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review 2017-02-03 04:10
The Chosen - Chaim Potok


Chiam Potok

Hardcover, 416 pages
Published November 1st 2016 by Simon & Schuster (first published 1967)

ISBN13: 9781501142475


I have liked everything that I have read so far of Chaim Potok. The Chosen was the first I read, and I definitely enjoyed it again. What made this even better than reading it the first time was all the back material, photos, new forward, and more that was included in this 50th anniversary collection. Some of this back info was written by Potok himself. As a Christian reading this, I found it interesting to read about the Jewish faith. I find that Potok, while using the characters' faith as a part of the story, still allows the coming of age story, the friendship of and the struggles of each as individuals to be the main subjects of the story line. His main characters are well drawn and complex. I would definitely recommend this book.

****I received this book from Simon and Schuster through Goodreads' First Reads Giveaway.****


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url 2015-12-08 01:50
Rainbow Award Finalist - A Spartan Love


Alone, Andreas toils on a remote farmstead for a Spartan overlord. When a kryptes enters his world, Andreas fears for his life. The dread warriors stalk and kill helots—like Andreas' father—as part of their training.

Andreas sees only one way to save himself: he must tame the fearsome warrior.

But what began as self-preservation develops into attraction. Yearning for the company of someone other than his ferret Ictis, Andreas decides to trust the Spartan warrior and risk the fate that claimed his father.

Born to rule by the sword, Theron sees the world as his and acts accordingly, taking everything Andreas offers and reaching for more. However, love between men in Sparta is considered shameful and requires either exile or suicide to redeem Sparta’s honor. Now, only the gods can save them from the terrible price Sparta extracts from men who desire other men.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-08-08 04:29
The RITA Award Finalists
Boys Like You - Juliana Stone
Run to You Part One: First Sight - Clara Kensie
Some Boys - Patty Blount
Plus One - Elizabeth Fama

The RITA Awards. The Romance Writers of America (RWA) has a young-adult category for its annual RITA and Golden Heart awards, and this year I decided to read the four finalists. I was curious to see what the RWA honored in romantic YA literature. Disclosure: I haven't read romance novels since I was a teen, and my only experience back then was with Harlequin Romances--the slim variety near the grocery store check-out. So I'm not terribly qualified to discuss romance novels, but I do know something about YA literature.


The rules. I first looked up the policy and procedures of the RITA award.


1. "All entries must contain a central love story, and the resolution of the romance must be emotionally satisfying and optimistic."


2. In addition, the YA category includes: "Novels in which young-adult life is an integral part of the plot."


Oops, I already disagree. The resolution of the romance has to be "emotionally satisfying and optimistic?" This means that romance, as the RWA defines it, must include a happily-ever-after, when in fact some of the most romantic books of all time are sad or bittersweet. What about Anna Karenina? Gone With the Wind? Love Story? I guess the RWA would classify those as "women's fiction," and not romance.


Anyway, accepting the rules as given, let's proceed.


(***Note: the following reviews assume that you've read the book.***)


The winner: Boys Like You, by Juliana Stone (Sourcebooks Fire).


I think I see why this book won. It's the most romance-novel like of the group if you follow the "central focus" and "happily ever after" criteria listed in the rules. Monroe is broken, and has had suicidal thoughts in the past, after the death of her little brother (of asthma) on her watch, when she took him to the park to play and then fell asleep. Now she's just a bit dead inside--full of regret and unable to move on. She visits her refined grandmother in Louisiana, who wants Monroe to open up to her and see joy in life again. A boy named Nate begins working at the grandmother's house, and it turns out he is also broken: he was driving drunk and was responsible for the head injury of his best friend, Trevor, who is now in a coma. Nate hates himself, knows that Trevor's family hates him, and has stopped playing music (he and Trevor were in a band together). Monroe's grandmother turns out to have a bit of a secret agenda: to get these two damaged souls to "save" each other (she uses different language...perhaps "catch," from falling). That is, in fact, what happens--Monroe and Nate teach each other how to forgive themselves. I appreciate that the two co-protagonists support each other, but in YA, in my opinion, romance and love should be separate from self-forgiveness and finding meaning in life after tragedy. This novel veers close to the message that love cures all serious problems. Trevor even comes out of his coma at the end, despite being near death with his organs failing three quarters of the way through the novel. With his recovery and Monroe and Nate's nearly marital-like commitment to each other over a 1300-mile distance (Monroe goes back home to high school in New York City), Ms. Stone has definitely got "optimistic" covered.


