"A rough estimate based on geologic records indicates there's a 1-in-10,000 chance of a "supereruption" at Yellowstone during our lifetimes. However, given the erratic nature of volcanoes, that number doesn't mean much. The bulging pocket of magma swishing around beneath Old Faithful might never blow its lid again. Or, it might put on a surprise fireworks show next Independence Day. Scientists just don't know."
And what does that huge caldera look like? First, a science overview.
In the foreground is the Yellowstone River, winding peacefully through the Hayden Valley. From what we see here, this could be any (alluvial) flood plain from any sizable river, formed from sediments that eroded from the mountains in the distance.
Yes. But. This particular flood plain is the floor of the Yellowstone Caldera, northeastern portion. It lies directly over the the bulge/magma hotspot shown schematically in Pic #3 above. And those mountains in the distance are the edge of the caldera. In plain English, the mountains are the RIM OF THE VOLCANO. If and when there is another major eruption, this peaceful valley will be a seething, violent cauldron, and millions of tons of molten rock and ash will spew forth.
A similar caldera from the same hotspot (but in southern Idaho) was formed between 10 and 12 million years ago, and the event dropped ash to a depth of one foot, 1,000 miles away in northeastern Nebraska. Within the past 17 million years, 142 or more caldera-forming eruptions have occurred from the Yellowstone hotspot, as discussed in this Wikipedia article.
In what follows, I will focus (as usual) on big-picture aspects of the story, and stay (mostly) away from plot details. If you are completely unfamiliar with the book, there will be some mild spoilers in the details. But most of those are implied in the publisher’s synopsis.
And watch for comments by SPECIAL GUEST REVIEWER, karen!! (YAY!!). karen’s comments will appear in this format.
So let’s talk about some general aspects of this book.
Will the Yellowstone caldera have another massive eruption at some point in the future? I think the odds are very strong that it will. The site is under continuous surveillance, and you can check up on the latest at the USGS/University of Utah website. . There is even a webcam where you can watch for the next eruption:
Note the wispy puffs of steam here and there at ground level. And this quote from the webcam page:
”This area hosted a variety of rock- hurling hydrothermal (steam) eruptions during the 1930s... In recent years, similar smaller blasts have been known to occur.”
Now, if that doesn’t get your heart pumping, then you fail the geek test.
Will the effects of a major eruption be devastating for all life within a radius of hundreds of miles (including human, if we survive all those other apocalypses that may come sooner than this one)? Absolutely.
Here are some critters that were fossilized by a previous eruption of the hotspot - the one in Idaho, mentioned above. The pic is from Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, in Nebraska. And yes, that is volcanic ash that surrounds them (and covered them before it was cleared away).
There is a ton of science on this subject, and hundreds of web pages, scholarly articles, books, etc. that delve into all the scientific details. The Yellowstone Supervolcano is very real, and a lot is known about it.
The author placed the scene of his Ashfall story in Iowa, about 900 miles from the eruption site. I think this choice was reasonable based on the ashfall zones from relatively recent eruptions (see map in Pic #1). The ashfall might not reach quite the depths discussed in the book, at that distance from the caldera. And the noise levels described in the days after the eruption might also be somewhat overstated. But these are minor quibbles, I think, and the quibbles could also be wrong.
In any case, it seems very likely that all human life within several hundred miles of the caldera would be exterminated by the combination of projectiles, ash, poisonous gases, and habitat destruction (and there are other factors that the reader will discover). So, I would say that the Iowa scene was an excellent choice overall for the story as written.
Human behavior, post-apocalypse: For review purposes, let’s just say that some really bad human behavior happens, beginning soon after the initial cataclysm. As a reference point, think about New Orleans in the days and weeks after Katrina. There were acts of extraordinary heroism, courage and selflessness. There were also acts of barbarism, violence, and savagery. Many of us watched coverage of those events, and I doubt that we will ever forget what we saw. Now, instead of toxic flood water, think of a blanket of ash and an atmosphere of sulphur dioxide and other noxious goodies. And a VERY much larger impact zone.
Do normal rules of law, order and civility break down in such situations? You bet. Do people of high character rise to the occasion, match wits with the disaster and the demons, and win a few battles here and there? Yes, they do. Both of those manifestations are handled extremely well here, and in stark, vivid detail. Not for the squeamish, but certainly not over the top in my view. I found it all highly engrossing and very believable.
Male POV: The merits and demerits of this first-person male narrative approach have been discussed elsewhere. I thought that Alex was very effective as the story-teller, and both the telling and his character became more interesting and nuanced as the story rolled along. There were moments, especially early, where Alex was, umm, annoyingly obtuse. And yes, I wanted to slap him around a few times as he struggled to master the obvious. But for me, those problems disappeared around 20-30% into the story, and I give kudos to the author for the highly believable growth in his character.
karen’s comments: i was talking to mike mullin at ala, and he said that one of the things he likes to do is reverse the typical gender roles. so darla is very mechanically-inclined, and practical, while alex is a bit more emotional than your typical boy in YA novels.
Strong, smart female protagonist: Darla was definitely one of my favorite female leads in recent memory, and I will continue to emphasize the critical importance of intelligent, proactive women whenever I find them in my reading. Put simply, Darla is a prime force for survival of the good guys. More on this from karen below - but she is resourceful, clear-headed, very determined, and extremely capable. AND - she takes the initiative. No wimpy girl, waiting around for the strong guy to point the way. NO WAY!! Darla is a winner in every sense.
karen’s comments: and it's great that she is older than him, and that he does look up to and respect her, despite being a giiiiiirl. but they are still on equal footing. they both have something to teach the other, and that's where their attraction come from; not this more shallow connection you see a lot on YA, where it is all surface level, or seems to arise because of proximity only, and not because the characters have any real feelings for each other.
Survival tactics Let this sink in for a moment. Most of the area covered by ashes is farmland that normally produces a sizable percentage of the nation’s food (and a huge amount for export). Wheat, corn and other staple crops; cattle, pigs, and poultry - all wiped out by the ashfall. The repercussions are felt worldwide, and some of this is detailed in the book.
But the everyday struggle for the next meal is uppermost in the story. Town-boy Alex must learn quickly how to cope. Farm-girl Darla, with her knowledge of machinery and creative use of all available items, is critical to most of the adaptations. I was really impressed with the way these aspects of the story were handled.
karen’s comments: these two have come through the trenches together, but their relationship doesn't seem to be because of external conflict; that thing that happens when two people share the same traumatic experience and that binds them together emotionally, but that conflict made the relationship possible just by bringing them together in the first place. they do keep rescuing each other, to varying degrees, but i think their characteristics are compatible even without the circumstances, you know?
Who’s in charge of recovery efforts? And WHERE is the government aid? Some reviewers have questioned the near-total absence of U.S. government support in much of what happens here.
What really interested me was the mechanism by which the government DID play an active role, and the extremely sinister aspects of that. The prominent role of government contractors in recent U.S. military engagements - and one company in particular (**Blackwater/Xe**) - were very much in my thoughts as I read those sections. The other prevailing theme in this regard was the martial-law mentality of the scene, and the loss of human values that resulted.
karen’s comments: well, there is an attempt made in the book to gather people together into refugee camps, but what happens there seems to be a criticism on the way FEMA is unprepared to deal with large-scale events of this kind. there aren't enough supplies, no one really knows how to handle the volume of people, no one knows how long this situation will continue... and, of course, put the wrong people in charge, and things are going to get ugly. as they do. and it only becomes more horrifying in the sequel, the problems with the refugee camps. we just have too damn many people in this country, and if something like this happens, this is a very realistic portrayal of how things could go down. (hiding under my bed now)
Is there a sequel?
Why yes, there is! And karen has a copy of the ARC, and has written a preliminary review. The book will be released in October 2012.
karen’s comments: the sequel... well... i don't want to give too much away, but darla and alex become separated, and as time goes on and food becomes scarcer, people become harder and more imaginative in their fight for survival. there aren't "good guys" and "bad guys," there are just people trying to survive. and while some people do in fact seem very very bad, usually mullin will throw in a scene that humanizes them a little, so they can't just easily be dismissed as "bad." it's a very smart thing to do.
Wrap-up So, I really enjoyed this innovative story about a titanic catastrophe and the valiant efforts of two teens to cope. I did not get hung up on the likelihood of the event. It may not happen for many millennia, but there are good reasons to keep an eye on that enormous caldera.
karen’s comments: what's great about these books is that he is crazy for the science. he doesn't shrink away from using actual medical terminology, or going off on a geological fact-tangent. but in a way that doesn't sound like a textbook. it just makes the story more believable and more important to read. i cannot praise this book highly enough.
Agreed! I thought the story told here was highly plausible in the event of a major eruption, and extremely sobering in its implications. The book can serve as a wake-up call for an action plan. If and when it happens, there will be tremendous death and destruction on a global scale. But forewarned is still forearmed for those who survive, and I took this book as an appeal to the better angels of our nature.
There are nearly 5,000 reviews of this book on GR, and the official synopsis explains clearly what is meant by the term ‘Unwind’. So, I am going to asThere are nearly 5,000 reviews of this book on GR, and the official synopsis explains clearly what is meant by the term ‘Unwind’. So, I am going to assume that those who read this are familiar with the basic premise. If not, that’s okay - some of the context will be evident here. But it is much easier to review this without major spoilers if I don’t try to tap-dance around the basics.
This book certainly deserves its legion of fans, and could become a phenomenal movie. I strongly recommend it for those who can handle the grim central themes. It plays on your deepest emotions, and gives your logic analyzer a good workout at the same time.
There is a group of big ideas that I will discuss in the second half of this review. And one gut-wrenching core concept - that some unspeakably awful things are in store for a lot of teenage kids. Basic human values are redefined, including the ‘sanctity’ of human life and the responsibilities of parents to their kids. The historic origin for all this is the intransigence of human attitudes on both sides of a tough issue. The outcome is a tide of events that sweeps young humans into institutional crimes, and these are cynically accepted - and mostly ignored - by adults.
These are all big, in-your-face polarizing topics. They demand a firm grasp on one’s own values, and value judgments of events in the story. But Shusterman never preaches here, and never pushes any final judgments except one - that the ‘solution’ in this fight over reproductive rights was at least as heinous as any of the original crimes.
I liked the story and concept a lot. With that said, it seemed obviously farfetched at first, and I was expecting a more thorough world-building treatment than the one that I got early on. I struggled with that, and it was somewhat distracting.
Fortunately, the narrative and the three main characters were highly engaging for me from the beginning. I was especially impressed by Risa, the excellent female lead - strong, tough, smart and adaptable, just what I want to see in this era of clueless insta-love. Any author would be proud of her, in my opinion. In addition, most of my background issues were covered by the midway point, and the narrative really rocked from that point on.
Overview and comments
This section will be relatively spoiler-free, I think.
The author does provide a brief intro/history of the events that led to the central scenario here. It is enough to get you grounded and provide some context for the opening scenes. But for me, there was still a feeling that the author jumped into the story very quickly, with introductions to three teenagers who are facing critical moments in their lives. At that point, I still didn’t understand the rationale at any deep level, and the experience was a little disorienting.
Gradually, however, there were enough details filtering into the narrative that I was able to focus increasingly on the characters and events. For me, both the characters and story were very effective from the beginning, and their momentum continued to build as the events took center stage.
I was sympathetic with all three of the major characters, but especially with Risa - the orphaned ward of the state. As I have said in other reviews, we don’t see enough of her strength, savvy, and intelligent action (my opinion) in recent top-selling fiction. I really liked Risa, and my admiration for her grew through the course of the book.
