Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick
Egmont, 2011

The publisher summary of this novel had me at electro-magnetic pulse. Finally, a post-apocalyptic YA novel with an EMP! Honestly, if I was an evil genius, that's definitely what I would unleash upon the unsuspecting populace. Imagine the chaos! The destroyed infrastructure! Civilization would be booted back to the Middle Ages.

Indeed, while 17-year-old Alex is on a long  September hike in the Michigan wilderness to finally spread her parents' ashes, an EMP (Alex calls it "the zap") detonates, killing all people except for the young and the elderly and destroying virtually all electronic devices. After Alex strikes an uneasy truce with 8-year-old Ellie whose grandfather died during the zap, the two of them head off in search of assistance and shelter with Ellie's dog Mina in tow. Armed with Alex's wilderness survival expertise, Ellie's fishing skills, and Mina's protection from wolves and other wildlife, survival looks doable.

Neither they nor I were expecting the zombies.

It turns out that the zap somehow turned some of the surviving teenagers into unnaturally fast cannibalistic monsters, and Alex is now waiting to turn into one herself. Instead, her sense of smell seems to be hyper-sensitive and she wonders if that has to do with the inoperable brain tumor she has recently refused further treatment for. Nonetheless, surviving in the increasingly colder forest while avoiding zombies and packs of wild dogs are keeping Alex and Ellie busy, and with winter fast approaching their plans - and potential partnerships with other survivors - literally become matters of life or death.

Admittedly, I was a bit dubious when the zombies came into play. As a rule, I feel that a relatively (sometimes deceptively) simple plot with well-executed and complex characters can make for a very satisfying read, certainly more than a complex plot with simple characters. I feared that the zombie teenagers would be one plot element too much and would take over the story and push it into the realm of unbelievability. However, Bick didn't allow that to happen: the zombie angle was not overused, and in fact the most frightening characters in the book were - appropriately - other survivors. 

Bick's main characters are pleasingly complex. Alex is fiesty and brave but also soft-hearted and very clever. Ellie was so well executed that there were times I felt like wringing her neck as much as Alex did, although I did feel as though she often seemed older than her very young age due to her frequent use of sarcasm. Later characters were also far more than one-dimensional, and I very much look forward to their development in future books.

Yes, Ashes is the first book in a trilogy, and as such has one hell of a cliffhanger ending. (My summary covers perhaps the first 20% of the book, so a great deal happens that I didn't specifically touch on so as not to spoil anything - it's a thriller after all!) I don't know how long I'll need to wait for the second instalment, but I certainly hope it arrives sooner rather than later.

**Electronic review copy provided by publisher via NetGalley.

Awaken by Kate Kacvinsky
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

It is the year 2060, and Madeline is seventeen and in her final year of Digital School (DS). In fact, her father is the creator of DS, which allows all American children to have free education via computers in the comfort of their own homes, and even adults socialize and work entirely online. Madeline's father doesn't make her life easy due to an anti-DS incident that happened when Madeline was fifteen, so she has a probation officer and is under constant surveillance. When she meets the mysterious Justin at an offline study session, she has no idea how much the life she takes for granted is about to flip upside down.

I had a great time reading Awaken. For one thing, I have a particular weakness for dystopian literature so this was right up my alley. What I found interesting was how similar Kacvinsky's imagining of 2060 is to today's world and that it initially threw me off a bit. I'm so accustomed to scenarios set 50 years into the future being full of flying cars (which actually show up but as a surprising invention and not a daily occurrence) and helpful household robots that the subtlety of Kacvinsky's vision was initially a bit of a let-down. However, it grew on me and is ultimately far more realistic and made the cultural developments that much more stark. It also allowed for one my favourite scenes in the book, in which Madeline encounters real grass and trees for the first time in her life.

Madeline has many firsts in Awaken, including first offline study group, first ride in a car, first time hearing live music, and first love. The vast majority of these firsts - if not all of them - are brought about by Justin, with whom Madeline is infatuated from the beginning. Madeline's inner dialogue about his friendship is entertaining and ratchets up the sexual tension, and combining that with watching Madeline and Justin warily circle each other and do their best not to succumb to their feelings made this one of the steamiest dystopian novels I can recall reading. As the Brits say, "Phwoar!"

Awaken is populated with many compelling characters. Madeline's mother makes a strong early appearance and, while she doesn't play a large role, is an effective presence with her values that lean strongly toward the pre-digital. By contrast, Madeline's father plays his cards very close to his chest and is deeply invested in his work, and his relationship with Madeline is rocky at best. One of my favourite characters was Clare, a friend of Justin's who adds much-needed lightness to the proceedings, as does Justin's monumentally charming family.

More than just a romance in a futuristic world, Awaken presents a vision of the future that may well come to pass and I will be handing it to fans of Uglies and Feed without hesitation.

**Electronic galley provided by publisher via netGalley.

Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Vintage Canada, 2010 (c2005)

Kathy H. grew up at Hailsham, a rural English boarding school with a twist: the students are all clones destined to be organ and tissue donors, except they don't know it yet. Kathy tells her story, as well as those of her schooltime friends Ruth and Tommy, as an adult looking back at their time at Hailsham and their lives afterward.

Just below the title on the softcover copy of this book that I borrowed from a friend, a quote from TIME announces, "the best novel of the decade." I thought I was in for a treat and I was, but best novel of the decade? That's a bit much.

I believe it was the structure of Kathy's storytelling that irked me most. She would dangle an event in front of the reader like a carrot so that the event reached almost mythic proportions. Except, when it came time for her to tell what actually happened, it didn't seem such a big deal or even terribly out-of-character for whoever was involved. Especially in Part One, it seemed as if every chapter ended with a version of, "...I found out though over the next several days" (p. 48). Sometimes it wasn't addressed until many pages later (the story flips back and forth in time quite a bit), and even when it was discussed immediately the event in question was rarely a monumental occurrence. Perhaps the relationships between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy - with all their subtleties - are what make people rave about this novel, but frankly this narrative structure annoyed me since I kept waiting for things to happen that were worthy of repeated build-up. For me, it got to the point of being an irritating gimmick.

Hands down, I found Tommy to be the most interesting and genuine character. His struggles as an adolescent and the future ramifications of those struggles were interesting to watch, and it is where I appreciated the subtleties in storytelling the most. Kathy struck me as being quite milquetoast: she put up with a lot of crap from Ruth over the years, was often afraid to ruffle any feathers despite her better judgment, and generally felt guilty when she did make waves of any sort. She was more expressive as she got older, but she was still careful. Ruth's manipulation of most of those around her for her own benefit grew tiresome, although she eventually redeems herself and realizes her folly when it's almost too late.

Perhaps due to the particular doom inevitable for the main characters, relationships they engaged in always had a certain distance to them. Kathy certainly never had what I would call a passionate relationship - friend or lover - and the relationships she describes between other characters also appeared to be reserved. I don't recall any mention of Kathy's childhood prior to Hailsham, and as a scientifically created child the existence of parental figures is highly unlikely, so the somewhat distant guardians at Hailsham were really the only adult influences in the lives of the students and even they were spooked and sometimes repulsed by their wards. The emotions one would expect from young adults were evident, but muffled in a way, which made it difficult for me to connect to the characters, emotionally demonstrative Tommy being the notable exception.

I certainly appreciate the mystery and the darkness of Never let me go. The relationships' ebbs and flows over time were poignant and realistic and its underlying question of what it means to be truly human is thoughtfully presented and never glaring. Despite my qualms with the storytelling methods (and the hyperbolic statement on the cover), Ishiguro presents a haunting visualization of the future of Western culture that provides much to contemplate.