Dystopian YA

The Grace Year, by Kim Liggett, has been variously compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, and Lord of the Flies, by reviewers and readers alike. I can see some parallels: The subjugation of women, with their fixed roles and color-coded hair ribbons, by men who use fear and ignorance to stifle female individuality; pitting the young girls against one another in a contest for supremacy; the artificially created isolation while waiting to see who survives. But this book is both more and less than any of those—more frightening in its depiction of the virulence that comes out when these girls are made to understand (or led to believe) that they will thrive only at the expense of other girls; yet less intense in the sense that the threats they encounter are many of them manufactured, some existing only in their minds. Certainly the relentless bullying of one group by another, and the ganging up of the many on the one, are true to form for all the books.

The story: Garner County is ruled by a strict form of religion, mostly unspecified although pseudo-Christian in some aspects. But there is a magical component that feels like it was introduced directly from the Salem Witch trials: Young girls are believed to have an uncanny set of powers that gradually come to fruition following puberty, and the girls are sent away to live together in isolation in a guarded compound for an entire year when they turn 16, supposedly so they can dissipate their magic into “the wild” and return to the County ready for marriage and motherhood. Their society is ruled by a council of men, and punishment for the flouting of rules includes banishment, stoning, hanging, and death by fire, further perpetuating the Salem reference. It’s baffling that most of the girls will compete so hotly to be a part of such a society, but if you know nothing else and are all too aware of the alternatives (banishment includes prostitution on the outskirts of the county, for instance, and that’s one of the less fatal destinies), it makes more sense.

Tierney James has other plans for herself. She has no desire to wed just to be controlled by man and motherhood, and has calculated that her best bet is to become a field worker, so she can be outdoors and remain as free of constraint as possible. But her hopes are shattered when she is given a veil, the symbol of being claimed by a man as soon as she returns from her “grace year.” This news is likewise unwelcome to other girls in her year who thought they were much more likely to claim one, so Tiffany is set up from the beginning of the year as a victim for bullies and malcontents. Tiffany is, because of her former tomboy ways, better prepared than most to survive in the wilderness to which they are all conveyed, and she soon realizes that the threat to her happiness—and safety, and survival—isn’t the wilderness, the woodland creatures, the poachers, or the guards, it’s the other girls. But she is unprepared for the mad intensity with which she is pursued…

They can call it magic.
I can call it madness.
But one thing is certain:
There is no grace here.”

THE GRACE YEAR

The narrative by Tierney is atmospheric and consuming. The fears of the girls are stoked up to exploding point by the little knowledge they are given, coupled with their dismay upon seeing other groups of girls, greatly decimated in number and also in health and looks, returning to the County from their own grace years. The dread and anticipation are palpable, and the greatest horror is the way the women and girls all act against one another, fueled by misogynistic feelings of insecurity and doubt about their futures. Tierney does her best to combat these knee-jerk reactions and pull some of the girls out of the mob mentality, but her success is sporadic and limited. I don’t want to tell too much about the plot or the individual events or relationships, because it’s something that should be experienced first-hand by the reader, but there are many unexpected twists, especially in the last third of the book, that will keep you guessing to the end.

This book is terrifying enough to qualify as a horror read as well as a dystopian one. (Who decided that a pink cover was appropriate?!) I can’t say it’s exactly enjoyable, because it’s so brutal; but it’s definitely a book you won’t forget, and one that deals in a graphic manner with more subtle currents in society that should be addressed, from stereotypical roles to religion gone awry. I particularly liked that the resolution of the book wasn’t neat and tied up with a bow, but left some room for both despair and hope.

This book came out in 2019, yet seems to be on everyone’s radar now, for some reason. Maybe it’s the delaying effect of the pandemic, or perhaps readers were subconsciously influenced by the attacks on our democracy and personal freedoms to read about this oppressive, unpleasant society as a warning. For whatever reason, you might want to pick it up while enthusiasm is running high.

Plagued

As I noted in a previous post, I had been plagued by the memory of a book I had read some years ago that should have been on my dystopian/post-apocalyptic list, or maybe in historical fiction, but wasn’t. That book was The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson, and after I finally dredged up the memory of the title, I discovered she had, since I read it back in the ’90s, written two sequels. I finally got around to revisiting Benson’s creation this week; my initial intention was simply to read the sequels, but I felt the need to refresh my memory of the first book, so I did a reread first, which changed my plans.

I finished the book this morning, and went to the library website to obtain the two sequels for my Kindle (neither was available); but after then browsing through some reviews on Goodreads and further pondering what I had just read based on some observations I found there, I decided the story, while intriguing in many ways, wasn’t something I wanted to pursue beyond the first volume.

Although I write this review blog and can be analytical about a book, I think I have confessed before that sometimes I am not a particularly discriminating reader. Certain things will turn me off immediately—repetitious word usage, bad grammar, lousy world-building, clichéd characterizations, wince-worthy love matches—but I am all too prone to be swept up by a story that has compelling elements without fully recognizing its flaws until I take a minute, and that was the case here.

I did love the set-up, which was a future/past double narrative of the Black Death in 1348 England and a post-“Outbreak” world in the future (which in the 1990s when it was written was actually 2005) after an antibiotic-resistant disease has decimated the population of the United States and done lesser but still severe damage to England.

The protagonist in the 1300s narrative is a Jewish doctor named Alejandro Canches, who is masquerading as a Spanish Christian after an unfortunate event necessitates he flee his home and conceal his identity. He becomes caught up in the priority of the Catholic Church to preserve the heads of state in Europe from the virulent plague that is ravaging every country, and is sent by the Pope across the English Channel from Avignon to the court of Edward III to impose draconian measures of quarantine and hopefully keep the large and contentious royal family of Plantagenets alive and healthy.

The narrative in the near-future section is carried by American Janie Crowe, a former surgeon who has lost her husband, daughter, and career to the recent pandemic and is starting over by attempting to qualify as a medical archaeologist. She travels to London with her assistant, Caroline, to take a variety of soil samples she will use in her doctoral dissertation project. The world in England post-pandemic is a closely monitored one with bureaucracy impeding every move, particularly those of foreign nationals, and Biocops on watch for the slightest infraction of health protocols. In the course of her work, Janie will unwittingly dig up an artifact that has the potential to release an ancient plague for which there is no modern cure.

The story-telling is absorbing and keeps up a fairly brisk pace, but the editing left something to be desired in terms of anachronistic and repetitive language, plus some scenes that are unnecessarily drawn out with superfluous amounts of detail; it’s not exactly obvious that this is a first-time writer, but the narrative could definitely have been tighter. It was easy to invest in the personalities and individual quirks of the two main characters, but less easy to overlook some of the anomalies that take a good premise and make it slightly ridiculous as less-than-believable events transpire one after the other. And while introducing a romantic element into the 1300s part of the story worked nicely, the one in the near-future sections was just awkward.

The thing that bothered me the most—which is odd, because I am usually a fan of magical realism or mystical features—was the source of the remedy, the midwife Mother Sarah and her centuries-long legacy. We never really learn how she came to develop her healing knowledge, and the mysterious natural elements that conspire to conceal or reveal her presence remain likewise unexplained. I would have enjoyed all these details if they had been integrated into any kind of logical system but, as they are written, they are merely frivolous and unsatisfying window dressing that ultimately detract.

If you like this kind of story I wouldn’t tell you not to read it; there is much to enjoy here. But while the details of the past are more believable (and better written), the way the future tale plays out is hard to swallow and also kind of silly.

If you are looking for a better version of these events, even down to the past/future component, I recommend you seek out the award-winning Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, instead. That one I can unreservedly recommend! (And then follow it up with some or all of her other time travel fiction.)

Station Eleven

As a huge fan of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, I can’t believe this book never came up on my radar until now! I think I might have heard of it before, but never clocked exactly what it was about, and its title doesn’t reveal much about the contents. Then when I read that it was about a traveling troupe of actors, I may also have discounted its appeal to me. But so many people mention it on “What Should I Read Next?” (a Facebook group) when asked for good end-of-the-world fiction that I put it on my “want to read” list and finally got around to it this week.

