Book review: ‘In A Perfect World’ by Laura Kasischke

in_perfect_worldSo all these dystopian novels are beginning to get to me . . . after finishing Laura Kasischke’s haunting In A Perfect World, I had an irrational and overwhelming urge to stockpile canned goods, water and firewood — though I have no fireplace. What difference does that make, right? If a plague is spreading across the United States, you better believe I’ll build a firepit and bunker down. Or, you know, my dad will do it.

Kasischke’s work is the story of Jiselle Dorn, newly wedded to the gorgeous and charismatic pilot Captain Mark Dorn. At 32 and never married, Jiselle is completely wooed by Mark’s stylish courtship and eager to begin a life with him. Her marriage brings her to the Chicago suburb of St. Sophia, a quaint and cozy town where Mark lives with his three children. Camilla, Sara and Sam put on a happy face as Jiselle arrives but waste no time undermining her authority. Petulant Sara, the most unhappy of all, scribbles terrible things in her journal — which she conveniently leaves out for Jiselle to find.

And Mark is traveling all the time. Alone with the kids after she’s given up her job as a flight attendant, Jiselle struggles to find a place within her new family — and to identify, for the first time, as a mother. Her days drag on, filled with chores and reading and lounging on the cabin’s deck, which overlooks a deep ravine. And missing Mark, of course; her longing for him to return, to “save” her, is palpable.

Underscoring the family drama happening in In A Perfect World is a much greater threat: an influenza, called the Phoenix Flu, is spreading across the United States, infecting scores of Americans. Fearing the worst, the global community has turned away from us, sealing their borders and refusing to give us aid; a vaccine does not exist. After a well-known pop star dies of the Phoenix Flu, the threat of infection seems to be everywhere. Life continues for Jiselle and the kids in St. Sophia, but no one seems to be safe. Or to even know what “safe” is any longer.

At many times reminiscent of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It and its absolute apocalyptic feel, Kasischke’s work focuses on the aspect of survival and the growth of an unconventional family. While Pfeffer’s teenage narrator wrote in her diary about the daily tasks of attempting to survive in a world without power, heat, food and an alleviation of boredom, Kasischke’s book is much more emotional; less about the mechanics of a spreading flu and more about the effect of the flu on the psyche.

Starting the novel, I was pretty sure I was going to despise Jiselle. She seemed hopelessly naive, ignoring the cautions of her mother that Mark, while loving, was merely looking for a babysitter to tend to his children. As Mark’s presence becomes less and less a part of their daily lives, Jiselle’s transformation is absolute and apparent. For a woman who was single and childless just a year ago, she adapts quickly — and well.

Kasischke’s background in poetry is very evident; many of her turns of phrase stopped me dead in my tracks. She writes in gorgeous, lilting prose and her words, carefully chosen, seem to add an extra weight to everything happening in the country — and at home. One of my favorites:

One historian Jiselle heard interviewed on NPR said, in a voice so low it sounded like the source of gravity itself, that a return to traditions often preceded the complete collapse of a culture.

And, indeed, the culture seems to implode upon itself. Life In A Perfect World is anything but perfect, littered with fear, uncertainty, illness and grief. The novel, while beautiful, is disturbing — mostly because the “Phoenix Flu” seems, at times, oddly reminiscent of a certain illness that has many Americans currently stocking up on anti-bacterial hand gel and covering their faces with surgical masks. At many Sunday services, parishoners are discouraged from shaking hands; at work places, mandatory handwashing stations have been set up all over the buildings. And that’s happening now — in our own world. So reading about an avian flu that sweeps across the U.S., killing off scores of citizens? Yeah, not exactly uplifting reading.

But I have to say — I actually really liked this book. Kasischke’s interesting writing kept me enthralled and, as the kids and Jiselle come to rely more and more upon each other, I actually felt their bonds plucking at my heart strings. They’re not beyond redemption — nothing is. And while I don’t think the novel had quite the ultimately hopeful feel as Life As We Knew It, it didn’t leave me despondent, either.

Actually, after I turned the final page, I felt more than a little stunned. Some controversy surrounds the novel’s ending, I know, but I was pleased with how it turned out. Sometimes we have far more questions than answers — and sometimes, the resolution never does come. The book is just like life in that way — how we know it, and otherwise.

Lovers of dystopian fiction or those interested in apocalyptic tales while find plenty to “enjoy” (can you enjoy these stories, really?) here, and readers with a taste for family-based struggles and stories will be intrigued by the Dorn clan. Every character eventually won me over — including, and probably especially, Jiselle. A worthwhile but disturbing look at the breakdown of a culture . . . and the creation of a family.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061766119 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

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Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Book review: ‘Life As We Knew It’ by Susan Beth Pfeffer

life_as_we_knew_itAs if I wasn’t completely freaked out after reading this book, I had to come across THIS gem of a story while I innocently attempted to check my e-mail yesterday.

Really, world? We have to punch the moon? Have you not read Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It?! Because if those folks at NASA had come across this startling, hauntingly realistic young adult novel, I don’t know if they’d be making quite the same call!

Pennsylvanian teen Miranda is grappling with the usual issues of high school-related drama — and dealing with her changing family. Her father’s new wife is pregnant with their first child, and Lisa has asked her stepdaughter to be the child’s godmother. Miranda feels justifiably torn but agrees, and life continues in Howell, Pa., for Miranda, her mother and brothers Matt and Jonny. Until a meteor knocks the moon — our moon — closer to the Earth, drastically altering its gravitational pull. And then nothing is the same.

Life As We Knew It is Miranda’s diary — her chronicle of deteriorating conditions as earthquakes rock the U.S. (and rest of the world), unexpected volcanoes crop up and bury the world in ash and supplies become scarce. As with many natural disasters, no one is immediately aware just how bad things are . . . or how bad they’re going to get. The weather is still warm when the first tsunamis hit, wiping out much of the coasts, so questions of survival in the isolated, freezing Pennsylvanian town where the family lives don’t immediately crop up. But the strange, serene and almost idyllic life that immediately follows news of the disaster gives way to something much more intense — and terrifying.

What bothered me most about this book was how absolutely, completely real it felt. Miranda’s voice — at times angry, sad, resigned, bewildered, elated, enraged — rang as clear as a bell. I guess because I spent my late teens and early adulthood in a post-9/11 world, the slightest news of disaster and uncertainty brings me right back to that day, and I feel, personally, that I live in a state of hyper-awareness. Watching Miranda’s family stockpile food and supplies and seal themselves off from the world, becoming a unit and hoping only to live, despite everything, forced a pit to open in my stomach.

By turns frightening and life-affirming, Life As We Knew It is a masterpiece. Pfeffer’s language is eloquent without becoming clunky or condescending; Miranda sounds — and acts — like a “normal” teenage girl. We also get a glimpse into how religious beliefs play a part in the fear and grieving process of those “left behind” following the meteor’s impact, and I spent a good deal of time remembering how busy Sunday services seemed to get after 9/11. When faced with something beyond our control or comprehension — something looming, something horrifying — people react in a variety of ways. I’m certainly no sociologist, and I know Pfeffer doesn’t claim to be one, either, but she paints a picture of the various coping mechanisms with a deft hand. Miranda takes comfort in the fact that even though her own world becomes smaller and smaller, a larger one still exists . . . and is hopefully going to continue on, even without her. Not to draw a heartless parallel here, but that definitely reminded me of Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl whose diary written during her family’s time of hiding during the Holocaust has become such a moving, iconic glimpse into a terrible time in history. If the moon disaster were “real,” I have no doubt that Miranda’s journal would take on a similar feel. Although the Holocaust was a horrific act of human consciousness and, you know, the moon thing . . . would not be. But you catch my drift (I hope!).

There’s so much I could say about this novel — and so much I want to say — but I can’t give anything away! I read furiously, desperate to figure out how they were going to survive this mess . . . and though the novel ends with many questions, I had enough answers that I felt a sense of closure and could move on. Pfeffer’s companion novel the dead and the gone follows Alex, a New Yorker who must protect his sisters after tsunamis wipe out much of Manhattan. As much as I loved Life As We Knew It, I’m not eager to return to the dystopia of disaster-ridden Earth any time soon . . . my poor, tender heart needs time to recover.

If you’re a fan of dystopian literature, post-apocalyptic tales, family dynamics and stories of the tenacious human spirit, please don’t miss this one. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to look at the moon the same way again!

