California

In the case of California by Edan Lepucki the world goes out with a whimper not a bang.  Maybe in a way that’s the more likely scenario rather than a single catastrophe.  After all, isn’t that what we are seeing right now in our news?  We have a variety of problems, several are climate related, but those are tied with social unrest too, it’s all one giant Venn diagram of interconnected issues,which is what I think has paralyzed both individuals and politicians in making any progress to fix our problems.

The novel California only lightly touches on some of the events that lead to the situation that Cal and Frida find themselves in… a severe blizzard in the Midwest, the inequality of the 1%, lack of fuel and energy.  Frida’s world was normal until about the time she entered high school when the cracks in our society began to show.  Yet her younger brother Micah was able to attend college, well it was one of those experimental colleges, a bit like Evergreen College in Washington, a cross between intellectualism and back to the land hippie education, but for men only.  However, it was free and the concept of skills like agriculture and animal husbandry made it an attractive place for Cal, Micah’s roommate too.  The most complex relationship in the books to me is the one between the two roommates, not the relationship between Cal and Micah’s sister Frida which eventually becomes a marriage.   Micah is this Svengali-like figure at Plank, the school, though Cal has a silent strength of his own that will be needed w in the future.  Micah goes from pulling pranks to being radicalized by the mysterious Toni.  After the boys graduate they all return to LA where Micah and Frida are from, but Micah goes to live in the Encampment as he has joined The Group.  His roommate Cal has chosen another path, he is in love with Frida and they move into an apartment together, Cal tries to eke out a living growing vegetables while Frida works in a bakery until the supplies dwindle and the place closes.  Eventually Micah is involved in a shocking event.

All of the above is told in flashbacks as the story actually begins with Cal and Frida arriving on The Land.  After all, in LA normal life is starting to crumble and it’s not exactly safe in many places.  Cal thinks it would be best if they leave the city, though it’s never actually made clear where “The Land” actually is.  The pair find a shed to live in and are living a Walden Pond existence.  While it’s a primitive way of living, it’s peaceful and makes me question their later choice to leave what seems to me like a safe haven, one that even has good neighbors.  There is a family nearby who teach them additional life of the land skills.  Neighbors who warn them not to leave The Land for an area called The Forms.  Maybe they would have complied if Cal hadn’t found the bodies of Bo and Sandy and their children who appear to have poisoned themselves in a mass suicide a la Jonestown in Guyana.

I guess this is why I couldn’t stand the character of Frida in the book.  Cal has done everything to take care of her and keep her safe and she just comes off as clueless, willful and capricious.  It’s Frida who insists they hike out to the Forms to meet the people living there, a decision that unravels the past, present and future.     If you have ever wondered about people who choose to live off the grid, or choose to join a cult, or choose to live in a gated walled off community, well you will probably find this book interesting as it has elements similar to all three.  However, after a fair amount of building tension the ending left me empty, unless it wasn’t meant to be an ending, but just the first book in a sequel or series.  Normally, I would get online and look but I am still chewing on a bitter aftertaste of feeling a bit let down by the last few chapters.

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All We Have Is Now

Emerson, Vince and Carl

What do you think is the more interesting story, a story that takes place post-apocalyptic event or before? Personally, I think a book that takes place prior to the event is a more interesting story, as there is the suspense and tension of knowing that something life-changing, well actually world changing, is about to happen and there isn’t anything you personally can do about it. After all, don’t we have change management seminars and the like because people are resistant to change? Once an apocalyptic event happens, it happens, and you are busy dealing with survival in the aftermath. That doesn’t provide much time for self-reflection.  As hard as that is to survive a disaster, I think it’s harder psychologically to deal with knowing the big change is coming, but wondering if you and the people will survive and what should you say to those people knowing what is coming. You can’t focus on everyday matters not knowing whether you will be brave or calm in the thick of it, so how much will you question yourself as a person? So how do you fill that waiting time, with what activities? Drugs, looting, sex, parties, family time, what? What would it be like to regret the chances you didn’t take in life knowing that now you won’t have those choices anymore, that there are no do-overs.

