Wasteland

Wasteland by Susan Kim turned out to be a giant waste of my time.  It really is the worst post-apocalyptic YA book I have read to date.  Maybe that’s a terrible thing to say and some might say something like, “Hey, I don’t see you publishing a book.”  That’s true, but I don’t think it’s necessary for me to publish a book to make such a statement.  I have spent the last few years reading and reviewing 2-4 books of this genre per month, so I feel that gives me some credibility to take such a strong stand.  I am not trying to hurt the author’s feeling, but I am sure that could be the result; however what I hope is that this honesty spurs her to do better.  This is such an exciting genre that I look forward to reading these types of books and have generally been impressed by the quality of writing…I mean some writers might be tempted to rely on the world building and other action plot devices instead of the quality of the writing, so that’s why I am usually pleasantly surprised whenever I read something like this.

The plot consists of a town of kids and teens many years after an apocalyptic event.  There aren’t any adults as when people turn eighteen they die of a horrible sickness and are expelled from the community.  As there is such a short life span the milestones of adulthood are speeded up.  Children are organized into work crews to scavenge for supplies and food and the teens ‘marry’ and bear children.  The problem for the town in this story is there isn’t any left to scavenge in the area and food and water are running low.  The latter is an especially big problem as once bottled water runs out you cannot drink from streams or lakes as all water is contaminated/poisoned.  In addition to the kids who live in the town, there are beings that live on the outskirts.  I say beings because they are not quite human, they look different than the kids and they are born hermaphrodites and then choose what sex they want to be when they turn a certain age.  Due to their differences, they are shunned by the town kids who are prejudiced against them, though the main character in the story, Esther, is best friends with one of these variants, though they both hide it from their people.  Add to these characters a young dictator who controls food and water supplies and a mysterious stranger who comes to town and you have a lot of characters, too many really, and none of them are written in a way where they appeared ‘real’ or made me care about them, they were all pretty cartoonish.

Some of my criticisms of the book include squeezing too many divergent plot points into the story, having superfluous characters, not enough development of the main characters and their motivations, multiple ‘surprises’ that can be guessed at from a mile away, and a truly gag inducing romance.  I would say to the author, simplify, simplify, simplify.  Have one main plot and at most one subplot.  Develop the characters enough to make us actually be interested in then or care what happens to them.  Axe the immature romance, you don’t always have to put a romance into this genre, can’t survivors just have strong bonds of friendships?  I mean, I don’t think in the struggle to survive I would be thinking too hard about whether a boy ‘likes me’, do you agree?   I could see sex in these books as a way to repopulate the earth after the apocalyptic event, but can you really have a lot of romance when every minute is a struggle to survive and due to lack of food and hygiene no one is really looking so hot?

I mean I really think writers of this genre start with an advantage over other authors as they have a lot of creative license when building worlds, and dramatic license based on the drama involved with an apocalyptic or dystopian environment.  So with those in built strengths, focus on the writing itself, otherwise the books will come off as very one-dimensional, like the typical Hollywood action film.

 

 

Advertisements

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.

Dustlands

There are books, and there are epics, Dustlands is an epic. The final story in the Blood Red Road series finds Saba, Lugh, Ellie and the remaining Free Hawks and eager to cause DeMalo and the Ton Ton some trouble after the epic battle at Resurrection. Their reduced numbers means that Saba and her allies have a new strategy, guerilla fighting, however when their first act kills not only Ton Tons and Stewards, bu innocents, Saba starts to believe in a different path.

Her ideas about rights for all to live in New Eden where there is good land are further shaped by an encounter with DeMalo and her secret meetings with Jack, presumed dead by the others. It’s not easy being a warrior princess who no longer believes that violence will lead to the goal she wants to achieve. It’s even harder to sort out what to do when her hearstone reveals her intense feelings for the two strong male figures in her life. Add to that the coldness between her and Lugh, her beloved twin, and the awkwardness between her and lovesick Tommo and it’s no wonder she is heavily sleep deprived. Being a leader is a difficult and often thankless task, much is expected of one, and much is criticized.