4.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 0152061541 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Blog

Book review: ‘Catching Fire’ by Suzanne Collins

catching_fireThis review is for Catching Fire, the highly anticipated sequel to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. If you haven’t read the first novel and think you just may, skip this review to avoid SPOILERS (and then come back and see me later, of course!).

So. Katniss Everdeen defeated the Capitol, emerging from the Hunger Games hand in hand with Peeta Mallark, a young man from her home of District 12 who professed his undying love for her and saved both their lives with his devotion. Having emerged the victors in a gruesome, terrible tradition that plagues their nation of Panem, a country risen from the ashes of the United States many years before, Katniss and Peeta return home hoping to regain some sense of normalcy after their horrible ordeal.

The only teeny, tiny issue? The Capitol isn’t at all pleased with Katniss’s act of desperation to spare them both — and the fact that the government was forced, by way of popular sentiment, to allow Katniss and Peeta to emerge from their sadistic games together. President Snow sees through Katniss’s professions of “love” for Peeta, knowing that underneath the facade is the young woman — a “girl on fire” — ready to start the spark that will catch Panem up in the flames of rebellion. And something will be done about it.

Again we make our journey with Katniss, our narrator, who is still strong, lean and powerful after finally having enough food to feed herself, her mother and younger sister Prim. She and Peeta’s victory in the Games have brought rewards to their entire home district, providing hope where it had long ago been distinguished. But fear over the ramifications of her actions in the Capitol have replaced the gnaw of hunger in Katniss’s belly, and she walks around waiting for the other shoe to drop. She knows she can’t possibly be allowed to walk around unscathed after her act of defiance, and I waited right along with her.

Who else is waiting? Peeta, it seems — for Katniss to make a decision. Their return to District 12 hasn’t changed his unflagging feelings for his fellow survivor, but Katniss is mired in confusion over another issue entirely: Gale Hawthorne. At some point, her best friend became so much more than that . . . and, despite the assertions by the Capitol and Katniss’s family that they’re “cousins,” thereby posing no threat to Katniss and Peeta’s very popular relationship, those closest to them know differently.

Katniss has so many choices to make — and it’s hard to think clearly when she lays awake at night, plagued by nightmares and too afraid to doze off. Life becomes about waiting — and planning. Confusion. Desperation. And, as the story takes yet another unexpected twist, desperation to save the lives of those she cares about — and one in particular.

Catching Fire seems to have its own embers beneath each page, glowing strongly as the story progresses. Panem’s anger — and the Capitol’s — simmers just below the surface, threatening to blow the entire thing wide open as though it’s doused in kerosene. I had a hard time believing Katniss was so naive as to think she couldn’t possibly be seen as the face of a rebellion, the eternal symbol of hope and defiance in the face of the Capitol’s tyrannical rule. Still, she genuinely seemed shocked over the charges brought against her . . . at least, at first. Then, with dogged determination, she seemed to accept them — and, eventually, embrace them. I like that about her.

The second novel in Collins’s series definitely felt like a second novel to me; we know all about the terrible things that have happened before, and we know terrible things are yet to come. I didn’t feel any relief as the novel opened, knowing that Peeta and Katniss were back in their district — because surely, all sorts of awful stuff was bound to hit them in the very near future. And it did. Similarly, we know another book will follow this one, furthering the storyline as more and more kerosene is added to the flames in Panem. As with The Hunger Games, we end on a serious cliff-hanger — and I dug my fingers into the book as though I, too, were hanging off the edge of a precipice. It was scary.

Though I was unbelievably invested in this book and spent two consecutive nights reading until 2 a.m. to finish, I have to say that some of the plot points here felt very familiar — as though we’ve already lived this before (maybe because we have?). I didn’t see some of the plot twists coming, but I did have a pretty good idea why things were happening as they were (sorry for the vagueness here, but I’m trying so hard not to ruin anything!). It was hard for me to believe that Katniss — determined, brave, loving — didn’t understand it, too. But if I’m putting myself in her worn shoes, I guess it would be hard to see what’s sometimes right in front of us. Especially if we don’t want to. Though it just bothered me, I guess.

A worthy, compelling and heart-pounding read that furthers the plot — and world-building — of Suzanne Collins’ outstanding The Hunger Games and brings up many questions about government, society and media, but don’t expect to find any relief after finishing. That seems as elusive as quieting a mockingjay.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0439023491 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg