The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy

dead landsBook Review:  The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy

What would happen to the world if a super flu began spreading rapidly?  A super flu that killed within a matter of days?  How far would countries go to keep it from entering their borders?  In the world of The Dead Lands, the super flu begins in the United States and other countries are willing to nuke us in order to stop it before it goes any further.

There are survivors.  St. Louis put up walls soon after the pandemic began and managed to survive the radiation that followed the nuclear strikes.  They’ve survived 150 years behind the walls but the damage done to the environment is catching up with them.  The Mississippi River is long gone and it’s been far too long since it’s rained — they are running out of water.  And then a rider approaches and offers hope that a better life can be found outside the walls.  A small group sets out.

I liked the survival aspect of the story.  Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of The Walking Dead, but it made sense to me that a community would wall itself off in the event of a massive pandemic.  It also made sense that such a community would face the types of challenges it does — and that after a period of time, some members of that community would want to explore the world outside.  As the group travels, the reader is also introduced to different groups of people, with their own strategies for survival.  For me, this was the strongest aspect of the book.

The mutations that came about from the radiation were a mixed bag.  Some were believable, some were not.  Eh.

The naming of the main characters —  Meriwether Lewis, Wilhemina Clark and Gawea — just didn’t work for me.  I don’t mind that the author’s goal was to reimagine the Lewis & Clark saga in a post-apocalyptic setting but I think the story would have been stronger without banging the reader over the head with that fact.  Percy’s Lewis, Clark, and Gawea may be retracing famous footsteps but they are unique individuals with their own motivations.  I know, I know, part of the message is that we aren’t all that unique in the scheme of things — we have always been our own worst enemies and our fellow humans have always been our biggest threat — BUT again, I don’t need that message written in ALL CAPS, BOLDED for good measure.  Every reference to Lewis and Clark being guided by Gawea felt gimmicky and honestly, it pulled me out of the story by reminding me that I was being told a story.

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The Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall

watcher in the woodsBook Review:  The Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall While the rest of her family falls in love with the charming brick house on the outskirts of town, Jan feels only panic.  As soon as she walked up to the door, she felt someone watching her from the woods.  And she’s sure that the home’s owner is aware of the watcher too.  Despite her financial circumstances, Mrs. Aylwood has steadfastly refused to sell, deliberately alienating prospective buyers.  Until she saw Jan.  She looked past Jan to the woods and then invited everyone inside.  And by the end of the visit, she agreed to sell the house to them.

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Jan’s sense of unease deepens once they move in.  It’s summertime and it’s stifling hot, but she keeps the shutters closed in her room and dreads going into any room with its curtains open — she knows the watcher is out there, watching for her.  Mirrors begin breaking.  Her younger sister begins hearing a voice and writing in mirror-writing.  And Jan discovers that nearly 50 years ago, a young girl also on the verge of 16, disappeared in the woods —  Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter.  There are rumors of a dryad or a will o’ the wisp in the woods, rumors their realtor was anxious they not hear before buying the home.

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I read this book years ago, when I was probably around 13.  It’s still deliciously spooky — Randall creates a vivid setting.  Things begin falling into place quickly once it’s discovered that Ellie is receiving messages from someone.  It’s a fun, quick read as long as you don’t overthink it. That said, overthinking is what I do :)  I’ll limit myself to just a couple of questions, but to ask them, I have to reveal a spoiler.  The watcher reveals that the door only opens one way — but she can apparently go through both ways.  Is this because she is who she is?  And is this the only doorway?  The description of the watcher, with her golden hair and flowing robes, seemed angelic.  Perhaps she’s not the only one to visit our world?  More doorways would make more disappearances likely too, though.  Hmmm.

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The book that ticked me off

wildaloneBook Review:  Wildalone by Zourkova Krassi

Ever since she was a young child, when she discovered the piano locked away in a room her parents forbade her from entering, Thea has been drawn to music.  She’s an accomplished pianist by the time she leaves her home in Bulgaria to attend college at Princeton, the same university her mysterious older sister Elza attended 15 years ago.  Thea is passionate about music, particularly Chopin, but she is consumed by her quest to discover what happened to her sister on campus all those years ago.  Between Thea’s attempts to delve into her family’s past and her questions about her future, however, stand two very different men hoping to claim her present.

The potential for an intriguing, multi-layered story is here.  It’s obvious early on that the myth of Orpheus is tied into the story and I was curious to see how it came together  — I wasn’t completely sold on this storyline but I was able to go along with it.  The musical aspect of the story is excellent — Thea is a talented pianist and the concert scenes are among the best in the book.  Even though I couldn’t hear it, Krassi made me feel the music.

Nothing hooks me like a good mystery, however, and it was this aspect of the story that kept me turning the pages, even as I became more and more annoyed with the “romance”.  The main mystery circles around Thea’s older sister Elza, the sister who died on the very campus Thea now attends.  Elza was older than Thea, Thea has no memory of her, and her parents have done their best to keep her from knowing she ever had an older sister.  Why?

There’s also mystery surrounding one of Thea’s love interests, Rhys.  Some of it is because he’s a jerk who doesn’t think it’s important for the girl he’s “claimed as his” to know anything about him, some of it is because what he’s subjected to once a month and why is a bit of a stretch, even for a girl whose own family has its ties to folklore.  Had he been more likable, this could have been good.  Or had Thea been less captivated by him.  What doesn’t work for me is that Thea is a strong, independent, intelligent character who enters a relationship with a guy who makes her uncomfortable and mocks her discomfort.  Okay, she originally thinks he’s someone else, someone she has romanticized in her head, but his behavior should have dashed those romantic notions out of her head immediately.  Aside of him mocking her, aside of him storming off when he doesn’t get his way (like when he wants to have sex with her up against a tree in the middle of the neighborhood in the middle of the day and she has the audacity to say NO), there’s also the ick factor.  Rhys may be devastatingly handsome but he’s at least in his late 20s  and still partying with frat boys.  He’ll explain that later but I still say ick.

There’s another love interest, the guy Thea originally thought Rhys was.  Jake annoyed me too, but less so.  I was annoyed that he decided to step aside for his big brother “because Rhys is a good guy and no one deserves happiness more than him.”  ???  I read all 374 pages and I never saw that Rhys.  I only saw an entitled, controlling jerk.  Whom Krassi wants us to believe is madly in love with Thea.  Rhys wants her, yes, but at what point did he fall in love with her?  The girl who looks exactly like the girl who’s been making his life miserable for the past 15 years or so (he only sees a passing resemblance, by the way, which also asks the reader to suspend their disbelief just a bit too much).

And there’s Thea herself.  She wants to be with Jake, she wants to be with Rhys, she wants to be with Jake, she wants to be with Rhys.  It’s the romantic storyline that Krassi absolutely butchers.  This storyline is far worse than bad Twilight fan fiction.  Meyer at least gave us a somewhat believable love triangle  — and, as annoying as Bella Swan could be, at least she wasn’t promising herself to whichever guy she happened to be alone with at the moment.

Adding insult to injury, Krassi decided to end the book with a cliffhanger and that’s a major pet peeve of mine.  The “love” triangle will continue in sequels but I have no plans to see how it plays out.

 

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The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The AwakeningBook Review:  The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Pontellier family is vacationing on Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico.  While her husband spends most of his time either working or at the club, Edna spends her time with friends, particularly Robert Lebrun.

Edna’s awakening comes as she realizes that she and her husband live separate lives.  He expects her focus to be on raising their children, maintaining a well-kept home, and polishing their social standing.  She realizes that she wants more for herself.

And so this novel, written in 1899, addresses a host of issues people simply didn’t address in that time period.  Traditional gender roles, loveless marriages, infidelity, a woman’s rejection of societal expectations, a woman’s passion for someone other than her husband.  I didn’t like Edna but I felt for her situation.  Keenly.

 

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Phantom TollboothBook Review:  The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Milo is BORED.  Nothing seems worthwhile until the day he comes home to find a package in his room with a miniature tollbooth and a map of the Lands Beyond.  It’s mysterious enough to engage him and he indulges his curiosity, soon finding himself on an amazing adventure.  He will visit several lands and meet some unusual characters.

My boyfriend’s daughter LOVES this book and gave me her copy to read.  Despite the fact this book was around when I was a kid, I somehow missed it until now.  It’s a quick, fun read especially if you love wordplay.  Puns abound, as do events illustrating the literal meanings of many popular idioms.  Best of all though, it encourages readers to notice the world around them and make each day count.

 

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Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner

Best Friends ForeverBook Review:  Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner

Despite being very different from one another, Addie and Valerie become practically inseparable at the age of nine, the day that Valerie moves into the house across the street.  Things change after Valerie spends some time in California with her father and comes back with a whole new look.  And something happens their senior year of high school that ends the friendship forever.  Or so Addie thinks.  Because when Valerie shows up on her doorstep fifteen years later with blood on her coat, Addie takes her in and promises to help.

Eh.  I liked each girl’s backstory.  I found it hard to believe that Addie didn’t pick up on some things when they were kids but I’ll allow that what stands out to a 47 year-old may not be obvious to a 9 year-old.  Aside of her personal journey, which I thought was excellent, adult Addie didn’t quite ring true to me.  Her family situation being what it is, and her being who she is, I frankly can’t see her skipping town.  And I know, this is supposed to be a grand story of two friends who reconnect, but, for me, the foundation wasn’t there.  Addie and Valerie work as individual characters but their reunion?  Not so much.  And the resolution was much too easy.

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The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

The Screaming StaircaseBook Review:  The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

No one knows why, but over the past fifty years, all sorts of ghosts have been appearing throughout London.  While characteristics vary from one Visitor to the next, the one thing that seems consistent is that they all pose some sort of danger to the living.

While anyone of any age can be harmed by the Visitors, young people are typically the only ones who can see or sense them.  Several Psychic Detection Agencies have emerged, employing young people to seek out and remove the threat.

Lucy, Anthony, and George are Lockwood & Company, the only Psychic Detection Agency without adult supervisors.  Before the story is over, they will agree to take on Combe Carey Hall, one of the most haunted houses in England.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read them but this series-starter reminded me of The Three Investigators series I loved so much growing up.  The difference may be that while Jupiter Jones, Peter Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews investigated baffling phenomena, they typically found living people at the heart of the mystery.  The supernatural is very real in this series, although the living are just as likely to be behind disturbances as well.  Well-crafted, believable mystery with truly spooky moments.

Special Note:  you must read Stroud’s Bartimaeus series.  Must!

 

 

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