Although the seed of the book is a worldwide flu pandemic, we don’t really learn much about that flu, because it is so deadly that there is no time for doctors to ponder origin, discuss cases, analyze it to reveal symptoms, search for a cure, or produce a vaccine, as people have done during our own pandemic that is (hopefully) slowly winding down.

In this iteration, the flu arrives in New York City on a plane from Russia; within hours, everyone who was on the flight is dead, and within another day or so almost everyone who came into contact with those carriers is also dead or dying. Medical personnel inform their loved ones, who tell their friends, and there is a mass exodus out of the city, which ends as each exposed person is overcome and passes it in turn to the next. Other planes come into other cities from other countries, all of which were exposed to the flu prior to the United States, and soon, even for the immune or the lucky, there is nowhere to flee. The entire world has been infected and overwhelmed, and civilization rapidly comes to an end. Planes are grounded, trains and cars cease to run as fuel runs out or becomes stale, the failure of electricity takes down all forms of communication and creature comforts, and soon the one percent of the population left standing is isolated wherever they happened to end up, in a dark and silent world.

The story begins when an elderly actor experiences a heart attack while onstage playing King Lear, on the eve of the pandemic. Strange connections to this man—the paramedic-in-training who leaps to the stage to try to revive him, the little girl who plays one of Lear’s daughters, his first ex-wife, who is the author/artist of a strange set of apocalyptic graphic novels called Station Eleven, his best friend from boyhood, and his second ex-wife and son—are the characters who tell the story, which reaches from the actor’s distant past on an island off the coast of Canada to 15 years into the future in the territory surrounding the Great Lakes, after the pandemic has decimated the world. The vehicle for the story is a band of musicians and actors (including that child actor who played a daughter of Lear) who have teamed up to travel a small route from town to town around the shores of Lake Michigan, alternating musical concerts and productions of Shakespeare every other night to keep themselves fed and give them purpose. The thing that makes the story so involving is how all the initial characters, so tenuously connected by this one man, end up in associations of which they themselves are unaware, and in possession of artifacts of one another’s lives. What is nice about the story is that although a few of these connections are revealed, thus providing some closure between certain players, the story doesn’t wrap up with a bow, but ends leaving some ironies intact.

Survival is insufficient.

STAR TREK

I loved how the story jumped from person to person and told their part of the story without pointing out the obvious connections, instead allowing the reader an “Ahah!” moment every once in a while. I loved the scene-setting descriptions of how the world has devolved, and how people respond to it depending on who they were and how old they were when the pandemic hit, and therefore what they remember. It seemed so realistic when parents would argue about whether they should continue to teach their children about the past with its internet, cell phones, and moon launches (or hey, ice cream and air conditioning!), or if there was little point in trying to explain such foreign concepts to those who would probably never experience them in this world that has returned to travel on foot, sleep cycles governed by the sun, and lives that are focused almost solely on survival. I loved the portrayals of lawlessness and violence set against the kindnesses and native courtesies preserved against all likelihood.

I love that I have discovered yet another post-apocalyptic story worthy of adding to my collection! And I am also excited because this book made me think of one that I read a long time ago but never remembered to log into my Goodreads list, and when I finally dredged up the author’s name from my sometimes spotty memory and went in search of the book, I discovered that after I read it, she wrote two sequels! That book was The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson, and my intention is to read the sequels (Burning Road, and The Physician’s Tale) just as soon as my Young Adult Literature class at UCLA is over and I am no longer keeping up with my students’ reading schedules. June, here I come!

My year of reading: 2021

It’s New Year’s Day! Time to look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and reveal which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads conveniently kept track of statistics related to my reading goals, so before I get specific, here are some of mine:

This year I read 132 books, which consisted of 50,676 pages.

The shortest was a Linwood Barclay novella of 81 pages, while the longest was one of the Robin Hobb Farseer fantasies at 914 pages. My average book length was 383 pages.

The most popular book I (re)read was Liane’ Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, shelved by almost 1.5 million people!

