Book Review: Quarantine #2: The Saints by Lex Thomas

Quarantine The SaintsQuarantine #2: The Saints
Lex Thomas
Egmont USA,
ISBN 978-1-60684-336-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Nothing was worse than being locked in–until they opened the door…
McKinley High has been a battle ground for eighteen months since a virus outbreak led to a military quarantine of the school. When the doors finally open, Will and Lucy will think their nightmare is finished. But they are gravely mistaken.

As a new group of teens enters the school and gains popularity, Will and Lucy join new gangs. An epic party on the quad full of real food and drinks, where kids hookup and actually interact with members of other gangs seemed to signal a new, easier existence. Soon after though, the world inside McKinley takes a startling turn for the worse, and Will and Lucy will have to fight harder than ever to survive.

Whoa.

This is, without a doubt, a very difficult book to read.  If you have any squeamishness at all about violence, teen sex, sheer brutality for no reason other than pleasure, you should not pick up this book. As for the target audience, yes, it is Young Adult in the sense that it’s entirely about high school kids but I really think it’s inappropriate for younger teens. If it were a movie (and, apparently, it will be if things pan out), it should be rated R. That’s unlikely, of course, since it would be difficult to market with such a rating but I don’t know how they’re going to soften this story for a PG-13 rating when it revolves so aggressively around those elements that make this R-worthy.

That’s the very reason I am torn about this book. From beginning to end, the savagery that is to be found on nearly every page is almost overwhelming, to the point of making me so uncomfortable I wondered why I kept reading—and, yet, I did. Partly, it’s because of the trainwreck effect when you just can’t look away but, as tough as it was to read, this is an intense look at a society gone completely to ruin and that is what kept me riveted.

Certainly, there are flaws. It was impossible for me to really like anyone but that doesn’t mean I didn’t care about them, just that this second book in the trilogy allows for no remaining vestiges of gentleness, kindness, courtesy or decency, the traits that enable us to get along with one another. A few individuals love others in one fashion or another but, for the most part, it’s every boy—or girl—for himself or herself. That is an element that’s particularly noticeable, that the girls are every bit as ruthlesss and cruel as the boys. We do get to know a few of them better, especially Will and Lucy, but I can’t say that either one has grown on me much since the first book. Lucy has at least learned to be strong for herself, almost foolhardy, but Will is still rather whiny, although with flashes of being more likeable.

After two books, we still know pretty much nothing about what’s happening outside the school, just dribs and drabs, not nearly enough to understand if anyone is trying to find a cure or even how far the virus has spread. I also find it hard to believe that the parents, who are now in charge of keeping the kids alive, make no effort to identify themselves; just knowing that some of them still have families would give these kids hope.

Most of all, the violence in The Saints is nearly unbearable, particularly because something vicious happens constantly, either physically or psychologically. I think the authors’ point is that, when you live surrounded by such violence, it becomes second nature and you lose your humanity. While that is generally true, we have all heard of people who rise above such a life and that’s what is lacking here, the few kids who would stand fast against the violence. In an interesting if pointless diversion from the usual horrific behavior, one scene, which actually does not involve an altercation between kids, is exceptionally stomach-churning and, to me, was truly gratuitous; as an obvious allusion to Lord of the Flies, it is completely unnecessary to the story and only draws comparisons to that earlier book.

All that aside, I did find much to keep me reading in spite of my reservations and I applaud the authors for making a very harsh story eminently engaging in spite of the gore. If I still had a bookstore, I would be extremely careful to whom I would recommend this but it would most likely be those readers who can look beyond the surface to what lies beneath. This is truly a modern-day morality tale and I’m very curious about what is to come in the third book, coming out in Summer 2014.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2013.

