I haven’t read a good straight up post-apocalyptic story in a while, and Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis fit the bill.
Focused on water scarcity (something I haven’t seen a lot of in the genre, but will surely become more common), we get a strong teen character in Lynn who knows the dangers of the outside world but has to learn to recognize the potential joys.
How well does she know the dangers? Her mother raised her to shoot strangers on sight—no warnings, no questions asked.
The story is quick, sparse and avoids the temptation to draw things out or go for the cliche. Especially at the end [SPOILER ALERT] there were a number of overdone scenarios I thought I saw coming, but McGinnis steered away from what you’d expect. It could have turned into a series with the main bad guy getting away (though there is a companion novel, set 10 years later, coming out in the fall). The big battle at the end could have had the emotional pain of losing Stebbs, but instead McGinnis went for the bigger hurt. We even could have seen revenge on the coyote that killed Lynn’s mother. So big points for keeping things original.
In the realm of post-apocalyptic stories I think it falls short of some of the genre favorites. Things are a little too easy and clean cut. It also felt like there were some missed opportunities with a pretty great setup and characters. Rather than following the wanderers like most post-apocalyptic stories, we stay with the home base. Lynn is the danger the wanderers face. While much of the story is her learning to interact with others, it happens pretty quickly and I think there was an opportunity to play with that in interesting ways.
It’s still a great story, but it could have been more. Which is high praise, especially for a debut book.
Randi Rhodes Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit by Octavia Spencer is a quick mystery featuring a kid detective and her friends. I’m not a big mystery fan, so I need to be really impressed. Not so much with this one.
The characters were good. I liked Randi Rhodes and her friends. They’re realistic and relatable, dealing with real problems. The biggest is Randi overcoming the death of her mother.
But the mystery didn’t stand up to the quality characters. It felt a little too simplistic (though it is a kids’ chapter book) and relied on a big reveal at the end. The Time-Capsule Bandit really didn’t hold my interest, but Randi and her friends did.
I’d be willing to read another volume in this series just for the characters, though I hope the mysteries pick up.
Conspiracy and cover up in the midst of apocalyptic mayhem on a cruise ship—with a scary disease thrown in for good measure.
The hits just keep coming in The Living by Matt de la Peña.
The story centers on Shy, a hard-working kid stuck in the middle of it all. In many ways this book can’t quite decide what it is, and you get some of everything from class-based cruise ship hijinks to suicide mystery to Titanic sinking to adrift in a life boat.
It’s also the first in a series, so there’s not a lot of closure (though it’s better than most). The cruise ship apocalypse is taken care of in volume one, but there’s still the super disease conspiracy and a giant earthquake, which leaves plenty of mayhem for later in the series. It’ll be interesting to see if this turns into a post-apocalyptic tale or if it’s more firmly grounded in the midst of the apocalypse.
What’s the plural of apocalypse?
The relentless pace was fun, but it felt awfully jumbled.
In a futuristic, post-apocalypse city state the political system is ruled by women and a summer king is elected every five years—only to be killed when the winter ends. Yes, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson has a complicated, dystopian setup. In a nutshell, men couldn’t be trusted after ruining the world, so women held most of the power.
But this year’s summer king is pushing the rules and he inspires teenage artist June as she struggles to figure out her place. Like everyone else, she’s intrigued by the new summer king and begins to push the boundaries of her art, the technology the ruling class allows and the very rules of society.
This one is bizarre and intriguing. Set in what used to be Brazil, we’re constantly catching up with the future world and the South American setting. Not everything is explained immediately, which is OK. It also moves along at a good pace, frequently skipping ahead weeks or months and not getting derailed in daily detail.
But it also gets into strange technology and bizarre cultural situations where it’s hard to keep up with what’s happening. That kills any page-turner tendency the story was developing.
It’s been considered among the best—at least by Rolling Stone— but I’m not so convinced. It’s definitely different and breaks some new ground (a future not dominated by white Americans—gasp!), but it’s not the must-read I yearn for.
Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar was one of my favorite books growing up.
I read it to the kids and it wasn’t as magical and hilarious as I remember. It’s still fun and definitely quirky, but it’s also disjointed and sometimes just weird (dead rats?).
It makes me wonder how much of my enjoyment came because one of my teachers read it to us and those books always seem to be better?
It was also written 35 years ago and what was considered off-beat and quirky back then is pretty tame today. We have a lot weirder and more off-beat now, so it seems like a halfway approach.
It could also be that I’m no longer 8 and don’t laugh at the same stuff.
The second story in the Heaven trilogy, The First Part Last by Angela Johnson tells the story of Bobby and Feather and how this father-daughter duo from the first installment came to be together.
It’s just as quiet and simple as Heaven, but told in a then/now format that slowly builds to the climax. It’s the right amount of mystery and intrigue without spoiling things and without overpowering the story.
As a teenage father, Bobby is the hero we seldom see. We need more characters like Bobby. He’s a powerful, strong father in Heaven, and The First Part Last allows us to see how he gets there. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s worth the late nights and tired eyes.
When I carried Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac around while reading it people kept asking me about it and I struggled to summarize it: “Um, post-apocalyptic YA thriller starring a Native American female warrior?”
And maybe that’s the best way to describe it. It features genetically modified monsters and weird bits of telepathy, but it’s otherwise realistic, fast-paced and quite the page-turner.
Lozen is a bad ass. She’s got the survival skills of a good Western hero, but she’s living in the post apocalyptic Southwest where an interstellar electromagnetic pulse of sorts has put an end to modern technology. Much of the ruling class were killed when their enhancements fritzed out and their DNA-spliced pet monsters got loose (giant snake, anyone?).
It’s a great setting, a great hero and great fun watching her overcome all these crazy challenges trying to keep her family safe. The only downside is that the characters are a bit flat. There’s not a lot of growth or depth. I don’t think it hinders the story, but it probably keeps it from being a truly top-notch book. But it’s definitely fun reading.
Marley has a simple life in a town called Heaven, hanging out with friends and getting letters from her traveling Uncle Jack. Until she learns that her parents aren’t really her parents and she’s set adrift.
Heaven by Angela Johnson is really a simple, quiet story, despite the head-spinning topic. It’s slow building and has a subtle grace.
It’s not the typical urban black youth or witty teen story, and for that alone it’s refreshing.
It’s also the first in a trilogy, though they’re really more three inter-related books that follow connected characters. Each book is self contained and you don’t even need to read them in order. That’s also a refreshing change from the usual YA trilogies.
In A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott a teenage black girl inadvertently travels from modern day to Civil War-era Brooklyn. It’s reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, though it’s much slower paced. It’s more character driven, taking time to thoroughly introduce the reader to modern urban poverty and focusing on the racial differences between 1863 and the modern day.
While Kindred really dove into the time travel and let the social commentary speak for itself (more or less), A Wish After Midnight really chews on it. It’s interesting, but it’s not as satisfying or gripping of a read.
While not quite a slave in 1860s Brooklyn, Genna is still trapped with few options. In many ways, her choices and limitations aren’t that far off from modern days. There’s a lot to digest and in some ways that’s where it feels like there’s too much social commentary and not enough action. It’s good commentary, but it doesn’t have the page-turning wonder of Octavia Butler (which is a completely unfair comparison, but there it is).
Terrorism turns to government conspiracy and much, much worse in Adaptation by Malinda Lo. It’s basically a quick-paced teenie-bopper thrill ride.
It explored some interesting concepts (SPOILERS: Birds breaking planes! Genetic testing! Intergalactic hanky-panky!), but in the end the giant conspiracy saga was completely overshadowed by the teen romance. The lesbian teen romance—well, the xenosexual teen romance.
Yes, Adaptation includes a little human-alien romance. It’s not nearly as weird as you think, especially when the aliens look like humans and the human involved had no idea about the alien bit).
But as you can imagine, that part gets really interesting. Especially when the human involved thinks she’s gay. All the while struggling with feelings for her male debate partner. Never mind the lies and betrayal happening with the alien/human lover.
With all that going on it’s a bit anti-climactic when the president fesses up to first contact and Area 51 and all that. Forget the intergalactic conspiracy, I wanted more drama.
And be warned—it’s a trilogy. There’s a fair amount of closure at the end of the first volume, but there are still plenty of questions to be answered.