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Mindy McGinnis

REVIEW:  In a Handful of Dust by Mindy McGinnis

REVIEW: In a Handful of Dust by Mindy McGinnis

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Dear Ms. McGinnis,

Despite my weariness with the dystopian and post-apocalyptic genre, I liked your previous novel, Not a Drop to Drink. Even more refreshing was the fact that it appeared to be a standalone. It turns out I was wrong — In a Handful of Dust is the companion novel but I think both novels stand alone well on their own.

While Not a Drop to Drink focused on tough-as-nails Lynn, In a Handful of Dust tells the story of her sweeter, more hopeful charge, Lucy. Things have gone as well as can be expected considering the post-apocalyptic premise, and a little town has formed. The world will never return to what it once was, but things are good.

Alas, nothing lasts forever. A disease sweeps through their little civilization, striking down both young and old. The likely carrier for the disease is Lucy’s would-be suitor, Carter. Unfortunately, this means he has to leave or face the survivors’ wrath. Even more unfortunately, so does Lucy — she’s been in Carter’s company, so even though it’s unlikely that she’s the carrier, the chance is not 0%. And where Lucy goes, so does Lynn.

Together, the two women strike out west, to what once was California. There are rumors of desalination plants there. In a world where water is the most precious commodity, this seems miraculous. But the journey is rife with danger, and soon Lucy will have to face the truth — can she survive in a world without Lynn to protect her?

Like its predecessor, I enjoyed In a Handful of Dust because it takes the path of post-apocalyptic survival combined with a frontier sensibility. There are no nonsensical dystopian governments to overthrow. There is no angsty star-crossed romance, although it may seem like it at first glance. This is the coming-of-age story of a young woman in a world that will never return to what it once was.

Where the book falters for me is that I find Lynn to be a more interesting character than Lucy. I’m just fond of tough-as-nails women who get things done.

“I been trying to do better about killing people,” Lynn said. “Then fate puts you in my path.”

That said, I liked the fact that the narrative doesn’t elevate Lucy over Lynn or vice versa. Both women are seen as valid and worthwhile. Lucy regrets that she’ll never be as strong as Lynn, but Lynn tells her that she should never feel that way. Lynn is the way she is because she had to be. (Not a Drop to Drink details this.) Lucy represents a gentler (as can be expected) life, so she’s allowed to hope and dream for a better life.

Lucy and Lynn’s journey is an interesting one. It’s full of betrayal and risking to trust others when they should know better. Most of the time this doesn’t work out, but sometimes it does. I also like that as the journey continues, Lynn’s infallibility comes to an end and soon Lucy has to do a little growing up herself.

I know most readers are probably tired of post-apocalyptic books these days but if anyone is still up for it, I do recommend they give these books a try. They’re more about the female characters’ journey and the frontier adventure sensibility lends a surprising freshness. I do wish there’d been more survival adventure novels like this when the subgenre had been at its peak, but that’s the way things fall sometimes. B

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

REVIEW: Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

Dear Ms. McGinnis,

A few months ago I mentioned a personal need to take a break from the YA dystopia subgenre. The books weren’t working for me, and I was growing increasingly frustrated. Then I heard the premise for your debut novel: a world in which fresh water became a scarce, much sought after resource. I found this idea far easier to believe than some other dystopian concepts I’ve read.

not-a-drop-to-drink-mcginnisLynn’s existence is one of desperate survival: purifying drinking water, fending off coyotes, finding enough food to last the winter, and protecting their pond against strangers who’d want to steal their precious water. It’s a hard life but it’s the only one she’s ever known. She’s used to it and wants nothing more than to remain in the family home with her mother. Lynn doesn’t need anyone else.

When her mother is killed by coyotes, Lynn must now fend for herself. Not only does she have hungry coyotes to deal with but she also has to protect her home from scavengers who’d love nothing more than to steal it from her. But when she encounters strangers camping out by the stream near her home, Lynn learns what it means to trust and love another human being. Now she has to protect them too while the scavengers she’s been fending off growing in strength and number.

Given how many dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels there are, it’s hard to be original and this book isn’t. But a lack of originality is fine, provided the characters are interesting and the story are interesting. For me, Not a Drop to Drink delivered on both fronts.

I liked Lynn a lot. She’s a hard heroine, raised to be fierce and independent, by a mother who became a hard woman in order to survive in a world that was falling apart. Some readers will find her unlikeable. I thought her characterization was great. Given her upbringing, it made sense that Lynn didn’t trust anyone. She was taught to shoot first and forget about asking the questions later because the person you shot at better be dead.

I also thought Lynn’s innocence about certain topics made sense. She didn’t grow up around men so why would she know anything about them? That said, this ignorance wasn’t played for laughs. Lynn wasn’t a wide-eyed naive girl. Sex, love, and flirting were foreign concepts to her. There was the usual instalove romance subplot but it was more low-level than in other books in this genre, which I appreciated. So if you’re a reader who prefers much prevalent romance in your YA, this is not the book for you. That and the romance doesn’t end well.

Regarding Lynn’s ignorance about certain topics, I’m of two minds about the handling of rape. At a point in the novel, it’s necessary to explain to Lynn what rape is and it didn’t sit well with me that rape was equated to sex. Rape has more to do with power rather than with sex, and the narrative didn’t make that distinction clear in my opinion. On the other hand, Lynn received this explanation from a male neighbor and perhaps that is how he viewed rape and that’s why he explained it to Lynn that way. The lacking distinction is murky, so I’m not entirely sure if it was deliberate.

One of the reasons I liked this book is because despite an obvious dystopian premise, it reads more like a post-apocalyptic survival adventure. I miss those kinds of stories and even if there is a rather useless love interest, the narrative remains focused on Lynn and her growth as a person. The story makes it clear that it’s perfectly all right to be a hard person, sometimes the circumstances require it in order to survive, but that it was okay to have some soft edges too. That it was okay to trust people.

The ultimate confrontation at the end could have used more build-up. I thought that the initial threat was set up nicely in the beginning when both Lynn and her mother were shooting at the scavengers in the dark. But once Lynn made contact with her neighbor and then befriended the people by the river, that thread dropped, only to be picked up at the end. It almost read like an afterthought: Oops! The book is ending! We need an exciting climax!

I also thought the identity of the antagonist was predictable and cliche. That said, I did think Lynn’s choice was the correct one. Blood doesn’t trump everything.

While not an original story, I thought Not a Drop to Drink was a worthwhile read. People tired of introspective dystopias might find this more to their liking. The constant spectre of rape might be a turn-off, as well as the way it was handled, however. And romance readers definitely need to mind what I said about that subplot. B-

My regards,
Jia

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