Learning to Swear in America, by Katie Kennedy

Learning to Swear in America, by Katie Kennedy (Bloomsbury July 2016), is one of my favorite books of the year so far, even though it has none of my usual favorite fictional accoutrements (no orphans, big old houses, English gardens, or magical cats...). What it does have is a cool story of Science Danger, and a protagonist I found very loveable (although from a somewhat maternal slant, so not applicable to the YA target audience who presumably aren't in my position of having teenaged sons learning to navigate a difficult world).

Yuri's world is more than a bit difficult.  He is a 17-year-old Russian math genius, raised primarily by Russian math professors (dead father, preoccupied and distant cardiologist mother).  His math genius is such that he is called in by NASA to help them math their way out of disaster--an asteroid is headed toward earth, and Yuri's mathematical brilliance will perhaps tilt the balance toward success, and perhaps his work with antimatter, though unpublished, will be useful.

So there is Yuri, whisked to California at the drop of a hat to do math with NASA's best and brightest, with the fate of the planet hanging over his head.  It's a difficult situation--he's a kid, and so it's hard for the others to take him as seriously as they should be doing, he's a foreigner, and so the social nuances of American life are tricksy (although lord knows cafeteria skills rank right up there with insurmountable in terms of challenge), and he's an odd duck because of not having a normal childhood.  (NB--what he's not is a mathematical savant on the autism spectrum.  I am rather glad that the author didn't automatically equate genius and no social skills with Asbergers, which would have been easy for her to do, because that would have been a different book, and I liked this one just fine as it was, and because Asperger's doesn't automatically equal genius, and is a whole nother issue with it's own trajectory, not just a handy label for the socially challenged).

So anyway, there is Yuri, and there is the asteroid, and there is all his work on antimatter, and then there is Dovie, the daughter of a NASA janitor. Yuri and Dovie meet when she sneaks into the break room on a doughnut pilfering mission (which of course made me sympathetic to her from the get go), and suddenly Yuri must shake himself into the awareness that there is an American girl who Likes him.  Dovie is great; she's an artist and rebel and her parents are ex (ish) hippies, and she is altogether a New Thing for Yuri.  And so Yuri finds that he's on his way to Prom, when he should be at NASA saving the world....and sexy thoughts intrude on the pure math that he's used to having in his head.  Yuri's awakening as a sexual person was very nicely done...he doesn't objectify Dovie, or de-person her, but she is a catalyst who makes him a different person.  And her family are great too--her parents and older brother, Lennon, who uses a wheelchair, all recognize that Yuri never had a childhood as part of a family, and in their own ways encourage him to be a person who can think outside of the math, without trying to change the fact that math is his native language.  Though Dovie also introduces him to color, and Lennon give him a lesson in swearing.

So there are Yuri and Dovie and the asteroid, and back in Russia Yuri's unpublished work is being stolen (and he can't do anything about it from America, which is killing him) and he finds out he might never be allowed back to Russia again (state secrets).   And there are the NASA scientists, not believing his antimatter approach will work, when he knows it is the only chance... and so the weight of the world rests heavily on him. 

And I found it all rather tense and very moving. And funny--even though English is a foreign language, Yuri uses the words he has to excellent effect, both as the point of view character and in dialogue.  His style of humor minded me of Russians I know, which made him seem particularly convincing.

So then I check the Kirkus review....(me checking).....and no, Kirkus, you are wrong.  What do you mean "Though the relationship between Dovie and Yuri is ostensibly a romantic one, the chemistry between them never quite gains momentum or achieves maximum impact...."?  Maybe there is no passionate sex scene, but heck, they are teenagers who have known each other only a few days, and so we get things like Yuri's toes fizzing when Dovie's dress brushes over them and I found it believable as all get out, and nicely sex-positive.  And nice too that Dovie gets to make the first move, deciding that kissing is what she wants.  And then Kirkus goes on to say "...much like the threat of the asteroid threatening to lay waste to the region" and I thought the asteroid did just fine on impact and Yuri sweated blood about the decisions he made and it was very tense. So.

Anyway, I'm keeping this one on my own shelves because I can imaging re-reading it, which is getting to be a higher and higher compliment every year as I run out of shelf space.  The SLJ is correct--"This work is thought provoking, heartwarming, and unforgettable and is recommended for readers who enjoy science-based fiction. A superb addition to any library collection serving teens."

Other thoughts--

There are hero programmers, who take Yuri's pure math and make it functional.  You don't often see hero programmers at work.  This was very nicely geeky. 

The NASA folks and the programmers are mostly male, but I don't think Katie Kennedy can be held responsible for this.  There are enough women playing important roles to make it clear that they are possible.

Lennon's difficulties with handicapped accessibility and his frustrations felt realistic without making him an object of pity, and the fact of his wheelchair use ended up being relevant to the plot and so not just window-dressing.  He also works in a library, making him naturally appealing, and a bit of a gender-stereotype breaker.

Teenagers will appreciate that one of Yuri's superpowers (math being the first) is that he can stay up several nights in a row doing frantic math and still function.  Unlike the NASA grown-ups.

Final thought--this didn't feel like "Science Fiction."  But in the course of my thinking, I decided that using antimatter technology that doesn't exist to destroy an asteroid that doesn't exist is pretty speculative, so I am comfy labeling it Sci Fi.

Final final thought--I thought about giving this one to my 13 year old, who enjoyed The Martian lots (geek hero-ness), but he's not yet at the point of appreciating toes having zingy feelings of lust. Maybe next year.  Or maybe like ten years from now.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


  1. After reading this I immediately put the book on hold at the library and I'm really excited to read it. I'm less excited by the fact that the title is stuck in my head to the tune of America from West Side Story.

    1. I'm glad about number 1, but less happy that I now share your pain viz number 2.

  2. It is really nice to hear of a geekly specFic that doesn't have instalove in it. I take your POV over Kirkus' any time!

    1. It was also a nice change to see the boy falling for the girl...naively and awkwardly and believably. I feel that mostly it's new boys arriving in town with sapphire eyes, and I am tired of that.

  3. Your review sold me on this book. I don't know why I kept reading, since I generally ignore anything MATH, but I kept reading what you wrote and now I think I need to pick this book up for myself. It sounds lovely.

  4. I wasn't online at all in August, so I missed this review. Sounds like a wonderful book! Glad this review was in your sidebar so I noticed it. (With a title like that, I had to click through.)


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