Connor was a frustrating protagonist for me, but I can understand the author’s purpose in writing him that way. Deeply compassionate - but temperamental and prone to impulses of very poor judgment - he had to grow in all sorts of ways as the story moved along, and he did. I wanted to slap him around a few times, and my view was shared by others in the story. But I was impressed by the author’s development of this character in latter stages.
Lev was perhaps the most interesting character, in his striking transformation from one set of bedrock principles - as his earliest memories - to a radically different manifesto by the end. Lev gives you a lot to think about, and so do Risa and Connor. Their life journey really carries the book, and I thought the author was extremely effective in his use of them as the main vehicle.
So, characters and events are the main thrust of the page-turning narrative, and it reached a point for me that I really couldn’t put it down toward the end. I even forgot to highlight passages on my Kindle for later review, and I swear it was not encroaching senility that made me forget! The book had a major grip on me - a really suspenseful, grab-and-don’t-let-go read.
Thoughts on the Big Questions
This section will implicitly involve spoilers, but I have tried to minimize plot reveals.
I want to focus here on the big questions that are always looming in the subtext. In particular, I want to take this scenario of a possible future and trace it back a bit to where we are now.
How precious is human life? When does it become precious? What restrictions should the state place on the “Right to Life”, especially among the unborn? The turmoil surrounding these questions is a daily debate in current society (and I am thinking especially of the USA in this regard, where the story occurs).
Shusterman presents a series of documentary examples: news releases, tales of despicable acts, extreme positions on all sides of these questions. He very pointedly avoids telling the reader what to think. Instead, he lets the characters think and talk about the issues.
“Unborn babies… they suck their thumbs sometimes, right? And they kick. Maybe before that they’re just like a bunch of cells or something, but once they kick and suck their thumbs— that’s when they’ve got a soul.”
“Maybe it’s the best answer of all. If more people could admit they really don’t know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War.”
In Shusterman’s telling, the conflict develops along naturally incendiary lines. It reaches a point where the belief in “sanctity of human life” is a mockery in relation to the war that grows out of the dispute.
What happens in that case? Well, Shusterman presents a truly bizarre outcome that is the core premise of the book - an agreement that would never occur under normal, peacetime conditions. In a one-page dialogue, he reveals how this agreement came to pass. If you have read the book, you will remember the dialogue. At some point, you most likely took a position on both the outcome and the rationale, and your impression of the book was driven in large part by the position you took. That was certainly true for me.
On first reading, the dialogue seemed inadequate to me as an explanation for the agreement. But it started to make a lot of sense on second and third reading, and by that point I found it plausible, no matter how cynical and sickening the implications were. My reading of history is that many critical turning-point events seem impossible until they happen, but seem inevitable after that. But some highly respected friends had a very different take in this case, and I can certainly understand their reactions. It is good to be aware of this going in.
In any case, one implication of the agreement came through very clearly. There was a lot of money to be made from it, and powerful forces took that idea and ran all the way to the bank.
“People wanted parts.” “Demanded is more like it... And all those new parts had to come from somewhere.”
”It didn’t take long for ethics to be crushed by greed. Unwinding became big business, and people let it happen.”
Can Transplants Think?
Whether or not souls exist Connor doesn’t know. But consciousness does exist— that’s something he knows for sure. If every part of an Unwind is still alive, then that consciousness has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?
My take on these issues (in the book) is that teens are left to work the answers out for themselves, while adults look the other way.
“The unborn have souls. They have souls from the moment they get made— the law says.”
“maybe an Unwind’s spirit stretches out, kind of like a giant balloon between all those parts of us in other places. Very poetic.”
Context and point of view are critical here. The conversations are among teenagers on the ‘firing line’. These are not adults, making rules based on hardened ideologies. They are kids who deal with the consequences.
He tries to imagine himself stretched so thin and so wide that he can reach around the world. He imagines his spirit like a web strung between the thousand recipients of his hands, his eyes, the fragments of his brain— none of it under his control anymore, all absorbed by the bodies and wills of others. Could consciousness exist like that?
He thinks about the trucker who performed a card trick for him with an Unwind’s hand. Did the boy who once owned that hand still feel the satisfaction of performing the trick?
As an adult, I read these passages and think, “Nah. It wouldn’t be like that at all.” From my neuroscientist perspective, I wouldn’t expect any vestige of consciousness in any ‘harvested’ organ that is not a brain.
But my adult perspective is not the issue here. These are teenagers who are trapped in a system that was born in warfare, hardened by greed, and then marginalized in the collective adult consciousness. Their bitter reality is carefully ignored on the radar of the average adult in this society. They are the living victims, and no adult is taking responsibility for explaining whether and in what sense they will remain alive.
Conclusions This book has a lot of power, and has forced many adult readers (me included) to think more carefully about the consequences of ideology run amok. The story won’t work for everybody. But I will be extremely interested in the sequel that is coming soon, and one thing I want to see is whether adults can ‘grow up’ in this world.
Actions have consequences, and responsibility doesn’t end when you don’t want to deal with it any more. Can we do better? I believe that is a good thought for any day.
Thanks very much to Erika and many other GR friends who recommended this book to me. I depend so much on their judgments in choosing the books that I read, and I am deeply grateful to have them on my side.
There are so many excellent and moving reviews of this book on GR, from my friends and many others. Too many to list here. My advice - look at what your friends had to say about it, or just start at the top and go from there....more
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.When I examin“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.” ― Albert Einstein
In the normal scheme of things, I would have read this “children’s book”* first, as my introduction to the amazing writing of Catherynne Valente. But because this physical book took longer than expected to arrive - and because I was already bitten by the Valente bug through my good friends Catie and Nataliya - I began by taking on the highly complex and challenging (though shorter) AI fantasy - Silently and Very Fast.