And now, here are some categories that highlight the year’s journey, from my memories of 2021 reads:

Most excited about:

Return of the Thief, the conclusion to the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, finally arrived, which gave me the perfect opportunity to enjoy re-reading this series for what, the fifth time? She published the first book, The Thief, in 1996! If you are looking for a nontypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves, and Return. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.

Best discoveries (in any genre):
ROBIN HOBB. I got lost for a month or more in three of her Farseer high fantasy trilogies, and still have two more on my TBR list, which I hope to get to early in the year.

DERVLA McTIERNAN: A wonderful new mystery series writer with books set in Ireland

Best science fiction discoveries:
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher
A Psalm for the Wild-built, by Becky Chambers (first in a series still to come)
Both of these would fit best into the dystopian category.

New time travel:
The Jane Austen Project, and The Dream Daughter, both from unlikely authors…

New fantasy I loved:
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune
The Art Mages of Lure series, by Jordan Rivet (Curse Painter is the first book)

Most memorable read:
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Brynn Greenwood

Most affecting mainstream fiction with an historical backdrop:
This Tender Land and Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Kreuger

Continuing fan of:
Melina Marchetta for The Place on Dalhousie

On board with the rest of the crowd:
Author Sally Hepworth, with The Good Sister being at the top of the list.

And that about covers the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of most of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorite books.

A boy and his dog

I seem to be gravitating lately towards coming-of-age stories about boys and their dogs (see The Story of Edgar Sawtelle), but although it is, in fact, a coming-of-age story, A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher, is a special one, being as well a post-apocalyptic saga. I am a sucker for dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction; I don’t know exactly what draws me, but I think it is, as the character Griz says about his own liking for these books, that “it’s interesting to see what the Before thought the After would be like.”

This is an unusual sample of the genre, since there was no bomb, no pandemic, no big catastrophe—just a slow dwindling of fertility (speculatively attributed to pesticides, food additives and pollution) until humanity arrived at the Baby Bust generation, whose members got older but didn’t reproduce (except for about .0001 percent), and as the people died out, nature slowly began to take over. Griz’s family are among that infinitesimally small percentage, Griz’s parents having given birth to four children. The family has isolated itself in the Outer Hebrides, on one of a series of islands off the coast of Scotland, and lives a careful life, coming in contact with only one other family (who live on another island)—one of whose sons will presumably eventually marry their daughter. They take judicious foraging trips to the mostly empty mainland to acquire the things they are unable to build, so that they have a couple of sailboats, a windmill for power, some miscellaneous tools and weapons, and a fair number of books—nonfiction how-to in the case of the father, and fiction/escape in the case of Griz, who is something of a bookworm. They call these foraging trips “viking,” turning the noun into a verb. They also have several dogs (also a rarity in terms of fertility), two of which (Jip and Jess) are Griz’s.

One day they spot red sails on the horizon, and a stranger comes to visit—a man named Brand, who brags about his extensive travels to other exotic shores and who has both necessities and wonders to trade. The family treats him with a healthy dose of suspicion, but his engaging manner and the tall tales he shares over dinner soon has them more at their ease. Next morning, however, Brand’s sailboat is seen fleeing over the horizon, and he has taken Griz’s dog Jess with him. Griz, in a rage, grabs some basic supplies and jumps in his own boat to follow. No one is stealing his dog. This is the set-up for all the adventure and discoveries to come.

The world-building in this book seems both inventive and inevitable, with the author knowing just what would happen to a world without people. The huge, nearly empty environs are beautifully depicted, with the overtones of the tragedy of the past subsumed into the matter-of-fact acknowledgment of present-day details. The voice is appealing—Griz is an endearing combination of knowledgeable and innocent, relying on what he has been told but also able to take in new information, process it, and find inventive ways to use it. And despite a difficult and challenging journey, he remains doggedly optimistic (pardon the pun). The prose is simple, beautiful, and full of meaningful observations. There is a lot of content packed into this fairly short book by the time you take into account the back story, current events, musings, and action sequences. It also keeps you moving because you get the occasional ominous hint of things to come, which I normally find irritating but didn’t mind here because of the format of the book (it’s written as a journal, partially after the fact).