This is why I kind of liked the book All We Have is Now by Lisa Schroeder. Emerson and Vince are two homeless kids living rough who didn’t think things could get much worse. Then they learn along with the rest of the world that an asteroid is going to hit Earth in a couple of weeks. They observe the different reactions of people around them. Some people loot, some party, some find oblivion in drugs, and some people commit suicide. That’s what the pair decide to do. After all, they do everything together and have a very strong bond based on helping each other survive on the streets.   The part of why they are living on the streets is what bugged me a little. There are hints that Vince experienced some things dark enough to explain why he became homeless, whereas Emerson’s reasons for being a runaway sound very petty and immature, there was nothing in her life that was so bad that going hungry and cold on the streets makes sense.

Anyway, the pair’s plan takes a major U-Turn when they find that the bridge they were planning to jump from has already been called dibs by Carl. Carl talks to the pair telling them that he has spent his last days trying to grant people their wishes and he will do one more for them before he goes. Vince’s wish leads the two into some encounters that impact strangers and family alike. It’s kind of a play on the ‘pay it forward’ phenomena, and while some of the encounters come off as a bit too contrived or coincidental, I appreciated that this was a different take on the pre-apocalypse type of story. It would be nice to think that instead of violence in the last days for mankind, our humanity will be displayed by the individual acts of kindness of which we are all capable.

 

 

 

Positive

When most people hear ‘apocalyptic novel’ they think of a natural disaster such as global warming, drought, tsunamis or hurricanes, or even a man-made problem such as nuclear warfare, but they don’t leap first to a zombie apocalypse.

Positive by David Wellington takes what some would deem a supernatural or sci fi concept and makes it seem as likely as one of the more traditional apocalyptic events as those above. Particularly as the protagonist Finn hasn’t ever seen a zombie since he was born after the event from two parents who met in one of the many emergency shelters. Since Finn and his closest childhood friend have never even seen a zombie, and no one has reported any in years, they are distanced from the very idea of what that means. Not just distanced but even annoyed by the previous generation who display behaviors similar to the effects of PTSD that the post event generation doesn’t relate to.  The previous generations come off as paranoid and zone out at times when something reminds them of the horror. All Finn cares about is the simple life of his family, and doing his part to keep them fed with his fishing expeditions to the subways, which flooded years ago with no one to maintain them.

A discovery during one of the fishing expeditions leads to an life altering event as Finn discovers that there are things about zombieism that he never knew, including the idea that he might be harboring the virus that causes such a state in his own body. Well, he doesn’t believe it, but his community does and brand him a ‘Positive.’Finn is booted out to go live in a camp with other ‘Positives’ until two years have passed and he will be proven to be safe from zombiesm.  Not a great situation, but its made worse when his ride turns up dead and suddenly this sheltered boy is on his own.

However, he is not on his own for long as he meets an eccentric array of characters, some positive and some negative that will lead him on a journey across the country. I mean, what’s better than a good old-fashioned road trip adventure? A road trip with zombies. Yes, Finn quickly learns why the First Gen behave the way they do, yet it’s not just zombies that force him to grow up so quickly. In the world outside his community there are bandits, thieves, child molesters and questionable people galore. Yet, there are also those who live with honor in a world turned upside down. My favorite character is the female ex-patrolman who follows the strictest rules in a world where there are none anymore.  She reminds me of reading Shane in middle school.

Some of the action reminds me of Mad Maxx minus the desert, but with the vehicles, violence and the fall of women to property status. I like that the author David Wellington didn’t turn Finn into some kick ass fighter, or a torn soul tempted by violence. Each encounter and act on his part is a struggle, which is what makes him interesting in a world where it would be much easier to throw aside your scruples to simply survive. I guess that’s what Finn is all about, his goal isn’t to simply survive, he wants more.  He has a vision to rebuild the world, and right the wrongs, a decision that may cost him and the ones he loves everything. Because he narrates his own past in the book, we know he survived, but did he lose his purity and his vision for a different future? That’s what kept my interest throughout this YA book that had a maturity beyond its YA market.

The Registry

The Registry by Shannon Stoker had some good ideas, but between the poor execution and one-dimensional characters, this dystopian novel didn’t deliver.