There is a style to this series reminiscent of a Western, which is funny because I have never been a big fan of westerns. The feel is that of a century or more ago, yet Saba’s world is the future. It’s the earth after the Wreckers, us, destroyed it with our technology. This is handled so subtly in the story, such as one of the refuges being an old bowling alley, that I forget this is not a story of the past, but the future. It’s that feeling of an old Western that is partially responsible for that epic feel, but it’s also the portrayal of Saba herself, like the sheriff of old who strides into town with a white gallon hat to set everything to rights, dispensing justice and fairness to the townspeople. However, this heroine is also very human, and a girl, and her realistic struggles to live up to people’s expectations is what I enjoyed most about her.

It’s the flawed person who makes the best hero a story because it shows that succeeding isn’t easy and we admire them all the more for it. Saba also has to face the consequences of her actions and decisions, and in this final chapter, those consequences prove devastating, but again it takes some tragedy to create a true epic.

More than just a gripping and entertaining read, this is the type of story that makes you think hard and grapple with the bigger questions such as do the ends justify the means? What is the birthright of all citizens? Is there a place for the weak in society? When, if ever, is violence justified? How do you create a society? Most of all, Dustlands makes us hope that inside of all of us resides someone who can take up the mantle of leadership if called upon.

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.

 

Monument 14: Sky On Fire

Monument 14: Sky on Fire by Emmy Laybourne is the sequel to Monument 14.  At the end of the first story, the kids had split into two groups with Dean and his brother Alex now separated.  Alex has left with a group trying to reach Denver International Airport where they have heard rumors of people being evacuated and where they want to try to get medical attention for one of the group who has been seriously injured. 

Dean has elected to stay at the superstore because he is the dangerous Type O blood, and because Astrid (who is pregnant) is staying as well as one of the kids who is Type O too and the twins. 

Each group encounters different dangers and setbacks while trying to survive, however the more interesting story is the group trying to get to the airport who are finally able to see the world beyond their Greenway store refuge.  Outside is both better and worse than they or I was expecting.  The group encounters various characters, some with good intentions and many without, though both types for their own reasons try to split the group up.  However, the relationships developed in the first book have only deepened and after splitting into the two groups already, the kids are determined that there won’t be any more divisions at least until some unexpected reunions occur that change things for the group. 

At the end of the book there seemed to be a hint that there could be a third book, although the way the second book was written, it could simply end there.  I tried looking on the author’s website to get more information on this, but couldn’t find anything.  Does anyone know anything?   I did found out that it sounds like the first book has been optioned for a film.

Exodus

The novel Exodus by Julie Bertagna reminded me of the book Skylark due to its mix of apocalyptic, mystical and sci fi elements.

After man’s poor treatment of the environment, the polar ice caps melted flooding the Earth and the protagonist Mara lives on an island where the sea has been creeping up for years.  Tain, one of the island’s oldest residents who knew the world before it completely flooded, has urged the island’s inhabitants that they must leave before it’s too late.  The islanders want to stick their heads in the sand until the combination of a terrible storm wiping out homes on the lower slopes, and a startling piece of information that Mara shares, convinces them they must go.

Mara has found information on the New Cities which were built to withstand the waves before the biggest floods happened.  She, and what’s left of her people, form a flotilla of boats to head off to find one of these cities.  However, the journey starts off inauspiciously when Mara is separated from the rest of her family who are all on a different boat. 

Eventually some of the refugees reach the New City only to find that it’s not the safe haven they hoped it would be.   After a tragedy, Mara feels responsible for leading her people to this place and is on the verge of suicide but is rescued by some strange feral children who have spent so much time in the water that they have taken on some aquatic characteristics.  The strange urchins are not the only inhabitants of the land underneath the towering new cities, the Treenesters have their own odd characteristics.  Upon meeting Mara, they are convinced that she is part of a legend that will save them.

Between the urchins, Treenesters, refugees and the inhabitants of the new cities, Mara has her hands full.  That’s all I will say so that readers can discover how the paths of all these new acquaintances diverge.  It will be interesting to see if the next book in the series will be similar to the second book in the sequels in the Matched series that continued the story with the separate adventures and points of view of the main characters…

 

Ashen Winter

Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin follows his first book Ashfall.  Mullin takes a different approach than many YA authors.  Instead of the books continuing one main story line across all the books in the series, each book has its own journey or goal.  In Ashfall, teen Alex stayed home for the weekend while the rest of his family went to visit his father’s brother, not knowing that a supervolcano was going to explode and change everything.  Alex makes a heroic journey across a desolate landscape to reunite with this family.

In Ashen Winter, Alex and Darla have been living with his sister and uncle’s family when an unexpected event turns up an item that was in his father’s possession, spurring him to leave earlier than planned on a new mission to find his parents.