Run to You by Clara Kensie (Harlequin Teen).


This book was possibly the most stereotypically romance-novel-like in terms of the nuts and bolts of the writing: the love interest physically carries the heroine more than once (seriously, this is what I remember from romance novels...so much carrying, which feels oddly patriarchal and women-as-property to me); he professes his desire to "protect" her; he kisses her even though she resists; he tells other people to leave her alone, even though he won't leave when she asks. This book is technically a paranormal novel, though it reads very much like a contemporary. Tessa Carson's family has paranormal abilities (all but Tessa, they think) and they're being hunted by a Bad Guy named Dennis Connelly, who wants to kill them because (the children believe) the Carson parents exposed the corruption of important politicians. The Carsons move from city to city, changing their identities, with the three children going to successive schools but never staying long. The Carson parents are loving and protective. Tessa won't allow herself to get close to anyone until she meets Tristan, another new boy at school. This book had a deal-killer in it for me. Tessa's parents turn out to be the real Bad Guys--murdering bad guys--mid-way through the book (which is not a terrible twist in and of itself). But in the final pages, Tessa (who discovers that she can see the past by touching people and objects) finds out that her mother was sexually molested by her own father as a girl, and the grandfather was the first person her mom had killed, in what turned out to be a lifetime of extortion and ruthless, cold-hearted serial killing. I think Ms. Kensie intended to make the mom a wounded character, but in my YA world, rape shouldn't be introduced without dealing with it in the text, and it's especially disastrous to imply, whether you mean to or not, that one way to become a killer is to be raped, or that being raped makes you a killer. I thought that plot point was a deal-killer for an award, and yet, while it didn't win the YA division, Run to You won the "Best First Book" RITA.


Of the four books, this one also had the most ordinary writing:


Repeated words:

"Without using his PK [psychokinesis], Logan opened the door and went inside without another word."


Repeated phrases:

"My hand fluttered to my belly." [This happened at least ten times. She has scars on her stomach from an alleged attack by the Bad Guy when she was a child.]


Comma splices:

"Licked my lips, swallowed." [This sentence shows up several times, and is also missing a subject.] 


Dull metaphors:

"He grinned, and just like that, the awkwardness between us melted like ice in the sun."

"My face became hotter than the oven."


Awkward descriptions: 

 "I glared at him for a full minute before returning to the binder." [Seriously, authors, try glaring at a clock for a full minute. It's longer than you think.]

 "[Tristan] smelled of soap and masculinity."


And as mentioned, there's the "protective" boyfriend, so ubiquitous in romance novels, but always verging on creepy: 

"...all I wanted to do was make that scared, sad look in your eyes go away."

"I promise, whatever it is, I'll keep you safe."

"I'll do anything for you, Tessa. Except for one thing. I. Will. Not. Leave. You."


Some Boys by Patty Blount (Sourcebooks Fire)


