Friday, September 14, 2012

Exodus by Julie Bertagna

Summary:  15 year-old Maya lives on an island that grows smaller every year as the polar ice caps melt.  She and her family are forced to leave the world they know in search of a new one, a sky city made to house the refugees of diminishing land masses.  Unfortunately in the city Maya finally discovers, all refugees are not considered equal and things are more complicated than she ever imagined.  With the help of a tree-dwelling people and a collection of misfit children, Maya fights against the system for the sake of equality, survival, and the people she loves.

Dystopian Issues: Climate Change, Slavery, Class System
Part of a Series: The first book in the Exodus series
Next in Series:  Zenith
Age of Main Character: 15
Number of Pages: 337
Year of Publication: 2002
Publisher:  Young Picador

Review:  I've read Julie Bertagna's Opposite of Chocolate (not a dystopia) and I enjoyed her quirky characters and unique story.  When I read Exodus however, I did not even identify it as being written by the same author until I read Bertagna's biography.
     Bertagna is exploring an interesting subject; what will happen to the world when the polar ice caps melt and land masses shrink significantly.  If humankind does not venture out into the cosmos as suggested in several science fiction novels, movies, and tv shows, how will the human race survive?
     The answer is not all of us will.  But in Bertagna's book, some will survive on the diminished land masses and some will move to new sky cities.  Maya is a land-dweller who lives in a world of limited technology.  The internet as we know it now is in complete disarray and exists as a relic as opposed to an information superhighway.  Still Maya manages to make contact with someone who calls himself Fox, a resident of something called a sky city that no one in Maya's community has ever heard of.  When rising waters force Maya to leave her home with others from her community, they set out in search of the elusive cities.
     Other communities have faced similar problems and had similar ideas though, because when Maya reaches the city with the survivors of her community it is surrounded by a boundary designed to keep out refugees like herself.  Resourceful, determined and driven by grief however, Maya manages to find her way inside the boundary yet still outside the city itself.  I found Bertagna's descriptions of Maya's surroundings to be convoluted, but things became even more confusing when Maya discovers a gang of children without the ability to speak and then a group of tree-dwelling people who have escaped from the sky city.
    The children and the tree-dwellers have vastly unusual names that are jarring to the story.  I'm not sure why living in a tree means you have to have a weird name but it seems to be a prerequiste.  Maya finds out that not only are new people not allowed in the city, the city also takes the homeless children that live below to use for slave labour.  When one of her friends is captured and taken away, Maya feels compelled to do something about it.
     Overall, the story came off as disorganized and, at times, boring.  I didn't connect with Maya as a character, I had problems when she finally meets Fox and seems to fall in love with him overnight and I was confused while trying to understand how the sky cities ran and developed in the first place.  This is the first book in a trilogy though, so it is possible more answers are provided in later books.  The problem is this book did not make me want to read the other ones.
     What I did like wasn't even the main point of the story, it seemed to be an aside point Bertagna was trying to make about how women don't have the opportunity to achieve as much as men because they have children instead.  At the same time, women accomplish more than men because each child born is like giving birth to a living dream.  It's poetic and has truth to it in its own right, but did not contribute to the overall plot or story.
     I expected more from Bertagna, especially with such a thought-provoking preface quote, but I was very disappointed.

Real Life Dystopias:  The exploitation of people against their will is not a new thing.  North America's sordid history of selling Africans into slavery is a prime example.  Al Gore has warned us about the perils of climate change, and one only has to read a Charles Dickens' novel to know how a class system works.
     But to pick up on Bertagna's aside, another dystopia is the disparity between men and women, and the different values put on each sex's accomplishments.  Bertagna raises some good points, why aren't women valued and respected more for their ability to grow and raise the continuing generations of the human race?  And what would women be able to accomplish if they did not feel the ties and responsibilities of family?  However, where would the world be if women didn't feel such ties?

Memorable Quotes: "Now retrack to the dawn of the world's drowning.  Stand at the fragile moment before the devastation begins, and wonder.  Is this where we stand now, right here on the brink?"
     -  Exodus by Julie Bertagna, preface

     "As Broomielaw trails off into thought, Mara remembers what bothered her as she walked through the vast halls of the university, looking at the portraits of the golden names.  There were no dreamswomen.  Apart from the odd mythical figure or queen, not one of the golden names had belonged to a woman.  All the great dreamers had been men.
     Now Mara sees how it could have happened.  The women might have dreamed just as hard - as hard as Broomielaw does now - but their dreams had become all tangled up with the knit of ordinary life, with meal-making and babycare and nest-building.  Yet wasn't precious little Clayslaps more wonderful than anything dreamed up by those golden names?"
     -  Exodus by Julie Bertagna, pg 169

     "'But women grow the living dreams, the human ones,' Gorbals argues.  'A human being is the greatest creation of all.  Each of us is a new living dream.'"
     -  Exodus by Julie Bertagna, pg 175

Author Website:

Friday, September 7, 2012

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Summary:  When Jinn and Phyllis recover a bottle floating in space, they discover the written account of Ulysse Mérou, journalist from Earth.  Mérou’s tale describes travelling to a distant sun only to find an orbiting planet very similar to Earth with just one main difference.  On Soror, apes rule the planet and humans are the animals.  Mérou’s and the apes’ worlds are turned upside-down as he struggles to demonstrate his intelligence and sentience in a place where humans are hunted for sport and used for science.  With the help of chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius he just might make it off Soror and back to Earth alive.

