Posts Tagged ‘dystopia’

An isolated hotel in the Swiss Alps, a small number of guests and staff on hand, then a body in the water tank. Sounds like the set-up for an Agatha Christie closed-circle mystery, but there’s a twist — a big one — to Hanna Jameson’s The Last One (Atria, digital galley).  Historian Jon Keller is at an academic conference when word reaches the hotel that there’s a world-wide nuclear war. In the ensuing panic, many of the guests take off for the nearest airport in hopes of escape but about 20 elect to stay at the hotel, which has power and supplies. But cell service and wi-fi soon disappear, and Jon can’t reach his wife and two daughters in California, or anyone else for that matter. He and the others are cut off from civilization, provided it even exists.

As far as dystopian thrillers go, The Last makes for provocative reading. The group dynamics are interesting, as are the details of day-to-day survival. Toothpaste is hoarded, bullets go missing, strangers hook up, water is rationed. The water situation and paranoia are heightened when a girl’s corpse is found in one of the hotel’s reserve tanks, and Jon begins an investigation that he includes in his daily chronicle of events. This murder mystery is the least effective part of the plot, though. and its eventual resolution kind of a jumble. But other secrets will keep you turning pages to find out Jon’s fate — and that of the world.

In Alafair Burke’s new domestic suspense tale, The Better Sister (HarperCollins, digital galley), the relationship between sisters Nicky and Chloe is more than a little complicated. Growing up in Ohio, they were chalk and cheese. Wild child Nicky married lawyer Adam and had baby Ethan, but when she started drinking too much, Adam turned to sensible Chloe for help in getting custody of toddler Ethan. Several years later, with both Adam and Chloe living in New York, they marry. Now Adam works for a corporate firm, Chloe’s a successful magazine editor, and Ethan is a gangly 16-year-old. Nicky’s still in Ohio, supposedly sober and selling jewelry on Etsy. But everything quickly changes when Chloe finds Adam’s body in their weekend home and Ethan is then arrested for the murder. Nicky shows up, and the two sisters work together to free their son.

Burke puts her own experiences as an attorney to good use, but her writing skills are on full display as she artfully doles out pieces of the puzzle from the main characters’ perspectives. Nicky, Chloe and Ethan all have secrets, and the neatly timed revelations up the suspense as one surprise follows another.

Angie Kim is a former trial lawyer whose first novel, Miracle Creek (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley) is a layered courtroom drama that thoughtfully explores themes of family and forgiveness. Korean immigrants Young and Pak Woo and their teenage daughter Mary live in the small Virginia community of Miracle Creek, where they have started a hyperbaric oxygen therapy business in the barn behind their house. An explosion at book’s beginning kills two patients and injures Pak and Mary. A year later, both are among the witnesses at the murder trial of Elizabeth Ward, the mother of an autistic son who died in the explosion. Elizabeth, who took the night off from the therapy session and was smoking by the creek, is thought to have started the fire that led to the tragedy, although some want to point the finger at Pak and Young who stand to profit from the insurance.

Miracle Creek is itself divided by the tragedy and trial. Advocates for special needs kids who are anti-HBOT were protesting at the facility the day of the explosion and are on hand for the trial. So are the patients who escaped, including a doctor who knows more about the mysterious note found on the scene than he has told anyone. Young, always the obedient wife, does what her husband tells her but wishes she knew what her daughter is hiding. Elizabeth, formerly seen as a perfect, loving mother, is a stoic enigma. The result is a story as twisty as the creek providing its name.




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Ever dreamed of hibernating through winter? In the reality-adjacent Wales of Jasper Fforde’s  wild and crazy new novel Early Riser (Viking Penguin, digital galley), winter is so horrible that the majority of the population literally hibernates in huge, high-rise Dormitoria. Many of them are under the influence of Morphenox, a trademarked drug that suppresses calorie-robbing dreams. Heaven forbid if your stored fat doesn’t last till spring; you could be one of those poor souls who Died in Sleep. By comparison, the risk that Morphonox could turn you into a cannibalistic nightwalker is so slight that most pony up the bucks for the drug or have a job that guarantees it. Which is why orphan Charlie Worthing enlists as a novice Winter Counsel, guarding the sleeping masses through SlumberDown from such perils as maurauding nightwalkers and the fearsome Winterfolk. Adventure awaits, as do subplots and satire aplenty, when Charlie goes searching for the source of a viral dream featuring a blue Buick and grasping hands.

Fforde, best-known for his fantastic Thursday Next series that began with The Eyre Affair, is as clever and inventive as ever with this stand-alone. He pushes the boundaries of absurdity at times, and the plot threatens to collapse under the weight of the world-building. But the wordplay is so much fun, as are the many deft and delightful details and pop culture references. Only Fforde — or maybe Monty Python — could envision a creature whose ominous presence is announced by the faint strains of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. That’s entertainment.

Dystopia is disquieting in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers (Random House, digital galley), written in a lovely minor key. In her 2012 first novel The Age of Miracles, the end of the world as we know it was triggered by the slowing of the Earth’s rotation and narrated by a California sixth-grader. The story was elegiac and intimate as the ordinary rites of adolescence continued in the face of global catastrophe. “We kids were not as afraid as we should have been. We were too young to be scared, too immersed in our own small worlds, too convinced of our own permanence.”

The focus is wider, the voice omniscient in The Dreamers as people in a small California town fall victim to a mysterious sleeping sickness. The first victims are college students who fall asleep after a night of partying and slide into comas. But then scattered townspeople and the health workers caring for them sicken, too, and the viral epidemic spreads so that within just a matter of weeks the area is quarantined. Walker moves in out of the dreams and lives of the infected and the still-well. Especially poignant are the two young girls left alone when their prepper father falls ill. Their basement is full of canned goods, and they try to maintain a semblance of normalcy, taking in stray pets. Next door is a young couple who monitor their newborn for symptoms after she is inadvertently exposed. Across town, two students come together as volunteers nursing dreamers in the college library.

Walker’s tone is measured, almost hypnotic throughout. The result is a story as mysterious as a dream, as disturbing as a nightmare.


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watchmakerAt first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury, digital galley) reads like really good historical fiction, evoking the atmosphere of 1880s London — bustling gaslit streets, boisterous pubs, conversations buzzing about the latest scientific discoveries or the new production from Gilbert & Sullivan. But then as Natasha Pulley’s first novel follows the solitary life of a young telegraph operator at the British Home Office, oddities appear, like the intricate watch that Thaniel Steepleton finds on his bed. Soon after, the watch save his life as it sounds an alarm coinciding with a bomb set by Irish terrorists, and Thaniel goes in search of its mysterious maker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mora. He’s another solitary soul but a mechanical genius when it comes to fashioning timepieces and automata. He’s also strangely prescient.

Thaniel and Mora’s growing friendship is complicated by Mora’s secrets, official suspicion that the watchmaker may be the sought-after bombmaker, and the entrance of Grace Carrow, a strong-minded Oxford physicist in need of a husband to secure her independence and a family inheritance. Questions of love and fate play into the intricate and surprising plot, which may yet hinge on the actions of Mora’s playful mechanical octopus Katsu, who hides in dresser drawers and steals socks. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is much like Katsu — whimsical, magical, oddly plausible and totally enchanting.

uprootedSpeaking of enchantment, Naomi Novik puts readers under a once-upon-a-time spell with Uprooted (Del Rey/Random House, digital galley), drawing on Polish fairy and folk tales to conjure up a magically medieval world. Readers familiar with Novik’s alternate history Dragons of Temeraire series may be surprised to know that the Dragon of this story is a wizard who once every 10 years — in return for protecting the region from the evil, encroaching Wood — selects a village girl as his serving maid. Narrator Agnieszka, plain and pragmatic, is surprised when she’s picked to accompany the enigmatic Dragon to his isolated tower. Left to her own devices and longing for home, Agnieszka is an initially awkward housekeeper and cook until she develops her true talents and realizes the reason she was chosen. Eventually she becomes part of a perilous quest involving a young prince, a lost queen and the thorny depths of the sentient forest.

