Archive for the ‘Science Fiction/Futuristic’ Category

Just a quick note on Death Sentence: Book Three of Escape from Furnace. death sentence

I read it.

It still has the appeal of the first two books, but it does have that middle of the series lag, at least at the beginning of the book. It’s not so much that Smith is trying to go over what’s in the first two books–thankfully, he doesn’t fall into that trap. (Start at the beginning of the series if you want to know, right?) But he does begin with lots of gory details about Alex becoming a ‘Black Suit.’ The depth of this description will have appeal to many readers–it may hook some guys who don’t often choose, of their own free will, to read (teens whom libraries and schools call ‘reluctant readers’).

I’m not a reluctant reader, so I was getting agitated–where had the storyline gone off to? Whatever was going to happen in the novel was left to wander the desert for–what seemed to me–forty years, while I was bogged down in page after page of Alex’s surgeries, hallucinations, bloody towels and intravenous drips. To be fair, the hallucinations are later connected to the story. (It’s hard to understand how the ‘nectar’ that the warden is having pumped into Alex can make him see historical events while sedated, but there is an explanation, and it’s worth just rolling with it.)

The story does get moving along, and we reunite with Simon and Zee, have a great jailbreak scene, and more. So, if you enjoy the long descriptions of effluvia, stretched skin, painful procedures and an immoderate number of hallucinations, great. If not, it’s OK to give the first third of the book a cursory (quick, fast) read, skimming the pages. And then get down to the story.

I continue to recommend this series, particularly for ‘reluctant readers.’


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ashes   Ashes by Ilsa Bick (first in a trilogy)

Alex, seventeen and traveling alone in the Michigan wilderness, is on a mission to bid her goodbyes to the world. She has a brain tumor that appears unstoppable, even with experimental treatments. While Alex is on her backpacking adventure, an electromagnetic pulse—EMP—rocks the earth, killing many people. Yet after the EMP, Alex is not only alive, but changed. The sense of smell she had lost due to her cancer treatments is now so keen that she can smell emotions, such as fear.

Alex discovers that almost all others who are left alive are very old or very young. Generally, after the EMP blast, middle-ages folks are dead and teens become zombie-like—Alex refers to them as ‘brain-zapped.’ While the brain-zapped don’t eat one another, they crave human flesh. The combination of troubles is post-apocalyptic: teen zombies, a dying earth with fried technology and no means of modern communication, and a remaining population with no means of producing goods, including food. The worst in people comes out, and they fight and kill for survival supplies.

When the EMP takes place, Alex happens to be talking to a few people she met on her wilderness hike, a little girl named Ellie and Elle’s grandfather. The grandfather dies immediately, and Alex becomes Ellie’s protector. Later she teams with the hunky but shadowy Tom, who is on leave from the war in Afghanistan. They fear that they, too, will become brain-zapped. Their goal is to travel to safety, to find a town and some help. But along the way, danger separates them. Tom is wounded as survivors are stealing his provisions, and his wounds become infected. In seeking help, Alex finds a surviving town called Rule.

Rule is an odd place. Folks are deeply religious, but in a way that demands subservience from women. The fact that the folks in Rule are helping Alex is more sinister than it first seems. These survivors appear to be as dangerous as the zombies. Except for Chris, who has a crush on Alex.

Bick does a great job of framing her post-apocalyptic world and of explaining how such a thing might happen as well as hinting at the reasons why some young people like Alex, Tom, and Chris have survived. In all, she does a great job with drawing the reader in. Her writing is also very good. Given these things, and the fact that no plot points are concluded, most teens will quickly leap to the next book. However, Bick also spends a good portion of the novel with lengthy descriptions of the gross realities of this new world. Ashes is an A-One gore-fest. Bick has that paradoxical ability to stop the story dead in its tracks to wax on about zombies plucking out eyeballs and livers, and yet to make it feels like this is fast-paced action.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m something of a sissy in these matters. While the blood jets, the shootings and other violence didn’t get to me, I couldn’t stomach the frequent and vivid descriptions of pus—yellow-green, oozing, stinking. I read while waiting for appointments—and thus in public places—and often found myself unable to continue, the bile rising in my throat, the gag reflex operating. For this reason, I’m not going to continue the series. But if you don’t have these sorts of issues, this is a heart-smacking work for mature readers (about 14 years and up).

I’ve thought about why my reaction to books like Ashes is so different from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is also set in a post-apocalyptic, violent world of survivalists and cannibals. I think it just comes down to the writing. McCarthy can make me realize all the terror of his world. I have the full emotional impact, the genuine sense of horror and concern for the characters. But I’m never at risk of puking while waiting for the dentist.

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Solitary: Book Two of the Escape from Furnace series

by Alexander Gordon Smith

Just a quick heads up on this series. I reviewed the first book, Lockdown here. I thought it was great entertainment and a perfect choice for guys who have a hard time finding a book they like. I wanted to continue the series and see if the same quick-paced action/adventure continued. It does.

