The Last Book in the Universe

For someone who writes a book review blog, what could be a more horrifying scenario than a novel about a post-apocalyptic world without books?  The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick came out of the author writing that down as a title and then developing first a short story, then later publishing as full novel.

In a future America after an event referred to as The Shake, a giant earthquake has changed the culture of generations.  The descendants of most of the original survivors live a hardscrabble existence divided into districts known as latches.  Each latch is controlled by a ruthless leader who employs fear and violence over the inhabitants.  A teen named Spaz lived in one of the slightly better latches and was raised by foster parents despite the fact that he is an epileptic.  However, when they had a child of their own, the father was worried that Spaz might somehow hurt Bean, his sister.  The reality is that Spaz loves Bean more than anyone in the world and would never cause her any harm, but his foster father was unconvinced and kicked him out of their home and he was banished from that entire latch.  Without any other options, Spaz goes to live in a latch ruled over by gang leader Billy Bizmo who lets him be part of the group as long as he steals valuable items for them.

What doesn’t make sense to me in this book is that Billy is able to steal or scavenge a lot of old tech devices and gadgets, but he never comes across a single book when there were once millions.  Yes, paper is a bit more delicate than metal, but given the amount of books that existing pre-Shake you would think some would survive, but I guess if that were this case this book wouldn’t exist.  Perhaps one reason there aren’t any books is maybe people burned them for fuel or used them for other things as they wouldn’t have seen value in books, people have other forms of entertainment in this world.  They still have something like dvds, though most people prefer probes.  Probes are needles you stick into your brain to have something like a virtual reality experience, but more direct and intense as it is interfacing directly with your brain.  Maybe it’s that intensity that makes the probes seem similar to a drug as the people of Spaz’s world seem to get addicted to them, or maybe it’s just people want to escape their hard and dreary lives.  Spaz doesn’t use probes because he can’t due to his epilepsy and it’s what makes him different than most people.  You see when the probes are overused they affect memory; people only store information in their short term memory, not their long term memory if they use the probes too much.

One day Spaz sets off for the Stacks, an old storage unit where the poorest of the poor live.  His mission is to steal from an old man named Ryter, which readers will discover is an apt name.  Ryter is so compliant about letting Spaz steal all his possessions that Spaz becomes suspicious and spots what the man in hiding, a sheath of papers.  It turns out the man is writing a book, which Spaz doesn’t see the point of as no one reads and there aren’t any libraries anymore so he wonders why anyone would be so dedicated to write a book, yet somehow it intrigues him and he ends up returning to talk to the man.  Around the time of this burgeoning friendship, Spaz is told by a Messenger who has crossed the latches (which is illegal and dangerous) that his foster sister is deathly ill and he is determined to risk everything to see her.

Spaz ends up being accompanied on this journey by Ryter who sees this as an opportunity to write one final big adventure to add to his book despite the danger.  Inevitably, they run into some very bad situations while on the trip, but one good event happens, they run into Lanaya, a proov.  Proovs are like the current 1% as they live a completely different life than anyone in the latches.  They live a life of luxury, get physical enhancement which are well beyond current plastic surgery and live in their own territory isolated from the 99%, though Lanaya is an exception among her community as she comes to the latches and hands out food packages similar to people who currently hand out food to the homeless.  The occurrence of the two worlds colliding will have significant repercussions for all the characters.

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.

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.

Into the Forest

You get used to the razzle dazzle when you are so inundated with it. Every romance has to be epic, every chase scene has to stretch the bounds of physics, and every story has to be jam packed full of meaning, dialogue, or plot.

This book, Into the Forest, by Jean Hegland, was startling in its quiet. You come across very few books that are like that in these modern times and particularly not in the genre I write about, dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. This is not one of those books they will turn into a film full of fresh young actors about to embark on a cinematic dynasty. This is a book that may make many readers twitch, unable to settle down into the slow groove of its pacing. Compared to apocalyptic books where there is movement and violence, this has none of the former and only a dusting of the latter. This is a book where the world we know changes with a sigh, not a bang.

Two sisters, Nell and Eva, close enough in age to be more like twins than sisters, live in the countryside with their parents. Once so close, a small fissure in their closeness happens when Eva trains to be a dancer against the wishes of her mother, a former dancer herself. Nell feels a little lonely, so she sets her own high goal to get into Harvard. As Nell is home schooled at home, Eva journeys into the nearest town and sometimes as far as San Francisco loosen their bond. However, after their mother dies of cancer and their father becomes a grief stricken shell, they turn to each other again.

Is it their respective intense training regimes, their isolation in the countryside, or the shock of their mother’s death that makes them seem a little oblivious to the obvious signs that things in the outside world are not going so well, or does that just make them human? After all, don’t we all feel deep in our belly a sense of unease? Isn’t that what has drawn some of us to this genre. They are also immunized to the changes around them by the fact that their father is handy, they have a garden, and are far from populated areas when violence erupts after work stops, electricity is lost and people fall sick or hungry.

As teenage girls they are still fixated on the idea of college, career, and of course boys, well Nell is during the trips into town they make in her father’s car. A routine that started when they came into town to visit their mother in the hospital and that no one could break after she passed. Missing her mother and even her sister who spends hours in their in home dance studio, Nell tries to shake off this feelings as well as her unease, by partying in the town square and having a crush on Eli, that is until there is no more gas, meaning no more trips to town.

Out in the country without electricity Eva dances to a metronome rather than music, and Nell starts reading an encyclopedia page by page, so as not to let her learning slip when the electricity comes back and she goes off to Harvard. There is nothing in the dictionary that tells her how to handle things when her father is injured while doing chores, and nothing that will help when something unexpected happens to her sister, though it does offer her some practical information that helps them survive in the interim between what their life was and what they expect it will be again.

The only books I have ever come across in this genre that had this slow flow about a world turned upside down have been Life as We Knew It and Not a Drop to Drink. If you can appreciate sinking into a deep rhythm and reading a book without a lot of bells and whistles, a book that reminds us that our present has only been a blink of an eye compared to the thousands of years of our past, Into the Forest is one to read with a glass of tea.

One Safe Place

I really wanted to like One Safe Place by Tania Unsworth, I really did. It’s not that I actively disliked the book, but the concept that would have been unique was spoiled for me by the fact that I had already read Starters and Enders, so I guessed what was happening early on in the story. Just like those books I did like the juxtaposition that part of the population after apocalyptic conditions are dirty, poor and starving like characters in a Charles Dickens novel, but that a small part of the population is not only healthy, but still wealthy and still in possession of modern technology and conveniences. It’s a startling picture, but maybe that’s how such a future would go down here where you have the 1% and the 99%, the former are so wealthy these days that even an apocalypse may not make much of a dent in their lifestyle.

I also liked that instead of one megastorm, viral attack or war, that the apocalypse isn’t one event, but just a decline of environmental conditions happening over an extended period until things are in bad shape. Again, that seems realistic to me given the current state of fracking, carbon pollution, and industrial pollution. It’s not just one deadly thing or event that can destabilize the planet, but a set of issues that together and over time can put us in decline.

However, Devin doesn’t know about all that, he’s just a young boy not even in his teens and has never known the world any other way, though his Grandpa did. Unfortunately, Gramps isn’t around anymore to tell him stories of the old days, so Devin decides to venture out of his idyllic valley and go to the city that Gramps has told him stories about. That’s where his life takes a Dickensian turn, he is robbed by a bunch of young ruffians and hungry and alone on the streets until he meets a fellow urchin named Kit who tries to teach the naïve kid some streets smarts such as stealing.

A good deed puts Devin in the position of an offer to live in the Gabriel H. Penn Home for Childhood, where children and well fed and apparently unicorns prance and wishes come true. Even the streetwise Kit doesn’t want to believe the sinister hints that all is not what it seems in this paradise that now changes from Dickensian England to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

I think the mystery of what happens in the children’s home should have been drawn out much longer to build up a Gaslight type of suspense instead of quickly turning into The Great Escape. I also could have done without Devin having a special ability, it’s not an ability that helps except for in one scene, yet a lot of pages are devoted to it. I suspect it’s a personal interest of the author that she wanted to find a way to include in the story, but it’s not naturally woven into the pages, it feels forced and distracts from the core story. I think with the changes I suggest this could have been a pretty interesting story but it just fell short for me.

After the End

This blog is about apocalyptic and dystopian novels, so I struggled with the idea of reviewing After the End by Amy Plum as it’s about an apocalypse that never actually happened! However, the concept is novel enough that I wanted to write about it, and after all the main character Juneau was raised thinking that an apocalypse and WWIII had happened.

Juneau, like the other children in her clan, was told by her elders that they are the survivors of the apocalypse. There may be other remnants of survivors, but if there are, they might be contaminated by radiation and be hostile to the clan which has carved out a healthy and peaceful life in the wilds of Alaska. Therefore, Juneau, like the rest of the younger members has never crossed the borders set by the elders. After all, she is nothing if not responsible as she will become the clan’s next Sage as she is the best at Reading and Conjuring. This is where I felt a bit let down, when the potential emphasis of the psychological effects of finding out your whole life has been a lie was underplayed in favor of a fantasy/supernatural element.

I also did not like that due to the book’s descriptions on seller websites and the book jacket itself that I went into the story knowing that there hadn’t been a WWIII and that Juneau had been lied to. I would have much preferred not to know that going into it as then it could have been a great M. Night Shyamalan effect similar to The Village. I wanted to feel what Juneau felt, to believe that while the world outside was gone, my people had been strong and survived. Then to experience along with her the shock of finding out the modern world was right outside my doorstep and that all my beliefs were now open to question. Unfortunately, I was not given this gift by the bookseller websites or jacket. Yet I once read a similar story in which the secret of a boy who had spent the last eight years in a bunker was not revealed prior to reading the story, so it can be done, therefore I don’t know why the publishers went this direction. Maybe because as I mentioned the book was more focuses on this woo woo stuff then what I think is far more complex and interesting.

There were some good observations of the downfalls of the modern world by Juneau, though there could have been many more of those, that would have strengthened the conceit that although WWIII didn’t actually happen, it still could. Instead, there was the typical road trip with car chases mysterious government and conspiracy types and an unlikely romance. Really, the author doesn’t show any respect for her main character to think that this fearsome warrior girl would have any interest in a boy she describes as not being able to survive in the wilderness for 15 minutes. It’s not just that Miles doesn’t have her skills, he is a spoiled and weak rich kid who has made bad choices with the advantages he has been given, really, what’s to like? How can we as readers respect Juneau as a female leader and the potential savior of her clan when she is distracted by such a flirtation? Is it a given that every piece of YA apocalyptic fiction has include a romantic relationship? Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is one of the most powerful books of this genre I have read and it didn’t include a teen romance. In fact, I would argue that it cut deeper because the fairytale of romance didn’t intrude on the harsh reality of Miranda’s life as her focus is on helping her family survive.

Graduation Day

I remember how surprised the world was when Obama got elected; how African Americans said they never thought this would happen in their lifetime. What I was thinking was, “I can’t believe elected an African-American (well half-black, half white) to the country’s highest office before we have elected a woman President. I mean women have had the right to vote for over a century now and in many other countries women have served as the leader of their nations. Why not here?

As I continue to dive into dystopian fiction I can’t help but notice an obvious pattern of teen girls as the main character in these stories who display such strong leadership skills that they can topple a dystopian society or help save an apocalyptic one. Is this trend wish fulfillment on the part of writers who frustrated with the dearth of women leaders in government and even corporations have sublimated their biggest hopes for women into the pages of these books? From Katniss, to Tris and in the case of The Graduation, Cia, why is it these women are only given these opportunities to lead on the pages of a book?

In this final book of The Testing trilogy we learn that the Committee planned to fail Cia and not accept her into The University as she is ‘too emotional’ and they are not sure she can make the tough decisions that leaders must do, yet in the end of the series doesn’t she prove that it’s her very emotions and instincts that help her take down a corrupt and twisted system? What would our own world be like if we had a woman leader? If a woman was leading the country, and indeed more women filled the House and the Senate, would we have the current pissing matches between House and Senate and between parties that currently exist? Are women better able to come to a compromise and is that always a bad choice compared to a stalemate?

I am not saying there would not be possible cons to having a woman lead the government, but I would rather take that risk than to see our government and society continue on the path it has been on for a long time now.

Even in Graduation Day the female leaders such as Professor Holt and President Collindar do not always display the better qualities of female leaders. Indeed, Professor Holt while intelligent is also cold, calculating, manipulative and borders on ruthless. President Collindar also pushes aside the notion that a woman leader may fail at some of the tougher decisions. However, Cia is the counterbalance, she is smart, able to reason through options and make a decision, yet her biggest strength appears to be her ability to create alliances and build consensus. Her fellow male students follow her and not the other way around.

When a woman finally rises to the top office in our country, there will be extra pressure on her beyond the regular pressures of such as office to show what ‘female traits’, if any, she will display and how that will affect not only how she is viewed, but what the effects will be. Maybe in an effort to not be scrutinized for those very ‘traits’ she will swing as far away from such comments.

I can’t really say what having a female lead the country will be like; I just want to see a woman be elected so I can watch what unfolds. That’s what I liked about this book, a glimpse into what those possibilities might be….

The Ward

I have never experienced a book being better in the second half than the first! It was The Ward by Jordana Frankel that delivered this unusual experience. Rennie is an orphan as are many kids in a world where the has killed off a lot of parents and kids in a world that was already destroyed by the Great Wash Out which has put New York City underwater creating an interesting subterranean world. In this world fresh water is more valuable than diamonds, and food and opportunity is pretty scarce too for those who live in the Ward, formerly Manhattan.

When we meet Rennie, she is determined not to get close to any of the other children at the orphanage as she is sure they will be adopted and there isn’t any point in caring about them. That’s how she feels until she meets the irrepressible Aven who grabs her heart as she is sneaking out to join the racers.

It really wasn’t clear initially how this street racing works as the ‘streets’ would be underwater, but gradually details emerge that they race vehicles that are part mini car and part amphibious vehicles. Rennie ends up being quite a good racer, and her earnings help her buy meds for Aven who ends up catching the disease. Plus, she has to race as part of her cover. Caught earlier stealing for fresh, she is forced to work undercover for the current regime’s quasi military/spy network.

So the first half seemed a bit stereotypical about the tough orphan with the secret heart of gold. A girl who succeeds in the misogynistic sport of racing, who is controlled by an evil government, etc. The juvenile relationships and dialogue were reminiscent of The Uglies series, which while entertaining could sometimes verge on annoying. It just seemed that this was more of an entertaining action type of dystopian/apocalyptic story. Then midway through Jordana Frankel starts raising serious food for thought as Rennie has to ponder whether saving one life is worth more than the many, what if the lives she is saving aren’t people worthy of being saved, etc. My reaction was like those times when you are in a sleep lull and suddenly you jerk awake. I felt like I was suddenly brought into a more sophisticated story with depth.

I hope the next book will continue along the track of the second half of this first one and not model the first half.

Sunrise (Ashfall #3)

Sunrise is the satisfying finale to the trilogy which began with Ashfall. I think the writers of any trilogies struggle to wrap up their epics in a way that will please their readership, and I think apocalyptic authors have an even harder struggle.   Their stories start out with a bang, literally, and have to walk a fine line by being realistic about what living conditions would be like as a result, and not being so dark that readers just won’t want to continue. I think Mike Mullin did a beautiful job walking this tightrope in his storytelling.

While many apocalyptic authors write about food deprivation resulting from an apocalyptic event, such as the starving family in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, he takes it to an even darker level, conjuring up characters such as flensers, people who have sunk to cannibalism to survive. Yet, as sinister and bleak as it is to contemplate people who would take these actions to survive, there is a hopeful spirit to the story, personified in Alex the main character.

I have to admit that as a former high school teacher I often despaired for the future based on what I saw in many of my students. There were always exceptions, but for the most part there seemed to be a disinterest in learning, a lack of work ethic and a certain amount of selfishness that made me wonder about the future. While Alex may be a fictional character, it gave me hope that as our environmental issues grow more urgent, there will be Alex’s of the world who can lead. A typical teen, Alex in a fit of teenage pique stays home from a family road trip to play video games and sulk in the first book Ashfall. When a supervolcano erupts killing millions instantly and leaving survivors in an ash covered world where crops are killed, gas tanks are flooded with sediment, and fires burn, he takes off on a heroic quest through a maimed world to reunite with his family.

This trilogy is really about the maturation of a boy into a man. I think the inclination of most in a disaster is to look to the adult survivors to protect the children and lead in a crisis, yet Alex has been thrust into a leadership role because of not only his bravery, but his ability to come up with practical solutions and strategies. Taking responsibility for a band of refugees camped out on his uncle’s farm, dealing with his mom’s breakdown after his father’s death, and dealing with the petty politics among survivors isn’t easy. Overshadowing it all on a daily basis is struggling to find enough food to keep everyone alive. Although Alex’s girlfriend Darla is a mechanical whiz creating systems to grow hothouse kale and bikezillas for transportation, as well as being tough in a fight, for some reason Alex is still the standout character in the story maybe because he’s an everyman. He’s smart, but not brilliant, he’s a good fighter, but not Claude Van Dam, he’s personable, but not a practiced politician. It’s his very ordinariness and the fact that’s he’s an unlikely hero that makes what he accomplishes all the more impressive and earns respect.  Everything he does is because he has empathy for others and a sense of responsibility in helping people, though he often wants to withdraw from shouldering that burden, it’s his doubts that make him more heroic. He is the dream student and the dream son. When teens complain of not being taken seriously just because of their age, this book could be used as an example of the expression, “age is just a number”; that it’s not the number of years someone has, but how they live them.   Don’t ask to be taken seriously, earn it by shouldering responsibility, making the hard choices, and showing leadership…earn it.