Tag Archives: Dystopia

Devil Until Dust by Emma Berquist

Willie (don’t you dare call her Daisy) at seventeen is in charge of the family consisting of her brother Micah and seven year old twins – Calvin and Catherine, a real ornery handful. Her mother died of the “disease” which has destroyed any semblance of an orderly life for those living in Glory, Texas. Her pa, Harrison Wilcox, always prone to drink, is now mostly MIA, spending his time at the Homestead bar getting drunk and gambling. Life is tough enough with a small pile of money which is quickly being depleted by the monthly protection dues paid to the Judge who runs the town, but it promises to get worse when McAllister confronts Willie, demanding she repay the $400 winnings her pa stole the night before. Wilcox is long gone and nobody has that kind of cash to lend, so Willie decides to hire some hunters to guide her through the open desert to Best, a larger town where she’s sure her dad is hiding out with his newfound bounty. Pa should be the one to suffer the consequences of his actions, not his innocent children.

So far Devil Until Dust by Emma Berquist sounds like a straightforward western taking place about ten years after the end of the Civil War where Ulysses S Grant is President of the United States, but it’s not gun slingers and wild animals the town folks fear, it’s the shakes, disease riddled zombie like creatures who have lost all sense of humanity and thrive by drinking blood. Animals are the easiest to catch, but shakes like the taste of humans, even devouring those like themselves, unlucky enough to get killed. Of course, if you survive the bite of these sub humans, it’s only a matter of time before you’re infected too. That’s why towns are fenced in and guarded and nobody travels without a shake hunter armed and ready to shoot the beasts since it’s a matter of us vs them. Those in the North and on the West Coast have stopped building the transcontinental railroad system, leaving the infected parts of the country to “handle” it on their own.

So Willie goes on the road through the West Texan desert with two brothers, Curtis and Ben, to reach Best and bring her Pa to justice. This quest takes some unexpected turns in a YA book which combines a coming of age story with a dystopian western in an alternative history introspectively narrated by a young girl who rejects her femininity in order to survive in an apocalyptic, dust-filled world riddled with epidemic created demons and egocentric men trying to get ahead by taking advantage of anyone who can’t defend themselves (although there are a few good hearted souls scattered throughout the book).

Definitely readable with super short chapters, and, although somewhat predictable, this debut novel is worth a look. Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.


Heartland by Ana Simo

Our heroine was living for ten years off a grant to write a book, which she totally ignored until the last minute, when she began the process only to experience an oddity where she lost the ability to write words – from adjectives to adverbs to vowels and finally to nouns – leaving her unable to proceed. When her backers demanded proof that this book actually existed, she spread the word that she’d fled the country, hiding in her apartment disguised as an Asian gentleman until she finally decided to escape to her childhood retreat. The turning point was running into Mercy McCabe, the woman who stole away her beloved Bebe, the love of her life. Despite the fact that McCabe, after ten years, had broken up with their mutual love interest, our heroine is determined to exact revenge, murder to be exact.

The first step is to convince McCabe to come with her to Judge Wilkerson’s house, a swanky estate at the top of Round Hill in an affluent neighborhood of Elmira which is not too far from the Capital. It is here that our heroine spent her youth as her mother was the housekeeper for the Judge and his wife. Revisiting this haven and establishing a routine of caring for the home, reminiscent of her deceased mother’s tasks, doesn’t deter her from her ultimate plans, even as she comes to care for her companion. Since McCabe is a wealthy SoHo art dealer, she is established as the “owner” of this “rental” property with our heroine the servant, along with the cook/maid, a fellow Latina, who is hired to care for them. Eventually our heroine wants to visit her childhood home in Shangri La, a Hispanic community on the outskirts of Elmira, which isn’t important enough to be included on the area map. She gets caught in a blizzard, seeking inadequate protection from the elements, waking up back on the hill with bandaged frostbitten legs and feet. Unable to walk, McCabe, whose appearance and personality have changed due to an apparent illness, tenderly cares for the invalid over a period of weeks – lovingly washing and bandaging her wounds, emptying her bed pan, and feeding her healthy broths to build up her strength. Our heroine begins to develop positive feelings towards her Protector, but just as she starts to feel better, McCabe disappears without a trace. Frantic to find details of Mercy’s whereabouts, she goes to town visiting the library, “pumping” Mrs Crandall, the librarian, for information (while carrying on a torrid affair in off hours). Despite her desperate attempts to lure McCabe back to the Judge’s house, she still has plans for her execution, setting up a funeral pyre in the old ice house in preparation for the big event. Who shows up when the doorbell rings on Christmas Day is a unexpected climax where the events which unfold culminate in confusion and a less than satisfying ending to this saga.