Well, phew, this one has the opposite message of the winner, in that the main character "saves herself," without being saved by love. In terms of the RWA rules, this book (and the last finalist, Plus One by Elizabeth Fama) doesn't quite fit the romance mold. As with many YA novels that include love stories, the romance is an integral part of the story, but the character's personal conflict or struggle is the most important part. In Some Boys, Grace has been raped by the school's golden boy, Zac, a star Lacrosse player, and her peers (even her best friends) ostracize her for what they think is her false accusation. Zac has uploaded a video of the encounter to a social media site, and in it, Grace is moaning--interpreted by all as enjoying herself. Everyone calls her a slut and bullies her. Zac and his friends try to intimidate her. The treatment she receives from her classmates is really brutal, but Grace is determined not to hide. She continues to dress provocatively-Goth, the way she has since 8th grade, and never backs down from a vocal claim that Zac raped her. It's palpable how hard this is for her to do, but with her mom's support, she continues to stand her ground. When she and Ian, Zac's close friend, are assigned to clean lockers over the break (both for bad behavior), they slowly develop a friendship. Grace begins to trust Ian, but Ian is confused by his allegiance to Zac, and what he thinks is the ambiguous nature of what happened between Grace and Zac. My only objection to the novel is how "clean" the resolution is. Ian discovers that Zac has a second video on his phone--a longer one that clearly shows that Grace is drunk and sick and saying no--and Ian is brave enough to show this second video to the authorities. Some of the power of the story is diminished by this too-handy plot device, and by Zac's violent outburst at Ian, sending him to the hospital (which in itself is enough to get him in trouble with the law). But by and large, the story is a strong one, with an admirable protagonist.  


Plus One by Elizabeth Fama (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers)


This book is truly "odd man out" among the four: like Some Boys, it's not primarily a romance, but it also has a seriously bittersweet (verging on sad) ending. The only person who would think this book has an "emotionally satisfying resolution" is probably me--I feel utter satisfaction with open endings and characters who don't get what they want, even after their heroic efforts; because that's life, my friends. There's hope at the end of Plus One, but it's the kind of hope that looks like loss--the kind that comes from knowing you did the right thing, and hoping the gods will reimburse you someday. In fact, it's a Casablanca, hill-of-beans ending ("I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world"). Sol LeCoeur is a wounded, raw character at the beginning of the novel. She lives in a society divided into Day and Night, with mandatory curfews. She is a Night girl, and her brother has been transferred to Day. Sol doesn't want to save the world, she wants something crazier and simpler: to kidnap her brother's newborn daughter for an hour so that her grandfather can hold the baby before he dies. But Sol makes a mistake and kidnaps the wrong baby, an important baby, and accidentally drags a Day boy (the medical apprentice who treated her) on her run from the law. That's where the romance comes in--you can't get more star-crossed than a Day boy and a Night girl. But the book itself is--as its dust jacket says--"a drama of individual liberty and civil rights."


In sum. The two books I enjoyed the most in this year's slate of RITA finalists--Some Boys and Plus One--only loosely adhered to the definition of "romance" stated in the RWA rules. But it's no surprise to me that I favored those two. For me, a love story is even more swoon-worthy if the conflict, plot, characterization, setting, voice, and lyricism are all in place, too. 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-02-23 15:01
All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel - Anthony Doerr

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: this isn't just another WWII novel; this is a novel about people and relationships--about what it takes to be a moral human being, about choices (good ones, bad ones, and lack of action), about hands being tied, and how interconnected we all are.


What happens. All the Light We Cannot See is like a double bildungsroman. It follows little Marie-Laure LeBlanc in France, and little Werner Pfennig in Germany from before the war reaches France in the 1930s to the present (2014). They meet in person for only a day in the novel, but from the earliest pages we know that they're interconnected through a web that Mr. Doerr weaves with the grace that only Charlotte has mastered before him. As Madame Manec comments prophetically, "My God, there are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together." (In a small example of how well researched this book is, Doerr slips this expression to us without any fanfare or showing off. It's likely that the French version Mme. Manec is quoting is Il n'y a que les montagnes qui ne se rencontrent jamais, which translates literally to "Only mountains never meet each other." Attention to this sort of detail explains how it took Mr. Doerr a decade to write the book.)


As a six-year old, Marie-Laure goes blind from bilateral cataracts. Her father, who lost his wife when she gave birth to Marie, is a locksmith at the Natural History Museum in Paris. During the day he keeps the museum's keys, fashions its locks and cases for the collection, and makes repairs. Marie-Laure entertains herself in the museum and learns at the hands of kind botanists and scientists who populate the research backrooms. She has a particular interest in mollusks, which she can identify and classify by touch. In the evening, her Papa creates an intricate model of their neighborhood in Paris, coaxing Marie to learn to navigate the city by memorizing this 3-D "map." For her birthday each year he makes a unique puzzle box with a tiny gift or chocolate inside, and gives her a braille novel--once, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which ties in nicely, if somewhat heavy-handedly, with themes of the ocean and sea creatures.


Meanwhile in Germany, Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutte, are orphans, cared for by a kind Alsatian house mistress who alternately speaks French and German to them. Werner is mechanically gifted and interested in math and engineering, but when he turns fifteen, he is slated to work in the the same coal mine that killed his father. Jutte is a bright girl who sees through the Nazi propaganda even in its earliest days, when the SS members are just a group of brown-shirted thugs. Werner repairs a radio that he and Jutte have found, and they listen to broadcasts from all over Europe. When they're supposed to be sleeping, they occasionally find the broadcasts of a French "professor" whose wonder at science speaks directly to Werner's heart:

 "Open your eyes," the professor said, "and see what you can before they close forever."

When the Germans are on the cusp of invading Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee--her father has been entrusted with the most precious gem the Museum owns (or an identical copy of said gem, he doesn't know which). It's a diamond--the "Sea of Flames"--which purportedly grants eternal life (and incidentally a miserable curse) to its owner. The curse, to me, is just the hand we are all dealt in life: when you live long and love well, you inevitably experience the pain of losing those around you. Marie-Laure and her Papa end up on the doorstep of Marie's agoraphobic great uncle, Etienne, in a town called Saint-Malo: a gorgeous, walled port city in Brittany, which feels to Marie like it's the very edge of France. She can smell the sea, and she longs to go there to collect her first sea snail, but her father and Etienne won't allow it. Etienne turns out to be handy with a radio, and his dead brother, Marie's grandfather, enjoyed broadcasting science shows to children... 


Marie-Laure's father is turned in to the occupying forces by a Nazi-colluding neighbor, who spies on him as he measures and sketches streets and buildings to create the 3-D model of Saint-Malo for Marie. From his labor camp, after only a few exaggeratedly positive letters to Marie, Papa is essentially "disappeared." Marie discovers that he has left the diamond inside the tiny version of her uncle's home in the 3-D map, locked inside of it like one of his tiny wooden puzzles. Madame Manec, the woman who cares for Marie's uncle, breaks the rules and takes Marie to the ocean. She also breaks bigger rules and helps the local resistance, with brave Marie acting as the courier.   


Werner has been plucked out of coal-mining obscurity because of his talent with radios, and is accepted into an elite Nazi school that will groom him to be a special operations officer. As part of their routine training, the cadets are forced to do unspeakable things--things that his best friend, Frederick, resists (for which he is nearly beaten to death until he has brain damage). It's a blow to Werner--one that he never seems to recover from--knowing that he was unable to act against what he knew was wrong. It is also, however, what leads him on a selfless quest to save the girl who is trapped in her attic, broadcasting from her radio, and hunted by a Nazi officer in the bedroom below her.


There is a German Sergeant-major, von Rumpel, on the hunt for the Sea of Flames (initially for the Fuhrer's glorious museum, and then because of his own desperate desire to cure his terminal cancer), and a thrilling section when von Rumpel is in the house for days while Marie hides in the attic with only two cans of food and nothing to drink.


There is a ruthless, obedient, but also oddly bighearted staff sergeant, Frank Volkheimer--practically a child himself--who is somehow able to viciously kill people and also have intensely warm feelings and respect and admiration for the pale, gentle radio operator (Werner) he works with and protects.  


This book is never one thing: for a moment I thought it was the classiest Raiders of the Lost Arc ever: the Nazis seek a jewel that the Museum of Natural History owns, the Sergeant-major metaphorically melts of the physical and moral cancer inside of him. For a moment you feel that Marie-Laure is Anne Frank, hiding in the attic, but with a radio transmitter at her disposal. For a very long stretch, it's a love story between a father and daughter:

There is pride, too, though. Pride that he has done it alone, that his daughter is so curious, so resilient. There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful. As if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing. That's how it feels right now, he thinks, kneeling beside her, rinsing her hair. As though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body. The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane.

But this book is much more than a single thing. It's an examination of hope and desolation, strength and frailty, of destiny and self-determination, and the kitchen sink to boot.


The theme of light and vision abounds. The French professor has a radio segment that resonates with Werner and Jutte in which he discusses how the brain--encased in absolute darkness--can see light. Even Marie-Laure, who is blind, understands the power of light for human beings:

This, she realizes, is the basis of all fear. That a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark.

Things I loved:
--The way Marie "sees" sounds and smells as colors in her head.
--The way living your life till its natural end, rather than being murdered, sometimes results in mundanity (for instance, Jutte ends up teaching math in a high school), but is still the right of all human beings.
--The way the war gutted everyone who lived through it, and only the next generation is unwounded, and only through ignorance.
--The way Werner and Marie-Laure are "destined" to meet, but only because their story is told after the fact, and we can trace all the threads that brought them together.
--The way, when Madame Manec was feverish and sick, she hallucinated that she was responsible for the world, down to the ants crawling on the ground. So powerful.
Things I didn't love as much:
--Sometimes Mr. Doerr's language flows beautifully, but sometimes he's trying too hard to be beautiful. He needs to let himself just tell the story, which is artful enough in its construction, and worry less about impressing us on a prose level. 
--I worried, which distracted me, about why Marie-Laure never had cataract surgery after the war, when the procedure became common because of artificial lenses. I actually had to call my ophthalmologist to ask her. (Answer: with congenital cataracts in children, if the surgery is performed after the age of ten it does not impart much benefit.) Could there have been a way to tell the reader that it was not possible?
--I had trouble visualizing the attic. At times Marie-Laure seemed to be sitting on beams. But Etienne's radio equipment was on a desk? You might think the poor description is because Marie can't see it (a poetic reason, to be sure), but she "sees" very well with her hands and would know every nook and cranny of it.


In sum: a truly beautiful work, haunting in the way it doesn't flinch from showing how unrecoverable war is, for both the dead and the survivors, and how we're so interconnected that--politics aside--no one unequivocally "wins" in the end.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-01-21 22:06
Station Eleven
Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: a post-apocalyptic story with blessedly little action/adventure, a well-fleshed out ensemble cast, and interesting commentaries on human existence.


Perhaps one of the best compliments I can give Station Eleven is that it snuck into my thoughts over and over again after I finished it, during those quiet moments of the day--as I was falling asleep, on an early-morning run, or putting dinner together.


The best of YA. This is an adult book, but it would be perfect for ALA's Alex Awards (books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults). It's what I hope for every time I open a YA novel of speculative fiction--a careful piece of work, trying to mine important themes, and not rushed sloppily to press because it has a great hook. 


The author, Emily St. John Mandel, prefers to think of Station Eleven as literary fiction, but it's not really. I mean, yes, it's not a straight-to-paperback-"USA-today-best-seller!" It's not the literary equivalent of potato chips. But it's not exceptionally beautifully written, and appropriately so: the language perfectly suits the story. It's verging on eloquent, but is more serviceable and less wordy; it's not quite spare, but is thoughtful and direct. It doesn't spend much time navel-gazing, because the business of survival doesn't allow that. This is about as pretty as Ms. Mandel allows herself to get: 

She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.

Brief recap, mostly for myself. The books begin with the death of Arthur Leander on a stage in Toronto. He has had three failed marriages--Miranda, Elizabeth, and Lydia--and is in a new relationship with the young woman who wrangles the child actresses in his production of King Lear. A young man named Jeevan, who used to be a paparazzo, but is now training to be an EMT, leaps onto the stage to perform CPR. Arthur dies, and one of the child actresses, Kirsten, sees it happen. Arthur has been nice to her, including giving her a copy of the first two issues of Miranda's nearly one-of-a-kind comics, Station Eleven. Before he dies, we learn much later in the novel, he had been planning to move to Israel to be with his son, Tyler, who was taken there by Elizabeth. He has one last phone call in which he tells Tyler he loves him. They have a closer-than-usual conversation when Arthur engages Tyler on the topic of Station Eleven. When Jeevan leaves the theater, his best friend Hua calls and tells him a virulent flu has been introduced via a flight from Russia. Jeevan buys seven grocery carts full of food and supplies and wheels them one by one through the snow to his disabled brother's apartment, where they barricade themselves in, waiting out the pandemic. Meanwhile, Arthur's best friend, Clark, has been tasked to call Arthur's ex-wives to let them know about his death. Clark used to be a student actor with Arthur, and was a free-spirit who shaved one half of his head and dyed the other half, but now he consults for corporations, making over the professional behavior of slightly dysfunctional managers. On his way to Arthur's funeral, Clark is stranded in the Severn City airport with Elizabeth, Tyler, and dozens of other passengers. It becomes a small town of its own, and Clark tends to a "Museum of Civilization" to pass the time. Elizabeth and Tyler leave the compound with a cult after four years, Tyler already seeming a bit touched in the head. The book flashes forward and back to several dates, but most of the time we're in Year 25: the twenty-fifth year after the flu, following The Traveling Symphony, which includes Kirsten, her best friend August, her former lover, Sayid, several musicians, and a leader named The Conductor. They go to a town called St. Deborah by the Lake to collect two members of their symphony, Charlie and Jeremy, who stayed behind two years ago to have their baby. But the town has changed and is in the hands of the prophet. The symphony gets in trouble with this zealot, leaves, is followed, and some of them are ambushed. The prophet's dog, Luli, is mysteriously named for Dr. Eleven's comic-book Pomeranian. The symphony makes its way to Severn City, where it is reunited with Charlie, Jeremy, and their baby Annabelle.


Some themes explored: 


1.How important is art in our human lives? Un-subtly, Ms. Mandel has her caravan of musicians and actors emblazon their vehicle with the Star-Trek phrase, "Because survival is insufficient." But more subtly, art is everywhere. The towns they visit want to see productions of Shakespeare; music and theater are viable ways of supporting yourself after the apocalypse. Clark's museum curation is not just concerned with artifacts, it has become art--that's what red stiletto heels become when the world has collapsed. Miranda creates her comics in the absence of an audience, for the sake of doing art:

“What’s the point of doing all that work,” Tesch asks, “if no one sees it?”

“It makes me happy. It’s peaceful, spending hours working on it. It doesn’t really matter to me if anyone else sees it.”

A testament to the purity of art: Miranda doesn't even sign her work, using her initials, "M.C." instead. And a quarter of a century after Miranda's death, Kirsten and Tyler are still captivated by her art.


2. The ephemeral nature of existence. There are only hours between when Miranda learns of Arthur's death--the man she "once thought she'd spend the rest of her life with"--and she herself is dead. 


3. The illusion of control. Expiring on a lounge chair on the beach, Miranda imagines the ships off shore have not been infected--the crew might live. But we know from seeing the web of deaths that survival isn't something you can plan on. Clark's entire existence highlights what is important in life: his job is rendered completely meaningless by the collapse. (Almost as a relic for his museum, he completes the last "360" report he was hired to write--about a man who is surely dead, for bosses who are dead, and a company that no longer functions.) His museum collection is the definition of obsolescence. His private thoughts are spent on Robert, his boyfriend who has probably died. Similarly, Arthur's existence, even though it pre-dates the flu, was spent burdened with fame when it turned out it was really love he was after.


4. The impermanence of life. Arthur explains his desire to become an actor: “First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” But we readers have seen 99.9% of the population disappear, and all the mechanisms for remembering them are gone.


5. The importance of relationships, and the essential goodness of human beings. We can't live without each other, but love always leads to loss ("What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you've lost."). Sigrid Nunez's review of Station Eleven in The New York Times complained that the future wasn't bleak enough in this book ("readers may wonder why few bad guys have made it to year 20....the hairs never rose on the back of my neck"), but that's missing the point of the novel. This is Year 25 (not 20), and the survivors have mostly figured out how to live and let live. The worst is behind them. It's never portrayed as easy: Jeevan hears gunshots from the apartment in the first weeks of the pandemic; every town has a sentry; everyone carries a weapon; people on the road sleep in shifts; Kirsten has killed four people. But Ms. Nunez should do the math: the virus killed 99.9% of the population, which means not many people even survived the pandemic, and fewer still survived the violence afterward. For instance, if there are 300 million people in the United States, that means only 300,000 survived the Georgia flu. How many bad guys do you want to have in a population that small and that spread out? I think Ms. Mandel is saying that when everything is wiped out, the population distills into small pockets of brutality among the otherwise essential goodness of humanity. That sounds about right to me.


We're comfortable watching characters die. I was surprised by the fact that I was okay with watching important characters die. Part of this is due to the pervasiveness of those themes above: the world is an impermanent place, and as a reader you get used to that fact. But part of it is the structure of the novel. Arthur is a main character, and he dies on the first page. We've got that out of the way; we've lost him before we care about him. Then we grow to care about him later. This is true of many of the characters: we know ahead of time that they're gone. The implication is that the "getting there" (to their deaths) is what life is about.


We're comfortable not knowing what happened to characters. We're also okay with not knowing everything about everyone. It fits with the the blackout of information that the characters experience, and also with those themes of loss of control and impermanence. We see a whole group from the Severn City airport fly off to L.A., never to be heard from again. We see people on the hillside to the south of the airport who have figured out electricity again, but we don't know who they are or whether Kirsten will find them. There is a lack knowing how Elizabeth (the prophet's mom) died. We're comfortable not knowing what Kirsten has forgotten from her childhood: watching her brother die of an infected nail-puncture in his foot is enough of a hint that we can guess her amnesia covers something much worse. We don't mind not knowing who the other two tattooed knives represent on Kirsten's wrist. We don't care that we've never met Victoria of "Dear V" fame.


Some things I admired:


1. The small things, like seeing Kirsten as a nearly translucent blond waif as a child, someone Miranda judges will become a groomed, perfect, pampered adult. But we know that she has become a battle-weary young woman, missing teeth, and tattooed with symbols representing the people she has been forced to kill. We also learn of the cast's diversity almost incidentally.


2. I enjoyed the way the chapters had little reverence for time and chronology, and "gave away" past and future information: we read chapter openings like, "three weeks before X died, he was in a hotel lobby..." This technique gave a sense that people are both alive and dead at all times, which ties in nicely with the notion that memories are all that preserve us after we're gone.


3. Pieces of this book pop into my head at random moments, which always means there's more fodder there than at first glance. I awoke this morning thinking, "How did Jeevan help his brother to die?" And "What was Ms. Mandel trying to say with the dust-free child's tea set?" The fact of Arthur being on the cusp of reaching out to Tyler before he died--the reader knowing that Tyler may have grown up entirely differently--is more poignant on reflection.


4. I like the way we quickly see that many of the characters will be linked somehow. But they're not overtly linked, just delicately intertwined. It's a nod to the web of human relationships across the globe. Ms. Mandel doesn't stress the connections. I found myself hoping for Clark and Kirsten to figure out their mutual attachment to Arthur (and I was worried Clark would die before they had their talk the next morning), but Ms. Mandel saw no need to show us that conversation, and I admire that. We just know, later, that they've planned that Kirsten will always leave one rotating Doctor Eleven comic with Clark for his Museum of Civilization as she passes in and out of Severn City. 


5. I appreciated the way the prophet died, with no giant, bad-guy climax. Like most everyone else in the world, he died in a way he (and we) least expected.


In sum: This book hits the sweet spot for me--speculative fiction and a strong hook, but with thoughtful attention to writing and themes. This is what I want more YA novels to be like. A favorite of 2015.

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