The End Games

The premise of the End Games by T. Michael Martin seemed promising.  Teenager Michael and his five-year old brother have been battling monsters, zombie like creatures, in the Game directed by the Game Master who promises to lead them to safety and other survivors if they win the game.   Basically it seemed like it would be a story like the Running Man wrapped inside an apocalyptic novel.  It wasn’t.   The Game was more a reference to video games, and not being a gamer, maybe that’s why I didn’t appreciate all the references and silly dialogue that related to that.

What the book was about is harder to describe.  It seemed like the author took elements (done better in other apocalyptic and dystopian novels and movies) and mixed them all together like a stew in this book.  Religious fanatics who see the zombies as some sign and worship them, references to a mystical and higher power, a mysterious military leader straight out of any action film, and a main character with a troubled life, a la Angelfall and This Is Not A Test, who turns that background into a tool to survive.  There were even some hints about supernatural and evil an alien or horror movie.   I wish the author had just focused on one strong main narrative instead of being all over the map.  There was even an awkward teen romance that was hard to swallow, I mean in the middle of the zombie apocalypse would you really be worried about a first kiss?  Yes, there have been some romances in other apocalyptic books, but they are more based on closeness built upon helping each other survive, not a shallow teen crush.

 I also found the character of the little brother more annoying than cute and heartwarming, certainly five is old enough to know that the zombies are real when you have watched them kill and eat people.  Honestly, if I were Michael I would have told the kid to get a clue and shut up. 

The only part of the book that I thought was strong was Michael’s inner dialogue when he was begging to be rescued or saved.  I think everyone can relate to having at some point being in a bad situation in their life where you loudly ask in your head for help, you plead, you bargain and you hope magically somehow help will arrive.  Then other times you accept that no one is riding in on a horse to save you and you just have to will yourself to take the next step and the one after that.

 

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Wool

Wool

Wool by Hugh Howey  is about a post-apocalyptic civilization that lives under the surface in a silo.  They have lived in this environment so long, they don’t have any sense of what life was like outside the silo and the origins of how they came to live there, despite the fact that every few generations there has been an uprising inside.  At its heart, this is a good old-fashioned “who-dun-it” detective story wrapped inside a post-apocalyptic world.

The silo itself if sectioned off by levels, it’s not just a spatial construct, but also a class and career construct.  Miners, mechanicals and other blue collar workers work and live in the deepest levels, while middle class live in the mids and more white collar roles such as IT, the sheriff and the Mayor live in the upper levels.  The upper level provides a glimpse of the outside world through cameras and sensors to those inside.  However, over time the sensors and lens become dirty making the view less visible, so a ritual developed that both solves that problem as well as social issues.  People who have committed a crime, people who rebel against the society and occasionally those who go a little crazy from the confined nature of life and want to go outside, are sent out to ‘clean.’ 

Those who have been sent to clean are provided with a protective suit and tools to clear the view for those inside and no one has ever not performed the act, which is strange because essentially anyone sent out will die as the suit only provides limited protection for a short time period.  Therefore, those sent to clean because they have committed a crime would seem unlikely candidates to perform a duty that is for the benefit of those inside who sent them out to their doom, so why do they do it?  It’s this very strange behavior that sets in motion the events of this story. 

Within the silo the acting Sherif voluntarily went out to clean and the Mayor and deputy need to replace him.  Their front runner choice is a woman named Juliette who doesn’t even want the job.  Although she grew up in the upper levels with a father who is a doctor, a family estrangement led her to a career working in Mechanical.  Juliette is happy with her job; she has a knack for figuring out how pieces fit together to make machine work and how to fix what is broken.  It’s that talent, and her prior help with an investigation, that put her in the spotlight for the Sheriff role except instead of machines, she will adapt her skill to figuring out the role that different silo inhabitants played in some recent tragedies.   The more she examines how the silo works as a whole, the more disturbing her investigations become as she slowly uncovers some of the truths about the origins of their world.

The end of the book includes a conversation with the author Hugh Howey that is worth reading as it explains some elements of his life prior to turning to writing that help the reader understand where the idea for this book came from and how he was able to provide readers with a sense of a very enclosed environment.  The one thing it didn’t reveal is where the title of the book came from, there may have been a reference within the book that I missed…if so, it would be great if someone reading this blog can explain the connection.

 

The Different Girl

Like anyone I appreciate a little mystery, a little challenge in books, TV or movies. In fact, I lose a little interest when I am miles ahead of where the plot is already guessing the next events or even ending. I just read a book where I had the opposite problem. I was initially intrigued and teased by the mysterious girls in The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist. However, as I read on the pace of the mystery of who these girls were seemed very slow to unfold, in the end, it never did. So while I don’t want or need to have every answer spelled out to me, I was left needing some answers, and was frustrated when they were never supplied.

The best parts of the book described how the girls were taught to think, methods used included how to consider animals, object and facts and describe them in detail. It was like reading a cognitive dissertation thesis but written more for laymen. Whether these girls were being trained this way because it was a preference by their guardians Irene and Robbert or some proven method wasn’t clear. It was also never revealed what these girls were being trained for. The four girls currently live on a remote island which is inhabited only be themselves and their guardians/trainers. They were told that their parents were killed in a plane crash. Even when the supply boat arrives periodically to make deliveries, the girls never meet or interact with other people. Is the fact they spend so much time together the explanation for their group think type of behavior or is it something inherent within them? Other than the color of each girls’ hair, they behave more like one being, rather than individuals. The major exception is Veronika, who begins to deviate from the instructions of the guardians and ask the right questions, though Caroline is also somewhat different in the fact that she dreams and no one else does.

The strange life the girls lead is shaken up when Veronika finds an unconscious girl on the beach, May, who almost drowned when her boat sunk. Although Irene and Robert give her medical attention, she is kept separate from the other girls. When they eventually sneak into a room to see her, she regains consciousness and screams when she sees the girls, a hint that there is something far from normal about them. On their part, the girls notice how different May is from them, her skin, her accent and the fact they she has not been schooled as they have. Veronika especially takes an interest in her and they form a bond. However, May is distrustful of Irene and Robbert’s intentions toward her and eventually runs away and hides on the island until one day as ship arrives and May springs into action to try to rescue the girls from the events that unfold as a result of the ship’s arrival.

This is not a book with a sequel, so readers are forever left with questions about the girls and what would their future have been if the ship hadn’t arrived. While I understand the author’s dilemma that after the buildup of suspense of wanting to know who Irene and Robber truly were and what was their purpose in caring for the girls, that it would be hard to give an explanation that would have lived up to that, I couldn’t help but feel cheated to not get at least a few more hints. I understood how the girls were different, but not the purpose of their lives. There was another book I read where the author in her Author’s Note at the end explained that she deliberately left some questions unanswered, and I respected that, but this book left more than a question or two, it left a giant gaping hole.

