Insurgent by Veronica Roth

ImageTris is back. To be precise, she is right where we left her at the end of Divergent. On a train, with her brother and her boyfriend, escaping the carnage of the attack on the Abegnation and the death of her parents.

To quickly flash back to Divergent, the story takes place in a burned out, near-future, dystopian Chicago, where society is divided into five factions: Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Each faction serves a specific purpose in keeping the society going. One of my problems with Divergent was that while on its own the story was interesting, I found the societal structure hard to buy into. Why and how would anyone decide to live that way? Well, in Insurgent, we begin to find the answers to that, and in the process learn much more about the societal outcasts: the factionless.

Insurgent keeps up the relentless action pace of its predecessor. I was frequently breathless just trying to keep up with Tris and Four and all the new characters we meet. (Note: there are a lot of new characters; keeping up was sometimes difficult.) The relationship between Tris and Four heats up considerably. From time to time I wondered if Roth had forgotten she was writing a YA novel. I loved this of course, as I think given the realities of life, the lack of sex in YA novels is foolish.

Speaking of foolish… um, Tris? Sometimes I wanted to throttle her. She is our divergent heroine, with a better perspective on what is happening around her than anyone. But sometimes (often) she is still a naive and rash sixteen year old girl who makes stupid choices and needs to be rescued a few too many times. One more rescue and I’m not sure she could even be considered the heroine anymore. Seriously, Tris. Shape up.

Things I loved about Insurgent include: the already mentioned fast pace; the lack of brooding & introspective bullsh*t that frequently takes over such novels; and the fact that the romance sizzled without any introduction of a love triangle (so overdone). Oh – and the almost unbelievable revelations in the last chapters that leave me incredibly anxious for book three. I am such a sucker for trilogies. Me and the rest of the YA reading world.

Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Katherine Tegen (May 1, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0062024043
ISBN-13: 978-0062024046

Jennifer Government by Max Berry

When Hack Nike signs his new employment contract without reading it, he unwittingly agrees to assassinate teenagers who buy the newest Nike shoe – in a ruthless stealth marketing campaign that catches the attention of law enforcement agent Jennifer Government. Hack & Jennifer live in a satirical near-future world where corporations have run wild, everyone takes the surname of their employer, the world is divided into US and non-US countries and the NRA is a hotly traded stock. God help us.

I originally picked up a copy of Jennifer Government after hearing it described as an interesting dystopian novel with a good environmental message. While I don’t think either of those is false, that isn’t how I would describe it. This is satire, through and through. In one page I frequently went from laughing at the irony of the invented situations to grimacing in horror at the choices made by the characters.

The action was fast and so over-the-top it was almost believable. The novels only downside was part of what I loved about it: dangerously close to cliché with one-dimensional prototype characters, Barry was one mis-step away from losing me through the entire storyline. But he did not mis-step, and had me hooked.

Described as “brilliant and hilarious” by Naomi Klein, and as “is the best novel in the world ever” on its own back cover, Jennifer Government delivers outrageous reading fun, and is sure to provoke some serious thinking.

Paperback: 336 pages

Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (Jan 6 2004)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1400030927

ISBN-13: 978-1400030927

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

Awaking to pain, heart-break and intense hunger, Lena must learn to face a frightening new world. She has left her family, friends and all she ever knew behind to start a new life –  but her intended partner in this new life was shot down during their escape. As she is nursed back to health and then adopted and trained by Invalids for the resistance, Lena’s character develops from the weak and confused girl we met in Delirium to a strong(er) and determined young woman.

Remember Lena? She lives in a world where love – amor deliria nervosa – is a disease. By law, everyone must be cured at the age of 18 in order to maintain law and order.

In Delirium, Lena meets and is infected by falls in love with Alex, only weeks before she must receive the cure. Convinced of the folly of her society, Lena runs away.  Only the sad ending to the last book is that Alex did not escape with her – he is shot by the border guards, and she is alone.

In Pandemonium, we follow Lena’s continuing story as she fights first for her own survival in the wilds, then as a member of the anti- government, pro-love resistance, and finally to save herself and her unlikely partner when kidnapped during a political rally.

It should be noted – this is a YA dystopia. There are definite parallels to the classics Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale but we’re really looking at a teenage love story, with a dystopian dressing up. This would make me extremely critical if it wasn’t well done, but it is.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Book 1 was good but not great. Sequels tend to be worse, and if I hadn’t had a few dollars left on a Kobo gift card, I probably would not have bothered. I am very glad I did. Oliver has drawn me further into the saga with a few not completely unexpected but still risky plot twists. I am greatly looking forward to Book 3.

Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (February 28, 2012)
ISBN-10: 006197806X
ISBN-13: 978-0061978067

Ashes, Ashes by Joe Treggiari

The end of the word has come and gone with a series of epidemics, floods, droughts (and the resulting violence and chaos) leaving 16 year old Lucy as one of the few survivors. She is alone, foraging for food with the help of her father’s old pocket knife and a survival guide she swiped from a high-end Manhattan sporting goods store.

The combination of a tsunami and an attack by wild dogs leads Lucy to leave her solitary camp in Central Park seek help and company with a group of survivors, including handsome and friendly Aiden. We are introduced to a very different Manhattan, a new social structure, and the real truth about the epidemics that wiped out most of human civilization. We also quickly dicvoer there is something special about Lucy.

Ashes, Ashes starts out strong. Lucy on her own is a fascinating character. I enjoyed reading through her thought processes and problem solving. She is smart, capable, and independent, all nice to see in a young female heroine. After joining Aiden and his group of survivors, she suddenly seems so passive and unsure of herself, it is disappointing. Realistic perhaps after so much time alone, but disappointing nonetheless.

A good read, great for summer days on the beach.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

The debut novel from Canadian author Moira Young turns the young adult dystopian fiction genre on its head with the story of Saba, stubborn, sometimes mean and often naïve, off to rescue her twin brother from the hands of the “King.”

Saba lives in a dry and dusty post-apocalyptic, barren world, destroyed by the previous “Wreckers” civilization. Her family is clinging to life on the shores of the dried up Silverlake, salvaging former Wrecker landfills for materials to repair their home. In the aftermath of a terrible sandstorm, their home is raided by cloaked men, her father killed and her twin brother kidnapped.

Determined to rescue him, Saba must cross the ‘Sandsea’ to Hopetown, and face the dangers waiting there. Though she is determined to leave her younger sister behind, Emmi will not be left. Saba and Emmi survive the desert, a kidnapping, cage fighting and raging fires on their way to a bloody showdown with the deranged and self acclaimed King, just in time to save their brother from execution and sacrifice.

Saba is strong and proud – often to a fault. She can be thoughtless and cruel, especially where Emmi is concerned. All her life, the only person she has ever really loved was Lugh. With him gone, Saba is forced to reach out to others for help, and discovers much about herself in the process. There is even a love story thrown in, but it never takes centre stage. It just isn’t that kind of book.

Other books have tried and come close, but this one truly succeeds in being a novel where the girls are strong enough to rescue the boys, but not too proud to accept help. Most of the time.

Hardcover: 464 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada (Jun 7 2011)

ISBN-10: 0385671830

ISBN-13: 978-0385671835

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

After enduring finishing Moby Dick last week, I needed some book candy to refresh my mind, and so took to the Kobo and downloaded Delirium, a book that had caught my eye in a Goodreads thread back in February.

Once again, I turn to dystopian fiction to cheer me up. I don’t want to think about what this could say about me.

The premise of the book captured me within milliseconds of reading the plot summary. In Delirium, the United States has declared love (or amor deliria nervosa) a disease, and outlawed it. (Think about the problems it causes – who hasn’t wanted to rip their heart out of their chest and “never love again” at least once?)

All citizens must receive the lobotomy-like cure at the age of eighteen, and settle into practical, passion-free lives with their state appointed life partners.

Schools are segregated. Socializing between the sexes is strictly forbidden among the uncured. Music and books are censored. There is no mention or celebration of love. Romeo and Juliet is taught in the schools not as a romance, but as a cautionary tale.

Borders are closed. No one enters or leaves the country. Everyone lives in approved cities – except the Invalids, who oppose the state and live in the Wilds. Of course, no one talks openly about the Invalids, and the state tries to pretend they don’t actually exist.

Our main character is Lena, about to graduate high school and counting the days till she is cured and matched. Her mother succumbed to ‘he disease many year ago, and eventually committed suicide. Lena has been living under that shadow for many years. She looks forward to a happier life without the risk of falling in love.

And then she meets Alex. And becomes infected.

Suddenly, Lena’s world is turned upside down. All the truths she ever accepted have been challenged. Her memories of her mother, and the laughs, cuddles and songs they shared behind closed doors and curtains all have new meaning. Lena begins to rebel against the society she so recently embraced. She no longer wants to be ‘cured’ and desperately wants to avoid the good match she so longed for.

I enjoyed reading Delirium; I couldn’t put it down. Though it started a bit slow, I was soon fascinated by Lena’s relationships with Hana (her best friend) and Grace (her mute younger cousin). Later, I fell in love with Alex just as Lena did, and grieved her mother through her memories. On the surface, the story was intoxicating.

Just below the surface… not so much. Reading any dystopia requires accepting certain assumptions that may be more or less farfetched, but for it to work they have to at least be plausible. While I loved the IDEA of a world where love was declared a disease, Oliver didn’t sell it well enough. I couldn’t understand how or why this had happened. How did an entire country buy into it? Was there a major catastrophe that led to drastic measures? Did a dictator take over and impose his/her will on the country? We don’t know. Add this to the fact that it seems to be set in the not-too-distant future, and I was left thinking things could not have changed so dramatically, so fast.

