The Testing

I think The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau is a good book, however I wonder if I would have once described it as a great book. ¬What do I mean by that? Well the problem is I read The Hunger Games first and I fell in love with how unique it was at the time, the Hunger Games was my ‘gateway drug’ to the world of YA dystopian/apocalyptic fiction, in fact it’s the reason this blog exists, thought tellingly I have never written a review of it for this site; some things are sacred. To be fair, any book that has similar elements…the concept of a survival contest, a very strong female lead character, and the questions it raises about exactly what someone is willing to do to survive is going to draw some comparisons, so I have to commend Ms. Joelle Charbonneau for bravely tackling that territory.

The problem I have with falling in love with The Testing is that I feel a sense of déjà vu. Celia lives in one of the many communities surrounded by the wastelands caused by wars and environmental disasters, but fortunately her community no longer knows hunger as much as others do. Her father was one of the people who passed The Test and attended the University; he is a biologist who works to create plants that can survive the harsh soil conditions. No one from her town has been selected for the Test in many years, and Celia is determined to be chosen for this honor, even though strangely enough her older brother Zeen, who is considered the smartest in the family was not selected. Celia is among a group from her community who is chosen for The Test to determine if they will get a coveted spot in the University in the capital city. Among her group is Tomas, a handsome boy from her community that Celia has played with since childhood.

When the news that Celia has been chosen breaks, her father pulls her aside for a private chat and shocks her by telling her he wishes she had not been chosen. She learns that her father has strange nightmares about his Test. Those who take The Test have their memories wiped so that no one can pass on any tips for future candidates. Celia’s father isn’t sure if the nightmares are side effects of the memory wipe all testing candidates endure so that future candidates can’t cheat, or if the horror in them was real, so he warns her to trust no one. Armed with the information, Celia prepares carefully for her trip to the capital city, but she breaks from her father’s advice by telling Tomas what her father said. Whether that will turn out to be a great decision or a bad one is something that won’t be revealed until the next book in this series.

Before I could post this review of the first book in the series, I read the second book, and if you are on the fence about even starting this series, I suggest you read my review of book II, before you decide…

Crewel

I realize that after what I said in my last book review about Frozen, that I am going to sound like a hypocrite with what I write about Crewel by Jennifer Albin. In my previous review I complained about the way Frozen combined two genres, fantasy and apocalyptic fiction.   What I realize after reading Crewel, is that the problem isn’t using fantasy elements in a post-apocalyptic story, but how well it’s done.  Frozen simply squished every stereotypical fantasy element onto its post-apocalyptic base, whereas Crewel deftly weaves one fantasy element into what is otherwise a dystopian/apocalyptic novel.  Apologies to people who have already read Crewel and got the bad pun…

Adelice has been trained most of her life to be clumsy and incompetent.  In Arras, a tightly controlled dystopian world, teenage girls are tested on a loom to see if they have what it takes to be a Spinster.  Unlike the connotation of the word in our world, most people see being promoted to a Spinster as an honor, for it is these special women the weave the very fabric of their world and fix any problems in the weave, as such they are given a lavish lifestyle which includes beautiful clothes, attendants, gourmet food, and parties.  Who wouldn’t want that?  Adelice’s parents for one!  They seem to know that being a Spinster is not as wonderful as it seems to be and so they have trained Adelice to fail the testing.

Adelice wants to please her parents and also she is not sure she wants to be a Spinster, as Spinsters leave their families never to return and remain unmarried.  Not that Adelice knows much about men, in Arras society boys and girls are segregated.  Families must apply for permission to have children, and when it is granted, a family has only either boys, or girls, and live in separate areas of town.

During her testing the training given to her by her parents pays off and she does miserably throughout the testing, until the snotty girls from her school whisper comments about her incompetence.  Adelice’s pride rushes through her for a moment causing her to perform a complicated weave for a moment, but a moment is all it takes for her to be declared a Spinster.   She returns home to her parents who have prepared a special celebration meal, intended to celebrate her failure, not a victory, so Adelice cannot bear to tell them what has happened and keeps her secret knowing that tomorrow Manipulation Services will be coming to take her away.

However, Arras officials arrive during the meal and her parents try to help her escape through tunnels in the basement that Adelice didn’t even know existed, but in the end she is caught and begins her life as a Spinster, and learns the truth about the role and the very formation of Arras.  Her decisions and actions will have surprising and severe consequences on the people she cares about, and her indeed her very world.

Frozen

I have to admit I have been a bit smug lately watching and reading about all the polar vortex coverage.  I previously lived in places where snow, ice, and cold is the norm, but now live in a place that’s very temperate, neither cold, nor hot.   While following coverage of the polar vortex I have also been very frustrated that climate change deniers are trying to use the recent winter storms to prove that global warming isn’t real.  It’s unfortunate that the term ‘global warming’ became the popular term, as really climate change is about both ends of the spectrum, both extreme heat and extreme cold events, along with increased and more intense events such as floods, hurricanes, etc. 

So just when I was pondering these things, and sitting snug in my home this weekend, I started reading Frozen by Melissa de la Cruz and Michael Johnston.  By an odd coincidence, it started to snow, a pretty rare event in Seattle, as I delved into a world where snow and ice have covered the planet.  I was interested in this fresh take to an apocalyptic story and was prepared to like the book, but unfortunately I did not. 

I think if the story had followed the expectation I had of ice being the challenge that people had to survive, I would have liked it just fine, but instead, despite the title of the book, ice seemed to be the least important element of the story, which centers around the mysterious Nan.  Nan has been kept in solitary confinement by some nameless enemy, but manages to break out and make her way to New Vegas, still the center of gambling, but now a tundra of ice, not desert.  She is ‘marked’ and disguises her unusual eyes with high tech contacts, so she can work as a casino dealer while she tries to figure out to get to the Blue.  The Blue is said to be a place where temps are mild, trees live, the waters aren’t polluted and food is more available than what is left in most nations.

Her quest for the Blue has her throwing in her lot with Wes, leader of a group of ex-military types who now ‘freelance’ to stay fed.  Everyone in the story is young, apparently people don’t live long under these conditions.  The Marked are hunted by the regular people, who fear them and their special abilities.  This is where the story started going off the rails for me.   I find apocalyptic books about regular people dealing with cataclysmic events to be interesting enough, without adding elements of fantasy and magic.  Yes, Nat is not the only special person in the story, apparently there are also sylphs, fairytype creatures, smallmen, a race of dwarves, etc.   The story of escaping the military controlled Vegas and fleeing to the coast, and then sailing the poisonous waters to find the Blue would have been enough, but this book tried to cram so many elements of fantasy, magic, and even mythology (the Blue is perhaps Atlantis) that it was annoying.  This was so in contrast to the recently reviewed Not a Drop to Drink which is a deceptively simple story about a future where water is extremely scarce, but is beautifully told as it relies on good storytelling, and well-written characters, not all these devices and elements picked up from every type of book. The characters in Frozen are complete caricatures, and as far as plot turns, you can see them coming a mile off, by the end I just wanted the book to sink into The Blue and be lost forever a la Atlantis.

The Water Wars

You know that phenomena when your friend gets a new car, or you see a car you like, and then suddenly you start seeing that type of car everywhere?  Well I recently wrote a book review about being pleasantly surprised to read an apocalyptic book with a novel theme, water, in Not A Drop To Drink,  soon after I stumbled across another book with a shortage of water theme, The Water Wars, by Cameron Stracher.

The polar ice caps have melted and rivers have dried up (shades of global warming anyone?)and what is left of the planet’s water has been commandeered by governments and private companies.  The U.S. is no longer the United States; instead it has been broken into separate fiefdoms each with their own governments.  Pure water is rarer than gold and desalinated water is rationed to citizens who are always thirsty.

Teen siblings Vera and Will’s lives are irrevocably changed when Vera meets Kai, a mysterious and wealthy boy she spots drinking a cup of water in the road who turns the cup over and lets the precious liquid spill onto the ground, an act that is considered a crime in these troubled times.  Vera’s own mother is terribly ill and fragile as not only is there not enough water to drink, but what they get may be causing susceptible people to get sick.

So good looking Kai is a welcome diversion for Vera, and soon she befriends the stranger in town who is also quickly adopted by her brother and father too.  One day Kai shows Vera a secret and the following day he has vanished, his dead bodyguard proving that his disappearance was not by choice, so Vera and Will set out to try to save their friend.  Their mission leads them onto an odyssey where they will encounter water pirates, eco terrorists groups and the faceless corporations who profit from water.

While I am intrigued about water as the theme of an apocalyptic future, there is a vast difference between The Water Wars and Not a Drop To Drink; the latter focuses much more on characterization, and less on action.  The Water Wars is light on characterization and the focus is really the adventure story of the siblings punctuated by constant violence and action.  The dialogue is very one dimensional and the plot stains credibility.  It’s an entertaining enough book and if I hadn’t read Not a Drop to Drink first, I may have been less critical, but Mindy McGinnis’s book is like a master writing class, with beautiful pacing and fully developed characters who transcend any action scenes in the story, with their depths.  Still, I will hand it to Cameron Stracher for writing a story that always draws attention to another environmental issue we should be taking steps to avoid in our future.