In our world, especially in places like China, boy babies are more valued than girls.  In Ms. Stoker’s world set in the not too far future, it’s girls who are highly valued.  If a couple has a baby boy, he is abandoned to an orphanage because not only is he worth less money than a girl, but being left to fend for himself since early childhood will make him tough and all boys have to serve in the American Army.  Girls on the other hand are raised by their parents and once they are the right age, they are entered into the Registry.  Basically, a catalog for eligible girls similar to current day websites for foreign brides where women are basically bought.  Mia’s family is fortunate to have all daughters, even one prettier than the last, especially the youngest Mia who will fetch a high bride price unlike her best friend who while pretty receives a very low rank in the Registry…is that because of her intelligence?   After all, men in this near future don’t want a wife who is educated or naturally intelligent.  A woman’s role is to serve and support her husband.

As a feminist I was infuriated by the little clip at the top of each chapter taken from the ‘girl’s guide’ a sort of handbook for how women are to behave.  My fury stemmed from the fact that while this is a fiction book, some of these attitudes are alive and well in the present, not this possible future where a high percentage of the U.S. population was wiped out and led to this supposed ‘change’ in male and female roles.

Also, while Mia is the main character and supposed heroine, she is vapid and happy to go along with being sold by her parents like cattle until her much more worthy older sister escapes from her husband and comes home to warn clueless Mia what being married of is really like.  Even then, while Mia no longer looks forward to being a bride, she still doesn’t do anything substantive to win her freedom, instead relying on her best friend to help plan her escape.  Then Mia selfishly pulls in one of the working boys to her plan, never considering what the consequences will be for him for helping her.

She is incapable of putting together a decent disguise, packing a runaway bag with useful items, teaching herself to drive or anything of use.  Yes, in the book she, like other women, are very sheltered, but even once she learns some horrible truths she still doesn’t do much to save herself instead relying on other people’s sacrifices.  Some have compared this book to a junior version of The Handmaid’s Tale, but in that book Offred kept fighting the twisted society and government, she figured things out, she didn’t sacrifice her friends, etc.  The only thing Mia is good at is being annoying.  The other difference between the two books is everyone, even the villains in The Handmaid’s Tale, are fully fleshed characters whereas in The Registry  the characters are so cartoonish, from the evil fiancee who does everything but twirl his handlebar mustache, to the stereotype gay couple, and the lightweight Caleb who serves as a piece of the almost required love triangle.

The ideas in the story would have made for a chilling and realistic story in the hands of a master such as Margaret Atwood, alas Ms. Stoker gets and A for story idea and an F for execution.

Endgame

Gone are the days of pre-teens and teens reading The Baby Sitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High or even Flowers in the Attic.  Dystopian and apocalyptic fiction is a very popular genre for this market, but I can’t help compare the violence of this genre to popular books in previous eras.  I mean the darkness and sex in Flowers in the Attic was certainly scandalous, and discussed in hushed whispers by schoolgirls, but there wasn’t any violence of the sort found in the average apocalyptic book.   I am not saying apocalyptic books should not have violence in them, a world ending event by nature is going to be brutal, I am just wondering if there is any kind of ceiling on how far an author will take things.  I also realize that apocalyptic and dystopian novels also have lots of adult readers, people like me.

In the Ashfall series there was a high level of violence and gore.  Former upstanding citizens turning into violent cannibals for one, but somehow it was manageable because the protagonist, Alex, reminded me of a young Atticus Finch.  He had this real moral core even in the heart of darkness and therefore he balanced the violence of the story by providing hope.  I guess that’s my problem with Endgame by James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton, the story really doesn’t have anyone providing that strong moral center.

In this story generation after generation specific children from all over the world have been trained to be Players in case the Endgame happens in their generation.  They need to be prepared to play The Endgame, in which the world will end except for the Player who wins and their tribe.  Yes, in The Hunger Games, there were some counties?  Who had trained their representatives, but in most cases the participants were just the unlucky ones who were chosen by lottery.  The Players of Endgame are trained in violence and assassination since they were young, in fact, Players age out after their teens and a new Player fills their spot.  These kids know what their role is and some even seem to relish it.   It’s hard to find a sympathetic character as most of the Players have already killed prior to the start of Endgame, it kind of reminds me of pictures of young child soldiers in Africa.  Their weapons are the toys of their childhood and the stakes are higher than Katniss saving her sister, each Player knows that by winning the rest of the world will die and only their people will make it.

