After two miserable experiences with apocalyptic/dystopian YA last week, I needed something to restore my faith in the subgenre. I turned to my TBR for help – and found MEMORY BOY and THE LOST GIRLS waiting.
Author: Will Weaver
Genre: Apocalypse, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication date: March 2003
Paperback: 240 pages
A Family in Danger
Ash is still falling from the sky two years after a series of globally devastating volcanic eruptions. Sunlight is as scarce as food, and cities are becoming increasingly violent as people loot and kill in order to maintain their existence. Sixteen-year-old Miles Newell knows that the only chance his family has of surviving is to escape from their Minneapolis suburban home to their cabin in the woods, As the Newells travel the highways on Miles’ supreme invention, the Ali Princess, they have high hopes for safety and peace. But as they venture deeper into the wilderness, they begin to realize that it’s not only city folk who have changed for the worse.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: The second book in this series, The Survivors, was recently released, and drew my attention to this first book. After the dismal results of last week’s apocalyptic YA novels, I was hoping that the highly recommended and well-reviewed Memory Boy would do the trick.
2006. The Cascade range of mountains, starting with Mount Rainier, experience a series of volcanic eruptions, killing thousands immediately. Miles away from the Cascades, Miles Newell and his family, just like the rest of America, are shocked by the blast but feel safe and insulated from the explosions – or so they believe. As the weeks and months pass, however, the long term effects of these huge volcanic eruptions make themselves known throughout the country, even to Miles and his family out in Minnesota. As the ever-present ash kills crop yields and hampers commerce, crippling an already faulty economic environment, people become desperate. Food is hoarded, families isolate themselves in their homes, violence runs rampant. Miles knows that he and his family cannot stay in their large suburban home for much longer without falling victim to the rash of violent attacks, and so begins a daring plan – he creates the Ali Princess, a vehicular contraption that uses a combination of bike pedaling, wind sailing, and steering to navigate the ash-covered streets without using fuel. Together, the family strikes out for their isolated lakehouse – and along the way will be sorely tested.
Memory Boy is a small, quiet novel – instead of showing the loud, supervolcanic ramifications ala Mike Mullins’ Ashfall, Memory Boy shows the slower, chilling longer term effects of the change that comes when millions of tons of ash are spewed into the atmosphere.1 The book oscillates between 2006 – and a very disinterested Miles, who even jokes about the explosions and uses it as a gig to get out of class! – and 2008, when things are very different. I loved this back and forth with the book, showing how Miles has changed from class goofball (who tries to hide his intelligence, and what appears to be a eiditic memory, from others who would make fun of him for being a nerd), to a teen that embraces his strengths in memory and in mechanical construction to survive. I love the conceit of Miles using his oral history memories from a high school project with an elderly man in a nursing home to find a possible future for his family in dramatically different world.
The thing I loved the most about the book, though, is how subtle it is – even at just over 200 pages, this is a slim, reflective volume that is more about characters and the family at the heart of this journey than it is about the catastrophe, violence, or apocalypse.
And aren’t the best apocalypse novels truly about the humans that survive? I truly enjoyed this book, and Mr. Weaver’s deft, powerfully stripped down prose, and I cannot wait to read The Survivors. Absolutely recommended.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: From Chapter 1:
It was the perfect time for leaving. Weather conditions were finally right: a steady breeze blew from the south, plus there was just enough moonlight to see by.
July 3, 2008.
This would be the date our family would always remember, assuming, of course, that we lived to tell about it.
“Hurry up. The wind won’t last forever,” I said. Three shadowy figures–my sister, Sarah, and my parents–fumbled with their luggage. With me, we were the Newell family. We lived in west suburban Minneapolis-for a few more minutes, at least.
“Shut up, Miles,” Sarah muttered. She was twelve going on thirteen, and her carry-on bag overflowed with last-minute additions. I couldn’t complain; I had my own private stuff, including a small sealed jar that would be hard to explain to my family. So I didn’t try. Right now one of Sarah’s stupid paperbacks dropped with a thud onto the sidewalk. I sighed and went to help her.
“I’m not leaving,” Sarah said, jerking away from me.
“Everybody’s going to die anyway, so why can’t we die in our own house?” She plopped down onto the lawn. Pale pumice puffed up around her and hung in the air like a ghostly double. That was the weird thing about the volcanic ash; it had been falling softly, softly falling, for over two years now–and sometimes it was almost beautiful. Tonight the rock flour suspended in the air made a wide, furry-white halo around the moon. Its giant, raccoonlike eyeball stared down and made the whole neighborhood look X-rayed.
“Nobody’s going to die,” I said. “Though if we stay in the city, we might,” I muttered to myself
“How do you know?”Sarah said. She sat there stubbornly, clutching her elbows.
“Actually, I don’t. Which is why we’re leaving.”
Sarah swore at me. Anything logical really pissed her off these days.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Author: Ann Kelley
Genre: Historical, Survival/Adventure, Young Adult
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers (US) / Oxford University Press (UK)
Publication date: July 2012 (US) / April 2010 (UK)
Hardcover: 336 pages
No parents. No rules. No way home.