Dystopian Issues:  Superior Nature of Man
Part of a Series:  No sequel book, but there are plenty when it comes to the movies
Next in Series:  Return to the Planet of the Apes or Rise of the Planet of the Apes movies
Age of Main Character:  He is an adult
Year of Publication:  1963
Publisher:  The edition I read was published by the Penguin Group Limited in 2001.

Review:  This is my first review (to my knowledge) of a book that has a movie franchise connected to it.  Technically, the book itself is science fiction, while the movie franchise is both dystopian and science fiction.
     In my opinion, all dystopias count as science fiction but not all science fiction can be considered dystopias.  Dystopias are versions of our world, our society, gone wrong.  In Planet of the Apes, the novel, Ulysse and his two friends travel to Soror, another world.  In that world it was perfectly normal for Apes to be the dominant species over man and so it does not technically count as a dystopia.  You have to read the whole book to understand why it made my list.
     There is great beauty in an intriguing, well-expressed idea and Boulle's book was so spell-binding that it inspired seven movies and a tv series.  Watching the original five movies released in the late sixties and the early seventies made me wish I was alive when they came out, even though they grew progressively worse in plot structure and logical storylines.  I hated Tim Burton's remake interpretation that came out in 2001, but loved The Rise of the Planet of the Apes which came out in 2011 and explained how apes grew to be verbal in the first place.
     In terms of writing style, I find Boulle to be dry and philosophical.  The plot moves slowly and the ending is suprising and unsatisfying.  But at the same time, I couldn't stop reading because I was so enamoured by his idea.  What if homosapiens are not "the kings of creation" we consider ourselves to be?  If we expect to be treated with respect and dignity, then shouldn't other species expect to be treated the same way by us as well?
     Sometimes the best way to understand our society is tell a story about a vastly different society and let readers draw their own parallels.  Boulle, whether he intended to or not, does an excellent job of this.  First by writing Planet of the Apes the book which shows us how apes would form a society like ours and how they would treat humans, and second by exploring how humans would treat apes as an increasingly sentient and verbal species through the movie series.  Boulle's work can also be viewed as a commentary on the struggle for all human kind to be considered equal.
     The next Planet of the Apes movie (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) is set to come out in 2014.  Can't wait.

Real-Life Dystopias:  I love, love, love in the first and third movies when Zira explains that the medical testing the apes are doing on the humans are as wrong as humans doing medical testing on apes.  Our real-life dystopia is that advancing medical science requires animal testing.  Sometimes on animals that are more sentient than we always realise.  When the situation is twisted around so that the apes are the scientists and the humans are the test subjects, it becomes easier to see how wrong it is.  Unfortunately, at times it is a necessary evil for the sake of perfecting medical procedures and medication to save human lives.

Memorable Quotes:  "Yes, I, one of the kings of creation, started circling round my beauty; I, the ultimate achievement of millenary evolution, in front of this collection of monkeys eagerly watching me, in front of an old orang-outang dictating notes to his secretary, in front of a female chimpanzee smiling with self-satisfaction, in front of a couple of chuckling gorillas; I, a man, excusing myself on the grounds of exceptional cosmic circumstances, and persuading myself for the moment that there exist more things on the planets and in the heavens than human philosophy has ever imagined; I, Ulysse Merou, embarked like a peacock round the gorgeous Nova, on the love display."
     -  Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle, pg 75

     "We were speaking french, for, as I have said, she was quicker to learn my language than I hers.  At the outset there were some difficulties of interpretation, the words 'man' and 'monkey' not evoking the same creatures for us; but this snag was quickly smoothed out.  Each time she said 'monkey,' I mentally translated 'superior being, the height of evolution.'  When she spoke about me, I knew she meant bestial creatures endowed with a certain sense of imitation and presenting a few anatomical similarities to monkeys but of an embryonic psychism and devoid of the power of thought."
     -  Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle, pg 83-84

     "'Above all do be careful not to turn on passers-by or bare your teeth or scratch a trustful child who might come up and pet you.  I don't want to muzzle you but. . . .'
     She stopped short and burst out laughing.
     'Forgive me, forgive me!'  she cried.  'I keep forgetting you have a mind like a monkey."
     - Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle, pg 89

Author Web Site:  Pierre Boulle died in 1994 and does not have an official web page.  So I'm including the link to his Wikipedia page instead.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Sky Inside by Clare B. Dunkle

Summary:  13 year-old Martin lives in a dome where babies are advertised on television and delivered by storks, window decals mark the changing of seasons and no one is allowed to ask questions.  When Martin’s six year-old sister Cassie is recalled along with all the other kids in the dome aged six and under, Martin is the only one who seems to care.  His love, loyalty, and curiosity, along with his faithful Alldog, Chip, lead him on a dangerous journey to find his sister and discover the truth behind the world he lives in.