I think the authors tried to inject some humanity into these young killers by having some of them form alliances, but this is not Survivor, the stakes are much higher.   In the end even the ones who have worked together in an alliance will eventually have to kill their former partner.  The other technique the authors try to use to make the characters more palatable is by adding a couple of ‘love’ stories.  I use the term ‘love’ lightly as one couple consists of a bomb wielding psycho who kidnaps another Player who when she is around him cures his tics, and of course she falls in love with her captor and when she  gets away, leaves him her fingernails, ew.   The other relationship is of course a love triangle and the Player, Sarah Alopay, might be the only one who is relatable.  She was the All-American girl, waiting to age out of being a Player, so she can go off to college and stay in a relationship with her high school boyfriend.  Endgame finishes her fantasy of living a normal life and very quickly she gets involved with another Player, even while her faithful boyfriend follows her into hell.  I get that playing the game changes a person, but all the more reason for her to stick with the boyfriend who represents all the good things she is trying to save by playing, rather than migrate to someone who represents the violence of the game.

Usually I need to really care about a character(s) to keep reading, but at nearly 500 pages for the first book alone, it was already a significant investment of time.  Also, there is plenty of action and changes of scenery, and it’s not like the writing isn’t good, plus there are some mysteries to be solved and truths to be discovered.  So I will continue with this series, but I hope in the next book the authors will get more inside the heads of the characters and flashback to their childhoods.  What I think would be most interesting to explore is what it would be like to have the weight of this responsibility on such young shoulders.  That just at the age where most kids are being told there isn’t any such thing as monsters under the bed, what is it like to find out that you will need to BECOME the monster to help your people survive?

Alive

Alive by Scott Sigler reminded me of being deliciously off-balance the way I was when I read the first book in the Maze Runner series.  In this case however, a girl, Em, wakes up in the last place you would want to wake up in.  That’s why I loved the first book, The Maze Runner, and hated the rest as once the initial ‘mystery’ was explained the next book was inferior and I never finished the series.

That’s not to say that by the end of Alive readers don’t have some answers, but with those answers that are given, new questions are raised, and that’s why I have hopes that the rest of this series will be able to sustain interest.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that Em has a strong case of girl power.  In other apocalyptic books that can be one-dimensional, that the girl is a tough ass-kicker.  While it’s true that Em fights her way out of the place she woke up in, it’s not about physical power with her.  It’s that she is a leader, and she likes it, and is reluctant to give that away to the boys who vie with her for the leadership spot.  She also uses her brain to think things through, though when circumstances call for it, she can be one tough cookie.  What makes her the best leader though, is her ability to recognize when she has made a mistake and her protective instincts towards the others who are in the same situation.

If I am being a little bit vague about the details of this story, it’s because I read the afterword by Scott Sigler.  I haven’t encountered a situation until now where an author asks those of us bloggers to not provide spoilers.  After thinking it over, he’s right, I should be careful to not ruin for other readers that sense of disorientation I had reading the first several chapters that drew me in to the story.  Too often I can guess what is happening in a story miles before the writer actually tells us, but since in this case it was not easy to guess what was going on, I will show due respect and try to write enough to entice people to read it without giving away the farm.  How to do that without saying too much is just a little tricky though.  I guess it’s kosher to provide some comparisons, so in addition to saying that if you liked the feeling of being off-balance in Maze Runner you might want to try this one, I will also say if you liked the world-building of Wool and the idea of tribes or cliques as in Quarantine and The Uprising then you will like this for those qualities.

Finally, while Em has fluttery feelings for a couple of the boys, it has not yet turned into some clichéd love triangle as in many dystopian tales.  No, Em seems to recognize that there are more important things going on than having a crush.  It’s up to her to figure out where they are, how they got there, and most importantly how to get the heck out.   This book answers the first, only brushes on the second leaving us wanting more and doesn’t even answer the last.  That’s enough to incentivize me to read the next one, is that enough for you to read the first?

In The Country of Ice Cream Star

In The Country of Ice Cream Star author Sandra Newman has broken some rules. First, in her post-apocalyptic tale most of the American survivors are black or Hispanic. Second, Ms. Newman doesn’t just build a world, but she builds a new language. Third, the book is nearly 600 pages.

It’s interesting that Sandra Newman, who is Caucasian, decided to create a situation where the survivors were minorities. Was she trying to make a political statement? Did she use this as a device to turn our ideas about the world upside down, the same way an apocalyptic event would flip everything we thought to be true about our world?   Ideas such as we can fight any threat either technologically or militarily? That disaster will bring out the best in people? That the young and vulnerable would perish in greater numbers than adults with skills and experience?

Probably one of the reasons Ms. Newman made this choice is that it allowed her to write the book in a new language of her invention. Maybe ‘new’ is not completely accurate as I was able to read the book without ever being exposed to this language before, but it wasn’t the English that I know. Instead, this is a form of English that has evolved, and more specifically it evolved as a language of youth and from current African American vernacular.  The fact that the heroine of the book is named Ice Cream Star already sets you on the path of buying into this invented language. You see in Ice Cream Star’s country, the former USA, the adults were killed off by WAKS a disease that seems something similar to the Black Plague or modern day Ebola. The disease reminded me of the Black Plague because one of the symptoms that appear when kids reach their eighteenth birthday is sores referred to as ‘posies’. The song lyrics ‘ring around the rosey, pocket full of posey’ that children sing on playgrounds now actually is about the Black Death, the ‘rosey’ being the sores and the ‘posey’ being flowers that people sniffed to avoid breathing in the smell of decaying bodies. The respiratory issues of WAKS are somewhat Ebola-like.

Ice Cream Star doesn’t have a reason to worry about WAKS yet, as she is only fifteen, until her brother, the leader of her people, the Sengles, approaches his eighteenth birthday. Besides Ice has plenty of other things to occupy her mind as the Sengles are petty thieves who steal to supplement what they hunt. Also, she is mother-figure to many of the Sengles who range in age from babies and up. Considering everyone’s short life span it doesn’t seem like a stretch that she would have such responsibilities. Yet, in other ways Ice Cream Star is exactly like a fifteen year old when it comes to her emotions, which include some complicated feelings for boys in and outside her community. The Sengles are not the only band of survivors in Massa (the former Massachusetts), there is a religious sect called the Christings and the Armies, a violent misogynistic tribe. Yet, it’s among the latter that Ice Cream has a romantic entanglement. I think that was the most frustrating, but also the best part of the book due to the challenge it gives readers. How can Ice with her bravery, leadership qualities and compassion be involved with someone from a group that rapes girls? Even after nearly 600 pages I was still asking that question.

That’s the other rule Ms. Newman broke, the story length. Usually with post-apocalyptic books there is so much action and violence that writing a lengthy book would be like a roller coaster ride for an hour. It’s too much, there’s a reason that any rollercoaster in the world is a short ride albeit an intense one. Usually, if an author in this genre has an extended story to tell they simply end the book at 200-350 pages and continue the story in a sequel. Based on the length of this book I thought it was just a one book story, but I have confirmed that there will be a sequel. I have to hope it will be released soon as after getting use to the new language of the book, it’s cadence feels more natural than when I started, but if I have to wait very long for the sequel, I will have to relearn the language.

The Jewel

I thought the novel The Jewel by Amy Ewing was going to be very similar to The Selection by Kiera Cass, but I was wrong. I actually liked The Selection in a kind of guilty pleasure way which surprised me because I have never watched a single episode of The Bachelor and the plot seemed fairly similar to what I have heard about that TV show. In each, two attractive girls are swept away from poverty and their family. In the case of The Selection, the main character has to compete for a prince’s hand and therefore get a makeover, training in manners, public speaking, etc. while navigating contestants who may be their enemies. In The Jewel, Violet is sent to a boarding school and trained for her role as a surrogate to a wealthy family. On her graduation, she is given a makeover and thrown into the Auction where wealthy women will bid for her.

