Three

Do you know how you get those little cups of sorbet as a ‘palate cleanser’ during a multicourse meal? Well Kristen Simmons’ Three, the last book in the Article 5 series was a palate cleanser for me. Lately it seemed that I was reading a lot of dystopian/apocalyptic novels that had fantasy elements or just simply too many general elements incorporated into them to really be able to focus on the main aspect of the story. Three is a good, old-fashioned, stripped down tale of an authoritarian government which tells its citizens how to live.

For all that we in the U.S. call ourselves a democracy, this book seems timely. Isn’t the role of a democratic government to be representative of its people? Does anyone feel that this concept holds true today?

Ember Miller‘s life was irrevocably changed when she was designated to be an Article Five violator. Simply by being the child of an unwed union she was sent to a ‘rehabilitation center’ and her mother was arrested, tortured, and finally killed by Tucker, a soldier she now has a complicated alliance with. After breaking out with the help of her childhood sweetheart, Chase, the pair have been on the run, and the second book ended with finding the safehouse where they thought they could stop running, destroyed.

As the story begins, Ember, Chase, and old and new friends are trying to track the survivors of the safehouse. When they catch up to them, old friends are reunited and complicated alliances ensue. After hints in the earlier stories, the now enlarged group finds the base of Three, the mysterious rebel shadow organization that has been trying to undermine the current totalitarian government, but are there methods any better than the government they are trying to destroy? It’s this question that Ember has to ponder throughout the story, that and the idea that even if the people prevail, what does her own future hold? Chase appears to be irreparably damaged by the violence he has both endured and inflicted, and her own conscience is troubled by her uneasy alliance with her mother’s killer.

Ember is Everyman, or should I say Everywoman. She does not have super powers, she isn’t a ninja, and she struggles with doing the right thing. She is the proverbial ‘girl-next-door’ who is thrust into a situation that tests who she is, what she will do, and ultimately what she thinks is right for her loved ones, her country, and ultimately herself. Sometimes that’s exactly the kind of hero you want to read about, an average person who manages to make an impact.

Starters

The book Starters by Lissa Price is like Cocoon gone crazy. The story takes place after a war in which toxic spores were released killing everyone between the ages of twenty and sixty because only the very young and very old, considered the most vulnerable, were given the limited vaccine. Callie’s mom died of the sickness and her father was forcibly taken away even though he wasn’t exhibiting any signs of the virus. Callie continued to live in the family home trying her best to take care of her little brother Tyler until the marshalls came to take them, which is what’s been happening to all unclaimed children. However, Callie’s father had prepared for such a future and right before the marshalls came, he sent her a warning.

Callie fled with her brother to squat in an abandoned building. She is joined by her former neighbor Michael, who helps her care for Tyler, who has always been a sickly child. She feels the weight of responsibility for her brother when there isn’t enough for her and Michael to eat, let alone a little boy in poor health. That’s what causes her to make a drastic decision. She has heard about Prime Destinations from a fellow squatter. A hush hush company, Prime Destinations hires teens to rent out their bodies to wealthy Elders who want to experience living in a young body again for a limited period of time. During the exchange, the Elder’s consciousness is transferred into the teen body and the teen’s mind remains asleep during the transaction.

Callie has extreme reservations about the procedure, but what choice does she have? The money will be enough for her to get an apartment for a year and provide food for her brother, as teenagers are not allowed to work in the new post war society. Teens whose grandparents are alive don’t live the desperate lives of unclaimed teens and Callie can’t imagine squatting and running from capture by the marshals until she comes of age to work. Those who have been taken by the marshalls are institutionalized and/or serve in brutal labor camps.

Out of options Callie decides to accept the contract which includes rules about renters not engaging in activities that are risky, renters are not to have sex with real teens, etc., and if any damage happens to the body that the renter will pay a huge fine. Despite these safeguards, Callie wakes up from her first rental with a large gash on her arm, however Prime Destinations uses their advanced plastic surgery techniques to immediately fix the wound without scarring. However, she is shocked to be told her third rental will last a whole month.

When Callie wakes up somewhere other than the Prime Destinations medical lab, she realizes something has gone very wrong. She finds more clues that something is amiss in her rich renter’s home, but before she can decide what to do, she blacks out/goes to sleep again. When she wakes again, she is still not back in the lab and she pretends to be her renter, then things further escalate when she hears a voice in her head, the voice of her renter, and learns the real motivation behind her rental. She, and the people she loves, are in real danger and she must figure out what is going on while not letting on to Prime Destinations who is really awake inside her body.

The level of writing in the story is not sophisticated in the way of Not a Drop to Drink or the Rot & Ruin series, but that’s ok as the concept was enough to keep my interest, as the idea for the book was not one that’s been done before. I could have done without the teen romance element, but as a friend of mine said the other day it seems like all these books have them. I do think in a time of crisis, such as an apocalyptic event or life in a dystopian society that strong emotions need an anchor, but I would argue to authors of this genre, does it have to be in the context of a romantic relationship? For example, in Ashes by Ilsa J. Blick the main character becomes an ad hoc guardian to a young girl she happens upon during an apocalyptic event, a similar relationship develops in Not a Drop to Drink that I think proves an emotional outlet could be something other than a romantic relationship in these stories. I am not completely against authors including them, but only if they are done well, and don’t detract from the storyline.

Altered

I really enjoyed the first book of Jennifer Albin’s trilogy, Crewel, but the second one book Altered was a letdown. Yes, it’s difficult to be the middle book in a trilogy, just like it’s difficult to be the middle child, a la Jan, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha” but I think Ms. Albin could have made this one stronger by focusing less on the love triangle between Adelice and the brothers.

The book also suffered from going a bit off the fantasy deep end. In the first book I had made my peace with the fantasy element of how the weaving worked because overall the book was more heavily focused on the dystopian story of Adelice being forced into the role of Spinster and how she was rebelling against her situation, while still holding out hope of saving her sister.

I hoped for Earth to be a more interesting adventure and I found it confusing that since the author chose to bring Earth into the story, that she rewrote history so that Earth was destroyed in or shortly after WWII. If that was the case, then where did all the modern technology reminiscent of current earth come from? TV, digifiles (thinly disguised iPads) etc. as they items were not around at that time. Then there’s the Sunrunners, a shadowy group never fully fleshed out, but again solar technology being an ‘of the now’ technology.

I also kept thinking that she meant Cormac Patton was General Patton by both the time frame and the way she often described him. I liked the character of Cormac, for a bad guy, he was entertaining, but then Ms. Albin had to throw Kincaid into the mix. When you have an amusing Johnny Depp, why throw in a Vincent Price? Kincaid was simply creepy and it split the tension too much to have two equal bad guys. In the first story, there was Maela and Cormac, but Maela was Cruella de Ville, another entertaining bad guy and not near as powerful as Cormac so it worked better. The concept of the Remnants is kind of cool as their as it fits in with the weaving element, though it felt like a few shades of zombie to me, and there’s already enough jarring elements going on.

On the good guy side, there’s a new character Dante, but he feels a bit unnecessary. I suppose there needs to be a character who serves to introduce them to the new situation they find themselves in, but the contrived way his character is connected to Adelice rang hollow for me.

I am trying to figure out if the author was simply wanting to avoid “second book syndrome” by throwing a lot more into this book than the first, to avoid the criticism of being boring/dragging the story out until the climax of the third book, or whether she was simply having fun throwing in elements she personally finds interesting…WWII, geishas, solar technology, Alcatraz, etc. I guess in the end the ‘why’ doesn’t matter, but the effect does. For the end effect is a mish mash of a book that I struggled with. However, I have high hopes for the final book based on the ending of this one, where Ms. Albin redeemed herself in my eyes by pulling everything back around to the core elements of the first book, and setting up a situation where Adelice must find her own strength and not rely on, nor be distracted by others.

Independent Study

I have to admit I was a little on the fence about Joelle Charbonneau’s first book in the series, The Testing, not because it wasn’t a strong story and well written, but because I have a strong attachment to a similar book, The Hunger Games and it almost felt disloyal to that series to fall in love with this one.  Any doubts I had were thoroughly erased by the second book in the trilogy, Independent Study.

Cia is now studying for her university entrance exams.  As all Testing candidates have their memories wiped of the Testing process to ensure the integrity of the original test, she doesn’t remember her Testing experience.  All she knows is that she loves Tomas, and she enjoys her friendships with Stacia and Will and is determined to work hard to make it into the University where she hopes to study Mechanical Engineering.  Everything is rosy until she discovers something on her older brother Zeen’s device, apparently the device is capable of recording, and she is shocked when she starts to listen to it and hears her own voice.  It’s her voice, but a stranger who describes unspeakable acts, some of them taken by the people she cares the most about, can they possibly be true?   What really happened during The Testing?  How can she spend time with the very people she now has doubts about?  She is torn between studying for her entrance exams so she can get the education she needs to help her nation, and trying to determine the truth in the recordings.

If the recordings are true, how can she be in love with Tomas?  And if they are true, then she is in grave danger, but she is on her own.  As with all Testing candidates she doesn’t get to talk to her family, and everyone else is suspect.  When one of the university candidates doesn’t do well on the entry exam, he is Redirected, and Cia decides to follow him and the officials to try to find out what being Redirected really means, whether he is being taken to work in the Colonies, or something worse. 

As she begins to investigate, she must also contend with the influx of Tonsu City students.  They were raised in the Capitol, and were not part of The Testing that the colony students were.  Despite the fact that they are the children of wealthy privileged officials, they seem to be very competitive, and Cia can’t trust them any more than she can trust her own colony friends.  Cia races through a cat-and-mouse game to figure out what’s really going on before it’s too late.  

In many books of this genre, the protagonist usually has a sidekick or confidante that they can trust, but in this case Cia is an island and doesn’t get the relief of sharing her greatest fears with anyone, and that tension, isolation, and sense of paranoia are what make the book exquisitely taut.  There is less physical action than the first book, but I enjoy the mental ‘games’ here even more than the physical ones, for it’s a thrill to see a character tiptoe up to the line that we all have that we think should not be crossed, and the questions of ethics and morality that are raised on the approach to that line in the sand.  I raced through this book and cannot wait for the next.