Dystopian Issues:  Totalitarian Government, Eugenics
Part of a Series: Yes
Next in Series:  The Walls Have Eyes
Age of Main Character: 13
Number of Pages:  229
Year of Publication:  2008
Publisher:  Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Review:  There are so many things I love about this book.
     First, the characters.  Martin, a smart, caring thirteen year-old who promises his sister he will find her when she is taken away and does everything he can to keep his promise.  Cassie, the extremely precocious six year-old who wants to know the why behind everything and loves her older brother deeply.  And Chip, the faithful Alldog who will do anything to win Martin's affection and help him out.
     I loved specific things like when Cassie is describing an updated version of Peter Pan to her family, and how Chip, as a robot contained by a jelly-like substance, has the ability to morph into pretty much whatever Martin needs and get him into secure places.  I also love the part where Martin's friends hack a zombie video game to merge it with a SimCity type game and have the zombies take over the frightened Sims. 
     Dunkle pulls together elements from Stephen King's The Running Man (book and film versions), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and her own unique ideas to create a world where everyone is being watched and controlled to be good consumers and sheep.  Her attention to detail and love of her characters makes this book a joy to read and not depressing, even though it contains serious dystopian issues such as living with a totalitarian government and using eugenics to create the younger generations.
     The Sky Inside feels like a cautionary tale about the dangers of designer babies and believing propaganda.  Dunkle explores what would happen to society if babies were bred in labs with specific characteristics that are not valued by a totalitarian government.  Talk about using the system to subvert the system!
     Ultimately though, this book is a moving story about the bond between a brother and his sister, and his unwillingness to simply accept that her recall is the best solution.  Martin isn't out to fix society, just save the people that he loves.
     At the end of this book I have just one thing to say.  I want to be a fourteen.

Real-Life Dystopia:  I've been reading Eugenics by David Galton and am fascinated by the increasing role eugenics is playing in our society.  Eugenics is used in in-vitro fertilization to ensure a fetus without a genetically inherited disease is implanted in its mother.  Unfortunately, eugenics has the ability to be misused quite easily, as in the case of Nazi Germany's ideas of exterminating the Jews and in India and China where ultrasounds that determine the baby's sex often lead to the abortion of female fetuses.

Memorable Quotes: "It was the distance that fascinated him first.  After a lifetime of living with a steel ceiling and a concrete floor, the vastness of the living landscape was like a drug.  He stood on the top of a hill, a concept he had known before from sandbox games, but this hill was an enormous thing, and the ground fell gradually from it for a long, long way.  The ground below the hill wasn't flat either.  It undulated, rising in curves and falling in scoops.  Off to his left, high hills like a fence seemed ready to blockade the clouds themselves."
     -  The Sky Inside by Clare B. Dunkle, pg 144-145

     "The trees straggled down a nearby ridge and spilled into the field, like a crowd of people who had followed two or three leaders.
     Martin stood in their shade, put his hands into the ribs their bark, and felt wonder deep in his heart.  They were not tall and powerful like the I beans that ribbed the steel dome, but their branches swayed, and their leaves rustled in the wind.  He could tell that they were alive."
     -  The Sky Inside by Clare B. Dunkle, pg 148

Author Web Site:

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Summary:  In ninety-five days, Lena will undergo a procedure and be protected from amor deliria nervosa, the deadly disease of being in love.  After witnessing this disease claim the life of her mother, Lena is eagerly looking forward to the day when she will be free from the fear of contracting it herself.  Before the deadline arrives however, Lena finds herself accidentally infected by Alex, a guy she runs into in the oddest places.  Now, instead of embracing the future planned for her by the powers that be, Lena begins to wonder if the disease is preferable to its cure.

Dystopian Issues:  Totalitarian Government, Mind Control
Part of a Series: Yes, it is the first book in the Delirium trilogy
Next in Series:  Pandemonium
Age of Main Character:  17
Number of Pages: 441
Year of Publication: 2011
Publisher:  HarperCollins Children's Books

Review:  At times, I thought this book was more of a romance novel in a dystopian novel's covering.  I'm not a huge fan of romance novels, and Lauren Oliver's style of writing drives me up the wall.  Her 441 pages contain so many descriptive paragraphs that I found myself zoning out and having to force myself to go back and re-read paragraphs and pages I had skimmed in boredom.
      Oliver's idea is intriguing though.  In this version of the United States, love is considered to be a disease that needs curing.  When a person reaches the age of eighteen and it is safe, they undergo a procedure that ensures they will never have to feel the symptoms and consequences of love.
     Lena is seventeen years old and ninety-five days away from undergoing the procedure.  Ninety-five days proves to be too long away though when she contracts the disease and starts experiencing the symptoms of love for a guy named Alex.  It's a twist on Romeo & Juliet, but Oliver makes it clear that she is trying to draw a parallel between the two stories.  Both are about forbidden love.
     I like what Oliver is trying to do: explore what society would look like without love.  But instead of being profound it comes off like Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, where the totalitarian government is using and encouraging the fear of something to perpetrate brain damage and the creation of humans that act like sheep and do not cause trouble.
     Where Oliver gets my respect is in the fact that she has mixed in literature and poetry from our world, while also inventing a vast amount of literature from the world she has created.  I love when authors create supplementary works for their novels because it shows how invested they are in their work and makes their creation even more interesting and believable.

Real-Life Dystopia:  In Delirium, the most important choices are made for a person.  Things such as who they will marry, what job they will hold, if they will receive post-secondary education - even how many children they will have.  This is mirrored in our world in the cultural practice of arranged marriages, and in China where a reproductive policy of one child per couple exists.  Although according to The Guardian (, China's policy is more nuanced than it appears to be.

