The Chaos Of Now by Erin Lange

The Blurb On The Back:

When Jordan Bishop sets himself on fire at school he triggered a nationwide crackdown on internet bullying.  New laws empower teachers to become cyber snoops.

But this is not what Jordan would have wanted.

For Eli Bennett, too, the laws put fundamental freedoms at risk.  So he joined a group of guerrilla hackers who are out to get justice for Jordan, Jordan-style.

What starts as a bit of fun soon spirals out of control.

Could revenge on bullies be classed as bullying itself?  By avenging Jordan’s life are they risking the lives of others?

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

16-year-old Eli Bennett will always remember the day Jordan Bishop walked into the cafeteria at their high school in Haver, Iowa, poured gasoline over himself and set himself on fire.  It was later discovered that Jordan had been the victim of internet and real life bullying and the authorities decided that enough was enough, enacting cyber-snooping legislation to give schools authority to monitor and police students’ social media accounts and going so far as to stop students from using certain products.

It’s a year later and Eli is cruising through his classes (with the exception of Spanish, which he is severe danger of flunking).  His dad is worried that a flunked grade will cost Eli a college education but Eli isn’t interested in going to college.  He’s a coder and a hacker and figures that he’d be better off going to get a job straight away – in fact he and his best friend Zach (another computer nerd) are talking about designing an App that will help make their fortune.

But then two of Eli’s schoolmates – Seth March (a senior) and Mouse (a kid in Eli’s year) uncover a secret from Eli’s past and blackmail him into helping them with a project.  They need a third member to join their team for the American Cybersecurity Competition (an annual hacking and coding competition) that’ll be held in 10 weeks’ time in Chicago and which the big tech companies attend so they can hire the brightest and the best.  As part of the competition, the three need to do a real-world project where they find holes in an actual site and Seth and Mouse want Eli’s help to reveal the flaws in the cyber snooping system and blow it up.  Specifically, they want to build a website where people can anonymously reveal how they’ve been bullied and in turn reveal the bullies’ secrets.

But as people start to share their videos with the site, Eli begins to wonder if it’s justice that he, Seth and Mouse are offering or vengeance …

Erin Lange’s contemporary YA novel is a thoughtful story about peer pressure, bullying, the flaws in social media and surveillance culture and personal responsibility and although I didn’t completely buy into the ending I think that there’s a lot here that the target readership can relate to through Eli’s experiences.

Eli is a well-drawn character with Lange doing particularly well at showing his struggles with the ethics and morality of his actions and how he justifies them to himself.  I especially enjoyed the strained home life he has with his frequently-away father and Misty, his father’s substantially younger ex-stripper girlfriend who is trying her best to form a bond with Eli through bad cooking and honest advice, only to be rejected by Eli who can’t see her presence as anything other than an unfair intrusion that’s split him and his dad.  Eli has the self-absorption that many teenagers have at that age but Lange doesn’t make him blind to the consequences of what he’s doing and I believed in his doubts about the value of a college education given his own career aspirations.

Lange also does well at showing Eli’s existing friendship with whiter-than-white hat coder and chess geek Zach and how that’s damaged by the lies Eli tells as he engages in decidedly grey hat activities with Seth and Mouse.  I didn’t quite believe in the way Zach forces Eli to confront his activities towards the end of the book (mainly because it involves Zach gaining the confidence of one of the site’s victims and I wasn’t fully convinced by it as anything other than a narrative device) but I did like the way that he can get through to him in a way that Eli’s father cannot.  The romance storyline between Eli and Isabel is fine but a little perfunctory, although I did like the way Lange leaves it at the end of the book.

The suicide storyline essentially exists to hang the plot on and as such Jordan himself is little more than an empty vessel who you never get to know as a result of which some revelations at the end of the book lack the impact that they could have had (and I have to say, I’m not sure I was comfortable with those revelations in the context of that suicide jump off point).

The strongest sections of the book are those that set out the different arguments about cyber bullying and how to combat it and I thought Lange was particularly good at showing how the boys’ site made some people more concerned about their behaviour and yet others continued to act as they had before.  I also thought she was good at showing how little cyber monitoring actually achieves, even though that tends to be the knee-jerk reaction from media and politicians.

Ultimately, I found this an engaging, interesting read (much like Lange’s other work) and, as always, I am keen to read what she writes next.

THE CHAOS OF NOW was released in the United Kingdom on 2nd October 2018.  Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy of this book.

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