5 Rated Books 8 Rated Books Book Reviews YA Appreciation Month 2010

YAAM: (Post-)Apocalypse/Dystopia Day 1

Last year, we had two days of Bleak Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian Book Goodness – and since we love this genre so much, we decided to have a reprisal this year (this is the first of a few dedicated days!). Today, we take a look at some new titles about the end of the world as we know it…

Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien

Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Publication Date: March 2010
Hardcover: 362 Pages


After climate change, on the north shore of Unlake Superior, a dystopian world is divided between those who live inside the wall, and those, like sixt…more After climate change, on the north shore of Unlake Superior, a dystopian world is divided between those who live inside the wall, and those, like sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone, who live outside. It’s Gaia’s job to “advance” a quota of infants from poverty into the walled Enclave, until the night one agonized mother objects, and Gaia’s parents are arrested.

Badly scarred since childhood, Gaia is a strong, resourceful loner who begins to question her society. As Gaia’s efforts to save her parents take her within the wall, she herself is arrested and imprisoned.

Fraught with difficult moral choices and rich with intricate layers of codes, BIRTHMARKED explores a colorful, cruel, eerily familiar world where one girl can make all the difference, and a real hero makes her own moral code.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series

How did I get this book: Bought (at The Strand during BEA!)

Review:

Since her childhood, Gaia has trained with her mother to become the next midwife for her district, just outside the protective walls of the Enclave. And one fated night, sixteen-year old Gaia finds herself in an exciting position – while her mother is busy with another birth, Gaia is summoned to attend to her very first solo delivery. And, as it is her first delivery, the baby that is born must be Advanced to the Enclave. The laws for midwives are simple and absolute: the first three healthy children they deliver each month are to be advanced (that is, given over) to the walled-off Enclave. These children are the lucky and the blessed, for advancement means that the will never want for food nor suffer the hardships of life outside the fortress’s walls. But despite the happiness this means for those first children, their birthmothers are, understandably, distraught. As Gaia heads home from delivering her very first advanced child, she finds a grim, cold soldier awaiting her return. From his cruel lips, Gaia learns her mother and father have been taken prisoner by the Enclave under suspicion of keeping some sort of illegal records – though Gaia has no idea what her law-abiding parents could have done to anger the Enclave. Gaia also learns that she has inherited her mother’s job as the midwife of her district. Terrified for her family, Gaia struggles to find a way to do the impossible – to understand why her parents were taken, and to breach the Enclave’s walls and rescue her parents before they are executed.

Birthmarked is Caragh O’Brien’s first novel, and while highly anticipated, is something of a mixed emotions read. The idea of Birthmarked is unquestionably solid, blending familiar elements of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels such as the question of reproductive problems and rights from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale, or environmental catastrophe and the ‘walled-off haves and have nots’ trope from books such as Julie Bertagna’s Exodus & Zenith or Carrie Mac’s Triskelia trilogy. I love the idea of a future society ravaged by climate change and genetic short-sightedness, and a totalitarian style of government struggling to separate the rich from the poor generations after their walls have gone up. And yet, for all this…there are significant problems with Birthmarked that kept me from enjoying it with full abandon.

I’ll start with What Worked: the backstory of the world (three hundred or so years after global warming has reached a critical point), the overwhelming lack of genetic diversity within the Enclave (leading to prevalent defects, such as hemophilia), the anger of people being told whom they can or cannot marry, and the separation of the poor outside the walls (as their children are taken inside as valuable commodities).

I liked all of these things…but at the heart of Birthmarked is a central fallacy; there is something that almost ALL dystopian novels have in common, a commonality – one at which Birthmarked fails spectacularly.

The book lacks a Truly Villainous Government.

Heck, what the Enclave is doing is by no means ideal – but it’s hardly the stuff of despicable oppression. The Enclave taking children from outside its walls and giving them safe, secure new lives does not exactly an Orwellian Big Brother make. Furthermore, when we finally learn why the government has its panties in a twist over Gaia’s mother’s records, the central conflict of the novel disintegrates completely. Had the Enclave been taking the advanced children and harvesting them for organs or stem cells or mulching them down for food or something equally horrifying, perhaps the story’s conflict might have made a bit more sense. But as it stands…these babies are brought in to help society keep going. Is it ideal? No. Is it EVIL OMG, THE HORROR! THE DYSTOPIAN HORROR?! Not really.

Furthermore, the whole central conflict of the story falls apart under scrutiny – WHY on earth wouldn’t the government keep records of every child? WHY the death penalty and ire at Gaia’s mother for marking advanced children with a tattoo and keeping track of them? It doesn’t make any sense. I’ve never before read a book so focused on hemophilia as the downfall for society – and on that note, in addition to hemophilia wouldn’t there be other physical manifestations of generations of inbreeding? If the recessive traits of hemophilia can be expressed in female children, wouldn’t there also be some other recessive trait mutations or disfigurations (of the jaw, of the cranium, etc) present? In a culture so focused on appearances – Gaia is turned away from being advanced because of a burn scar on her face (which IS NOT A GENETIC DISORDER, I might add!) – shouldn’t people look a little more funky and less beautiful, given the rampant inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity?

This is to say nothing of the exposition-y info-dumps along the way (the explanation of chromosomes – using chrome spoons, oho! – for example was particularly cringe-worthy), the superficial examination of certain characters (again with the midwifing/healer women roles!?), the sheer predictability of the plot, or – most infuriating of all – the incredible convenience with which heroine Gaia is miraculously bailed out every time she is in Mortal Peril or has a Big Problem to solve (e.g. Gaia is about to be sentenced to death…BUT LUCKILY a handsome, high ranking soldier saves her life!; Gaia’s luck has run out and she needs to find her mother before she is executed the next day…BUT LUCKILY a handsome soldier takes pity on her and helps her out!).

Suffice to say, I was a little underwhelmed with Birthmarked. That said, the book wasn’t all bad. I certainly finished the book eagerly enough, and certain parts of the story shone – Gaia’s childhood memories, her flashbacks of her father, in particular, stood out as memorable scenes. Although I didn’t much care for the “romance” (which felt stilted, contrived, and utterly predictable), I did like the relationship Gaia had with her family and other characters throughout the book – and Gaia herself is a gutsy heroine with admirable muster (if not the sharpest tool in the shed).

There’s enough to keep readers engaged with Birthmarked, but there are so many excellent post-apocalyptic dystopian novels out there, that it’s hard to truly recommend this one. But, I’ll stick around for book 2, in hopes that the books grow on me.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

In the dim hovel, the mother clenched her body into one final, straining push, and the baby slithered out into Gaia’s ready hands.

“Good job,” Gaia said. “Wonderful. It’s a girl.”

The baby cried indignantly, and Gaia breathed a sigh of relief as she checked for toes and fingers and a perfect back. It was a good baby, healthy and well formed, if small. Gaia wrapped the child in a blanket, then held the bundle toward the flickering firelight for the exhausted mother to see.

Gaia wished her own mother were there to help, especially with managing the afterbirth and the baby. She knew, nor mally, she wasn’t supposed to give the baby to the mother to hold, not even for an instant, but now the mother was reaching and Gaia didn’t have enough hands.

“Please,” the young woman whispered. Her fingers becko ned tenderly.

The baby’s cries subsided, and Gaia passed her over. She tried not to listen to the mother’s gentle, cooing noises as she cleaned up between her legs, moving gently and efficiently as her mother had taught her. She was excited and a little proud. This was her first delivery, and it was an unassisted delivery, too. She had helped her mother many times, and she’d known for years that she would be a midwife, but now it was finally real.