Memorable Quotes: "One of the strangest things about life is that it will chug on, blind and oblivious, even as your private world - your little carved-out sphere - is twisting and morphing, even breaking apart...
     And still the sun rises and clouds mass and drift and people shop for groceries and toilets flush and blinds go up and down.  That's when you realise that most of it - life, the relentless mechanism of existing - isn't about you.  It doesn't include you at all.  It will thrust onward even after you've jumped the edge.  Even after you're dead."
-  Delirium by Lauren Oliver, pg 302-303

      "For the first time in my life I actually feel sorry for Carol, I'm only seventeen years old, and I already know something she doesn't know: I know that life isn't life if you just float through it.  I know that the whole point - the only point - is to find the things that matter, and hold on to them, and fight for them, and refuse to let them go."
-  Delirium by Lauren Oliver, pg 383

Author Web Site:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Summary:  Elizabeth is nervous but thrilled when she escapes living with her father, step-mother and their impending spawn by getting shipped off to live with her aunt and four cousins in England.  For once in her life Elizabeth, renamed Daisy by her cousins, is undeniably happy, discovering the delight and security of family that loves her and falling into a forbidden relationship with her cousin Edmond.  The outbreak of war in England ends up separating Daisy from the people and places she loves so dearly, inspiring a desire to get back to her old life by any means necessary.

Dystopian Issues:  War, Anorexia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Part of a Series:  No
Age of Main Character:  15
Number of Pages:  194
Year of Publication:  2004
Publisher:  Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Inc

Review:  If the five little Peppers from Margaret Sidney's book Five Little Peppers and How They Grew had to deal with a war, I feel like How I Live Now is how things would have turned out for them.
     Rosoff writes characters that I want to know about.  Right from the start, Daisy's (Elizabeth's) voice comes out strong and clear, and I love her spark and honest perception of things.  Her cousins, Piper, Edmond and Issac readily accept Daisy as their own and not only teach her how to live on a farm but how to love and be loved as well.
     When it comes to writing books, authors seem to focus on different things: plot, character development, or telling a good story.  A well-round author does all three.  Not all authors are able to create characters that a reader cares about but Rosoff does so beautifully.
     The trouble I did have came from some of the plot elements.  I understood why Daisy became anorexic but I wish it had been developed more or not included at all.  Yes, it was ironic that Daisy was anorexic in the middle of a war where everyone was starving anyway, but I didn't feel it really added to the plot.
     As for the storyline about Daisy and Edmond falling in love and seeming to have sex like rabbits in the absence of adult supervision, yes, it was weird.  Although I kind of see their relationship as a way of clinging to what they had in the face of the unknown.  Would they have still fallen in love if they had received proper adult supervision and the war had never come?  I don't know.  In any case, Daisy's anorexia was useful in that sense because she was no longer getting her period and was therefore unable to get pregnant.  Could have been a completely different story if she had no eating disorder.
     War is a dystopia, and one that we deal with in real-life around the world.  Here in North America we haven't been as affected by war as we were during World War II, but for people in other countries it is an ongoing reality.  Rosoff is very apt at outlining what happens when the rules suddenly change and the world as you knew is overturned.  For Daisy and her cousin it started with little changes that grew to be life changing as the war continued.
     Rosoff is also good at showing that war has a cost.  Loved ones die.  People are changed by horrible things seen and experienced that will never be forgotten.  And being separated from family creates longing for a simpler time when life wasn't upside-down.  There is also the continuing fear that it could happen again.
     This book is currently being made into a movie and I am looking forward seeing it when it comes out.

Real-Life Dystopias:  Hmm..., an act of terrorism that sparked a war?  How about the bombing of the Twin Towers in the United States and the subsequent "War on Terrorism?"  I guess the difference between that example and How I Live Now is that the terrorists invaded England after the terrorist event and there was no invasion of America.  Although I'm sure some of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq regarded the American troops as terrorists when they bombed and invaded those countries.  Sometimes it's a matter of perspective, and this is only one example of terrorism and war.

Memorable Quotes:  "It's a shame, starting out your first day on the planet as a murderer but there you go, I didn't have much choice at the time.  Still, I could live quite happily without the labels I picked up because of it.  Murderer or Poor Motherless Lamb.
     Which one would you choose, the rock or the hard place?"
     -  How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, pg 19

Author Web Site:

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Summary:  Tally Youngblood is three months away from having her only desire fulfilled: escaping her natural Ugliness by becoming a Pretty on her sixteenth birthday.  Shay, Tally's new friend, tries to convince her there is a life outside of being Pretty in a place called Smoke but Tally refuses to give up her dream.  When the opportunity to become Pretty is taken away from Tally because of Shay's disappearance, she is forced to turn spy and undertake a perilous journey or face the unthinkable idea of being an Ugly forever.  Little does Tally know that there are worse things than being Ugly.

Dystopian Issues:  Government Control, Mind Control
Part of a Series:  Yes
Next in Series:  Pretties
Age of Main Character:  15 at the beginning of the book, 16 by the end
Number of Pages:  406
Year of Publication:  2005
Publisher:  Simon Pulse

Review:  Vapid.  That is the first word that came to my head when I thought about how to describe this book.  A world where a person's only ambition is to escape a brainwashed idea of ugliness is not appealing to me.  Tally, the main character, believes her life will be perfect after she is turned Pretty on her sixteenth birthday.  She is right, but for reasons far more sinister than she suspects.
     I feel like Westerfeld is trying to make a statement about our society's focus on physical appearance but it isn't a strong one.  Yes, in this book being Ugly is actually preferable to being Pretty because being Pretty is usually accompanied by a lobotomy (okay, I'm being a bit dramatic here - a brain lesion that has similar properties as a lobotomy), but Pretties aren't aware of what they are missing and are happy in a mindless kind of way.
     I was left unsatisfied by a lack of explanation for how the society developed.  Westerfeld's reasons of avoiding anorexia and war by having freedom of thought altered were uncompelling.  Westerfeld also could have been more succinct in his execution as it felt like the story took a long time to develop - mind-numbingly slow in some parts yet a page turner in others.
     I grew to like Tally more as she developed over the course of the book but I don't know if I like or care about her enough to tackle Westerfeld's sequel, "Pretties."  I didn't find the depth I usually enjoy in the characters I read about in any of the people Westerfeld presents.
     But if there is anything I took I away from this novel, it is that getting a society to focus solely on something as meaningless as looks sure does grant the governing body a lot of leeway to do whatever they want.  It has a kind of 'smoke and mirrors,' 'pay no attention to the man behind the curtain' feel to it.

Real-Life Dystopia:  Any reality television show about cosmetic surgery or the Kardashian sisters.

Memorable Quotes:  "History would indicate that the majority of people have always been sheep.  Before the operation, there were wars and mass hatred and clearcutting.  Whatever these lesions made us, it isn't a far cry from the way humanity was in the Rusty era.  These days we're just a bit . . . easier to manage."
     -  Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, pg 258

     "Sometimes Tally felt she could almost accept brain damage if it meant a life without reconstituted noodles."
     -  Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, pg 350

Author Web Site:

Monday, June 25, 2012

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Summary:  To end the war between the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice factions, a law allowing children to be retroactively aborted between the ages of 13 and 18 is passed.  ‘Unwinding’ as it is called means every part of a person’s body is harvested for someone else’s use.  Misbehaving causes Connor's parents to decide to Unwind him.  Budget cuts at the state home for orphans are Risa's undoing.  But Lev is a tithe and has known his whole life he was born to be Unwound.  On one fateful day, these lives will intertwine and the fight for the right to life will begin.

Dystopian Issues:  Pro-Life Movement, Pro-Choice Movement, Rights of Minors, Abandonment, Religious Fanaticism, Terrorism
Part of a Series:  The first book in the Unwind series
Next in Series: Unwholly, available August 28, 2012
Age of Main Characters: Connor is 15, Risa is 15 and Lev is 13
Number of Pages:  335
Year of Publication:  2007
Publisher:  Simon & Shuster Books for Young Readers

Review:  The first thing that comes to my mind is, how has this book been around for five years and I only happened to stumble upon it accidentally?
     Right from the start I loved this book because it explores topics I think about all of the time: the rights of organ donors, what the transfer of body parts really means for the donor and the recipient and what happens to regular health care when a society becomes obsessed with transplantation?
     I find Shusterman's style to be dark but witty.  When someone is finally unwound in the book, it is a stomach turning moment because Shusterman captures it in horrific detail.  His plot moves along smoothly and I was easily taken up in the story of a society that knows what it is doing is wrong, but lacks a moral compass or naysayer.
     I could list all of the things I loved about this book, but suffice it to say that Shusterman creates a rich, detailed world that mirrors our own while taking it one step further.  The reason why it affected me so much was because I could see the truth and possibility in his writing.  All good books stem from a 'what if' question, and Shusterman's book starts "What if there was a war between the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice movements?" and goes from there, picking up many other 'what if' questions along the way.  What if being unwound meant you didn't die?  What if terrorists could inject their bodies with explosive materials?  What if the piece of brain you got from a brain transplant had unresolved issues?  What if you regretted unwinding your child?  What if you didn't want to be unwound?
     One complaint about this book though.  As a transplant recipient, I can't divorce myself from my lived reality, and my lived reality revolves around immunosuppression to keep my transplanted organs and my body in tune with each other.  Shusterman makes no reference to immunosuppression at any time, which leads me to assume that although he doesn't tell us how, his dystopian world has somehow conquered that problem.
     I went a bit overboard with the quotes, but I just loved the book so much that I couldn't help including my favourite ideas from it.  Neal Shusterman has officially become my new favourite author.

Real Life Dystopias:  Shusterman has already done the work for this section.  In his book he refers to a Ukrainian maternity hospital accused of stealing babies at birth for organ removal( in Part Three.  In Part Four, he includes a response from eBay to someone's attempt to sell their soul.  Also, the airplane graveyard Shusterman uses beginning in chapter 28 actually exists (
     With all of the attention currently on organ donation and transplantation in Canada thanks to Hélène Campbell (, "Unwind" feels like a cautionary tale potentially to be ripped from the headlines as the Admiral's quote "If more people were organ donors Unwinding never would have happened" begins the book.
      What really struck me, however, was that in the nearly twenty-five years it has been since my first transplant, a lot has been learned about transplant science. But there is a lot that remains a mystery. Is the transaction between donor and recipient merely physical, or is some of who they are, their soul in essence, transferred as well? Could all transplant recipients be disembodied pieces of another whole, as in the case of Harlan Dunfee?
      As someone who has received two organs from different people, I wish I had a definitive answer. Still, even with science lacking a definitive answer on the subject, transplants are done all the time. Perhaps that is part of the reason donor families and transplant recipients are kept from exchanging personal information.

Memorable Quotes:  "'People shouldn't do a lot of things,' says Connor.  He knows they are both right, but it doesn't make a difference.  In a perfect world mothers would all want their babies, and strangers would open up their homes to the unloved.  In a perfect world everything would be either black or white, right or wrong, and everyone would know the difference.  But this isn't a perfect world.  The problem is people who think it is."
     -  Unwind by Neal Shusterman, pg 75

     "Which was worse, Risa often wondered - to have tens of thousands of babies that no one wanted, or to silently make them go away before they were even born?  On different days Risa had different answers."
     -  Unwind by Neal Shusterman, pg 115

     "'He got famous, though, for painting people of African ancestry in the Deep South.  The color he used most was umber.  People liked that a whole lot better, so it stuck.... Following right along, they started calling so-called white people 'sienna,' after another paint color.  Better words.  Didn't have no value judgement to them.  Of course, it's not like racism is gone completely, but as my dads like to say, the veneer of civilzation got itself a second coat.'"
     -  Unwind by Neal Shusterman, pg 122

     "'You might think I'm stupid, but I got a good reason for the way I feel,' Emby says.  'When I was little, I was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.  Both my lungs were shutting down.  I was gonna die.  So they took out both of my dying lungs and gave me a single lung from an Unwind.  The only reason I'm alive is because that kid got unwound.'
     'So,' says Connor, 'your life is more important than his?'
     'He was already unwound - it's not like I did it to him.  If I didn't get that lung, someone else would have.'
     In his anger, Connor's voice begins to rise, even though Emby's only a couple of feet away at most.  'If there wasn't unwinding, there'd be fewer surgeons, and more doctors.  If there wasn't unwinding, they'd go back to trying to cure diseases instead of just replacing stuff with someone else's.'"
     -  Unwind by Neal Shusterman, pg 168-169

     "'A person doesn't get a soul until that person is loved.  If a mother loves her baby - wants her baby - it's got a soul from the moment she knows it's there.  The moment you're loved, that's when you get your soul.  Punto!'
     'Yeah?' says Connor.  'Well, what about all those babies that get storked - or all those kids in state schools?'
     'They just better hope somebody loves them someday.'"
     -  Unwind by Neal Shusterman, pg 174

     "'I was right there in the room when they came up with the idea that a pregnancy could be terminated retroactively once a child reaches the age of reason,' says the Admiral.  'At first it was a joke - no one intended it to be taken seriously....
     'With the war getting worse,' says the Admiral, 'We brokered a peace by bringing both sides to the table.  Then we proposed the idea of unwinding, which would terminate unwanteds without actually ending their lives.  We thought it would shock both sides into seeing reason - that they would stare at each other across the table and someone would blink.  But nobody blinked.'"
     -  Unwind by Neal Shusterman, pg 224

     "Pastor Dan straightens out his shirt and shivers a bit from the cold.  He doesn't really look like himself today.  This is the first time Lev has seen him without his pastor's clothes.  'Why are you dressed like that, anyway?'
     He takes a moment before he answers.  'I resigned my position.  I left the church.'
     The thought of Pastor Dan being anything but Pastor Dan throws Lev for a loop.  'You . . . you lost your faith?'
     'No,' he says, 'just my convictions.  I still very much believe in God - just not a god who condones human tithing.'
     Lev begins to feel himself choking up with an unexpected flood of feeling, all the emotions that had been building throughout their talk - throughout the weeks - arriving all at once, like a sonic boom.  'I never knew there was a choice.'"
     -  Unwind by Neal Shusterman, pg 329

     "'I don't know what happens to our consciousness when we're unwound,' says Connor.  'I don't even know when that consciousness starts.  But I do know this.'  He pauses to make sure all of them are listening.  'We have a right to our lives!'"
     -  Unwind by Neal Shusterman, pg 333

Author Web Site:
Found in the Book:  I get most of my books from my local library (Toronto Public Library) and sometimes I find things other people have left as bookmarks in the book.  In this book I found a D. C. Comics playing card from 1977.  It's a number 6, with a picture of the Riddler on it.  On the back Superman's symbol is surrounded by words like OOF, KAPPONG and SOK!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Summary:  Nailer works light crew, scavenging decrepit ships for copper wiring to make quota.  After a lucky escape from drowning in oil, Nailer’s fortune continues when he finds a clipper ship shipwrecked by a storm.  Suddenly he has a decision to make, scavenge the remains before anyone else discovers it, or save the swank girl inside and trust the Fates that she will lead to an even bigger reward.  His choice will take him on an unimaginable adventure away from any family he’s ever known, but will make him realise that family is so much more than a blood connection.

Dystopian Issues:  Eugenics, Disparity Between Rich and Poor, Climate Change
Part of a Series:  The first book in the Ship Breaker series
Next in Series:  The Drowned Cities, technically the prequel to Ship Breaker, but still the second book in the Ship Breaker series
Age of Main Character:  Unknown, even to himself (but probably between 12 and 14)
Number of Pages:  323
Year of Publication:  2010
Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company

Review:  Ship Breaker is an action-driven book that challenges the true meaning of the word family.  There were many things I loved about this book, but the main thing was that I kept thinking about it for days after I'd finished it.
     Nailer lives in a world where trust is hard to come by.  Although his light crew shares a blood oath to protect each other, all are secretly looking for a 'lucky strike' that will make them rich.  At home Nailer's life is even worse.  His mom is dead, and his dad has turned into an unpredictable, physically abusive drug addict.  Although Nailer has every reason to take any lucky strike he can find, when he is presented with the choice of saving a life or scavenging a ship, he chooses to save the life.
     Bacigalupi's characters are well-drawn with complex motivations.  I love how Nailer struggles against himself, ultimately doing the right thing but also knowing that he could easily do the selfish thing as well.  Nailer is a reflector who considers his options and is willing to pay the price when a price must be paid.
     I was intrigued by Tool, part human, part dog, part tiger, and wished that Bacigalupi had told more of his story.  From what I have read of The Drowned Cities, however, I think my curiousity will be satiated.
     Ship Breaker marks the first instance of dystopian organ donation on my site but I am sure it will not be the last.  In this case people are free to sell their organs, blood and eyes to the harvestors.  Selling your body parts does not have to be consentual though as other people can sell you to be harvested.  Women can also sell their eggs for the creation of the half-men that exist (like Tool), created by something called Life Cult.
     Weighing in at 323 pages Ship Breaker isn't exactly a fast read but I found it to be a mesmerizing one.

Real Life Dystopia:  Ship Breaker actually references New Orleans being hit by a hurricane.  In this dystopian world however, a second Orleans was built, only to be hit by another similar 'city killing' storm.  After that the name Orleans was dismissed for any further cities because it was thought to have bad luck attached to it.
     While we may not have advanced to the point of cross-species animal hybrids yet, at least not that I am aware of, scientists have been taking genes from DNA found in animals and using them in plants for research purposes.
     Harvesters, as they are known as in Ship Breaker, are known to us as organ transplant surgeons.  However, legal organ donations in North America in our time are still consentual and not monetarily rewarded.  Emphasis on 'legal'.

Memorable Quotes:  "He was alive.  His skin sang with life.  Even the pain in his back and shoulder where the shiv had driven into him felt good.  Being close to death had made everything in his life shine."
     - Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, pg 42
     "Nita didn't blink.  'I ran out of chances a long time ago.  It's all Fates now.'"
     - Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, pg 165
     "Sadna shook her head.  'Killing isn't free.  It takes something out of you every time you do it.  You get their life; they get a piece of your soul.  It's always a trade.'"
     - Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, pg 174

     "'Listen to me, boy.  Scientists created me from the genes of dogs and tigers and men and hyenas, but people always believe I am only their dog.'  Tool's eyes flicked to the captain, and his sharp teeth gleamed in a brief smile.  'When the fighting comes, don't deny your slaughter nature.  You are no more Richard Lopez than I am an obedient hound.  Blood is not destiny, no matter what others may believe.'"
     - Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, pg 248

     "The blood bond was nothing.  It was the people that mattered.  If they covered your back, and you covered theirs, then maybe that was worth calling family.  Everything else was just so much smoke and lies."
     - Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, pg 274

Author Website:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Summary: Miranda is an ordinary 16 year-old dealing with ordinary teenage troubles.  Her father’s new wife is pregnant, her mother is always nagging her about her grades and Miranda just can't wait for high school to end.  When what should be a harmless astronomical event turns apocalyptic, Miranda’s life shifts as she and her family place physical survival above all else.  Suddenly Miranda’s problems are about losing electricity, heating the house through the winter months and trying not to starve to death.  The world has changed, and Miranda isn’t sure she and her family will survive it.

Dystopian Issue: Apocalyptic Event
Part of a Series: The first book in the Moon Crash/Last Survivors series
Next in Series:  The Dead and The Gone
Age of Main Character: 16 at the beginning of the book, 17 at the end
Number of Pages: 337
Year of Publication: 2006
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.