The bottom line: I’m just going to say it without reservation—I loved this book! I think it would appeal to anyone who enjoys this genre of fiction, whether (older) teen or adult, and perhaps even those who don’t normally read the genre, because of its inventiveness and the headlong manner of its story-telling. It’s completely self-contained, but I would definitely not say no to a sequel! The potential is there…

Predictable dystopian

The Fight for Power and The Will to Survive are books #2 and 3 in the trilogy that begins with The Rule of Three, by Eric Walters. I read and reviewed the first book here, and then solicited the other two books from the library, so I waited to read them until they became available. (I wasn’t going to spend money on them, even on Kindle.)

I decided to finish the trilogy, even though I was less than impressed with #1. Book #2 was more of the same—literally, since it begins in the middle of the scene in which the first one ended—and Book #3 repeats that process.

Again, I enjoyed the flying scenes and some of the ingenuity used by the survivors in achieving their goals, and again, I thought that what could have been a much more exciting tale of dystopia was rendered somewhat mundane by the laborious writing style. A couple of moral dilemmas gave some spice to both volumes, but ultimately the fate of everyone involved was pretty much foreseeable from space! You don’t want your dystopian fiction to be this predictable.

It’s not horrible by any means, and I think might even be quite enjoyable for a certain type of kid of about middle-school age, but this series is never going to be mentioned in the same breath with The Hunger Games, Legend, or even The Maze Runner, which I heartily disliked for its inconsistencies and ridiculous plot while admiring its ability to mobilize fans. If you just can’t resist any dystopian tale, check it out from the library like I did and save your dollars for better fiction.

Three is too many

I tend to love dystopian and post-apocalyptic stuff. I don’t think it’s because I’m a worst-case-scenario kind of person, it’s that I love the ingenuity and creativeness with which the author has created the world, and also the way the characters rise (or don’t) to the occasion.

I picked up The Rule of Three, by Eric Walters, with the expectation of enjoying it, and I did…to a certain extent. The initial premise, which is basically the end of technology, was a familiar one (although the obvious conclusion—electro-magnetic pulse—is never mentioned). Suddenly, everything dies—computers, cell phones, electricity, all late-model cars run by computer—and all anyone can think of is to return to their homes to regroup, check on their families, and figure out what will happen next.

The apocalypse is set in present day, with the disaster happening now, to people like us, and it’s done plausibly, making it relateable. But…there are some major flaws.

The book is set in a suburban community with a small police force, and the protagonist’s mother is the police chief. Next door to Adam and his mother and siblings lives a somewhat mysterious retired guy, Herb, who quickly becomes the driving force behind finding and keeping security and promoting survival in their immediate neighborhood of about 1600 people. Herb’s extensive life experience in international covert operations (we assume he was CIA) makes him the oracle, and Adam is his willing disciple.

The good thing about this novel is the way it lays out the likely progression from unease to panic to lawlessness in the event of a catastrophe so overwhelming. The bad thing about it is that it does so with much less sense of drama and suspense than it should. In some cases it feels more like a survivalist handbook than a story. There are a lot of ingenious ideas and solutions to problems that would naturally arise from such a situation, but they are revealed without impact, as if anybody could think of them. Obviously the writer has done his research, but the delivery is too matter-of-fact for
this kind of story.

Each time a challenge arises, whether it’s looters at the grocery store, a valuable tanker full of gasoline that needs protecting, or bigger decisions about how to bring the community together, Herb has an answer. He is depicted as the chess master, always eight steps ahead, and the police chief and everyone else—including the supposedly “bad” people—are content to follow his lead once he speaks up in his soft and reasonable voice and simply explains the facts. Dissenters are rapidly brought around to his point of view.

The idea that people would respond positively to a person with natural leadership qualities isn’t surprising; but the supposition that this one man has all the answers, has plotted out the logical progression, and rises to meet every occasion and deflect the worst that could happen is a little god-like. Not to mention the fact that his basement might as well contain a lamp with a subservient genie in it, bringing upstairs all good things—canned food, hand grenades—in the nick of time.

Large parts of the book are obviously written for teens, giving Adam’s inner thoughts about his friends, the girl he likes, his worries about his missing dad (he’s a pilot, stranded by the emergency in Chicago—they all hope). But there is a lack of spontaneity in the writing that causes Adam to come across as stiff and awkward and makes the scenes of friendship and love unexciting in the same way that the serial problems are solved too easily.

For me, the best part about the book was Adam’s love of flight and his adventures piloting his ultralight in pursuit of information for the community. I probably enjoyed that so much because in my 20s I was a typesetter for three aviation magazines, including one exclusively about ultralights, so I recognized a lot of the jargon and enjoyed the depiction of soaring over the countryside in what is basically a glorified lawnmower with seats and wings. (In all the time I worked for the aviation mags, I was never persuaded into the air in one of the homebuilt aircraft they featured.) But these scenes were not enough to redeem the rest of the tale from its somewhat wooden tone.

This is a three-part story, with the first book ending after one big challenge to the community’s autonomy, with the promise of fallout to be revealed in the next book. I will probably read book #2, just for closure, but I’m not sure I’ll stick it out through a third one, and if I had read a few of the reviews on Goodreads I might not have gotten involved with book #1 in the first place. I appreciated the chapter appended at the end with the details of what one should have on hand to survive such an eventuality more than I did the book preceding it.

If this sounds like the kind of book you might enjoy, my recommendation would be to instead seek out an oldie but goodie, Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon, for a similar story with a lot more human interest and a starkly realistic resolution to replace the somewhat pat answers offered by this one. You would also appreciate Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 629 pages of disaster-driven excitement.

2020 Faves

I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.

Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
that way.

YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES

Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).

The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.

The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.

The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!

I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.

These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.

ADULT FICTION

As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.

Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.

And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.

Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.

Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.

Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.

Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.

The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.

The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.

These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.

I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?

Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.

Dystopia 4 Kids, cont.

I mentioned about five or six posts ago that I had begun Charlie Higson’s young adult dystopian series The Enemy (review here) but would probably stretch out the reading of the entire thing by interspersing it with other books, which I have done. But this week I jumped back into it and quickly made my way through books #2, #3, and now I’m midway through #4. Finally, in this book, there has come a hint (no more so far) of how this whole thing started, which is certainly incentive to keep going.

And I do need a certain amount of incentive. On the one hand, I am still in awe of Higson’s abilities to write compelling characters about whose fate you come to care within a very short time of “meeting” them; but on the other hand, I’m wondering when I’m going to hit my personal limit for unmitigated gore. Because this is such a good story, my tolerance seems broader and more sustained than I would have expected, but after 3+ books of it I am getting as glazed in the eye as the kids who are encountering it and either going catatonic or becoming inured to its effects!

Lest anyone be either unduly impressed or put off by the size of the books, which are listed as 400+ pages apiece, keep in mind that this is a young adult series, and page count is not nearly as significant in terms of density. These are smaller-than-usual books, the typeface is several points larger than in an adult novel, and both the page margins and the leading (the space between lines) is generous. I’m finding it possible to zip through one of these in about two days, and that’s with reading only a couple of hours per day. So if you are intrigued by the reviews, by all means pick up the first one and see what you think. But one suggestion I would make is that if you don’t have a strong stomach, then don’t read these during meals!

Dystopia 4 kids

As a teen librarian, I have been recommending Charlie Higson’s “Young James Bond” books for years to kids of a certain age, but in all that time I never really registered his other series, although we stocked it. Recently, I saw the first book offered at a discount and picked up a copy of The Enemy, his first in a series of six dystopian/zombie books.

“Zombie” is a little bit of a misnomer for the villains in these books: Some kind of plague washed over the City of London (or the world? nobody in this first story knows for sure), and everyone over the age of 14 caught it. They first got sick, and then they lost their minds; some of them died, but the rest went around indiscriminately trying to eat anything that wasn’t nailed down, including their own families. So all the kids 14 and below are on their own, figuring out how to survive and having to fight off the grownups or, as some poignantly call them as they shamble around the city, the “moms and dads.”