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 5 – Meh

POD by Stephen Wallenfals

Publisher: Namelos
Publication Date: April 2010
Paperback: 192 Pages

POD is the story of a global cataclysmic event, told from the view points of Megs, a 12-year-old streetwise girl trapped in a hotel parking garage in Los Angeles; and 16-year-old Josh, who is stuck in a house in Prosser, Washington, with his increasingly obsessive compulsive father. Food and water and time are running out. Will Megs survive long enough to find her mother? Will Josh and his father survive each other?

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series (I hope?!)

How did I get this book: Bought (during the same trip to The Strand!)

Review:

They appeared one morning, materializing in the sky after an impossibly loud sound heard by every person on the planet – hovering black orbs.

Pods.

The spheres hang in the clouds, suspended by technology unknown to man. More than just ominous shapes in the sky, the pods also prove deadly – disintegrating any humans that attempt to step outdoors and interfering with all methods of communication. With no way to organize, no news, no electricity, and with food running out, humanity faces a bleak future.

Told through the chapter-alternating perspectives of two young adults, POD follows sixteen-year old Josh and twelve-year old Megs. In a small town in Washington, Josh, his father, and their dog are closeted in their home and Josh struggles with the rules and responsibilities his father imposes to help keep them alive. And Megs, alone in a Los Angeles parking lot, hides and scavenges for food and water from parked car to parked car, desperately avoiding the men that have taken control of the hotel and its guests.

And all the while, the pods stand silent vigil…

Unlike Birthmarked, POD left me one seriously satisfied customer. Told from two very different – but equally harrowing – voices, POD rocks. Almost cinematic in its delivery (the image of black alien spherical ships zapping errant humans reminiscent of classic Sci-Fi drive-in B-movies), POD teases readers – though the alien invasion is imminent, not a single extraterrestrial is actually seen. With his apocalyptic invasion, instead of focusing on the sensational, Mr. Wallenfels focuses on the thing that makes the best apocalypse novels successful – the human element. The choice to use two young adults in different locations surviving the same (presumably) global event is ingenious and incredibly effective. Alternating each chapter with Josh and his deteriorating father with Megs and her desperate situation os the “parking lot pirate,” the story builds to a terse, high level of tension.

Which brings me to the reason why POD works so well – in addition to its expert plotting and storytelling technique – that is, because of the strength of its detailed, wholly genuine protagonists. Both characters go through very different ordeals, both do some serious growing up in the span of 28 long, grueling days. Josh’s narrative begins as somewhat spoiled and self-centered, as his biggest problems are initially centered around whining about his father’s strict food rationing methods and cold, cruel indifference to their family dog. While he deals with the injustice of only eating a meal a day, Megs (left behind by her mother in the hotel parking lot before the appearance of the ominous pods) hides from terrifying, violent men with guns, all the while hunting for any food she can – stale popcorn kernels and forgotten lint covered candies stuck between car seats, and subsisting off of ketchup packets and a soup of gunky, tepid, melted cooler water. From the first moment we meet Megs, its clear she’s a perceptive, cuttingly smart young girl – she may only be twelve, but nothing slips by her (as seen in the strained relationship with her mother). While Megs is the character who faces the most overt danger (and yeah, ok, I preferred her gutsy, defiant narrative over Josh’s), Josh also goes through hell of a different, more introspective sort. The relationship between the teen boy and his father is incredibly genuine, running the gamut of emotions from resentment to respect to love – and the fate of this family is harrowing stuff. I don’t want to spoil anything, so just trust me when I say that Josh’s tragic, haunting story is no walk in the park, even though it initially may seem so, especially in contrast with Megs’ adrenaline-fueled game of hide and seek from some very, very bad people.

What else can I say about POD? It’s touching, it’s fast-paced, it’s terrifying, and – like the best freakin’ apocalypse novels – it’s all about flawed, real characters. I loved every second of this book, and I can only hope that Stephen Wallenfels is hard at work finishing up the trilogy. (There’s something of a cliffhanger ending, and I need to know what happens next. IMMEDIATELY.)