Book Review: The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

The Savage FortressThe Savage Fortress
Sarwat Chadda
Arthur A. Levine Books, October 2012
ISBN
Hardcover

 

It’s not easy being 13.  Ash (Ashoka Mistry), a chubby boy of Indian descent living in England, knows this very well.  He is teased because of his weight, his lunch money is stolen; he feels constantly taunted.   Actually, this is the easy part.  Ash believes that his summer visit with an aunt and uncle in India, accompanied only by his 10 year old sister, Lucky, holds promise.  He is mistaken.

The Savage Fortress introduces middle-grade readers to some of the most fascinating Hindu gods and goddesses.  This quick-paced tale features the ultimate bad guy.  Lord Alexander Savage, despite having learned the magic he’s used to live for thousands of years, wants more.  He wants immortality.  His determination to obtain his desire puts him on a quest to find the tomb of Ravana, the demon king.   Savage is more than willing to become the demon king’s slave, in exchange for this small favour.  He is very close now, nothing would dare intervene.  He will not be stopped.

It takes only a short while in India for Ash to understand that things are not what they seem.  His uncle’s boss, Lord Savage, seems odd beyond eccentric……..in a chilling, creepy kind of way.  Savage’s staff is worse.  They seem to stare at Ash and Lucky with eyes of reptiles, birds or furry jungle predators.  Due to the exponentially increasing weirdness, Ash tends to stay as far away from Savage as humanly possible.  Not a great plan.

Ash takes a tumble that will change him forever………..errrr, at least in this life-time.  Accidentally uncovering the one thing Savage needs to proceed, Ash instantly has the weight of the world on his shoulders.  As he begins to recall past existences, he begins to see things more clearly.

The unlikely associates that Ash befriends as he embarks on this journey add a dash of spice to an already hot story.  The internal and external struggles that Ash must face bring in a bittersweet undertone.  This is absolutely one of the best books, particularly for the genre, that I have ever read.  I would have devoured this book when I was in junior high.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2012.

Book Review: Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick

ShadowsShadows
Ashes Trilogy #2

Ilsa J. Bick
Egmont USA, September 2012
ISBN 978-1-60684-176-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The Apocalypse does not end. The Changed will grow in numbers. The Spared may not survive.

Even before the EMPs brought down the world, Alex was on the run from the demons of her past and the monster living in her head. After the world was gone, she believed Rule could be a sanctuary for her and those she’d come to love. But she was wrong.

Now Alex is in the fight of her life against the adults, who would use her, the survivors, who don’t trust her, and the Changed, who would eat her alive.

Welcome to Shadows, the second book in the haunting apocalyptic Ashes Trilogy: where no one is safe and humans may be the worst of the monsters.

This has been such a difficult review to write. How do you express misgivings about a favorite author’s new book but still give it some much-deserved  love?

Following the intense pace of things happening to Alex and Tom is nearly exhausting, certainly unnerving in some parts. The Changed are not really zombies, but have many of their characteristics, so watching them becoming mentally aware and yet still inhuman is downright scary. Add to that the real menace presented by the religious cult as well as the brutal cold and snow and you have to wonder if you, the reader, would have any chance of survival, especially with the torture and other terrible, stomach-churning things going on. It’s a good thing a few of the characters still warrant our love—and love is what it is. Feeling what they go through is as bad as what we might suffer on behalf of our own family and friends in like circumstances, heaven forbid.

The first book, Ashes, was just marvelous and landed in my list of favorite books of 2011, but this one can’t be included in my 2012 list. Ms. Bick is well aware of the issues—she addresses them on her website in a lengthy synopsis/reminder of what happened in the first book and who the characters are. I understand the rationale behind just picking up where Ashes left off but, for me, it doesn’t work. It might have if (1) I had seen her post before reading Shadows and (2) the story had continued to focus on Alex and Tom, at least in the early chapters, but the author chose to throw in a LOT of new or lesser-known characters and geographic settings, plus the story is told from multiple points of view. The end result, for me, was a constant struggle to try to remember who certain people were and where the action was taking place (that’s important because of the efforts of people to get where they need to go). Even something as simple as a cast of characters would have made reading Shadows a lot easier and would have prevented much of the confusion.

Will this stop me from reading the next book, Monsters? Absolutely not because, in spite of everything that bothered me in Ashes, I still love the concept, the worldbuilding, the characters (yes, even the Changed, at least some of them) and Ms. Bick‘s impressive ability to put words together, not to mention craft images that linger a long, long time. What I’ll do next year is re-read the first two books before tackling the third—re-reads will be no chore, believe me—and hope that Monsters will be less confusing. So, yes, I do recommend this but read Ashes before you read Shadows, or read the author’s post on her website.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2012.

Book Review: Quarantine: The Loners by Lex Thomas

Quarantine The LonersQuarantine: The Loners
Lex Thomas
Egmont USA, July 2012
ISBN 978-1-60684-329-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

It was just another ordinary day at McKinley High—until a massive explosion devastated the school. When loner David Thorpe tried to help his English teacher to safety, the teacher convulsed and died right in front of him. And that was just the beginning.

 

A year later, McKinley has descended into chaos. All the students are infected with a virus that makes them deadly to adults. The school is under military quarantine. The teachers are gone. Violent gangs have formed based on high school social cliques. Without a gang, you’re as good as dead. And David has no gang. It’s just him and his little brother, Will, against the whole school.

I have such mixed feelings about this book that I hardly know where to begin. The truth is, there is a lot wrong with it but I still kept right on reading, couldn’t make myself stop. What’s up with that?

For one thing, for a post-disaster scenario, which is pretty nearly always completely unrealistic, this one is way out there in left field. Here you have a school full of teens that have been cordoned off from the outside world. So far, so good. Why this has happened is at first a mystery to the teens and I can buy that, too. What gives me serious pause is what happens within minutes of the teens first realizing something is wrong. Can you imagine our government quarantining an entire school so fast and so competently? Also, why do the adults on the outside cut off all communication with the kids and why do they fail to provide the necessities of life on a regular basis? Well, I suppose these questions are a large part of why I kept reading—I needed to know why even more than what.

In some ways, Quarantine can be compared to Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games, especially in the extreme violence and anarchy that develops and yet…it isn’t really anarchy. The gangs that these 1,000 teens form, based largely on their school hierarchy during normal times, rings true because teens tend to want to belong to groups. The violence is to be expected also when you understand just what they’re up against if they want to survive. The gangs are very distinct and this is one of the aspects of the story I really enjoyed. Each gang has a name and distinguishing colors, each has a leader, each has a responsibility for one or more aspects of life under quarantine, each is feared by the other gangs. There are a couple of gangs that are expectedly in the forefront, particularly the Varsity and the Pretty Ones, but the authors do a great job of building the reader’s empathy for all of them in one way or another.

Another thing the authors do well is come up with details that make the reader really understand the perils these kids face and how they react, such as the way they dispose of bodies and the barter system they develop. Protagonists Will and David are much like most brothers, full of love and antagonism, and the obligatory love triangle with Lucy actually comes about more naturally than in many other young adult novels. I did feel, though, that the extreme hatred Sam has for David is a stretch and Will’s self-centeredness and unwillingness to do his part is a bit much but these elements do add a great deal to the premise. Character development outweighs plot and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

I had issues with the way the government/military respond to the situation and with the behavior of the virus, especially how fast it kills and how it is spread, and these are the absurdities that most bothered me in the construction of the story, along with the difficulty I had tracking the passage of time. On the other hand, the pace of the book is breakneck and I can truly say I was never bored. What goes on with the kids is both disturbing and compelling and that is what made me have to finish. Despite its shortcomings, Quarantine is a thriller you don’t want to miss but, because of the violence and sheer darkness, I’d recommend it for older teens and up.

I must admit I also couldn’t resist a story whose first line is “Someone must have bitten off her nose.” Now that’s a grabber if I ever saw one so I guess I’ll have to read the next book, especially if I want to find out where the cliffhanger in this one is going to take us next.  And I most certainly do.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2012.