Also, and maybe this is just another sign of me getting old, but the romance between Lena and Alex wasn’t convincing enough. I can see why they eventually fell for one another, but the instant connection did not convince me, and I don’t see how she could already love him enough to want to abandon her family, friends and life to be with him. I can write it all off to the intensity of teenage love, but that’s a cop-out. I want to be convinced.

Delirium is the first book of a planned trilogy tracing Lena’s adventures in this love-free world. Despite some holes in the plot, I love the idea, and enjoyed the story enough that I anticipate reading more. Perhaps some of what’s missing will be revealed in later novels.

Hardcover: 448 pages

Publisher: HarperCollins (February 1, 2011)

ISBN-10: 0061726826

ISBN-13: 978-0061726828

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood opens in Year Twenty-Five, after the Waterless Flood has destroyed most of mankind and dramatically changed the face of the earth. The story is narrated alternately by two surviving women: Ren, a young dancer in a high-end strip club, and Toby, high-ranking member of God’s Gardeners, who is barricaded inside the luxurious AnnYoo spa.

Neither woman has any idea how many other survivors are out there, if anyone at all. Both are running short on supplies and not sure what to do next.

Much of the wildlife we are familiar with is long since extinct, but this new world is full of strange, sometimes frightening gene-spliced life forms: rakunks – the large striped cross between skunks and raccoons, which thankfully lack the smelly spray; the Mo’hair sheep designed specifically to grow human hair for wigs; and the frightening liobams – a lion/lamb blend, designed by a religious extremist group who were tired of waiting for the biblical prediction that the lion would lay down with the lamb, and decided to do it themselves.

The first half/two-thirds of the story is told though flashbacks in the lives of these two women, revisiting the years leading up to the Waterless Flood. Toby and Ren are desperately trying to make sense of this new world, and the circumstances that brought it on, and examine the last twenty or so years of their lives to figure it out. Much of the story revolves around God’s Gardeners, their beliefs, and their way of life. Later, storytelling shifts into present tense, Ren and Toby reunite (they knew each other through the Gardeners) and help each other to survive their new and often violent reality.

I was interested to see that “Year Twenty-Five” did not mean “twenty-five years since the flood” as the flood seems to have happened somewhere in year twenty-four or twenty-five. It is not clear when or how the new counting began, and there are a few references to years in the 20th century, in a casual way that implies it was not so very long ago.

My overall impression of the novel is that I was blown away. Atwood had created a frightening and violent new reality – but a reality that wasn’t too much of a stretch from our current circumstances. In fact, Atwood refuses to label books like The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake as ‘science fiction’ as she insists nothing happens in her books that could not happen ‘in real life.’ Which of course just adds to the horror.

My only criticism is there was a bit too much of the Gardener’s theology for my taste. Every few chapters, we were treated to a sermon from Adam One, the Gardener’s leader. The sermons always revolved around a saint’s day, and the significance of the celebration (there were some great saints, by the way: Saint Terry Fox may have been my favourite). It’s not that I don’t see the relevance to the rest of the story. The Gardeners knew what was coming, and their whole theology was designed to prepare people for it. It is no coincidence that so many Gardeners survived. I just have to be honest and say that I found the sermons and accompanying hymns to make for very dull reading. Luckily, these passages were never more than a few pages.

Readers of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake might remember the Gardeners. You might even remember Ren and a few of her friends. I did not, at least not right away. In the final chapters it became more obvious. You see, what I didn’t realize is The Year of the Flood is a continuation or retelling of the story from Oryx and Crake. A side-quel, if you will. I think I remember hearing this when the book was first released (September 2009), but I had forgotten it by the time I finally read the book (last week).

Two other excuses explanations as to why I didn’t really get as much as I should have from the book:

  • I read Oryx and Crake immediately after it was released in 2003. I received it as a gift from coworkers, when in the hospital recovering from surgery. I read a lot of books in the hospital that year. While I remember general story lines and whether or not I enjoyed these books, I remember almost no details from any of them. Something to do with pain killers affecting long-term memory.
  • A friend had borrowed my copy and removed the paper book jacket, so I was reading the plain hardcover version, minus the jacket – which likely clearly states the link between this and the previous novel.

While The Year of the Flood can certainly be read as a stand alone novel, you can’t try to read it as a stand alone novel if you have already read part one. My fuzzy memories of some of the characters, and the Gardeners from Oryx and Crake sometimes caused confusion. I obviously cannot blame Ms. Atwood for this. But I do plan to reread both at some point, to gain greater appreciation for both stories, and her purpose in writing it from such different perspectives.

Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart; 1 edition (Sep 8 2009)
ISBN-10: 0771008449
ISBN-13: 978-0771008443