Novik’s immersive writing reminds me a bit of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Practical Magic and/or one of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings. Magic.

aliceThe cover of Christina Henry’s Alice (Ace/Penguin, digital galley), with its bloody-eyed rabbit in menswear, is your first clue that this is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. True, Henry is inspired by the classic, borrowing characters’ names and familiar motifs, but her wonderland — the Old City — is dark and dystopian. When a fire engulfs an insane asylum, an amnesiac Alice and fellow patient Hatcher escape, but so does the ravenous, flying Jabberwocky. The fugitive pair, seeking shelter and then revenge, follow the maze-like streets of the crumbling city, its sectors presided over by the overlords known as Rabbit, Caterpillar, Walrus and Cheshire. Crime is commonplace, from thievery to human trafficking, and evil is afoot and aloft. This is midnight-dark fantasy, occasionally confusing and not for the squeamish. Henry leaves enough threads hanging to spin a sequel. I’d read it.

inkandboneLibrarians are both guardians of knowledge and brave warriors in Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone: The Great Library (NAL/Penguin, digital galley), a rousing YA action-adventure set in a near future where “knowledge is power.”  The great Library of Alexandria has survived the ages and its librarians rule the world by strictly controlling access to all original books. The librarians’ alchemy allows regular folk to read “mirror” versions of select volumes on blank tablets, but the ownership of real texts is forbidden, and the printing press is unknown. A thriving book-smuggling trade for collectors is threatened both by tyrannical librarians and their fearsome automata, as well as by the heretical “burners” who destroy books as an act of rebellion. At 16, Jess Brightwell is an experienced thief and smuggler in London who loves reading real books, and whose father wants him to become a spy among the librarians. But first he must pass the entrance exams and survive the training at Alexandria. So, it’s Harry Potter meets The Book Thief meets young Indiana Jones, sort of.

Caine puts her experience as a successful series writer to good use, creating vibrant — if somewhat — stock characters in her steampunk-studded world. Jess’s classmates include a brilliant Arab scholar, a mean-minded Italian playboy, a prickly Welsh girl and a talented German inventor. Their stern teacher has secrets of his own, some of which are revealed when the students are sent to rescue a cache of ancient books in the library at Oxford, a city caught up in a brutish war. (Shades of Henry V). Surprises await, as do romance and betrayal. But we have to wait until next summer for the next book. Ah, for a little alchemy to make it appear sooner.

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realmagicIf you want to be a fairy princess when you grow up, or are considering clairvoyancy as a career path, two new books likely will change your mind. They may, however, encourage you to try your hand at fantasy writing. Warning: the field is quite crowded, and these two first-timers set the bar quite high.
The cover and title of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic (Viking/Pamela Dorman, digital galley) made me think it was going to be some light paranormal fantasy, but happily I was proved wrong. Barker’s debut is a well-thought-out epic referencing literature and fairy tales and reminds me of works by Deborah Harkness and Robin McKinley.
Grad student Nora Fischer, disappointed in love and academia, goes AWOL from a friend’s mountain wedding and wanders through a portal into an alternate world, although it takes her awhile to realize the Gatsbyesque land with all the beautiful people is an illusion created by the Faitoren, a fairy people.
Thoroughly bewitched by dashing Prince Raclan and his manipulative mother Ilissa, Nora’s finally rescued by powerful, enigmatic magician Arundiel and must adapt to a strange medieval world in which neither educated women nor good hygiene are particularly valued. Stuck in Arundiel’s isolated castle, Nora eventually convinces her grim host to teach her magic, hoping that this skill will get her farther in the divided kingdom, or at least closer to home, than peeling potatoes and milking cows. But she’s still a mere beginner when war breaks out, and Nora’s well-meaning actions could cost lives.
After a sluggish beginning, Barker imagines a convincing world that’s familiar from fairy tales but different enough to surprise. There be dragons. And ice demons. It’s 500-plus plus pages of magic and intrigue, with a hint of romance and an ending sufficient to the day. I’m hoping for a sequel.
boneseasonWe already know there’s going to be a sequel to Samantha Shannon’s enthralling The Bone Season (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley), which she began writing as a 19-year-old student at Oxford (all of two years ago) and is the first in a projected seven-book series. That may sound daunting, but Shannon’s world-building is phenomenal and seductive.
In 2059, Great Britain is ruled by the totalitarian corporate body known as Scion, which has it all over Big Brother in the enforcement department, hunting down clairvoyants of all stripes. Paige, a rare dreamwalker, has allied herself with the criminal underworld and when she is captured by Scion after killing an underguard, she expects torture and execution in the Tower. Instead, she awakens after five days of hellish hallucinations in the Lost City of Oxford and discovers that she is a prisoner of the Rephaim, otherworldly humanoids who need Scion’s voyants to fight off flesh-eating creatures who rampage through the aether. The stern blood-consort Warden Arcturus becomes Paige’s “keeper,” but her existence is precarious at best as she tries to contact old friends in London and make new ones among her fellow prisoners.
Intricate, provocative and richly imagined, The Bone Season is meaty dystopian fiction. More, please.

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Wildfires out West and floods in Florida. Just more weird weather, or — dum, dum, dum — the end of the world as we know it? In this summer’s most buzzed-about book, The Age of Miracles, first-time novelist Karen Thompson Walker posits an end-days scenario triggered by the slowing of the Earth’s rotation.

“We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it,” begins narrator Julia, a Southern California sixth-grader. She recalls that they were distracted by weather and war, worrying about the wrong things: “the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different  — unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.”

As far as global castastrophes goes, “the slowing” is a pretty good one. Birds plummet from the sky as gravity shifts. Whales beach themselves. Long days stretch into  white nights. Some plants begin to die, some people sicken, including Julia’s mother, who like many others, begins hoarding canned goods and candles. A period of panic sets in before the government decides society should continue 24/7, even if it means school begins in the middle of the night. The “real-timers” rebel, preferring to stick to circadian rhythms, although they are ostracized by their neighbors. A good many pick up and light out for the territory to establish their own communities.

Apocalypse nigh, of course, is a speculative fiction staple, and dystopia the favorite setting of current YA novels. But The Age of Miracles lacks the vitality of many of those books, such as Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Walker’s tone is elegiac, her writing elegant as Julia details both the ordinary travails of early adolescence — best friends, first loves, sleepovers, soccer games — and such extraordinary events as raging solar storms and rips in the magnetic field. It’s this counterpoint that makes for an intimate, involving narrative.

“We kids were not as afraid as we should have been,” Julia confesses. “We were too young to be scared, too immersed  in our own small worlds, too convinced of our own permanence.”

How much you enjoy The Age of Miracles will depend on how much you care about Julia’s small world of family and friends — her weary mother, her secretive father, her feisty grandfather, her classmate Seth — and all the little dramas of life going on.

Open Book: I read a digital galley via NetGalley of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (Random House). Soon it will disappear from my Nook, but not from my memory.

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“She was cyborg, and she would never go to the ball.”

Laugh if you want. I admit to a chuckle upon reading that sentence early on in Cinder, Marissa Meyer’s first novel, a YA SF reboot (sorry, couldn’t resist) of the familiar fairy tale. It’s an inventive adventure, but most of the humor is inadvertent. Meyers immerses readers in the future dystopia of New Beijing, whose teeming population is threatened both by the mind-bending residents of the moon, knows as Lunars, and by a dreadful deadly plague.

So, Cinder has more to worry about than going to the ball and dancing with handsome Prince Kai. And it’s not just because her wicked stepmother won’t pay for a party dress for her, like those being fashioned for her stepsisters Pearl and Peony. Nor is it just because Kai doesn’t realize that the pretty, if grease-stained, teen-age mechanic repairing his android has a steel-plated foot and other non-human parts and wiring.

Cinder is cyborg, which means she has no human rights and is thus vulnerable to being drafted as a guinea pig for palace researchers testing for a new plague vaccine. Once drafted, the “volunteers” are never seen again, much like the human plague sufferers who are quarantined and warehoused.

The exception is Kai’s father, the emperor, who is dying in isolated splendor in the palace. Beware evil Lunar Queen Levana, who comes bearing the gift of a possible antidote. She wants to marry Prince Kai in exchange for the secret. Pity her niece Selene didn’t survive girlhood or she could have rightfully assumed the Lunar throne and set free her enslaved people. Now Levana plans on conquering Earth, starting with New Beijing.

Don’t worry. I’m not giving away anything that Meyer doesn’t within the book’s first 50 pages. And the mash-up plot isn’t Cinder’s strong suit, anyway. That would be the world-building, which is just fantastic, from the crowded market streets of New Beijing, with omnipresent net-screens blaring the latest headlines, to the cold palace labs where doctors use holograms to decipher the exact cyborg make-up and biometric engineering of second-class citizens. Then there are the sophisticated androids, although Cinder’s assistant Iko is a little too girly R2D2 for me.

Cinder is the first of four planned volumes of “The Lunar Chronicles,” so, of course, it ends with some cliff-hanging. Hope my nails last until the sequel. Or I maybe I’ll just get some fancy fake ones.

Open Book: I picked up an advance readers edition of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan) at SIBA last fall. It’s just one of several new YA books I’ve been reading. Definitely the best cover.