Dualed

I loved the premise of this novel by Elsie Chapman. A US town out West has broken away from the constant wars ravaging the country after a cold vaccine rendered everyone sterile. In order to make sure they can protect themselves from the outside and also not waste resources, the Board has created a system in which there are two identically genetic children created, duals, who when their number is drawn, they fight each other to ‘complete.’ To complete means they have to kill the other version of themselves as the city only wants the smartest and strongest citizens to help defend the city and to not squander resources on the weak. The twist is that the process happens prior to citizens turning twenty and some have to endure this assignment as young as the age of ten. In school the older students study kinetics and weaponry to prepare themselves for their assignment, but how do you prepare to not only kill someone, but to kill someone who looks just like you? If you thought children killing children in The Hunger Games was twisted, this takes things to an even scarier place. At least in The Hunger Games, not all children are chosen, and those who are have a shorter time frame to endure the Games. In Dualed, once the alts are activated for their assignment, they have one month in which they have to live through the idea that their killer could strike at them. If neither alt successfully kills the other in the allotted time, they are both killed, so there isn’t any incentive for someone to refuse their assignment.
West has already lost most of her family to this brutal practice…her older brother Aave, her little sister Ehm and even her mother. Although her mother won her assignment during her youth, she becomes a PK, peripheral kill, when a bullet from an alt trying to complete his assignment strikes and kills her. As the book opens the only remaining family left to West is her brother Luc, their father has also died, though initially the cause is not mentioned. In the world of Kersh? There is a strange juxtaposition that in order to guard against the battles outside, their whole city and living environment becomes a daily battleground. Even those who have ‘completed’ will be going about their daily lives when suddenly they will see people murdered in front of them, which are alts completing their assignment. This is one of the troubling aspects of the book, the violence doesn’t ever really end for people once they have ‘completed’ since they are still witness to other people’s completions on a regular basis.
Spoiler alert: Don’t read farther if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know some of the other details. Having lost her whole family, and trying to protect another loved one, West makes a strange choice. She decides that the only way to protect her closest friend is to become a contract killer who kills people’s alts for them. By her logic, this experience will prepare her better for her own completion, however it seems strange to me that someone who has lost her whole family to the process would take this route. When she is working her contracts, she doesn’t seem to feel anything, but when her own assignment is activated, she is completely flustered and runs and hides rather than going for the kill. Other than the fact that her alt has her face, there really isn’t an explanation as to why someone who has now killed many people, can’t kill her own assignment. The other hole in the story is that when these children are activated, they appear to be on their own. It seems like those who parents are alive would protect them and help them find hiding places, give them money, etc. yet there is a building that is a shelter for the actives where they can check in and sleep and get food, for the prices of scanning in which also leaves an electronic trail that their alt could find. At one point West meets a ten year old active and you have to wonder where is his family and why aren’t they helping? I found that to be a story flaw. Yes, these citizens have grown up with this system and some are patriotic, but the parental instinct to protect one’s children would surely be stronger. The other flaw is that since guns are allowable to use for the kill, there seems to be a high chance that completes would be often mowed down in the crossfire like West’s parents were and with enough of those kinds of incidents, the system would break down. There are even AK’s, assisted kills which while frowned upon by the mysterious Board the penalties aren’t severe enough to stop it.
When I like a book, I am always happy that there is a sequel as I am not ready to say goodbye to that world or those characters. However, in this case, this book finished in such a way that there really is not a need for a sequel. There isn’t any big story arc or unfinished business for any of the characters, so I am a bit puzzled that the author chose to write a second book as I was satisfied with where this finished.

Shadows

I just read a very gory zombie book.  You are probably thinking, “Well duh, kind of comes with the territory, right?”  Actually, so far in my experience reading zombie books it doesn’t.  I mentioned in an earlier post that I don’t watch zombies movies, well I did watch Shaun of the Dead, since it was spoof, but I don’t watch zombie films or any horror movies actually as I don’t like gore.  My experience reading books such as was lulling me into a pattern of not expecting anything too graphic from zombie books.  I mean Rot & Ruin was for me more like a modern day Shane, mixed with Shogun and the Karate Kid.  So I was becoming complacent that most zombie novels leveraged the horror of the zombies coming after you and not so much on the results if they caught you. 

Well Shadows, the second book in  the Ashes trilogy by Ilsa J. Blick, certainly proved me wrong.  This book is raw, and I mean that in both a literal and figurative sense.  Turns out the terror of zombies following you is minor compared to the terror you would feel if one of the zombies, or ‘Changed’ as they are referred to here, catches you.  In most zombie books the creatures crave blood, but not because they are vicious or angry, traditionally zombies don’t have emotions, their minds and memories are vacant voids and they attack because of need or some instinct.  The Changed in Shadows are more frightening because of the fact they have emotions and are conscious.  They cannot speak, but they show through their expressions and actions that they take sadistic pleasure and are conscious of the horrific acts they are committing.   In many instances they make a point of making sure other captives watch as they eat the unlucky ones.  I couldn’t help but wonder about what type of person could write such gruesomely imaginative things and reading the author’s bio helped explain it.  After all, it’s an unusual person who has been both a child psychiatrist and a major in the military.

Due to her tumor, Alex  who has been captured by the Changed, is  often able to literally sniff out their intentions in advance, but what’s worse is when her mind almost seems to meld with some of theirs, making her wonder how much the monster in her head has in common with the actual monsters. 

The other characters in the story are dealing with another type of monster.  Chris realizes the terrible truth about the town of Rule, Peter encounters a person who is a bigger monster than any of the zombies, and Tom still struggles to get the monster of his own past actions  out of his head.  I liked that this second book in the series was broken into separate chapters describing events from each character’s experience rather than one continuous narrative.  After all, though they are all in a situation where their lives and the world as they have known it have been inexorably altered, each has their own way of reacting and struggling with the choices they now face.