Having read the complex novella, I expected this ‘simple’ middle-grade fantasy to be a leisurely cruise by comparison. Easy Peasy.
Silly me. Catherynne Valente, in my two-book experience, does not do Easy. Her writing is rich, layered, packed with ideas and playful, all at the same time and often in the same sentence. If you are looking for an easy read, look elsewhere.
But that’s okay by me, because I LOVE that kind of writing as long as it works on its own terms. By that, I mean I can handle the occasional sentence that needs to be read 2 or 3 times. I can unpack it, see the parts and understand the whole, admire what I see, and be ready for more.
Even so, I place a heavy burden on the author who writes that way. There must be beauty in the language and meaning in the lines. I need to care about the protagonist, and do a minimum of cringing over the latest stupid thing she has done. In the best case, she doesn’t do stupid things - or learns very quickly when she does. A no-argghhh narrative, that’s what I want.
Valente succeeds brilliantly on those terms, in my view. I would be hard-pressed to think of another author who displays the sheer power of beauty AND substance that she does. It is simply dazzling to watch her prose come to life, dance off the page and into sparkling structures that whirl off in all directions. I can’t get enough of it, and I intend to read a lot more (hopefully all) of her work.
In this Andre Norton Award winning tale, a 12 year old girl named September has a difficult and dreary life, full of mundane routine and with parents who are off to war (father) or working in war industry (mother).
With thanks to THT and her moving review, I have borrowed a few stills from the book trailer for this amazing work. I thank THT for the link, and I want to repeat her recommendation to watch the video both before and after reading, if and when.
September gets an invitation to ride off to Fairyland, and accepts with minimal hesitation - whether in her thoughts and dreams, or in a realistic fantasy, Valente is artfully unclear.
”Ever so briefly, Latitude and Longitude kissed, and when they parted, there was a space between their mouths just large enough for a Leopard carrying a Harsh Air and a little girl.”
From there, a series of adventures unfolds, with a master fantasist at the controls. We tour a series of richly imagined creations, and meet a fascinating set of characters that any author would envy and most readers will love.
Fairyland is full of wonders, but governed by rigid bureaucratic principles. September is only a young girl, with no experience of any of these things, but she must make do and accomplish what seems impossible, to her and to us.
”The going was not easy. Gold is very slippery to walk on and insists on sliding all over the place. She found that her bare foot was actually a bit more suited to the task than the shod one, as she could grasp at the gleaming ground with her toes.”
She shows remarkable resilience, and develops a group of marvelous friendships along the way. Each of September’s friends has marvelous powers, but the powers have very specific limits. And the prose sings to us as we watch these adventures unfold, with characters and settings that glisten and glow as they carry us deep into Fairyland.
The journey is difficult and dangerous, and September must call on all of her resources and learn as she goes.
”Remember, they are fast and tall and vicious! Many have perished or, at least, been roundly dumped off and bruised in the attempt to travel by wild bicycle.”
She is a classic smart, tough heroine, stiffening her resolve with every new challenge.
”September yelped in victory and set about hauling several of the log-size sceptres together and lining them up side by side.”
And yes, there is evil afoot - monstrous and well-disguised, very, very resourceful and SNEAKY. The values that September learns and applies are the classic virtues of loyalty, self-reliance and a persistence that wavers but never dies.
It is a wonderful story, and the story teaches as it tells. The drama builds to a tremendous finish, and I was shaking my head in awe at the end.
There were points in the story where I struggled with some of the layering, and a few of the twists and turns of events. But it is hard for me to imagine a more beautiful overall effect from beginning to end - one in which all of the pieces are seen (in hindsight) to fit perfectly, and every element is in a sensible place.
Thoughts After Reading
So, I loved it. After I finished this beautiful story, I mused a bit on the comparisons with Silently and Very Fast, and the more general theme of what adults can learn from children’s books (and why they would do well to read them).
First, the comparisons. In my review of Silently and Very Fast , I discussed questions that are raised when highly adaptable software takes on human ideas and desires. I mention that discussion here because a related set of questions emerges (for me) in this book. The same gifted writer takes a child through a fantasy world, but includes very ‘adult’ evils, trickery, bureaucracy and manipulation. I had some fun thinking about what (I believe) Valente is getting at, in the deeper levels behind the magic show up front.
The lesson I drew is that kind-hearted determination, intelligence, and perseverance can push through dark and powerful forces, find the points of vulnerability, and engineer a different and better outcome. For me, this was highly reminiscent in theme to the classic tale of A Wrinkle in Time, which I discussed here . Two great writers, teaching important lessons in two fanciful tales with extreme depth, for those who take the time to see them. Adults must work much harder at this, because our own layers of bias and cynicism have likely taught us a very different set of ‘virtues’. But we can see much more, if we really look. Children grasp the essential concepts immediately, unburdened by our adult baggage. But they can get caught up in the fantasy, and may miss the deeper meaning.
For me, Valente does something incredible in both books that I have read. She uses a mystical fantasy to dazzle the reader, but also to provide an alluring passageway to much deeper ideas. She explores the implications of these ideas, in such a charming setting that the lessons come across as we simply process the fantasy. Here, the net effect is that we get a fresh perspective on matters of ethics, philosophy and 'political' action. And we don’t get the dense, formal or emotionally loaded discussions of ‘adult’ treatments. In Silently and Very Fast, Valente conveys similar implications of ‘intelligence’ and ‘consciousness’ in machines and their human companions, and a trove of other deep concepts. And we don’t get a listing of computer algorithms, or a technical discussion of central vs. distributed processing.
If I read these two works again, I would start with this one per my original plan, and that would be my recommendation for anyone. But for now, I will be moving on to see what other wonders Valente has in store for us. (Just as soon as I clear away some of the TBR pile that has collected around my feet)
Very Highly Recommended
* There are reasonable grounds for doubting whether this is really a children’s book at all. I hope to test this idea on my 5th-grader, but he is absorbed in Charlie Bone at the moment.