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Would you jump off a moving train? Climb a crumbling Ferris wheel? Zipline from a skyscraper into the pitch of night?

Me neither. But maybe that’s why I got such a rush reading Veronica Roth’s first YA novel, Divergent. Narrator Beatrice never thought of herself as a physically brave person. After all, in futuristic, dystopian Chicago, she has grown up in the faction Abnegation, devoted to the virtue of selflessness. Four other factions rule the city equally: Candor ( the honest), Amity (the peaceful), Erudite (the intelligent) and Dauntless (the brave).

But every year on an appointed day, all 16-year-olds select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. Most know ahead of time what they’ll choose because they’ve recently taken secret appitude/simulation tests. Beatrice’s results were logged as “inconclusive,” which may be why she finds herself joining Dauntless. First, though, she must survive the rigorous training, hazing and initiation rites. If she fails, she can’t return to Abnegation or transfer factions. No, she will become one of the “factionless,” living in the slums. It’s also entirely possible she could die trying to be Dauntless. Others do.

If Divergent sounds a bit like Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular The Hunger Games trilogy, well, it is. But so is a lot of other dystopian fiction going back over the years. It’s the familiar coming-of-age, hero’s-journey action-adventure tale. I read such novels when I was a teen and I’m still reading them, especially good ones like Divergent.

Roth’s world-building is amazing. The Dauntless leap on and off the still-running El as it thunders through the ruins of the city. The Ferris wheel that trembles at the touch is at abandoned Navy Pier. Fortunately, Tris, as she has renamed herself isn’t afraid of heights, unlike one of her enigmatic instructors known as Four. He seems almost nice to Tris, unlike the sadistic Eric.

Dauntless is not for the faint of heart or spirit. Tris struggles to survive in this truly brave new world, wondering who she can trust among her new “friends,” missing her family, and guarding a secret that could imperil the world as ske knows it. She confronts fears — real and simulated — she never knew she had. And she also begins to question a society built on and divided by its rigid rules and factions.

“He told me once to be brave, and though I have stood still while knives spun toward my face and jumped off a roof, I never thought I would need bravery in the small moments of my life. I do.”

Divergent left me breathless. How soon a sequel?

The sequel to Ally Condie’s recent dystopian novel, Matched, is called Crossed. It will be out in November. In Matched, the Society tells everyone what to do — what to eat, what to read, what pills to swallow, what job to take. Teenagers meet their future perfect mates at a special ceremony where faces appear upon a screen.

Cassia expects to see Xander, and she does, but for a brief instant, she sees the face of another boy, Ky. The Society says it’s just a glitch, but the Society never make mistakes. Or does it? Maybe it also matches people with the wrong careers…

Award-winning fantasy writer Robin McKinley’s last book, Pegasus, also ends on a cliffhanger, which means there better be a sequel. Gorgeously written and imagined, her world is inhabited by two species — humans and the winged creatures knows as the pegasi. Princess Sylvii is bonded to a rare black pegasus, Ebon, on her 12th birthday. While generally the two species can only communicate with the help of magicians, Slyvie and Ebon only need one another. The magicians see these two as a threat to their power and . . .

Ever since the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece last week decrying the darkness and violence in YA fiction, the blogosphere has been all atwitter. As more than one person has noted, this is not a new complaint (S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was published some 40 years ago), nor is it relevant. Many of us read adult books by Stephen King and James Bond as teens after cutting our teeth on gruesome Grimm. Vampires have been around for a really long time.

The WSJ writer suggested that teens read Betty Smith’s classic adult novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think everyone should read this book, one of my all-time favorites that I first read the summer I was 10, and reread every summer thereafter. Brooklyn in the early 20th century was as foreign to me as Narnia, but I sure identified with 10-year-old Francie Nolan, who loved books. As Smith wrote, “The world was hers for the reading.” Other worlds, too. Amen.

Open Book: I bought the e-book version of Veronica Roth’s Divergence (HarperCollins Childrens Books). I received a galley of Ally Conde’s Matched (Penguin Young Readers) as part of of a web promotion. I bought the hardcover of Robin McKinley’s Pegasus (Penguin Group). I’ve just started reading an ARC of Moira Young’s post-apocalyptic YA novel Blood Red Road (Simon & Schuster Teen), which is suitably titled. And at last count, I have three copies of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I’ll loan out the trade paperback, but I want it back. Don’t make me come after you.

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