The Cage

The Cage by Megan Shepherd is a technically a dystopian story, although in this case the repressive regime is made up of aliens.

Cora wasn’t exactly a typical teenage girl even before the alien abduction. She is the daughter of a Senator and an actress and has recently been released for a long term stint in juvie for manslaughter. After waking up in an alien environment where different landscapes and climates all jut up next to each other, she finds she is not alone. There are other teens, Rolf a Norwegian genius, Nok a Thai model, Leon a Maori from a criminal family, and finally Lucky an American boy who may have a connection to Cora. Actually, there was one more teen who woke up but something terrible has happened to her. That will be a problem as now there is an uneven number of teens and yet each teen is supposed to be mated with one of the others by a 21 day deadline.

Their alien abductors watch from behind one way glass scattered throughout the environments, similar to the one-way glass in police stations, except in this case the aliens are more like scientists or anthropologists observing their behaviors. The aliens have put different types of puzzles into each locale and if they solve a puzzle they receive tokens which can be redeemed for different items, similar to gaming places now.

Supposedly the aliens have abducted them for their own good as humans are destroying the Earth , unlike the aliens that are higher beings with telepathic and other abilities despite looking very similar to humans.   Their caretaker alien is named Cassian and he has a particular affinity to Cora. Cora who the others get angry with as when she solves a puzzle she is given many more tokens than the others. Other incidents like this cause a rift in the group.

Rolf and Nok have reasons based on their pasts that make them believe that despite their captivity their extended cage is not so bad. Leon is too haunted by a memory from their first day to care about anything else. Lucky is consumed with guilt over an action he took back on Earth and which is revealed later in the story. Cora simply wants to go home, home even with all the problems of divorcing parents, her peers who can’t relate to her after her time in juvie, and all the pressures of being a Senator’s daughter. Plus, there is Cassian and her mixed feelings about him.

It’s the latter which hurts this story as Cassian becomes part of a love triangle that also includes Lucky. I personally am not sure I would feel anything but hatred for my abductor, but maybe she has Stockholm’s Syndrome? I kind of think it sense the wrong message to young girls everywhere that there could be anything attractive about a character like Cassian who has control over you, am I wrong? Its that sick dominance thing combined with the stilted triangle that made me no fan of this book. Even the ending wasn’t great and it was confusing to boot as to whether this was a one-off story or whether it had the inevitable sequel…turns out it does. That kind of stinks for me because after what an economist would term a sunk cost, I wrongly feel that I must continue with the next.

 

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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?

Genesis

I just read the last page of Genesis by Bernard Beckett and feel like someone punched me in the head and I am dazed.

First, I really don’t know how to categorize Genesis. Is it an apocalyptic, dystopian or sci fi novel? Can it even be called a novel at 150 pages? It’s a weird, weird piece that defies easy categorization, a mind game. During a time of escalating conflict among the superpowers of the world, an entrepreneur forsees what will likely happen and establishes a remote outpost in a series of islands as far from the released plague as possible. Despite the remoteness of the location, refugees do attempt to reach this place and the citizens of this haven are trained to automatically kill anyone attempting to cross the Great Sea Fence around the islands. While the world outside goes to hell, the survivors inside are part of the entrepreneur named Plato new world named the New Republic. They are divided into four classes by the predictions of potential of their genomes, though someone could rise above their class except for the Philosopher class. Children are separated from their parents and their birth details are never known.

One of these children, Adam, was raised to be a Soldier. He and his partner are on duty watching their outpost when a boat is spotted. One of the partners is always assigned the role of going out and manning the laser guns to destroy the intruders, the partner’s job is to kill his comrade if he hesitates to kill the refugees must be killed in case they carry the Plague. Rather than take is role of destroying the refugees, Adam convinces his partner to switch roles and when the partner goes out to intercept the boat, Adam shoots him and lies to command that his partner hesitated. Instead, Adam rescues the occupant of the boat, a young woman nearly dead of starvation. Eventually they are caught and due to public sentiment Adam is not executed, but he is sentenced to a strange punishment.