***I have tried to avoid spoilers. If you have read the book, you know how difficult that can be in this case. If you haven’t, you might be well advis***I have tried to avoid spoilers. If you have read the book, you know how difficult that can be in this case. If you haven’t, you might be well advised to just check it out first, and come back to the reviews later... I REALLY liked it, and will try to walk the tightrope of discussing it without giving it away.. ///////
There is a key moment very early in this book - a flashback to Alison at age 6. She is watching her mom washing dishes, and seeing a trail of gold stars when the cutlery clinks. This visual sensation is very beautiful to Alison, but she has no idea that there is anything unusual about it.
She asks for more of the gold stars, and the shock of her mom’s violent and angry reaction is a defining moment in Alison’s life. Her mom’s orders are very clear. There are No stars. Alison is never to mention them, or anything like them to anyone, ever! People will think she is crazy! Allison’s mom thinks so too, while her dad is intelligent but basically clueless on this issue:
“My father was a sweet man, but most of the time he acted like his body was only there to keep his brain from dragging on the ground.”
For Alison, this moment changes everything about her relations with other people. She can never reveal those special perceptions. But they continue and grow more complex as she reaches her teens, a product of some unusual circuitry in her brain and eyes. (I will save other comments on this point for later discussion, if others are interested)
“You know how when some people first take up painting they don’t know how to mix colors properly, and all their pictures end up looking all garish and cheap? It’s like that when I watch TV.”
I bought into Alison’s defining, traumatic moment - it made sense to me. A childhood trauma takes away the simple joy of a beautiful set of perceptions, and turns them into a continuing nightmare. Intimidated by her mother’s outraged warning, Alison lives and builds much of her life around these perceptions, but knows she must keep them hidden or society will cast her aside.
But what drives much of the story is an even more horrifying turn of events, and the aftermath of this incident puts her in the psychiatric institution that her mother had feared all along. The book begins with her in this institution, piecing together the story (in first person) through her own deep confusion about what really happened, and what is or is not wrong with her. This confusion is a core element of the story - it makes everything she sees, thinks and does highly suspicious, to herself and to everyone around her.
“So I pushed the bitterness down, into the black pit of my stomach along with my regret and my grief and my fear, and I said, “I’m fine. May I go now?” “
The plot twists and turns from this point, and pieces/parts have been carefully indicated in all the reviews that I read. Nearly all of it worked extremely well for me. Having bought into the tortured but exotic inner world of Allison, I was prepared for the tortuous saga that followed. I anticipated some of the twists, though certainly not all. But I enjoyed the story greatly, right through to the end.
Your mileage may vary. A lot of trusted reviewers/friends had issues with this one, and it may just not work for you. What is really tricky is that serious readers will react in very different ways to the characters and the twists. I get that.
Here is the way I think of it. I love authors who can define a 'world' and make it work. Authors who follow their artistic vision and put it out there as they see it. The world could be almost anything - physical, psychological, pure fantasy, etc. And yes, things can change dramatically as the story rolls along.
For me, the ‘success’ of that world is not so much about what is in it, or even how it works, but how skillful the author is in depicting it. What I am judging is whether the creation hangs together for me. Is it internally consistent? Is the writing clear and moving? Do I care about the characters? Does the story gain momentum and then hold it?
In the hands of a lesser writer, I don't think that any part of this story would have drawn me in or held my interest. But Anderson’s writing scored strong positives on all of my criteria. I raced through it to see what would happen next. My pulse was pounding at many points in the story. In the end, I cared strongly about several of the characters and was satisfied with the outcome.
Thinking back, what I really enjoyed throughout was the skillful maneuvering of observation, inference and the unsettling new facts. For me, it was a marvelous excursion to see events unfold through the lens of Alison’s confusion, mental instability and her extraordinary perceptions. I was particularly impressed by the deft handling of shifting relationships among the characters, as the stereotyped certainties of one chapter became the deeper and more complex truths of the next. I would definitely read it again.
I am rounding this up to 4 stars. I would probably put it around 3.7 or 3.8 if I had the option.
I definitely enjoyed this book and would recommend it.I am rounding this up to 4 stars. I would probably put it around 3.7 or 3.8 if I had the option.
I definitely enjoyed this book and would recommend it. It is a very good, involving story that gets better as it goes along. The writing is good, but I agree with other reviewers that the style is best for, say, grade 6 and up. At the lower end of that range, I would be concerned about some very scary scenes and bad things that happen, especially in the first half of the book. It is fine for adult reading, but don't expect a lot of depth in the rendering of characters, or really detailed development of some of the weighty plot implications.
As I have said in other reviews, I read plausible dystopian novels, like this one, because I want to know at a visceral level just how awful the future may really be. I also want to see how some people manage to survive it, and what sorts of lives they are able to lead. All of those questions were treated with considerable skill here, and for the most part the story flowed very nicely and at a rapid pace.
For me as an adult reader, there were missing details that would have helped to understand more about this world. But I don't see that as a problem for younger readers. I was impressed by the strong, smart female protagonist - 15-year-old Mara - and it was very easy to care about her and many of the other characters. The emotional roller-coaster action was handled very well, and in general the plot elements were quite plausible. There were lots of interesting tidbits about the new world, its innovative engineering, and Mara's race-against-time quest there, and some nice bits about important relics from the old world. There was a definite sense of momentum in the action that carried all the way through.
I think this would be a very good book for parents to share and discuss with their young-teen kids. As things now stand, the world portrayed in this book is a lot more likely than most people are ready to admit. For kids who can handle the emotional trauma of fictional death, I believe that it would be a responsible act to let them know what may happen to their world. They may want to get involved in doing something about it before it is too late. ...more
This was my first read of a Lauren Oliver book. It was obvious after the first few pages that it was extremely well written, and that there was a specThis was my first read of a Lauren Oliver book. It was obvious after the first few pages that it was extremely well written, and that there was a special - one might say ineffable - quality about the writing.
All of the great books have a special quality in their prose. But there was something about this one that just radiated warmth. The phrases and pages had a symphonic quality as they wound around my head - a sort of perfection of timing and tone, of musical phrases moving separately and then coming together.
I kept thinking, as I read, about just what it was that made the book so magical for me. After all, this was a “children’s book”, and I had bought it for my my two grade-school-age boys. I did that because of glowing reviews from GR friends that I trust implicitly, including those from Wendy and Kaethe. As I have said before, it is extremely easy to find the best books to read when you rely on advice from those who REALLY know books, and have read (seemingly) EVERYTHING.
Well, of course our boys were too busy destroying intergalactic aliens on the Wii, DS, computer, etc. to be bothered until ‘later’ with any book that I recommended. Especially when I hadn’t read it, and especially when there were Big Nate and Wimpy Kid books lying around handy - known and trusted sources for boy-humor. (I get nightly Big Nate passages read to me by the younger one, when he is supposed to be asleep)
So, I picked a propitious moment to tag along with my friend Cillian and read this book. And promptly fell in love with it.
Liesl is a lovely little girl who has been locked away by an evil force in her life. Living in miserable conditions, she grieves for a lost loved one. When Po appears, her life begins to change.
“...Po wasn’t exactly sure why it had appeared in Liesl’s room... Over the past few months Po had seen a dim light appear at the edges of its consciousness at the same time every night, and next to that light was a living one, a girl; and in in the glow of that light the living girl made drawings.”
As each new character is introduced, we get a fascinating thumbnail of the personality, but little idea of how the pieces will fit.
“...a very frazzled-looking alchemist’s apprentice was standing on the quiet street in front of her house, staring up at her darkened window and feeling sorry for himself.”
“Pathetic, the alchemist would say. Worse than useless. As ridiculous and deluded as a frog trying to turn into a flower petal...”
The potions and magical elements start to appear. And the story begins to take shape around a small wooden box and an unfortunate (and portentous) mistake.
What follows is a series of highly fortunate, and then most unfortunate coincidences. And if you are like me, you are not bothered at this point by trivialities such as probables and plausibles. After all, the bending of realities is not sooo egregious, and the elements of fantasy are so beautifully delivered that every piece seems to fit exactly in its proper place. Even the evil ones are deliciously bad, and the whole structure moves forward with a sublime rhythm that I found completely mesmerizing.
“Augusta produced a large golden key from her purse, and with it unlocked the gates. She gestured grandly for the Lady Premiere to precede her into the yard. Inwardly, Augusta trembled with excitement. A visit! From the Lady Premiere! Who was a princess in her native Spain (or was it Portugal...?)! It was outstanding! It was unheard of! The neighbors would seethe with jealousy.”
The plot lines cross and re-cross, and this magical story winds along, with all of its twists and turns. The prose is superb throughout. Every step of the way, you get a clear (3rd person) picture of the thought processes in each of the characters.
For me, this book succeeds at every level. I was particularly pleased with the treatment of the good-vs.-evil themes and characters. It is easy to look around us and see evildoers (use your own definition) who succeed beyond any notion of ‘justice’, and to conclude that there is no justice in this life. But if you observe carefully, you can often find examples where evil is its own undoing. And every now and then, you can give a little boost to the process and speed things up just a bit. If you think about how that happens, you might just find some of the same elements at work in this tale.
I felt a wonderful sense of calm as the story ended, thinking about the mastery of what I had just read. Then I read through the poignant afterword, and the whole story made even more sense to me. I strongly recommend that Author’s Note, for a personal perspective on what she was feeling as she wrote this, and how she came to see the story when it was complete. I don’t want to spoil that here.
As an adult reader, I was completely taken away by this book. I would recommend it for most adults, and of course for children above, say, age 6 or 7. There are some frightening bits at various points, but I really see this as one for ‘kids of all ages’.
This was my first reading of a Terry Pratchett book. For the first 20% or so, I struggled with his introductions to two different societies - one 'civThis was my first reading of a Terry Pratchett book. For the first 20% or so, I struggled with his introductions to two different societies - one 'civilized' and familiar in a historical context, the other 'primitive' and mythical/religious in a pagan context. I had trouble putting these pieces into a single framework, and the story seemed slow to develop. Those who have read many of his works would probably not struggle as I did.
At any rate, things got very interesting once the two main characters - Mau and Daphne - took on their central roles. From that point forward, the pieces were falling into place for me. I began to admire the structure of the story, then to love the characters, and finally to let the lessons about cultures, knowledge and wisdom sink in. By that point, about 80% in, I was thinking that this was a really exceptional book, with a depth and subtlety that were truly marvelous. The closing section was a thing of beauty, with all the loose ends deftly tied together. I would certainly read this one again, and probably see the same beauty in the early portions that I saw later on.
Without getting into plot details, there is much to admire and think about here. Like all really good fiction, it gives you characters who think and pushes you to think along with them. It turns your view of the 'civilized' world around, at least a little, and that was the part that will stay with me the longest. Wisdom comes in many forms, and willful ignorance of others is not wise. Here, the good guys get their eyes opened to these truths. The bad guys, umm, don't.
Very highly recommended. I will definitely be reading more of Terry Pratchett's work. I was very sorry to learn that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and will be looking into associated foundation/research work in his name....more
For me, this is a masterpiece, and it goes straight onto my all-time favorites list. This is the most sensitive, person-centered treatment of deadly dFor me, this is a masterpiece, and it goes straight onto my all-time favorites list. This is the most sensitive, person-centered treatment of deadly disease, and its terrible toll, that I have ever seen. The characters are so deep, so intelligent and so emotionally charged that even a sometime cynic like me gets choked up about them. The dialogues alone are a work of genius.
I knew very little about John Green before picking this up, and had not read any of his books. I loved every page of it, every paragraph. I would certainly read it again.
After finishing my review, I found very thoughtful points of criticism, about details of character and dialogue, from highly respected reviewers who are very familiar with his other work. To me, this is one of the great strengths of goodreads - the diversity of views about a single book, among very serious and intellectually gifted readers. I was not noticing those issues as I read it, but I might have felt differently with more of his books in my memory bank. On the other hand, I am basically just a sucker for beautiful writing and strong ideas, and for me this work was completely packed with both.
Great thanks to Flannery, Amber and other GR friends for bringing this wonderful book to my attention. I understand that it is on the bestseller lists now, but goodreads is the best place for me to find out about the great books that are out there. Much better than any list. Just saying.
There are loads of great quotes from this book, but I picked two that said a lot to me and don’t reveal a lot about the story:
“Hazel is different. She walks lightly, old man. She walks lightly upon the earth. Hazel knows the truth: We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either.“
“The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn’t actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn’t get smallpox.“
The two central characters in this book are heroes, in different ways and for different reasons. For me, the story took flight in the opening lines, and never came down.
The 5-star rating is the easy part. This book is so outstanding, in so many ways, that I wasn't in doubt about that from the first coupleMarch 4, 2012
The 5-star rating is the easy part. This book is so outstanding, in so many ways, that I wasn't in doubt about that from the first couple of chapters on. And it got MUCH stronger in the last 25% or so.
The hard part is deciding what I should say about it, even though there is a great deal to be said. The problem is this: most of the items that I want to cover are very difficult to verbalize without overt spoilers.
I am going to study the reviews of my friends, and a few others, to see how they did it. Then I will think about what I can contribute to the discussion, and be back with that in a day or two (I hope).
For now, let's just say fasten your safety belt, keep an open mind, and prepare for a wild ride that is well worth the turbulence. Just be sure that your most recent meal is well settled before you start, okay?
March 6, 2012
Lots of great reviews out there! You can find plot summaries and an abundance of insight there.
Here are my thoughts, after a couple days of reflection. For those who haven't read it, this book is awesome but not an easy one to review. For those who have read and reviewed it, you know what I am talking about, and I hope I can measure up to the standard that you have set.
Penryn is a beautifully realized example of the strong, smart female protagonist* that we should see much more often in literature than we do. As an aside, I think it is entirely appropriate for goodreads reviewers to take authors to task when they create female leads of a different sort - those who, all too often, embody the opposite extremes. Enough, already with the needy, brainless-twit females who seek out the company of worthless guys, in the full knowledge that they will be dominated and abused! In any genre, but particularly in YA, this is sending precisely the wrong message - in particular, to young women who may well emulate what they read, or think that they can’t do any better.
Here, Susan Ee shows how powerful a young woman can be when she is stubborn in her loyalty, and can face the most horrific circumstances with unwavering strength and analytical calm**. Armed with these very human attributes, she can think her way out of trouble almost as fast as she gets into it. Her martial arts expertise, and a lot of experience dealing with paranoid schizophrenia in her immediate family, also come in very handy throughout this gripping story. This is a writer with an amazing talent, and Penryn is an awesome creation.
Raffe is fascinating in very different ways, both to us as readers and to Penryn. An extremely complex character, his behavior is by turns enigmatic and decisive, strong and vulnerable, vicious and caring, stern/unyielding and gentle/nurturing. Smart as she is, Penryn struggles throughout with his shifting moods and (to her) unpredictable behavior. Yes, she feels that weird fascination/attraction too, but all of that is handled with delightful subtlety and a realistic (well, considering) progression. For the most part, she maintains her focus on getting some useful clues about what she is dealing with. Meanwhile, he is tuned in to most of that, and seems equally determined to maintain her ignorance about him and his motives. For example (quotes are from Penryn’s POV and not necessarily in order from the book):
“Instead of declaring victory and walking away safe, like any sane survivor, he chases after them into the dark woods.”
“When he opens his eyes again, they are more black than blue and completely unreadable. Whatever is happening behind those shuttered eyes is now impenetrable.”
For her part, Penryn struggles to maintain her icy calm, and her hatred of this alien creature whose clan has done so much to devastate her world:
“My shoulder feels cold and vulnerable once his warmth is gone. I bite the inside of my cheek to give myself something more demanding to feel.”
... “sympathy trickles into me. As different as we are, we are in many ways kindred spirits. We’re just two people striving to get our lives back together again.”
A lot of their exchanges have a definite edge of hostility, as appropriate to the storyline:
Raffe: “You humans have always had some kind of herding instinct that seems to bring you together. And this is the largest herd around.” Penryn: “Town. Not herd. Towns are for people. Herds are for animals.” He snorts rudely in response.
But there are moments when Penryn is, understandably, dazzled by the power of the other side:
..”despite its practical origins, the total effect is a stunning array of celestial bodies in a seemingly choreographed air ballet. If Michelangelo had seen this in daylight with the sun streaming down from the glass dome, he’d have fallen to his knees and painted ’til he was blind.”
“I stuff all my doubts down where I can’t feel them anymore. This is a lot like leaping over a chasm. If you don’t think you can do it, you can’t. I step through the door.”
Looking back at these quotes, I see a feature of the writing style that impressed me throughout. The wording is relatively simple, with very few long words, or even very long sentences. Penryn’s first-person narration is presented almost as if she were dictating it in real time, as the events unfold. It has an immediacy that lets you feel very much in the presence of the action.
But in that context, there were two points that really hit me as I read. The first was the fact that no sensible reader would want to be anywhere near the grisly action that occupies a sizable fraction of the book. No thanks, I will just sit here in my quasi-fetal position and read the lurid description, that’s CLOSE ENOUGH, aaagghhhh!
The second really impressive point - about the up-close-and-personal narration - was the sheer intricacy of the storyline, and the many interwoven threads of human and angel characters that moved on and off stage as the story played out. Some of these threads were nicely and deftly resolved; others were clearly spinning out of sight, to (presumably) show up in the next book or two; while still others were sitting right there in front of you at the end, screaming with red-light warnings like this: we REALLY need to get some answers here about this, uh, ISSUE that is just staring at us!!
After finishing the book, I reflected a bit on the extremely clever ways that the author combined classical angel mythology/religion, and the intricately twisted vision of angel behavior, politics and culture that she developed here. Wow! First, it got my head turned around and upside down on the whole issue of what angels are all about - and this theme is much more intricately developed than we as reviewers have wanted to say. Read it and enjoy for yourself. Second, it left the author with hundreds, even thousands of avenues open for exploration in the remaining books of the series. Her ability to write a story that comes to closure on a number of fronts, but leaves so many open doors to pass through, was truly mesmerizing and one of the very best features of the book for me.
So, I loved it. And like many who have read and reviewed it, I am anxious to see the next installment. But I can certainly appreciate the beauty of what has been done here. A debut novel, an indie production, an incredibly low price, and a marvelously well-written story. It took some serious courage for the author to take this route, and I am very grateful for what she has given us.
With all of that said, there is some major gruesomeness in a handful of scenes, and one in particular that has been referred to as ‘the tree scene’. So take that into account when deciding whether this might be for you.
If you can handle that part: Highest possible recommendation. For me, the author deserves no less.
*I borrowed this phrase and bookshelf label from Kaethe. Where appropriate, I will apply them to books as I read - and gradually, to books that I have previously read and rated. I will do the same with a shelf labeled ‘female authors’, following the lead of Cindy and others. These are small steps, but in the right direction.
**Penryn is the fictional embodiment of what I would call ‘functional intelligence’. She has definite, highly ethical goals and sticks to them, with clear vision and a world of smarts. Like Penryn, women have every reason to be proud of their intelligence, and to show no hesitation in using it. It is long past the time to abandon cultural stereotypes that say otherwise. And besides, women as a group show more functional intelligence than men by a rather wide margin. I will have more to say on this point in future reviews.
For me the first book in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, was excellent. This one, the second of the“I AM THE CIRCLE AND THE CIRCLE IS ME”
For me the first book in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, was excellent. This one, the second of the series, was outstanding. The story picks up where the first book ends. With that said, I will avoid specifics of plot elements as much as possible, and focus on general themes and the writing.
Patrick Ness has succeeded brilliantly in reaching two objectives that I would have thought incompatible. On one hand, he has written a gripping story that is dominated by strong characters, with crisp, clean plot lines and universal good vs. evil themes. The pages turn rapidly, as if by themselves.
On the other hand, he has used only first-person narration to build a dense network of conflicts and deeper implications into this relatively simple storyline. The two main characters (Todd and Viola) struggle throughout with big questions for which there are no clear answers. The romantic aspects of the story are complex and constantly shifting. These complexities had me thinking hard (in a good way) through most of the book. My thoughts kept shifting from the latest plot twist to the bigger picture and back again, as the pages just kept turning.
A lot of the complexities are built around the bigger issues of mind control – both internal and external. Without getting too specific (I hope), there are ongoing internal struggles for both Todd and Viola – with how to fight the evil forces, but also with understanding just what is evil and what is (mostly) good. In short, they are constantly in the foggy area of tradeoffs, facing choices between bad and worse scenarios. But those internal struggles would be manageable, if not for the external struggles against the mind-control and other powers of a truly bad (male) leader. And I won’t even talk about the extremely complex female leader, except to say that she is perhaps the most fascinating character in the book. The mastery of the book is that it juggles all of these big themes in a compelling narrative that is really hard to put down.
The fact that all of this is done in first-person voice required extreme skill. In The Knife of Never Letting Go, the telling was done entirely by Todd - an unsophisticated (but not at all simple) coming-of-age boy. While I much prefer to read language that is elegant and beautiful, Todd is not capable of such language, and the author sticks to his guns on this point. In hindsight, this choice was critical for making the story come alive, and I really admire the author’s ability to make it work.
With that said, I was more than happy to see the equal reliance, in this book, on the much more sophisticated and articulate voice of Viola. Her active narrative role was a major enhancement to the reading experience for me.
More importantly, the author alternated the two voices beautifully to explore a whole new range of complex emotions as the characters struggled, learned, succeeded and failed in the overwhelming challenges that they faced.
One of the best features of this book is the constant challenge to re-examine your ideas about what, and who, is really good or really evil. You think you know, and it all seems so simple, but you are continually forced to rethink your assumptions.
I also loved the fact that the author took a lot of chances – notably with a very inventive mode of ‘communication’ that plays a crucial role in the story. In many ways, this book forced me to rethink my own definition of great writing. I love the great wordsmiths, the ones with liquid prose that flows through your head and spreads ideas as it passes. For me, the central wonder of this book is that it spreads a wealth of ideas, but does so with deliberately ordinary prose.
I won this book in a First Reads giveaway. The author sent it to me with a very cordial and personal note, a courtesy that was much appreciated.
I realI won this book in a First Reads giveaway. The author sent it to me with a very cordial and personal note, a courtesy that was much appreciated.
I really enjoyed reading this imaginative and involving tale of three special children, who rapidly become young adults in the course of events.
The first of a trilogy, this book introduces a richly imagined world full of dangers, intrigue and evildoers that must be overcome by an evolving collaboration of the band of young heroes. The characters and plot are drawn with a skill and subtlety that shows high skill in this very promising first novel.
I plan to pass this book along to my 10-year old, avid-reader son, who should love the combination of fantasy, magic, and tough reality contained in these adventures. I look forward to the remaining two books in this series, and to other developments from the fertile imagination of this gifted author. ...more