This time Alex is locked up in solitary confinement after his escape attempt. The cell is more like a coffin standing upright. His buddy Zee is also locked in a solitary cell nearby and the two figure out a communication system that helps them stay sane. Still, Alex has many hallucinations, particularly of his old cellmate Donovan, who was taken by the men in black suits and the Wheezers in book one.

The Wheezers are back as are the mutant rat boys, only this time they are out for Alex’s blood. In Solitary we also get a good look of the horror of the infirmary—we figured Donovan had been taken there to be transformed into some sort of creature at the end of book one. Now we know for sure.

This book, like the first, certainly has lots of disturbing images and description. It’s hard for me to say why it doesn’t bother me in the same way that it bothers me in many books. I think, for me, it all plays pretty well into the nightmare of Furnace, so it doesn’t have the same gratuitous feel that I’ve experienced with other science fiction for reluctant guy readers. However, I’ll give you an idea of what some professional reviewers thought:

“The gross-out factor is high in many sections” (School Library Journal)

“Readers who relish lurid imagery and melodramatic prose will continue to be riveted and left eager for the next disgust-o-rama episode” (Booklist)

So, that’s the caveat (warning)—meanwhile, I’m on to book three, Death Sentence.

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Lockdown: Escape from Furnace: Book 1

by Alexander Gordon Smith

Beneath heaven is hell.

Beneath hell is Furnace.

So begins the Escape from Furnace series, now complete at five books.

Lockdown is a great ‘guy read,’ full of injustice, desire for revenge, courage, and survival. It’s also full of weird creatures like hell hounds—dogs of muscle and sinew, but no skin—and tormentors with gas masks sewn into the skin of their faces and bandoleers full of dirty hypodermic needles.

Alex lands deep underground in Furnace Penitentiary after he’s convicted of killing his best friend, something he didn’t do. Not that Alex is a good guy. He’s a bully and a thief. But he’s no murderer. Yet in the group of boys who land in Furnace on the same day, the others that Alex meets are also framed. Later, when Alex meets his cellmate, Donovan, he finds that he was convicted of murder because he killed his mother’s boyfriend after he had beaten her one too many times.

Why is this suddenly happening to all these boys?

Furnace is a private company that contracts with the government to house juvenile murderers. It just so happens that after the Summer of Slaughter, people are afraid. They want harsh punishments for teen killers, and they consider those killers as good as dead once they are locked up in Furnace. You, reader, start thinking that there just may be some extra money to be made for the Furnace owners when they can add more guys to the number locked up. But there’s something more, too.

When Lockdown is announced with siren blasts, the skinless dogs are on the loose, and guys are hauled away in the middle of the night. What happens to them? Why are there so many bizarre creatures in Furnace and such nasty food in ‘the Trough?’

Despite all the terrors of Furnace, Alex is a thoughtful guy, one who reflects on how his bullying behavior out in the world is mirrored in Furnace by the roving gangs who torment inmates. This is a can’t-put-it-down page-turner that ends on a cliff hanger. You’ve got to go for this series.

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What’s cool about the California Young Reader Medal is that the books are selected by young readers. So, teens select the winner of the young adult category. In order to vote, you have to read all three of the nominated books, of course.  Sometimes adults worry that teens won’t select books that are well written. But the truth is that some of my favorite YA books have been Californian Young Reader Medal winners. In fact, one of my absolute, all-time favorite YA books–Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes was a winner years ago.  So, we shouldn’t worry. Teens make great choices in books!

Of the three nominees for 2014, I’ve read (and reviewed) Divergent. I do love both Jennifer Donnelly, the author of Revolution,  and Wendelin Van Draanen, the author of The Running Dream, so this year’s award will make for some great reading.

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

When a school bus accident leaves sixteen-year-old Jessica an amputee, she returns to school with a prosthetic limb and her track team finds a wonderful way to help rekindle her dream of running again.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

An angry, grieving seventeen-year-old musician facing expulsion from her prestigious Brooklyn private school travels to Paris to complete a school assignment and uncovers a diary written during the French revolution by a young actress attempting to help a tortured, imprisoned little boy–Louis Charles, the lost king of France.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

In a future Chicago, sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior must choose among five predetermined factions to define her identity for the rest of her life, a decision made more difficult when she discovers that she is an anomaly who does not fit into any one group, and that the society she lives in is not perfect after all.

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road  One of the comments you’d never see in a professional book review is “The book is graphic enough to appeal to high school guys.”  I hate to admit it, but this is something I think about when I’m reading. Research shows–and anecdotal evidence at Colony High backs up that research–that high school boys rarely read, almost never when they have the choice.

This summer I read a great book–and I mean great in every sense—a literary masterpiece, a stunning work of fiction, an insightful look into a bleak future, a beautiful rendering of the father-son relationship. And–ta da–a book graphic enough that it will appeal to high school guys.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the story of an unnamed father and son who are making their way to the sea in a post-apocalyptic world. “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” have left the world barren. Animals are dead (or long ago eaten by the few remaining people), plant life is scorched and roads are melted. The air is always gray with ash, as is the snowfall. The sun is blotted out and winter arrives early. All living people are scavengers—and with little left to scavenge, most are cannibals as well.

In a world that is virtually hopeless, it is amazing that McCarthy can wrench the heart of his reader with the love of the father and son. The father has often told the son that they are “the good guys” and while they have to be on a constant alert for others (who might capture and eat them), they would never do such a thing themselves. Though starving and exhausted from their trek, the son reminds the father that the two of them “carry the flame.”  The son always wants to do well, including helping other people. The father knows better and is more wary. Understanding that he is dying, he saves two bullets in his gun so that he can take his son with him.

Some of the situations McCarthy envisions are horrific (people imprison others and eat them limb by limb, cauterizing the amputations) and yet all strike the reader as inevitable in such a world. Too often, I’ve read reviews that describe a new novel as a ‘tour de force.’ After reading the book, I assume that the reviewer was the author’s best friend. The Road is one novel that deserves the praise.

(Another review that I wrote pre-Chaffey but am linking to QR codes. Originally posted in 2007.)

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

I’m curious about why so many YA books—popular ones anyway—are about dystopias, lousy futures worlds where everything is wrong, the opposite of utopias. In the YA version of dystopia, the adults have sold out the kids. They have wrecked the world and are using the kids, mercilessly, either as experiments in making the world better or as scapegoats for the ills of society. As our current trend in American society leans to ‘helicopter parents’—those who hover over and meet every whim as well of need of their children, I wonder if teens’ understanding of the havoc we wreck on our environment and the potential this has for their futures is the fuel behind this trend.

Two books that I’ve just read on dystopias are The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games.

In The Maze Runner, Thomas wakes up in an elevator, very groggy and with no memory of his past—no sense of family, home, nothing. He’s not sure how old he is. He learns that he is in the Glade, an area surrounded by a vast maze with moving walls.  About sixty boys live in this new home, with one new boy being deposited each month in the elevator. All are in the same predicament with no memories, no idea why they are there or who has done this to them. Life there is so bad that when Thomas asks questions, the only answer he gets is a sort of ‘You’ll see.’

Although the constant use of ‘you’ll see’ and ‘you don’t want to know’ is probably meant to add suspense to the novel, it actually pulls like a weight attached to the reader. Many pages in, you feel that you are not moving forward—you’re just reading the same thing over and over. However, there’s enough that’s strange and weird in the book to keep you going. Each night, doors from the maze open and hideous “Grievers”, half live, half mechanical, come out. If a boy is stung by one and manages to survive, he goes through a torturous changing that brings back some of his memory. Because of this, the boys are desperately looking for a way out, running the maze during daylight and mapping out the changes in the walls, looking for a pattern.

Soon after Thomas arrives, so does the first girl in the Glade—and with her the beginning of the end. The boys must find a way out to the world of the Creators, not knowing if their chances there are any better.

In The Hunger Games, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen provides for her family—a twelve year old sister and a mother—after her father is killed in a mining accident. The family lives in a future nation, Panem, which is situated in North America. There, the Capitol demands punishment and yearly sacrifice from the twelve districts that had once rebelled against it. And here again, the sacrifice is children. Each district has a yearly lottery in which one girl and one boy, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games. Katniss volunteers when her twelve-year-old sister is chosen. The unlucky boy, Peeta, is someone who had helped Katniss years earlier.

Taking place in an arena where the environment is controlled, the games are a fight to the death. Yet the pregame object is to make a good impression on the audience (all citizens of Panem are forced to watch) and accrue ‘sponsors,’ thus increasing the changes of winning the games. This is a sort of “Survivor” gone bad—and believe me, the book is an indictment of our love of reality TV and our predilection for violence. There are stylists for the contestants and the deep irony that these kids are treated to dizzying elegance and luxury just before they are sent out to kill one another, while many, especially in Katniss’s District 12 (formerly Appalachia, an area of the country synonymous, for centuries,  with extreme poverty) have been days from starvation.

Peeta has always cared deeply for Katniss and this increases the suspense. Only one contestant can survive. What is the pair to do on this shifting moral ground? If you wonder about the difficulties of being fully human and fully present in the face of so much evil in the world, you’ll love this book. Then again, if you just want something that’s fast-moving and action-packed, you’ll love it as well.

If you like The City of Ember, The Giver or The House of the Scorpion, I think you’ll enjoy both of these books. If you are short on time and have to pick one, make it The Hunger Games, which is a better piece of writing and a tighter story.

(I posted this on Colony Library Lady in 2009. I just realized that it wasn’t here. I’m adding it so that the classroom flyers for QR codes for “Books into Movies” will work! BTW–several guys commented on that 2009 post that they liked The Maze Runner better–maybe it’s a gender thing. All three of the Maze Runner trilogy are out–The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure are both available in our library, so you could read straight through without having to wait!)

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