Obviously, The Jewel is a much darker story than The Selection where most girls want the opportunity, and even the reluctant ones will do it to help their family, and no one is really forced to stay in the competition. While Violet will live in luxury, she would trade it all to go home to her family, even if that means a hard life of work, but she doesn’t have a choice, to run is to be executed, to stay is to give up her freedom and her body to the woman who bought and controls here, the Dutchess. Therefore, this book suddenly reminded me much more of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Just like in that story, there is an infertility problem, in the case of The Handmaid’s Tale it’s the women religious zealots that have trouble conceiving and therefore force women to become Handmaiden’s impregnated by their husbands who have become the leaders of the U.S. government. In The Jewel it’s the royal women who can’t bear their own children, but at least the surrogates aren’t impregnated by the royal husbands but through the in vitro process. That’s not the only similarity; each woman is marginalized in their dystopian society by being stripped of their identity. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the main character is called Offred, literally meaning “Of Fred” the man she is forced to become a concubine for by the new Christian regime. When Violet graduates from her training, she is called only 197, which is the number ranking she receives at the auction. Even the relationship between Violet and her best friend Raven, also a surrogate reminded me of the relationship between Offred and Moira both are rebels against the system, but it is the friend who experiences the violence and horror more than the protagonist.

There is even a dash of The Hunger Games in The Jewel. The dash comes in the form of Lucien who was the servant who prepped Violet for the auction selecting her dress and styling her hair and makeup. Lucien reminds me of Cinna of The Hunger Games in the way he forms an instant bond with the person he assigned to work with, and each in their own way help both their charge, and help incite a rebellion. Moreover, each of them are strong characters, despite the fact that they are not one of the main characters, their charisma and mystery makes you wish Suzanne Collins had provided more a backstory for Cinna, whereas we get to learn a lot more about Lucien’s life and his motivations.

Yes, there is a silly love story in The Jewel, but even that has a dark twist with the man in Violet’s life also as much of a prisoner as Violet is, despite the fact he seems to be able to interact more freely. Getting back to the comparison with The Selection, not only is The Jewel a darker story, but it is a lot more sexual as well.

Breathe

For some reason I use a lot of movie examples when writing about how I feel about books….Well here is one more, Breathe by Sarah Crossan is like the B Movie version of Wool by Hugh C. Howey. The two have a similar plot idea that there is a society of people living in a contained space because the air outside that space will kill you. In addition to the apocalyptic event that created each of these situations, each book is also a dystopian novel because of course there has to be a quasi-government that is both controlling the citizens and hiding some truths from there. Wool was the superior version because it is simply a more mature book, and I don’t mean that the main character was out of her teens unlike the protagonists in Breathe, I mean there is a depth and maturity in Wool missing from Breathe.

Here’s where I always second guess writing a sentence like the above, after all Breathe is a YA book and maybe if I was still a sixteen-year old girl the level of writing would be just fine for me. However, I am not a sixteen girl and I also suspect that with the state of worldliness of teens today, they may also feel that the writing is a bit immature for them too.   The author Sarah Crossan was a high school teacher, I was too, but my teaching career ended years ago so maybe I am off- base, but I was bored and I think th teenage attention span is even shorter than mine.

The book just had far too many stereotypes for me too. There are the rebels who know that the government has been lying to them and have their own lair in the Outlands outside the domed city with its pumped in oxygen. Of course one of the rebels is a beautiful teenage girl, Aline, a hard case who lost her parents and has nothing but contempt for the ‘Premiums.’ The Premiums are the 1% of their society who live in the nicest neighborhood sector and can afford to buy all the oxygen they need while the rest of society struggles with fatigue and overwork brought on by the lack of oxygen and the depression caused by the lack of opportunities available to them. Bea, another ‘auxiliary’ is one of those who don’t understand that no matter how hard she works, she will never get the opportunity that she deserves. When she debates Quinn, her best friend and the boy she secretly loves, she wipes the floor with him. However, it’s Quinn, the Breathe Director’s son who is accepted into the leadership program not her. To make matters worse the hiking trip to the Outlands that Quinn has treated her to doesn’t go the way she hoped. Instead of getting some time alone with Quinn hoping he will notice her as something more than a friend; he helps their classmate Alina who is on the run because he has a crush on her. Once they are deep in the Outlands Alina parts from them but they decide to follow her, which brings them into contact with a drifter who makes them see these people in a different light, and the rebels themselves where they get a mixed reception.   Yes, the love triangle thing has been done too many times in other books, and done much better. Quinn is really immature and selfish and I can’t understand why any of the girls would find him interesting, at least in most of these triangles the guy is a tough guy with a heart of gold underneath, but Quinn is just a wimp.

Really, the most interesting part of the book for me was in the flyleaf where the author states she got the idea for the book when traveling in Washington State (where I live) and seeing tree logging she thought, “Don’t people understand that we need trees to breathe?”   She is right, we do though few seem to realize that, especially where I live where old growth trees are being torn down to build yet more luxury townhomes and condos. So therefore, I give Ms. Crossan a thumbs up for weaving real world conditions into this cautionary tale.

Carry the Flame

The action in the James Jaros novel Carry the Flame may be both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On the one hand we are a civilization that seems to need a lot of stimulation, hence movies with one action sequence after another and the plethora of online distractions, gaming, etc. For people of that ilk, Carry the Flame delivers. I myself don’t mind a degree of heart-stopping action, it’s one of the reasons I have turned increasingly to apocalyptic and dystopian fiction over just regular fiction, but I think when you have non-stop action and violence without pause that’s as bad as the other extreme of not much happening. Think about it, our bodies pump cortisol when we are experiencing a classic “fight or flight” moment, but it’s not good to sustain that increase in blood flow and cortisol. Too much and it can make you sick. In a novel one of the consequences of the pacing being at full throttle throughout includes missing out on the buildup to the action or violence which creates that extreme tension and suspense. You really feel the difference once your heart has slowed to a normal rate and then suddenly something unexpected or terrible happens. If your heart is constantly racing you miss out on that sensation, think about a rollercoaster, when you are climbing your heart can relax, then you plunge down while your adrenaline cranks up, then you recover just enough when climbing again to feel the difference with the next plunge.

The other problem with the non-stop pace is there is less time for character development. I do think James Jaros has drawn some vivid characters starting with Burn Down the Sky, the first book in which the pacing wasn’t as fast. In this sequel the strong female characters of Jessie, Bliss and Ananda are again fighting to survive with the help of Burned Fingers, the former marauder. However, we are missing the backstory of new characters like Sam, Steph, Xray, Linden and especially the Mayor. How did Sam’s daughter get taken? Were Steph’s people trying to reach the Artic too? Linden is the Mayor’s aide but is actually a good guy in disguise. How long has he been on the side of good and how has he managed to keep his secrets in the deadly City of Shade? If he is good, how did he get mixed up with the Mayor in the first place? The Mayor appears to be an educated foreign psycho with an honor code. I wanted to know more about what made him into the person who rules the City of Shade. It’s interesting that he looks upon the Alliance of God with disdain as child molesters and religious freaks, but he is willing to trade with them and his own hands are far from clean. Unfortunately, despite the over 400 pages that make up the book, there isn’t enough time to fill in this gaps when most of the words are made up of the violent action. There also wasn’t enough time spent on the evolution of the relationship between Jess, her girls and Burned Fingers. Bliss literally has to fight back to back with Burned Fingers and trust him with her life and her mother’s, but a psychiatrist would have a field day the effect that must have on her young psyche. Plus, what about Jessie the mom? Burned Fingers is responsible for killing the love of her life Eden, yet he is constantly saving her other great loves, her children and she is caught off guard by other glimpses of his humanity and a part of her appears to admire his ability to make war. That is an interesting plotline that is hinted at too briefly.

However, if I had to err on one side I guess a heart pumping read wins out over long chapters where nothing is happening. My only other quibble is it’s unclear whether there is another sequel to follow this one. Yes, there isn’t exactly a cliffhanger ending such as one of the girls being taken and us readers wondering what will happen to her, so technically this could end the story. However, we haven’t learned who or what the mysterious Dominion is who doesn’t want people to cross border into Canada. Also, is the Artic the new Promised land? Are the trees and plants growing back in the north allowing life to be sustained?   What will be the consequences of the caravan splitting into two groups heading north and Ananda is in the separate group from her mother and sister? This book was published in 2012, so it seems that timing-wise if a sequel isn’t coming soon, it may not be happening, and that would be a shame.