The story opens on a crew of about 50 kids who are living in an abandoned Waitrose supermarket building, which two of their number who are good with mechanics have secured with the previously existing metal shutters and some other nifty reinforcements. They’ve been doing okay up to now, but since the food in the supermarket ran out, they have had to forage farther afield to feed everyone, and have had to accept things to eat that they wouldn’t previously have considered. So when they check out the underground swimming pool at the local rec center and see an untouched vending machine full of Mars bars and Cokes, they could be forgiven for not being as careful as they should have been with their scouting efforts before jumping into the pool to retrieve the booty. This is the first graphic incident in which we see the ruthlessness of the enemy they are up against, and this is when Higson lets the reader know not to get too fond of anyone, because everyone is disposable!

The writing is so atmospheric, almost like a script in the way it sets up and delivers scenes to the reader. It’s also (be warned) bloody, graphic, and gruesome, almost to the level of The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey, which is saying something! But to alleviate that atmosphere, there are strong friendships and alliances, distinctive characters, witty banter, and a powerful narrative voice.

This series couldn’t help but bring to mind the equally gory Gone books by Michael Grant, in which a strange translucent dome comes down over a beach town and all the adults are magically transported elsewhere, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. I believe both authors drew on the classic Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, and Higson also cites I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, as his inspiration. I enjoyed Grant’s first book but honestly felt that by book three he had jumped the shark; I hold out much higher hopes for Higson’s tale of horror.

Higson says in an interview (at the back of the book) that his two “wants” were to write a book where the kids were in charge and supposedly free to do whatever they wanted (on your own in London! Wheee!), but also a book that was truly scary because they were impeded by a serious problem. One of his readers confided in Higson that he felt safe reading the James Bond books because the protagonist does grow up to be, well, James Bond, so he’s never going to get seriously hurt or killed off. Higson accepted that as a challenge for this series, and says that he would purposefully write his characters to be endearing in some way to the reader before deciding to eliminate them, and also that he would read his pages to his son before bed to see if they were scary enough to give him nightmares. (Note to Social Services: Don’t give Higson custody of any more kids.)

The book is scary, and also gripping as the kids are approached by an envoy from another group, whose members have taken over and are living in Buckingham Palace and want the Waitrose kids and another group from the same Holloway neighborhood to join up with them. They claim the neighborhood is much more secure there, as are the grounds and buildings of the Palace, and that they are growing their own food to provide for themselves, so they need the help. The Waitrose kids wonder: Is it salvation, or is it a trap?

Because everything in life is always a little too good to be true, there are of course things they are not being told by their prospective hosts. They also run into some serious hiccups in getting across town to the Palace, and begin to notice disturbing new behavior from some of the grownups, who seem to be becoming both more aware and more organized. Then there are the hidden dangers from zoo animals in the park, evil people living in the tube stations…you name it, there are perils on every side.

The brilliance and also the frustration of this series is that the first book begins well after the main action has already transpired, and because you only have the children’s perspectives, you don’t know what happened: Was it really a plague, some kind of biological weapon gone wrong, or something else? No one knows or even wonders much any more—it happened, life changed forever, and at this point, it just is. The big question on everyone’s mind who is old enough to speculate: What happens when their oldest members
turn 14?

On Goodreads I discovered that book #2 jumps back in time and is a sort of prequel to fill you in on some of what has gone before. I can’t wait to find out.

My experience with series is that I am always on a seesaw trying to decide whether I hope to love it or hope to hate it; for one that has seven books in it, I dip a little more towards “hope to hate” because taking a time-out from my headlong rush to read everything in one big eclectic mashup in order to pursue one series by one author makes me feel a bit stalled in my tracks. On the other hand, if it’s a good series, there’s the payoff. I don’t think I will read #2 immediately (I have 12 books in the queue ahead of it), but it won’t be that long from now that it persuades me to take it up again. That’s saying a lot, because I am neither a horror nor a zombie aficionado. But I like good writing, good story-telling, and engaging characters, and this series has it all.