Adam is to be the companion of Art, the latest and most advanced creation of an artificial intelligence program so that Art can learn from a human being other than his creator. Adam and Art’s story is being told by Anaximander, a young student who is sitting her oral examination to gain acceptance into The Academy. She has chosen the story of Adam’s life as her thesis and must defend it to the Examiners.

Therefore, the structure of Genesis is a story within a story. The story of Anaximander wrapped around the story of Adam and Art. You know the expression a mystery wrapped in an enigma? Well that’s what this is…even the big reveal at the end left me with my head shaking and more questions than answers. Is that a bad thing in a world where people want easy answers and tend to have short attention spans?

While Genesis left me unsettled and by revealing one answer left me with several questions, you could say that’s its strength, the fact that it will linger with me for a long time despite its brief length. Genesis is to me the Chinese Room puzzle…

Icons

Icons by Margaret Stohl is a post-apocalyptic/sci fi book.   On an event called The Day, aliens took over the Earth by sending out some kind of electromagnetic pulse that instantly caused the hearts of men, women and children to stop beating in all the major cities on the planet.  Well everyone except a few special babies in the cities referred to as the Icon Children.

Dol and Ro have grown up at a Mission outside the dead city of Los Angeles raised by the Padre who has kept them hidden.  Dol has vivid dreams of The Day despite the fact that she was only a tiny baby when it happened.  She wears the burden of sorrow as she has the ability to sense the emotions of other people around her.  Ro, her companion since childhood, is the exact opposite.  Fiery of spirit and strong, he sneaks off to visit friends in the Rebellion, only softening when it comes to Dol.

The surviving humans on the planet live a life that is a throwback to the days before technology, as the Icons the aliens placed in the major cities prevents electricity from working and thus modern technology.  No one has actually seen the Lords, as the alien invaders are known, except perhaps the Ambassador who serves as the conduit between the aliens and the remaining humans on Earth.  The Ambassador operates the Embassy out of Catalina Island assisted by Sympas, sympathizers, who have sold out their fellow human beings through the work as a paramilitary force carrying out the orders of the Ambassador and dragging Remnants to work camps to work on the mysterious ‘Projects.’

On Dol’s birthday the Padre presents her with the gift of a book about her and the other Icon children, but before she can read it, chaos breaks out at her peaceful refuge and she is taken to the Embassy by Sympas soldiers.  The people she meets there, and what she discovers about herself, will have profound consequences on her relationship with Ro, and indeed on the planet itself.

I didn’t make the connection that this first book in what will be a series was written by the same author as Beautiful Creatures until I read the author bio at the end.  My feelings about this book are mixed.  I think the concept of aliens taking over the Earth was better imagined in The 5th Wave as the concept was much more straightforward and less woo woo than the mysticism spread throughout Icons.

Taken

I made a rookie mistake.  I started reading Taken by Erin Bowman before checking to see if the next book in the series was published yet.   The reason that’s a mistake is that I really enjoyed the book and now I have to wait until next spring to continue the adventure.

Gray Weathersby has spent his whole life behind the wall.  Like all young men he is aware that upon his eighteenth birthday the Heist will occur plucking him away from the only home and friends he has ever known.  What happens to those who are Heisted is unknown, as no one has ever returned.  Those who try to avoid the Heist by climbing over the wall, return as charred bodies, killed by something monstrous on the other side of the wall.

With his own father heisted years ago, his mother dead and his older brother on the verge of his eighteenth birthday, Gray is desperate for answers, well when he is not being distracted by Emma his childhood friend that he is in love with.  Well he doesn’t actually know that what he feels is love, because in his town Claysoot, love is usually something that only happens because parents and children, to form a romantic attachment to someone who will be Heisted, or someone you will leave behind when heisted, means that no one in the society marries.  They mate, or slate to several people, as a  way to ensure that the population won’t die out.