Fourteen-year-old Bonnie MacDonald couldn’t be more excited for a camping trip on an island off the coast of Thailand with her fellow Amelia Earhart Cadets-the daughters of the men and women stationed there during the Vietnam War. But when a strong current deposits the girls on what their boatman calls the “forbidden island,” things take a turn for the worse: A powerful storm comes to destroy their campsite, the smallest of the junior cadets is found dead, and their boatman never returns. What once seemed like a vacation in paradise has become a battle against the elements.
Peppered with short, frantic entries from Bonnie’s journal, Lost Girls is a page-turning, heart-pounding adventure story about a group of teen girls fighting for their lives.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: e-ARC from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: Pitched as a female version of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, I of course picked up this book as soon as humanly possible.
The year is 1976, during the full swing of the Vietnam War, and fourteen year old Bonnie MacDonald, her pilot father and nurse mother live off-base in Thailand. While the war is a tangible thing, Bonnie loves her home and the different experiences and adventures Thailand has to offer – especially as part of the Amelia Earhart Cadets (the 1970s version of girl scouts). Together with her fellow Cadets, Bonnie is thrilled about her upcoming camping trip off the coast of Thailand on a small island, and she’s even more excited when her mother pulls out of the trip at the last minute, leaving the girls under the watch of the glamorous Layla Campbell (the posh, romantic Scottish widow whom the girls refer to as ‘the Duchess’).
Of course, everything on the trip goes wrong – the girls are forced to camp on a different, much farther away island than originally planned, and then a devastating typhoon hits. The group of senior cadets (girls Bonnie’s age) and junior cadets (girls under 10 years old) are left stranded on a desert island, and the glamorous Mrs. Campbell turns out not to be the leader the girls so desperately need.
Bonnie, Jas, Hope and the other girls must learn to survive the wild and each other, if they have any hope for rescue.
Oh, for the love of all that is good, I LOVED THIS BOOK. I repeat, I loved this book. At first, I had my doubts – there are so many cliched and hackneyed ways this story could have gone, but I am thrilled to report that Ms. Kelley’s novel spurns these tired roads and instead feels real.
From a conceptual level, naturally, I was predisposed to like Lost Girls. Do you remember reading The Lord of the Flies in middle school? And having that deep, searing discussion about how different the novel would have been, had girls been stranded in Golding’s classic, as opposed to boys? I love that in this book, the characters themselves are cognizant of William Golding and reference the novel – for example, Bonnie says that boys are just a step away from animals, anyways, so it’s not unsurprising to see how their situation on the island devolved; using the conch to hold meetings (and the difficulties involved in trying to blow said conch); using glasses – much in the way of poor Piggy’s – to light a fire. The progression of events on Koh Tabu – the name of the girls’ desert island – however, is much different than the fate of Ralph, Jack, and Piggy. This contrast is fascinating and excellent fodder for book clubs and classroom discussions, I might add. There is no overt symbolism in Lost Girls, no symbols of light and dark, civilized and savage.
What Lost Girls has instead is a depth of conflicted characters, who make good and bad decisions, and who pay the very real consequences for those actions. Bonnie, as a heroine, is utterly fantastic. Her character arc over the course of the book is powerful stuff, as she cycles from the bitterness of loss, to rage at others’ actions, to a kind of acceptance. I loved her narration, as related through her journal and through her own first-person point of view, and cannot imagine a better (or any other) heroine for this novel than Bonnie.
Finally, I should say that this book does not take place in present day, nor does it exist in a vacuum; the context and background of the war is a fascinating one, and I do appreciate that Kelley does not impose any modern judgement.
Granted, this is not a book that will work for everyone (I’ve seen loads of DNFs and 2-star reviews all over the place!). But I loved it wholeheartedly, and absolutely recommend it as one of my notable reads of 2012.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the Prologue:
It all began with my mother changing her mind. At the time I was glad that no grown-ups, except Layla Campbell, were coming. Jas and I adored Layla Campbell. We’d met her only three times, but we knew that she was special, mysterious. She had taken over as our cadet leader from Mrs. O’Hanlon, who retired or went home or something.
Layla had this halo of curly red hair and wore lots of black smudgy eye makeup, which made her eyes glisten as if she were on the verge of tears. She held a cigarette like Lauren Bacall in the movies, and had this big sad mouth. Jas and I called her the Duchess, because of her posh Edinburgh accent.
We tried to walk like her, stole cigarettes from our mothers and choked trying to smoke like her. So we couldn’t have been happier that she was to lead our camp.
But I’m going too fast. I’ll start at the beginning. I remember when my journal was new and pristine, with clean white pages and a sky-blue hardback cover. Now it looks the way I feel—dirty, battered, torn, ripped, shattered, falling apart.
Rating: 8 – Excellent, leaning towards a 9
Reading next: A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
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- On a completely tangential note, I find it fascinating how this book – and how many other apocalypse-by-volcano books use Mt. St. Helens as the reference point for devastating volcanism in the late 20th century. In fact, there were two huge, devastating volcanic explosions in the late 20th century. Mt. St. Helens (1980) was one, but the other was Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines (1991), which by all accounts was the more devastating and environmentally catastrophic blast – in terms of tonnage of ash, death toll, and subsequent climate ramifications. But I digress. In the case of Memory Boy, a very American perspective is taken, so perhaps Mt. St. Helens is the closer and more accessible explosion. ↩