This book doesn’t have the type of monsters that many other YA dystopian books have.  There aren’t any Dusts as in Pure, no zombies as in The Forest of Hands and Teeth, or freaks as in Enclave.  However, what Alex discovers is a monster of the worst kind, man.

From the corrupt paid mercenaries, Black Lake, who round people up and imprison them in dire conditions in FEMA camps because they are paid by a quota, to flensers, bandits who have become cannibals, Alex struggles to do what he must to survive and protect his loved ones while still maintaining his humanity and morality.  It is this inner struggle that is the heart of this book, though physical journey he takes to reunite with his loved ones is full of action that keeps readers motivated through nearly 600 pages, unusual in fiction of this kind.  Alex has had to kill to protect himself and the people he loves, but he feels a tremendous sense of guilt and responsibility for his actions, even when justified.  He is often taken aback by the hardness in some of the people whom he loves who have been baptized by the violence.  In a world where a former accountant becomes a kidnapper and killer, who can predict how the actions you must take to live, will affect your personality, morality and ethics?  And if the only way to survive is to change into something your previous self would be horrified to see, is surviving worth any cost?

Has reading YA dystopia novels changed YOU in any way?

I actually don’t think I ever heard the term YA dystopia fiction until a few years ago when I read The Hunger Games and fell in love with the genre.  Before that I read a wide variety of books, but when I read fiction, it’s largely YA dystopian books now.  It’s become my guilty pleasure, so every few YA books, I read a hardcore business or marketing book.  It’s sort of like eating your veggies so you can have dessert.

However, I am starting to wonder if reading so much post-apocalyptic fiction has changed me.  I mean I grew up a child of the suburbs and never so much as mowed the lawn.  A few years ago I tore up all the grass in my backyard and turned it into an organic fruit and vegetable garden – well with a lot of help from a garden partner since I knew nothing.  I find myself obsessing over garden catalogs looking for more kinds of food I can grow.  I am also considering urban chickens and have had a passing fancy about a fish pond.  So many dystopian books describe the extreme hunger of the characters, The Hunger Games aside, that I wonder if this newfound connection to the earth is related to my reading habits.  I have to admit to feeling a certain level of comfort that there are edible plants in close proximity.  I also have rain cisterns too and a rain barrel.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am not a survivalist stockpiling canned foods and weapons in my basement, but I do feel like I am subtly changing.

This year I took advantage of a local program to add insulation to my home.  I can’t help but remember the grimness of a family almost freezing to death in their home in the book, Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer which takes place after a natural disaster.  My home that used to be freezing in the winter is now toastier and I go to sleep at night feeling better about its ability to provide shelter.  I even got two estimates this year for installing solar panels.  The irony is that I am such a low energy user already, that financially it doesn’t pencil out in a way that makes sense taking over 15 years to pay off.  My hope is that eventually the costs will drop even lower, as I would feel more secure relying on natural energy and I would feel better about not contributing to an apocalypse caused by energy related issues.  I guess someone could say I am not reallydystopian minded, I am just an environmentalist.  Maybe.

I do know that I have been eyeing solar or crank powered flashlights and radios on shopping sites the way I used to eye home decor.  I have also started working out with kettlebells, is it because I want to fit into my old smaller size clothes or because I need to build up strength to fight off those violent factions in YA dystopian novels such as Article Five and Breaking Point by Kristen Simmons? A friend of mine bought the thickest book I have ever seen full of things we have basically forgotten in our modern age.  How to butcher, grow plants for medicine and food, how to repair things, etc.  If the worst happens, I will generously provide her with shelter and food ffrom the garden (as long as she brings the book with her of course!)

I also think about how truly few useful skills I have.  Well I have skills such as social and digital media expertise, software training, marketing, etc. but those are only relevant in our modern world.  If a disaster happens that wipes out energy and thus technology, most of those would be useless and the things that would be important such as knowing how to use a bow and arrow (go Katniss), how to build things, self-defense (from zombies or other survivors), how to climb trees, how to repair machines etc., those I simply don’t know.  I guess that’s why I find so many dystopian books fascinating.  In the ones that happen after a natural or even man made disaster, the characters have had to learn all new skills, and quickly, in order to survive in their changed world.  I wonder where I would stand.

Has reading YA dystopia novels changed YOU in any way?