Notable Quotes/Parts: Two excerpts, one from each narrator. From Josh:

We share a look but say nothing.

Birds fly from branch to branch. A gust of wind sends leaves skittering across the patio floor. Storm clouds gather and darken a turbulent sky. The sun feels like it’s going down instead of up. Sirens pierce the moment. It’s an ambulance and a fire truck, somewhere close. This wakes Dutch. He sees us, jumps to his feet, presses his nose to the glass.

I reach for the door.

“Josh, wait!”

The urgency in Dad’s voice stops me cold. He’s looking up. I follow his eyes. The air is sucked out of my lungs. My jaw hangs open, numb.

Dropping down through the clouds, silent like a spider on a web, is a massive black sphere.

It’s a mile away at least, but even from this distance it dwarfs the neighborhoods below. I brace myself for the horror of watching houses crushed with people inside. But it stops well above the trees, maybe five hundred feet off the ground. It hovers soundlessly.

Dad whispers, “Sweet Jesus.”

He points to another one, farther to the east. Then another.

Within half a minute the entire horizon is dotted with black spheres. Dutch scratches at the glass, oblivious to the scene playing out above his head.

The spheres begin to rotate.

Then, as if on cue, they all start emitting jagged beams of white-blue light. The beams split off into smaller and smaller ones, like twigs off a branch, some into the air, most striking the ground. Two cars are speeding down a fire road on Horse Heaven Hills. A flash of light and they’re both gone. No explosion, no ball of flame. Just gone.

Dad whispers, “Sweet Jesus.”

From Megs:

It finally stops. My whole body is shaking. The car feels like it’s spinning and my ears hurt. I don’t know what to do, so I bury my head in my sleeping bag and hope that it doesn’t happen again.

Where’s Mom? Why me? Am I sick? All these questions are flooding my brain—when there’s another noise.

Sirens.

Not just a couple. Hundreds. I sit up and look around. There are flashes of light, like lightning only without the thunder. Even though Mom said not to, I turn on the radio. It’s just static, no matter what button I push. Then people start running into the parking garage.

First one or two, then a wide-eyed flood. Men in pajamas, women in nightshirts dragging their sobbing kids. A guy wearing only a T-shirt and boxers unlocks the blue car next to ours. He comes out with a gun, sprints to the exit ramp, and starts shooting at the sky. He disappears in a flash of light. Cars start, engines roar. People are trying to leave and other people are trying to stop them. A mom with her two young kids, a boy and girl, run toward the SUV. The little girl drops her stuffed rabbit. She tries to go back, but her mother picks her up and throws her crying into the SUV.

Horns mix with the sirens.

A man trips and falls to the ground.

Cars drive over him like he’s a speed bump. I yell at them to stop, but no one hears me. Then the sound of breaking glass, tearing metal—more people screaming. Cars screech down from the upper levels and ram into cars on the ground floor. The SUV is trying to back out of its parking spot. A speeding truck clips the rear fender, crashing it sideways into another car. Now it’s trapped. Moments later the mom and her kids spill out the passenger side. Blood is streaming down the little girl’s forehead. The mom looks toward the exit. Cars drive out, one after another, and disappear in flashes of light. A red BMW slams on its brakes. It skids halfway into the street and disappears. The mom picks up the girl and they run for the lobby door. The boy stops and turns like he forgot something, but his mom grabs his arm and pulls him away. His face is twisted in a scream.

I smell burning rubber, engine exhaust, gasoline—and then I feel something.

A warm wetness spreads inside my sleeping bag.

Tears stream down my face, they smear on the glass. I feel like I can’t breathe. The sounds outside swallow up everything, even the air. I curl up into a ball on the back seat and close my eyes so tight they hurt. But I still see it—cars driving over the fallen man.

And those awful blinding flashes.

You can read a full excerpt from both of these characters online HERE.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: For the Win by Cory Doctorow

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13 Comments

  • Diana Peterfreund
    July 20, 2010 at 4:14 am

    That’s interesting. Do all dystopias have a vilainous central government? Aren’t they sometimes just trying to survive? What about ARK and all that?

  • julie
    July 20, 2010 at 5:33 am

    Thanks for the review of PODS. I will be adding that to my next order from Amazon 🙂

  • Megan
    July 20, 2010 at 5:48 am

    Ohhh, Pod looks to be right up my alley.

  • April Books&Wine
    July 20, 2010 at 6:37 am

    *clicks to add POD to Amazon wishlist*

    OMG, how have I never heard of POD? It’s got such a cool cover and the plot sounds SO interesting.

    For serious. However, if the dog dies, I am afraid I cannot pick the book up. No more dead dogs!

  • Kate
    July 20, 2010 at 7:16 am

    I’ve heard good things about Birthmarked, and now I’m sure that I have to read it myself to decide about it…I don’t think that all dystopias necessarily need a cruel, vindictive, utterly villainous government, but that’s an interesting thought. Most of them either have no government whatsoever, or a cruel one, you’re right…

    And POD sounds like it would just scare the pants off me.

  • Megan
    July 20, 2010 at 7:20 am

    Well if they had a good government it wouldn’t really be a dystopia would it? 😛

  • Thea
    July 20, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Thanks for the comments folks!

    Diana – I should have been more specific in my review. What I mean is that in dystopias of BIRTHMARKED’s particular nature defiant hero/ine stands against Oppressive Goverment ala 1984, yes, I do think that the governing body must be sufficiently villainous, immoral, and/or oppressive to make the story work. Earlier this year I reviewed VERACITY by Laura Bynum, and I think that’s a perfect modern dystopia example of this sort of government.

    In BIRTHMARKED, the government is bad, but what they want to do at the end of the day (if someone wants to know, just comment and I will spoiler alert it later) is rational.

    At least, that’s my POV.

    (And also, I would argue ARK is not a dystopia but a post-apocalyptic novel 😉 But yes, you are correct, there are certainly other types of dystopian novels out there, so this principle doesn’t always apply! BUT I’d argue that the Big Bad Government is the most popular trope in the dystopian subgenre).

    Julie, Megan and April – You know, I hadn’t heard a THING about POD either! I picked it up completely on impulse in the bookstore, and I am so glad I did 🙂

    (On that note, I just discovered the publisher of POD, Namelos, which offers a ton of awesome looking YA titles. How have I not heard of them before?! I highly recommend checking out their catalogue.

    Kate – I hope you do check it out yourself! The majority of reviews I’ve seen for the book have been positive, so you could just chalk this negative one up to personal tastes. I’d be interested in hearing what you think, so please do let me know when you’ve had a chance to read it!

    Megan – Touche, friend! Touche 🙂

  • Alita
    July 20, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Oh my. Just reading those excerpts from POD has my heart pounding. Adding that to my to-read list right now.

  • Mollie
    July 20, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Bummer Birth Marked wasn’t better. I picked that up from my library recently. Not sure I even want to bother now….

  • Mrs. DeRaps
    July 21, 2010 at 4:01 am

    I am so excited about both of these titles. I wish that Birthmarked would get better reviews, but I’m going to read it no matter what people say. I just love dystopian novels too much to pass it up. And, Pod looks so good! I’d not even heard of it until yesterday…I think that it sounds awesome!

  • Lenore
    July 22, 2010 at 5:54 am

    I had a similiar reaction to Birthmarked. I was sorta like – ok all that fuss over THAT?! Underwhelming for sure.

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    December 7, 2010 at 12:03 am

    […] Work: POD, an awesome, apocalyptic novel about a massive scale alien invasion. POD was one of Thea’s favorite books of Young Adult Appreciation Month and a notable read of 2010 – definitely […]

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