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: