one before, they all start to blend together.
Rain taps on my school-provided slicker, the inside of the clear plastic material growing foggy in the humid air, and I look around the Federal Flower Garden. Precipitation has soaked the soil, causing it to run onto the pathways as the rose petals sag with moisture.
The other girls are gathered around Professor Penchant, listening attentively as he points out the varied plant species, explaining which ones we’ll be growing back at the school this semester in our gardening class. We grow all manner of things at the Innovations Academy.
A thought suddenly occurs to me, and I take a few steps into the garden, my black shoes sinking into the soil. There are red roses as far as I can see, beautiful and lonely. Lonely because it’s only them—all together, but apart from the other flowers. Isolated.
The sound of rain echoes near my ears, but I close my eyes and listen, trying to hear the roses breathe. Thinking I can hear them live.
But I can’t hear anything beyond the rain, so I open my eyes again, disappointed.
It’s been a dreadful start to spring due to the constant rain. Professor Penchant explained that our flowers—and by extension, us—will flourish because of it. Well, I hope the flourishing is done in time for graduation in the fall. Our time at the academy will be up, and then the school will get a new batch of girls to take our place.
I glance at the group standing with Professor Penchant and find Valentine Wright staring blankly ahead, her gaze cast out among the flowers. It’s unusual for her to not be paying attention; she’s the most proper of all of us. I’ve invited Valentine, on multiple occasions, to hang out with me and the other girls after hours, but she told me it was unseemly for us to gossip. For us to laugh so loudly. Be so opinionated. Eventually, I stopped asking her to join.
Sydney notices me standing apart. She rolls her eyes back and sticks her tongue out to the side like she’s dead, making me laugh. Professor Penchant spins to find me.
“Philomena,” he calls, impatiently waving his hand. “Come here. We’re at the apex of our lesson.”
I immediately obey, hopping across the rose garden to join the other girls. When I reach the group, Professor Penchant presses his thumb between my eyebrows, wiggling it around to work out the crease in my skin.
“And no more daydreaming,” he says with disapproval. “It’s bad for your complexion.” He drops his hand before turning back to the group. I imagine he’s left a reddened thumbprint between my eyebrows.
When the professor starts to talk again, I look sideways at Sydney. She grins, her dimples deep set and her brown eyes framed with exaggerated black lashes. Sydney has smooth, dark skin and straightened hair that falls just below her shoulders under the plastic rain slicker.
On the other side of her, Lennon Rose leans forward to check on me, her blue eyes wide and innocent. “I think your complexion is lovely,” she whispers.
I thank her for being so sweet.
Professor Penchant tells the group about a new strain of flower that Innovations Academy will be developing this semester. We love working in the greenhouse, love getting outside whenever we can. Even if the sunshine is rare.
“But only those who are well-behaved will get a chance to work on these plants,” the professor warns. “There are no rewards for girls who are too spirited.” He looks directly at me, and I lower my eyes, not wanting to vex him any more today. “Professor Driscoll will concur.”
As the professor continues, turning away to point out other plants, I glance around the flower garden once again. It’s then that I notice Guardian Bose standing near the entrance where we came in. He’s talking to the curator of the garden, a young woman holding an oversized red umbrella. While one hand holds the umbrella, she puts the other on her hip, talking impatiently to the Guardian. I wonder what they’re discussing.
Guardian Bose is an intimidating presence in any setting, but even more so outside the walls of the academy, where he’s become commonplace. He’s here to ensure our safety and compliance, although we never misbehave—not in any significant way.
Innovations Academy, our all-girl private school, is very protective of us. We’re confined to campus most days of our accelerated yearlong program, and we don’t go home on breaks. They say the complete immersion helps us develop faster, more thoroughly.
Recently, the academy raised its curriculum rigor, increasing the number of courses and amount of training. Our class of twelve was selected based on the new heightened standards. We’re top of the line, they like to say. The most well-rounded girls to ever graduate. We do our best to make them proud.
Guardian Bose says something to the woman with the red umbrella. She laughs, shaking her head no. The Guardian’s posture tightens, and then he turns to find me watching him. He angles his body to block my view of the woman. He tips his head, saying something near her ear, and the woman shrinks back. Within moments, she hurries toward the indoor facility and disappears.
I turn away before Guardian Bose catches me watching again.
Thunder booms overhead and Lennon Rose screams before slapping her hand over her mouth. The professor looks pointedly in her direction, but then he glances up at the sky as the rain begins to fall harder.
“All right, girls,” he says, adjusting the hood on his rain slicker. “We’re going to wrap this up for now. Back to the bus.”
A couple of the girls begin to protest, but Professor Penchant claps his hands loudly to drown out their voices. He reminds them that we’ll return next month—so long as we behave. The girls comply, apologizing, and start toward the bus. But as the others head that way, I notice that Valentine doesn’t move; she doesn’t even turn in that direction.
I swallow hard, unsettled. Rain pours over Valentine’s slicker, running down the clear plastic in rivers. A drop runs down her cheek. I watch her, trying to figure out what’s wrong.
Sensing me, she lifts her head. She is . . . expressionless. Alarming in her stillness.
“Valentine,” I call over the rain. “Are you okay?”
She pauses so long that I’m not sure she heard me. Then she turns back to the flowers. “Can you hear them too?” she asks, her voice soft and faraway.
“Hear what?” I ask.
The corner of her mouth twitches with a smile. “The roses,” she says affectionately. “They’re alive, you know. All of them. And if you listen closely enough, you can hear their shared roots. Their common purpose. They’re beautiful, but it’s not all they are.”
There’s tingling over my skin because a few moments ago, I did try to listen to the roses. What are the chances that Valentine and I would have the same odd thought?
“I didn’t hear anything,” I admit. “Just quiet contentment.”
Valentine’s behavior is unusual, but I want to know what she’s going to say next. I take a step closer.
Her smile fades. “They’re not content,” she replies in a low voice. “They’re waiting.”
A drop of rain finds its way under the collar of my shirt and runs down my spine, making me shiver.
“Waiting for what?” I ask.
Valentine turns to me and whispers, “To wake up.”
Her eyes narrow, fierce and unwavering. Her hands curl into fists at her side.
I shiver again, but this time it’s not from the rain. The academy tells us not to ask philosophical questions because we’re not equipped for the answers. They teach us what we need, rather than indulging our passing curiosities. They say it helps maintain our balance, like soil ripe for growth.
Valentine’s words are dangerous in that way—the beginning of a larger conversation I want to have. But at the same time, one I don’t quite understand. One that scares me. Why would the flowers say such a thing? Why would flowers say anything at all?
Just as I’m about to ask her what the flowers are waking up from, there is a firm grip on my elbow. Startled, I spin around to find Guardian Bose towering over me.
“I’ve got it from here, Philomena,” he says in his deep voice. “Catch up with the others.”
I shoot a cautious glace at Valentine, but her expression has gone back to pleasant. As the Guardian approaches her, Valentine nods obediently before he even says a word. Her abrupt change in character has left me confused.
I start toward the bus, my brows pulled together as I think. Sydney holds out her hand when she sees me and I take it gratefully, our fingers wet and cold.
“What was that about?” she asks as we walk.
“I’m not exactly sure,” I say. “Valentine is . . . off,” I add for lack of a better word. I don’t know how to explain what just happened. Especially when it’s left me so uneasy.
Sydney and I look back in Valentine’s direction, but she and the Guardian are already heading our way. Valentine is quiet. Perfect posture. Perfect temperament.
“She looks fine to me,” Sydney says with a shrug. “Her usual boring self.”
I study Valentine a moment longer, but the girl who spoke to me is gone, replaced with a flawless imitation. Or, I guess, the original version.
And I’m left with the burden of the words, an infectious thought.
Wake up, it whispers. Wake up, Philomena.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
OHMYGOSH this should be required reading for EVERYONE. Like not just in school, but for life!⠀ Girls with Sharp Sticks raises not only ethical points, but moral questions and in my case makes me wish I continued with my tae kwon do career. Let me start by saying that I totally judged the book by its cover. I mean how awesome is it?! The fact that it’s YA AND the first of a series kinda put me off- but seriously look at that cover. ⠀ There were definitely cringeworthy parts like I physically shrunk away but I guess that adds to the horror of this situation. The first part of the story wasn’t necessarily slow, but you can tell that it’s mainly character building and setting development. Once you hit the halfway point (literally I did the math) it picks up and you have to keep reading. I hate series’, but I’m pretty sure I’m gonna follow this one to the end.
4.5 stars! What do I say about this book other than that I loved it? Well here's my best shot! Girls with Sharp Sticks is a young adult book focused on the lives of several girls living in an elite boarding school. They are taught to uphold the highest standards of behavior and grace, striving for perfection in all things. But things aren't what they seem to be at Innovations Academy. And the girls must band together to discover the truth. I truly don't want to give anything away with this book because it's a great journey of discovery from start to finish as the story unravels. I adored the girls at Innovations Academy. Despite the pressure to be perfect, they all exhibited their own human elements that made them likable and relatable. The only reason it didn't receive 5 stars from me is that it seemed just a tad too long. There were a few points in the middle where I felt like there was a lull or I felt like the story was dragged out just a littleeeeee too much. Just a tiny bit of editing would have gone a long way for me here. I had no idea when I started this book that it would be the first in a series. And now I cannot wait to read the sequel. The last 100 pages really hooked me, and the book ended on a wonderful cliffhanger that will keep any reader coming back to find out what happens next. I also adored the way Suzanne Young announced the name of the sequel at the end of the book (super clever touch!). Girls with Sharp Sticks reminded me of a cross between Vox and The Hunger Games/The Maze Runner. It had that same young adult feel with a mistreated group organizing an uprising against their oppressors. After I was done reading Girls with Sharp Sticks, I could see the way in which the author used this first book in the series to set up future books. It was definitely more of a background set up type of book so I cannot wait to see what the second book holds as I think it may be more action packed now that the groundwork has been laid. -I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to NetGalley, Suzanne Young, and Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing for the opportunity to review.-
I thought I would get my latest YA fix with the newly released Girls with Sharp Sticks, the first in a planned series from Suzanne Young. (And I did!) I love the cover - take a second look at each side of the girl's face - it's in the eyes.... Welcome to Innovations Academy, where the girls are absolutely perfect. Literally. Beautiful, demure and obedient. Uh huh, here it comes......and being molded to be flawless in everything for the 'Investor' who will become their 'owner'. Until Mena begins to realize that the life they are leading is not normal and there is a world out there that they know little about. They've been manipulated and lied to......and.... I liked the premise. The publisher has described Girls With Sticks as "Westworld meets The Handmaid’s Tale" and I think that's a great comparison. I chose to listen to Girls With Sharp Sticks. Caitlin Davies was the reader. I've enjoyed previous narrations from Davies and this was another excellent performance. She had just the right voice for Mena. Perfect you might say. It's young in tenor with an innocent feel. It's somewhat robotic in the beginning and then grows in strength and tone as the girls' "awakening" progresses. She provides perfectly despicable voices for the male leaders of the Academy. Young's plot will initially provoke a visceral reaction in the listener. And I found myself railing out loud at the arrogance and actions of the men. But even louder for Mena and her friends, urging them on as they begin to imagine escaping this life. This first book was a fun listen. Young has prepared the way for the second book - and I'll be listening to see what's in store for Mena and her friends.
When I added this to my TBR I had no idea what it was about. I more into the cover than anything. Luckily, this book was super good and I found myself falling for it on page one. Although there were some things I didn't care for, for the most part I did enjoy this book and I can't wait until more people can read it. Innovations Academy helps show girls the way they should act.The boarding school keeps tabs on them to make good decisions and to obey what their Guardians say. But suddenly things begin to happen and Mena realizes what's actually happening in her school. The girls work together to see all that they can actually do. For the most part I did like this book, but there were some things I didn't care for. The number one thing was the repetitiveness. The entire Part One of the book was basically the same thing happening over and over in different ways. I know it was done to put fear into the reader and to establish that something was off, but it just got to be too much at times. By the time I was on page 300 I wanted something more from the book. Normally I would have DNF'ed a book like this, but I powered through. The other thing I didn't care for were the characters. I hated everyone EXCEPT the girls. If nothing else, remember that you can't trust anyone in this book. And I mean no one. I kept thinking that the only terrible people were the obvious ones, but the ending will leave you reeling. This book also made me really uncomfortable. It literally made me side-eye every guy I saw. I'm sure it was written to make people uncomfortable, but I think pairing it with the same thing happening over and over.... As for what I did like, once things got started, they really got going. Unfortunately the ending came too soon! The next book in this series is going to be INSANE. I can't lie, I was hoping what I'm expecting to be in the next book was in this one, but I can understand trying to keep us holding on. The wait for book 2 is going to suck. I also liked the fact that even though this was science fiction, it wasn't so sci-fi that I couldn't follow it tho. That's always the biggest reason I don't care for science fiction, but it didn't feel that way and I liked that. There are mentions of what's happening, but it's not too in depth. I had a lot of feelings about this book and I didn't really know where to start. But after sitting here and typing them out, I put them to paper (my blog?) the best I could. I'm not sure it makes sense, but I tried. This is the first book by Young that I've read and I was not disappointed!
Girls with Sharp Sticks is a YA Fiction with a message that is most certainly, non-fiction. You’re not leaving here without a few stab wounds to your heart and soul, so get those bandages ready. Innovations Academy breeds obedient, beautiful girls. They are taught to set a table in Modern Manners, how to speak and act formally in Social Graces Etiquette, to keep their figures in Running Course, and to never accuse a man of inappropriate behavior in Modesty and Decorum – for that would be worse than any crime! As graduation nears for the girls at Innovations Academy, they are primped and put on display for their parents and sponsors in order to find the “perfect opportunity through success”. The girls need only listen to the men and Professors at the academy, for they have their best interests at heart, and they know best. “Too much thinking is bad for your looks”. But when the sudden departure of one of the girls becomes know to the students of Innovations Academy, Philomena and her closest friends can’t let it go. As they search for answers to why their dear friend left, Mena starts to notice strange things from the men she so easily trusts and respects. Strange glances, lingering hands, comments and commands laced with possessive entitlement. It isn’t until the girls band together that they finally open their eyes and see, that their lives may not be exactly what they think. “They’ve trained you not to believe what you’re told by others. You have to come to it on your own. I can’t wake you, Philomena.” “Wake up.” Girls with Sharp Sticks is everything your feminist heart has been looking for in a YA series. It guides you into a building of structure and poise with a gentle tug on your arm, sits you at a table of love and respect with the smiles of every girl you see… …all the while shredding your heart and leaving you feeling dirty, violated and used. If you start to feel nauseous while reading, it’s because you can relate to some part of this. The first thing that needs to be mentioned about this book, is the girls of Innovations Academy. They are pure innocence, inner beauty and kindness. They possess an amount of compassion so big your heart will seize, and you will care for them so deeply that you’ll feel as if a part of YOU has been endangered or hurt. Because these girls are all of us. They are light and happiness, delicate and resilient. They are unfiltered contagious smiles, and the sisters you always needed. These girls are everything. Therefore, it pains me to express how horrible these wonderful girls are treated. They are belittled by their teachers, taken advantage of by their guardians, thrown around like ragdolls, and told that what is best for them is to stay quiet and obedient. They are trained to be the perfect girls. Intelligent, modest, pure, compliant, and above all, beautiful and always put together. They are put on display at Open Houses where the girls can mingle with their parents, investors or sponsors in the hopes that they will be “purchased” for their exceptional looks and demeanors after graduation. For these girls, being pleasant and following the rules is of the utmost importance. Their worst fear is disappointing their parents or the staff at Innovations Academy. See my full review at my blog: Jenacidebybibliophile.com
It only took one time of picking up and I was hooked! This story was so unique, and there was a lot details left to fall out as part of the plot in such a seamless manner, but also in a way that kept the suspense going the whole time. We got introduced to characters that seemed like they might be the good guys, the ones out to help these girls who may not have understood what really they were being subjected to. Even with those helpful things they did, there was always the niggling sensation in the back of my mind about what exactly were the motivations behind the supposedly good guys' actions. Were they entirely selfless? Or as we learn with at least one of them, there might have been some selfishness in the reasons. When finally we get into some of the science behind what is going on, it made me think of lobotomies, yet I couldn't imagine how in the world that worked with what was going on while they performed the procedure. The ending fit the title of the book so perfectly, but also left you hanging a bit. While some things, for our main characters really, might have been solved or somewhat fixed, overall, there are still a few loose ends left at the conclusion. Ones that may leave this open for a sequel. And that sequel could have more to do with our original cast, but I am going to guess the ones who still need help will be in that story as well. This is only my 2nd book by this author, but it only makes me more determined to read The Program series! I will definitely be purchasing this for the students in my school library to read as well with my next budget money for next school year, as it has some great tie-ins to things going on in the world today. And the acknowledgement by the author at the end is really perfect.
I’ve always been a fan of Suzanne’s and I was eager to see what she had going on here...especially after that cover. I liked Mena well enough. Her inner monologue was extremely bland and I struggled to get invested in this story. I did like the loyalty and absolute trust the girls had among themselves. Plot wise, it’s quite a slow start. There isn’t really a set up to anything, so at first it felt like I was dropped into the middle of something I should have known about. I was about to quit when I saw several reviews say that things start to reveal at around 125 pages, so I kept reading. Once things really got going, I was intrigued, but also sort of just wanted it to be over. Yes, I’m being vague because spoilers. Overall, it was an interesting idea that will likely resonate. The last few chapters and epilogue raised my rating a full star and will have me reading the next book. FYI: there is physical, emotional, and psychological abuse and it alludes to sexual assault **Huge thanks to Simon Pulse for providing the arc free of charge**
Truth - I was skeptical about this book because of the cover, but then I saw the author's name and read the blurb, which has a Stepford Wives feel. Friends, I couldn't put this book down. The description is maddening enough for women, but trust me - your blood pressure will reach new heights once you read about the way these girls are treated. At 400 pages, it's long, but it certainly didn't feel like it. I wanted to finish it in one sitting - it's that compelling, and I couldn't wait to see what happened next. Some of the interactions between the men and the students will make your skin crawl, but the friendships between the girls are strong, wonderful, and will make you wish for that kind of bond. Everyone deserves friends like these. This is a dark, twisty novel, and some scenes are tough to read. But it's also empowering when the girls realize their world is skewed very much in the bizarre and unnatural direction, and then decide to regain control. I'm anxious to see what happens next. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC. I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.