Ashes

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That expression has always ticked me off as a platitude that having something crappy happen is somehow good. In the case of the main character Alex In Ashes, by Ilisa J. Blick, it’s true. Seventeen year old Alex has already had to deal with both her parents being killed just a few years earlier and then she is diagnosed with a brain tumor that has not been responding to radiation, chemo and some nontraditional treatments. She takes off to hike in the Waucamaw not only to get away from her well-meaning aunt and the doctors, but she has some other agendas too. However, soon into her expedition, she runs into an older gentleman and his granddaughter who are an outing as the girl’s father has been KIA in Afghanistan. Strangers on the trail who have barely exchanged more than a dozen words, fate draws them together when something strange and terrifying happens that causes the grandfather to drop dead leaving Alex with an angry little girl to deal with and some strange effects to her own body.
Alex decides that the best thing to do is to make their way to the ranger station, a few days hike away. As they travel Alex notices some signs that whatever happened that killed the grandfather was not an isolated event. The trip to the ranger’s cabin becomes a race for survival and brings a new figure into their group, Tom, who had his own reasons for being in the park. Suddenly, Alex’s tumor is the least of her problems as she has to deal with wild dogs, wolves, those who were strangely affected by what she terms “The Zap” and the rest who are just trying to stay alive in a world that has turned upside down.
I really liked the character of Alex. Having suffered so much at a young age, she is well past the point of whining, when the Zap happens. She has already had to think a lot about death, her own and others, and it helps her face the new realities. She also is much better prepared than others her age as her father was a cop and her mom a doctor and she has learned some important skills which serve her well in the story. Yet despite her skills and toughness there is something vulnerable about a girl who has had to live with a ‘monster’ in her head and now finds that her monster may just be her savior. I also liked the depiction of some of the other characters, no one is a full saint or a sinner, most people have to just play the hand they are dealt, and morality is a luxury in a world where staying alive comes with a cost.

The Sky Within

Ok, I have had some encounters with picking up books that I thought were YA dystopian fiction, but then finding that they were something a bit outside of my definition of dystopian.  That certainly applies to The Sky Within by Clare Dunkle.  It’s a little bit dystopian, a little bit sci fi and it borrows some elements from movies such as The Running Man, and Willy Wonka.  It really defies categorization and it’s very strangeness kept me reading something I otherwise would have set aside.

The dystopian part of the book stems from the fact that Martin lives in a suburb that is enclosed by a steel dome.  We readers are not told much about the disaster that led to its creation, just some vague references to hunger and violence and only some lucky people among the population who came to live there.  Whatever the disaster was, life seems pretty easy, at least on the surface, during the time this story takes place.  People have plenty to eat with stoves like slot machines that come up with the winning meal.  Children go to school, families watch TV, many of which are game shows, and people live in subdivisions.  For the most part people don’t have to work as they can buy bots to do it for them and still collect their paychecks, hence the sci fi aspects of the story.

Martin’s family consists of his father, mother and Cassie who is a ‘Wonder Baby.’  People no longer have children the old fashioned way, the process has become a bit like ordering from a catalog always wanting the best and newest model.  Cassie  is from the latest generation of children who have been so ‘improved’ that they have exceptionally high IQ’s and are so precocious that they annoy many of the adults and children from earlier periods. Martin’s dad chooses to work and is in charge of the mysterious packets coming into the dome which are like rail cars and contain any number of things.  It’s while visiting his father at work one day that Martin makes some unsettling discoveries about his world and begins to investigate aided by his modified bot dog Chip.  When his idyllic suburban existence is threatened by the number of secrets he has uncovered, he decides to take action.

I think there are some problems with this book.  I do give it props for its creativity, but I feel that the author has tried to cram too many different elements into one story with the result being a mish-mash of different genres, and as mentioned earlier even some plot devices and characters that feel like they were lifted from movies and TV.   Also, the ending is abrupt.  I am guessing there is a sequel, but even books that are written with the intention of continuing to another book in the series don’t have the unfinished quality that this does.   Also, it is written at the level of a young reader and the emotions and characterizations seem stilted in comparison to the material.   When I invest the time to read a book, if it’s part of a series I tend to continue because of that, but I don’t plan to continue with this one.   If I had children it might be something I would read with my son, but since I don’t, it’s one I will let go.

Angelfall

This is a book about an apocalypse caused not by an environmental or manmade disaster, but an angel apocalypse.

I have always thought of angels as being literally ‘angelic’ creatures, but I have been noticing a disquieting trend about these creatures in books and TV.  More and more angels are portrayed very differently than the saintly creatures watching over mankind; instead they are surprisingly flawed and violent creatures.  This is certainly true on the TV show Supernatural where the angels are almost as bad as demons and in books such as The City of Bones and Fallen.    

In Angelfall, by Susan Ee, the setting is current, but our world has been turned upside down by an angel apocalypse.  For Penryn, life wasn’t exactly normal even before this cataclysmic event.  Her mother is a schizophrenic who may have played some role in the ‘accident’ that crippled her little sister.  With her father gone, it’s up to her to help her family survive in a world where both angels as well as humans have become violent.   When her sister disappears and she is separated from her mother, Penryn makes an unlikely alliance on her quest to rescue her sister and survive in a world filled with cannibals, para military groups and even worse things. 

 I do like a female lead who is more about kicking ass than dreaming of prom and Penryn delivers in that department.  This was one of those books that kept me reading well past a reasonable bedtime, my only complaint is that if this is supposed to be part of a series, the sequel isn’t even a whisper yet, so I will have to wait impatiently to see where things lead.

The Bar Code Tattoo

I often get excited by the concept of a book, TV show or movie, but then can be disappointed by the execution.  That’s the case with The Bar Code Tattoo by Susan Weyn.  I think the idea for the book was not only smart, but very topical.   The setting is only about a decade into the future.  The word is pretty much as we know it now, except that 1-Corporation, insert name of one of our current multi-conglomerate too big to fail companies, has gained increasing control and influence.  The U.S. is transitioning to the population getting bar code tattoos, following the precedent set by Europe and Asia.  However, not everyone is sure that getting the bar code is a good thing…suddenly people who were previously successful are being demoted or fired from their jobs, other people previously on the low end of the totem pole are suddenly rising in status.  There are rumors floating around that there is more information included in the bar code than what people have been told and that there have been people in other countries who have been so desperate to remove the tattoos that they have tried to burn it off their skin.

Kayla lives in limbo as people aren’t tattooed until they turn seventeen, but her birthday is coming up quickly and after a traumatic event related to the bar code in her own family, she has trepidation about getting it done.   She joins a group of other students who put out a zine about news and theories related to the bar codes, though her conviction is not the other thing that has lured her into this group. 

Life for the non-tattoed becomes increasingly difficult, they are being denied jobs, get hassled when they try to use e-cards (similar to debit cards) to pay for things rather than their tattoos and are discriminated against in other ways.   There is a junior Senator who has started a movement against the tattoo, but other voices in the government, including his own father, stand against him.

Considering the debate about identity cards that has swirled around for years, the concept of a bar code tattooed onto the skin is not outrageous and of course even some characters in the book who are against the bar code reference the tattoos of those in the concentration camps in WWII and other ways people were branded undesirables.  Also, there hardly seems to be a day that goes by without a news item about the security breach at some company where people’s personal data was part of a hack, so the idea that information about you, well beyond age, address, spending habits, etc. and being stored about you is frighteningly real.  A few years ago I was at a doctor’s appointment and I did not fill in my social security number on their new patient form, the receptionist was livid even though I pointed out that she is not a government agency and cannot require that information from me.  She insisted they needed to enter the number for their computer system, I told her if it wasn’t a required field, she didn’t ‘have to’ put anything in, if it was a required field, then she could put in a fake number or contact the software company for an alternative.  She went ballistic treating me like a criminal until finally the doctor came out and I explained the situation.  I had my appointment, but I never went back to that practice.  Private enterprises illegally ask for information they are not entitled to every day, so obviously I was very attracted to the subject matter of this book and related to the characters questioning the privacy and security they are asked to give up and the pressures of society to conform as if saying ‘no’ is not an option and brands you as a troublemaker.  The material is so rich, many different books could be written about this issue in dystopian fiction; unfortunately the writing was a bit stilted and clichéd for more sophisticated readers.  The characters are one-dimensional and the romance rather bland.  Also the book veered off target when it introduced a storyline about psychic ability.  It would be a good book to assign to a high school English class to engage students in critical thinking about these issues or good fodder to bring up at a cocktail party by asking people how much information they think is being stored about them and how worried are they about privacy and security issues. 

The Age of Miracles

Initially this novel by Karen Thompson Walker reminded me of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It.  The apocalyptic event in both related to a change in the lightness and darkness of days.  In Life As We Knew It the moon has been knocked out of orbit, in The Age of Miracles the rotation of the earth has begun to slow. Neither book has an explanation for why its apocalyptic event has happened; there isn’t any hint that it’s a man-made problem.  Each book chronicles a journey from childhood into womanhood for two female characters, yet despite starting off in a similar way, each book takes a completely different approach.

In Life As We Knew It, the effects on daily life happen quickly, but despite the fear and tribulations , Miranda’s family actually grows closer, while Julia’s family begins to fall apart, despite the fact that in Julia’s story the changes and effects of the disaster are slow to be felt.  In each story the leads are affected by the changes in their one-time best friends.  Miranda’s born-again friend Megan and Julia’s friend Hanna start to change and move away from the closeness of the relationship.  In both cases, the mothers stockpile food and supplies to prepare for what they dread is coming.

However, in while Life As We Knew It is both a coming of age story, it’s also a story of survival and much darker than The Age of Miracles, which I would argue leans much more toward a coming of age story, the disaster is almost secondary to journey of Julia as she deals with normal childhood issues such as tension in her parent’s marriage, the aging of her grandfather and the shifting sands of popularity, bullying and self-acceptance.  It’s just that Julia is dealing with normal adolescent issues while her world is changing, albeit slowly.  Although Life As We Knew It is very intense, in fact, in my opinion it’s one of the darkest YA post apocalyptic books, because The Age of Miracles is a much slower pace of change, it actually heightens the tension because the unknown is drawn out over an extended time frame and it’s almost exquisite torture.  The fact that people try to live as closely as possible to the lifestyles we are living now is rather spooky, yet I wonder if that’s how things would be if we got the same kind of news.  Would people continue to show up for work and school?  Would kids still go to soccer practice and birthday parties?  Is that denial or stoicism or courage?  Would we all try to hold onto our lives as tightly as possible rather than show outward panic?   Not everyone in the book is continuing on as if life were normal, people divide into those who live by ‘clock-time’ and those who are ‘real-timers’ who try to adjust to the new rhythms of light and dark and become the target of extreme prejudice. 

The story is told in first person by Julia with her retelling the past from an unknown future, which is very effective as you wonder how old she is as she retells the events immediately leading up and after ‘the slowing’ as people later called it.    One of my favorite passages is this, “It still amazes me how little we really knew.  We had rockets and satellites and nanotechnology.  We had robot arms and hands, robots for roving the surface of Mars….We could manufacture skin, clone sheep.  We could make a dead man’s heart pump blood through the body of a stranger.  We were making great strides in the realms of love and sadness – we had drugs to spur desire, drugs for melting pain.  We performed all sorts of miracles….and yet, the unknown still outweighed the known.  We never determined the cause of the slowing.  The source of our suffering remained forever mysterious.”   The passage is really frightening.  We have so much to currently worry about, we know the earth is heating up, we know honeybees are dying, we know we are at peak oil, we already fear.  What if all the things we fear are nothing compared to some cataclysmic event we cannot even begin to imagine?

Quarantine – Graduate….or Die Trying

Lord of the Flies is such a seminal book that most people were assigned to read it at some point in school.  That book seemed so chocking, but it shouldn’t be.  The veneer of civilization is thin.   We like to pretend that we human have evolved and would maintain our ethics and sense o fair play in any situations, but how long would any of our polish and manners last given the worst of circumstances?  The novel Quarantine by Lex Thomas updates that question.  You don’t have to be stranded on a remote island to get in touch with your baser nature, as David, the main character quickly finds out.

David is the quintessential All-American boy.  A member of his high school football team, actually the star quarterback?  Until the death of his mother he has been dating Hilary, who is what else?  A cheerleader.  He seems to have the perfect teen life until his mother’s accident that triggers a series of events including his girlfriend cheating on him with his teammate Sam, who David punches in a jealous fit, the ripples of that moment carry throughout the book  When David arrives at the high school for his senior year and his little brother’s freshman year, he was already expecting trouble.  What he was not prepared for was the bombing on part of the school, watching his teachers all die because of a disease the teens have been exposed to making them lethal to all adults.  Quarantined by the government into what is left standing of the high school,, without adult supervision and traumatized and near starving, the teens inside quickly devolve into violence.  Almost amusing is the fact that like any high schools with cliques, the teens organize themselves into gangs, though only the Nerds and Varsity are recognizable as similar to a normal high school click, the Freaks, Loners, Sluts, etc. are much more sinister than normal high school cliques.  Like any teen group, each dresses to represent their affiliation, but in this case attire is meant to intimidate and even cause bodily harm as items taken from the school like spikes and nails are integrated into outfits.

Sam, David’s nemesis from the team, leads Varsity who due to their athleticism are able to scoop up the majority of food and supplies from the government’s drops, the rest of the groups have to hustle to gather enough to survive.  Unlike the Lord of the Flies, the fact that this is a co-ed high school does add another dimension.  Without adult supervision, without knowing if they have a future, and without having much to do, obviously sex is prevalent and for some of the girls it’s a form of currency of survival, particularly The Pretty Ones who all date Varsity and are led by David’s ex Hilary.  For some of the female population of the school, the threat of rape is very real.  That’s how Lucy enters David’s life.  David who had become persona non grata with Varsity even before the quarantine, life has been difficult.  He takes care of his epileptic brother and supports them by hiding in an elevator shaft and washing clothes to earn food and things to trade.  The government has communicated to the students that the seniors at the school will be released once they have ‘graduated’ meaning the disease has left their body.  A booth has been set up to take an automatic blood sample and if the results are clear, the door to the outside will open.  David worries what will happen to his brother when he leaves. 

One day David sees Lucy sprinting to a booth, not to  ‘graduate’ but to hide from an attacker and instead of staying under the radar, David instinctively tries to help and ends up accidentally killing a member of Varsity making him a marked man.  Seen as a heroic figure by a group of high school misfits, he is recruited into becoming the leader of a new gang, the Loners, a role that causes friction with his brother, as does the growing attraction between David and Lucy who it turns out has been the girl Will has always had a secret crush on. 

High school even without a life or death lockdown can already be brutal for many teens.  The recipe of teen immaturity, quest for identify, hormones, and rebellion is a dangerous recipe.  How many readers of this book think they would have been able to take the high ground as David tries to or think they would become a Sam?  How many adult readers with teens of their own wonder about how their own child would handle such a situation? 

Shatter Me

I have read online that some people think Juliette in Shatter Me is annoying, whiny, etc.   I don’t disagree that she can come off that way a little, but I think it’s a classic case of being misunderstood.  I mean if you grew up not having any friends and your parents abandoned you and the world sees you as a monster, wouldn’t you have a few issues?  Then add to that being sent to juvenile hall for killing a child, even though your guilt is more than a punishment.  Later you are put in an insane asylum, even though you are not crazy and the conditions there are such that a sane person would actually go insane, that is if they manage to live without sufficient food or care.  You leave the insane asylum only to be used as a human torture machine or experiment by the sadistic Warren and when you finally manage to escape from that you discover that you can’t have a relationship with the boy you love.    This is not the whining of the typical teen who complains about homework or didn’t get a car on her 16th birthday so I think the haters should just give Shatter Me a break!    Most adults would be broken by these experiences and Juliette has been dealing with a truckload of crap since she was a child.    It’s rather amazing that she retains her strength and her sweetness in the face of overwhelming odds to the contrary.  For those who think she is too whiny, well that’s why  author Tahereh Mafi  has the character Kenzai comment on her behavior, to provide an outlet for those who feel that way about her actions in the book. 

One of the things I really like about Shatter Me is the cadence of the writing, the rhythm of Juliette’s speech.  It’s a writing device I haven’t seen much in other books and it really adds emphasis to how confused and broken she is and shows the damage caused by her isolation in the insane asylum.  I think it mirrors naturally the way our thoughts work.  That we flit from thought to thought, that we don’t always speak in full sentences when we are thinking to ourselves and that we self-edit, which is kind of ironic when they are our own private thoughts. 

I think the book also explores what it’s like for a woman to have power.  Yes, there has been a rise in girl power,  but it is still unfamiliar territory for us when we live in a country where there has not been a female president and only a very small percentage of women are CEO’s or sit on company boards.  Obviously, in the case of Juliette it’s about how she wields her physical powers, which are stronger than any of the male characters in the story, but it still has some parallels to the modern world and women having to be considered by the same adages such as “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Juliette is afraid of how much power she has and what she might be capable of if she uses it to the maximum extent, will she do something terrible?