After his older brother Blaine is Heisted, Gray finds a note from his mother that leaves him even more determined to find out what’s behind the wall. 

This book combines a love triangle, a closed society, modern technology and science and has some elements right out of an M. Night Shyamalan film.

 

 

 

Human.4

Human.4 by Mike A. Lancaster is a great easy read that I finished in a just a couple of hours.  Kyle Straker is a typical British teen, mooning over his best friend’s girl, teasing his nerdy friend Danny and worrying about his parent’s marriage troubles.  Kyle lives in a small British town that moves at a slow pace and is so bumpkin that there isn’t great cell or Internet connection.  Therefore, the townspeople tend toward more old fashioned entertainment such as the traditional town talent show going strong for over a hundred years.

Kyle isn’t too crazy about the show after his own comedy act bombed years ago, but he goes to support his friend and when Danny calls for volunteers to be hypnotized, he surprisingly finds himself raising his hand, along with his best friend’s girl Lilly, and two adults from the town.

Instead of the usual hypnotist act of making people bark like a dog or telling them they have an uncontrollable itch, this turns out to be an act the like of which has never been seen before.  Kyle opens his eyes to find the audience frozen.    At first Kyle and the other three think the jokes on them and that when they were hypnotized Danny suggested to the audience they pretend to freeze, but they quickly realize it is not a joke.  Unable to rouse any of their friends or family in the audience, Kyle, Lilly and the adult woman Kate set off into town to get help only to find that the mysterious phenomena isn’t limited to the site of the talent show.   Just when the groups’ speculation takes a dark turn, they spot the townspeople returning home. 

Although he is very relieved at first, it doesn’t take long for Kyle to notice that his parents are getting along unusually well for two parents whose marriage has been on the rocks.  While he wants to hope for the best, he starts to notice other clues that his parents have changed.  When he pours out his story about what he experienced during the talent show, it isn’t long before the town doctor shows up.   Sensing that he is in some danger, Kyle pretends not to remember anything when the doctor questions him and he knows he needs to escape his house to find the others and see what has happened to them. 

I won’t divulge more of the plot beyond that for those who haven’t read the book.  I will say that one of my favorite writing devices was the fact that the book is supposedly based on the tapes that Kyle made and have been found in the future and have been the source of much debate among scholars, scientists and anthropologists.   Throughout the book there are ‘Editor’s Notes’ where these people from a future time try to define or explain some of the references Kyle makes, word choice and slang, pop culture, and speculation on Kyle’s feelings and what ultimately happened to him.   At the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, the main character’s diary was found and was used to tell the story of what had happened to the world, but that was only at the end of the story.  I enjoyed the way the Editor Notes in Human.4 spotlighted some of the things about our culture that makes sense until looked at from a different time and point of view.

The Different Girl

Like anyone I appreciate a little mystery, a little challenge in books, TV or movies. In fact, I lose a little interest when I am miles ahead of where the plot is already guessing the next events or even ending. I just read a book where I had the opposite problem. I was initially intrigued and teased by the mysterious girls in The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist. However, as I read on the pace of the mystery of who these girls were seemed very slow to unfold, in the end, it never did. So while I don’t want or need to have every answer spelled out to me, I was left needing some answers, and was frustrated when they were never supplied.

The best parts of the book described how the girls were taught to think, methods used included how to consider animals, object and facts and describe them in detail. It was like reading a cognitive dissertation thesis but written more for laymen. Whether these girls were being trained this way because it was a preference by their guardians Irene and Robbert or some proven method wasn’t clear. It was also never revealed what these girls were being trained for. The four girls currently live on a remote island which is inhabited only be themselves and their guardians/trainers. They were told that their parents were killed in a plane crash. Even when the supply boat arrives periodically to make deliveries, the girls never meet or interact with other people. Is the fact they spend so much time together the explanation for their group think type of behavior or is it something inherent within them? Other than the color of each girls’ hair, they behave more like one being, rather than individuals. The major exception is Veronika, who begins to deviate from the instructions of the guardians and ask the right questions, though Caroline is also somewhat different in the fact that she dreams and no one else does.

The strange life the girls lead is shaken up when Veronika finds an unconscious girl on the beach, May, who almost drowned when her boat sunk. Although Irene and Robert give her medical attention, she is kept separate from the other girls. When they eventually sneak into a room to see her, she regains consciousness and screams when she sees the girls, a hint that there is something far from normal about them. On their part, the girls notice how different May is from them, her skin, her accent and the fact they she has not been schooled as they have. Veronika especially takes an interest in her and they form a bond. However, May is distrustful of Irene and Robbert’s intentions toward her and eventually runs away and hides on the island until one day as ship arrives and May springs into action to try to rescue the girls from the events that unfold as a result of the ship’s arrival.

This is not a book with a sequel, so readers are forever left with questions about the girls and what would their future have been if the ship hadn’t arrived. While I understand the author’s dilemma that after the buildup of suspense of wanting to know who Irene and Robber truly were and what was their purpose in caring for the girls, that it would be hard to give an explanation that would have lived up to that, I couldn’t help but feel cheated to not get at least a few more hints. I understood how the girls were different, but not the purpose of their lives. There was another book I read where the author in her Author’s Note at the end explained that she deliberately left some questions unanswered, and I respected that, but this book left more than a question or two, it left a giant gaping hole.

Dystopia vs. Sci Fi

I have been thinking about dystopia fiction vs. sci fi fiction while reading Maria Snyder’s Inside Out, a dystopia book with a sci fi bent.  It’s funny but I was having a recent discussion with some friends about how I don’t read traditional sci fi books, yet I have such a passion for dystopia books.  They both have imaginative world building in common, so why are my tastes so clearly in the one camp and not the other?

I guess it boils down to the fact that in dystopian novels, despite an event that changes the world or society dramatically, the settings in these stories are still recognizable as similar to our own civilization even if they have been distorted by an apocalyptic event.  This can be true of the sci fi genre, but the very nature of science fiction allows for unrecognizable technology or creatures.  Anything the author can imagine goes and that’s probably what fans of this type of fiction love.  Me, I like reading about a world that our current one could become if dangerous events come to pass.  It’s that grain of truth in the world building that appeals to me and the way a good author builds on that grain and extends it to the extremes.

In sci fi books, there is too much focus on technology for me…technology for weapons, space travel, communications etc. and the liberal use of these devices can be what assists or saves the characters.  In dystopia fiction often technology has been lost or at least reduced, and the characters must rely more on their own inventiveness, willpower and strength to survive situations in their world.  Maybe because I didn’t have smart phones, tablets and ipods as a child, I relate more to characters who can take action without relying on technology.   Recently I was in Portland, Oregon and needed some directions and was amazed that no one seemed able to provide them.  Even people who hadn’t grown up with so much technology whipped out their phones instead of just telling me where to turn left or right to get to my destination.  I was both fascinated and a little horrified on how quickly people have become completely reliant on a gadget for such a basic skill.  Maybe it’s just me, but I much prefer Katniss’s bow to a computerized weapon…

In Inside Out Trella is a scrub who lives on the lower levels though her job cleaning the pipes of Inside gives her glimpses of the world of the uppers.  The scrubs are menial workers who live in overcrowded conditions without any choice as to career, having a family or any control over their lives.  Trella, like the rest of the scrubs, resents the uppers and the chip on her shoulder even alienates her from the rest of her fellow scrubs, with the exception of her friend Cognos.  It’s because of her fondness for Cognos that she is pressured to see the latest Prophet who spins stories of hope and a world of other possibilities.  Because Trella wants to protect Cognos from falling for the Prophet’s message, she sets out to prove that he is lying, but then discovers there may be more to what he says.   This leads her on a journey to discover the truth, the truth about the uppers, her fellow scrubs and even herself.   Although there were elements of tech in this story, they were secondary to the characters and the plot which was a mashup of Attica, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Anthem and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.  Read it and see what I mean.