Review:  What would you do if everything you thought was important suddenly wasn't and all the carefully constructed rules of society fell apart?  How would you face being deep into planning your future, only to have a catastrophic event take any future away from you?
     These are the kind of questions Miranda must face after an asteroid knocks the moon into a lower orbit and changes the world.  One of the reasons I love reading dystopian fiction is because due to having a genetic illness, I feel like I am living in a dystopian universe.  I enjoyed Pfeffer's book because I felt she did an insightful job of portraying what happens when the struggle for physical survival supersedes all else, and the challenges that accompany such a struggle.
     There were a couple of plot threads that did nag at me though.  After the moon is knocked into a lower orbit, the earth is affected in various ways.  At first tsunamis are rampant, then volcanoes start erupting.  But while I've read there are studies connecting the moon cycle to a woman's menstrual cycle, Miranda only gets her period once in the book and Pfeffer does not explore the issue any further even though Miranda and her mother are both in their reproductive years.  I would have enjoyed more detail on the subject.
     I almost put religious fanaticism under dystopian issues because with Miranda's friend Megan, there is just a glimmer of it.  Best friends Miranda, Megan and Sammi have all experienced the loss and death of their other best friend Becky and they all react in different ways.  Megan's way of dealing with her grief is to turn to God and Reverend Marshall, a charismatic young pastor.  After the asteroid hits the moon, Megan's faith seems to reach a fanatical level, and she eventually starves herself to death on purpose because she believes that is what God wants.
     I enjoyed the scene between Miranda and Reverend Marshall after Megan's death when she confronts him, but I wish a more balanced faith reaction to the catastrophe had been represented by Pfeffer.
     Miranda isn't always endearing as a character, but she displays growth as she re-evaluates her values and dreams, putting her family's survival first instead of her own. I also liked how she starts to appreciate the things she previously took for granted, realising it is the little things that are most important in life.  This is another series where I'm looking forward to reading the next book.
Real Life Dystopia:  Regardless of the moon's orbit, natural disasters happen all over the world at various times requiring people to focus on physical survival.  Think Japan's tsunami, Haiti's earthquake, or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  But when I think of real life situations where a person is forced to put physical survival first, in essence, to cling to whatever life they can have, I think of being faced with a chronic/terminal illness.  Examples would include Terry Fox or Brian Piccolo.

Memorable Quote:  "I put some wood in the stove and collapsed onto my mattress.  That's where I am now.  I don't even know why I'm writing this down, except that I feel fine and maybe tomorrow I will be dead.  And if that happens, and someone should find my journal, I want them to know what happened.
     We are a family.  We love each other.  We've been scared together and brave together.  If this is how it ends, so be it.
     Only, please, don't let me be the last one to die."
     - Life As We Knew It by Susan Pfeffer, page 299

Author Website:

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien

Summary: Gaia is a sixteen year-old midwife-in-training for Western Sector 3 of Wharfton.  On the night of her first unassisted birth, her parents are arrested and taken to the Enclave, a walled-in community ruled by the Protectorat.  After Gaia's mother passes on a mysterious ribbon through a friend, Gaia is left to interpret its symbols before the Enclave gets hold of it.   As Gaia uncovers more and more secrets, she must decide whether she will continue to support the Enclave’s system of totalitarian government as she always has, or use the information to right societal wrongs.

Dystopian Issues: Dictatorship, Reproductive Slavery, Eugenics
Part of a Series: The first book of the Birthmarked series
Next in Series:  Tortured is considered Birthmarked 1.5, but it's a short story available for free on for Kindle. Prized is the next offical book in the series
Age of Main Character: 16
Number of Pages: 361
Year of Publication: 2011
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

Review:  It begins with a wall.  As soon as a wall is built the focus becomes about who is allowed inside the wall, and who is kept outside.  A wall equals force and control; it is a visible symbol of power and marginalization. 
     I enjoyed O'Brien's book because while she doesn't give a lot of background on why the wall was built and how this society developed, I still found it easy to slip into the world she had created.  Gaia lives in a place where she is a midwife delivering babies.  Some of those babies are allowed to stay with their mothers in the outside community of Wharfton, but the first three she delivers every month must be 'advanced' (handed over) to the Enclave.  It seems that inside the wall there are increasing problems with hemophilia and infertility and the Enclave is trying to remedy these problems by bringing in babies from the outside.
     The Enclave government is totalitarian, but at times not very organized.  One of the ways they keep their power is through lack of information.  When it is discovered that Gaia's mother (also a midwife) had been keeping a list of all the babies that had been advanced, the knowledge is a form of power the Enclave wants, putting Gaia's whole family in danger as the Enclave seeks to get it.
     O'Brien's ideas are clear and intriguing, and while I found the romance between two central characters to be a bit forced, I like the theme of self-discovery and the exploration of adoption.  Do children who have been adopted ever really know who they are if they don't know who their biological parents were?  The Enclave is a society that thrives on forced adoptions but no one seems to consider the impact this has on the adopted children.
     Also, reading about the problems with hemophilia due to inbreeding really interested me.  If the Enclave can breed hemophilia out of their population is that the socially responsible thing to do or is it more important for people to fall in love and sometimes have to deal with the consequences of such an unstructured act?
     Either way, O'Brien keeps me reading, wondering what I think the answers are, what the Enclave will decide and how Gaia's convictions will lead her to act next.  I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Prized.

Real Life Dystopia:  Some parallels between Birthmarked and Nazi Germany are pretty easy to make here.  Hitler and the Protectorat, the Enclave's desire to produce a master race, and the marginalization of people with any kind of abnormality.  Although while in Nazi Germany enclosures like concentration camps were the last place a person wanted to be, in O'Brien's book the Enclave is the desired place to live.

Memorable Quote: "'What will they do once they identify the suppressor gene and find the people who carry it?'  Gaia asked.
    Leon templed his fingers together, and they cast a sharp shadow on the tabletop.  'They're thinking long term.  Once they can identify the suppressor gene, they'll test all the babies outside the wall and take the ones who have it.  They're patient,' he said.
    The dawning horror made Gaia momentarily speechless.  'All of them?'
     'They'll be the most desired, most precious advanced children ever,' he said flatly.  'The mothers of those children will be encouraged to have as many babies as possible, all for advancing.  And when those babies grow up, they'll have thier pick of the elite families to marry into.'"
     - Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien, pg 243
Author Website: