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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:  Nil by Lynne Matson

REVIEW: Nil by Lynne Matson

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Dear Ms. Matson,

I was a big fan of Lost during its early seasons. My attention wavered as the series progressed, but I do recall my obsession when it first aired fondly. Your novel, Nil, reminded me of Lost and I was interested in seeing how a YA novel would handle it.

Seventeen-year-old Charley is at her local Target, on her way to return some clothes, when she falls through a transdimensional gate in the parking lot. As you do. I wish there were a way to make this sound less ridiculous but that is actually what happens. One minute she’s in a parking lot, the next she feels like she’s on fire.

When Charley wakes up, she’s on an island and naked. Of course she is. Luckily she’s not naked for long because she conveniently manages to find a pair of shorts and cloth she can wrap around her breasts. She then spends the next weeks, trying to gain her bearings and survive. I was actually pretty impressed that a teenaged volleyball player from Georgia could manage to survive on a deserted island by herself and with no supplies.

But it turns out Charley is lucky. The island isn’t deserted. She just hadn’t run into the miniature “city” of teenagers who’d also found themselves mysteriously transported here. From them she learns the ugly truth about the island: she has 365 days to find a gate to take her back home. Because even if she survives that long despite the island’s various pitfalls and traps, it’ll find a way to kill her when one year is up.

If there’s one thing that Nil highlights, it’s this: every story must have a point. Every book must have a driving force that propels the reader to finish it and to feel satisfied when they reach The End. Otherwise why did she spend that time reading?

As I began reading Nil, everything seemed to be in place. Here we have a heroine with a problem. She’s thrown through a gate to a strange island and must find her way home. She meets a hot boy named Thad who she develops feelings for. Another problem! Will they both survive? And even if they get off the island, will they be able to find each other again?

But as I continued, I felt this growing sense of unease. Stories are tricky things. Things need to happen but those things also need to be arranged in a compelling way that — and this is key — tells a cohesive narrative with a point. By the time I was halfway through the book, I was growing increasingly convinced Nil didn’t have a point.

Oh sure, there are attempts at making a point. Why are the kids sent to the island? Is there a reason? Are they supposed to realize something about themselves? Why is this revelation so important? After all, if they can’t figure it out in a year, they die! What is the island? Is it an experiment gone awry? Is it just the unfortunate side effect of a solar flare? Or does it follow Lost‘s lead and is a sort of purgatory? I don’t need a definitive answer but as a reader, I’d like some exploration of these ideas rather than having them haphazardly thrown in my direction. Pick something! Take a stand! Will all readers like it? Doubtful, but at least it’d give me something to digest.

(For the record, I don’t consider Charley’s “We’re here for a reason!” stance and Thad’s “Nah, this island is just screwing with us” outlook to be a worthwhile exploration.)

But even with thematic elements of dubious, unclear worth, I might have forgiven the book if there’d been interesting character dynamics happening. It’s a bunch of teenagers from thirteen to eighteen, from all over the world, thrown together on an island. How do they get along? What culture clashes are there? What personality friction? They set up a miniature city. Surely there’d be factions! Even when people are cooperating, there are disagreements and conflicts simmering under the surface.

Nil barely has any of that. The closest we get is Bart, a member of the city who doesn’t get along with anyone. You can tell he’s trouble because he butts heads with Thad, acts sketchily towards Charley, and tries to steal outbound gates meant for other people. Subtlety is not at all on display here.

For book that’s about survival, Nil is vastly uneven in tone. With the countdown-type premise, you’d think there’d be more urgency. Instead, at times, it read like teens on a vacation. They play volleyball. They surf. They have parties. I’m not saying it has to be doom and gloom all the time, but going from someone dying from a tiger attack to people playing volleyball is a bit of a whiplash.

The nail on the coffin came with the ending, however. I’ve certainly read books where I had mixed feelings for the majority of the narrative but thought the ending was brilliant. That didn’t happen here. The ending fizzled for me and left me wondering, “What did I just read? Why did I just read that?” It was a fail for me.

It’s hard to discuss why without spoilers so I will do so under the cut:

Spoiler (ending spoiler): Show

Thad’s time on the island has run out. He’s on his 365th day and has to find an outbound gate. He does but instead of taking it, he pushes Charley through. She wakes up in Switzerland (naked, again), is reunited with her family, grieves (because she thinks Thad is dead), and recovers.

But don’t worry — despite giving his gate to Charley, Thad is lucky and finds another gate. He jumps through and wakes up (naked, of course) in Afghanistan. We have no idea what happens to him during this time period but we are assured that it was Bad, but after a couple months, he tracks Charley down and they have a happy reunion. The End.

As you can see, there’s nothing wrong with the events that happen in that ending exactly. The problem is that it doesn’t live up to the promise of the book and is quite unsatisfactory. Do they deserve a happy ending? Of course. I’m a big fan of happy endings. But I’m not convinced they earned this one.

Nil could have been an epic survival story. Teens struggling to stay alive on an island determined to kill them while trying not to turn on each other. I thought that was the story I was getting. Too bad I was wrong. It didn’t actively make me mad but I definitely felt like I wasted my time reading this. D

My regards,
Jia

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