Don’t worry, even though our heroine loses her ability to write, the author, Ana Simo, has pocketed all those verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and nouns and gone into overdrive as she wrote Heartland. When I describe her writing style as verbose and even over the top, I am referring to the act of wading through an excess of verbiage to figure out the plot. To make things even more confusing is the intermix of a dystopia starting with The Great Hunger in 1984 where the world as we know it has experienced some sort of trauma which has destroyed a whole swath of areas, leaving behind what is left of the major cities. None of this, or anything else for that matter, is explained, so the reader must come to their own conclusions. The heroine’s homosexual obsession with her former love interests, both childhood and adult sweethearts, as well as with the current well endowed librarian, seems to feed a mania which borders on insanity. Whether you want to read the ramblings of an unstable woman who rants crazy, racist expletives, depends on your stamina. Despite its relatively short length, this book is not a quick read and I’m not sure if there’s an audience for this psychopathic, violent tale of an imaginary version of our “heartland”. Not for the faint of heart.

Two stars and a thank you to Edelweiss, Restless Books, and the author for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

Sixteen by Jen Estes

Here is a tale of teen angst with a twist. You have the social misfit who despite her lack of popularity, is best friends with the prom queen and dating the Captain of the Football Team that she met while fulfilling her court mandated community service as punishment for buying drugs (sleeping pills) from an undercover cop. To complicate matters, the one person who provides emotional support has run off with her obnoxious foster sister. Sounds like your typical YA novel, yet there is a whole other story written between the lines which moves Sixteen by Jen Estes up a notch from normal expectations.

Those of you who read Fifteen, the first novel in the Dreamwalker Diaries Series by Jen Estes are familiar with Ashling Campbell, a Dreamwalker who is the only one that can stop the depraved Jumlin from achieving immortality for himself and his spawn, thus gaining the ability to enslave or destroy mankind. Luckily this can only be attempted once every fifteen years and requires the help of the reincarnated Laughing Bear who is human despite being a descendent of the Jumlin. The Dreamwalker is able to travel 15 years forward through time in order to find a way to thwart these potential cataclysmic events. Their progeny is then burdened with the same task until the Jumlin either succeeds in his task or is destroyed.

In Fifteen, Ash discovers that the Jumlin is actually, Walker Smith, the supposed father of best friend Skykar (who was actually switched at birth with his real daughter – Nadette – by the predecessor Dreamwalker). In order to prevent her horrific recurring nightmares from becoming true, Ash convinces Nadette (her foster sister) to run away, not realizing her buddy Tate would go along for the ride. It’s not that she totally resents his attraction to her malicious “adopted” roommate, it’s that she doesn’t have anyone else with whom she can share her most intimate nightmares without being declared insane.

Sixteen advances the saga as Jen tracks down her half brother who has the key to finding another way to “redo” her previous feat in order to “undo” the accidental shooting death of her mother. Success in this quest would result in a boring plot, so the unexpected repercussions of her actions alert the Jumlin to her presence, endangering her friends and family. Forced to expand the circle of individuals who know the truth, they must band together and make some difficult decisions on how to keep the demon Walker from unearthing any further secrets while destroying the minions who make up his empire – all without being thrown into prison for murder or ending up hospitalized/dead.

The trouble the author, Jen Estes, faced was how to weave the two stories together. It’s been two years since Fifteen was published, so a little refresher was welcome, but as Ash explains the whys and wherefores to a widening circle of people in the know, the reader is forced to hear the details over and over. Flashbacks and old diary entries fill in additional blanks as Ash solves some of the remaining riddles. While the repetitions get annoying at times, the plot has enough booby traps to keep it interesting along with some gratuitous violence to appeal to readers who additionally enjoy stories with vampire or dragon slayers. Of special interest was the blending of past, present, and future as Ash interacts with various individuals from her life at different stages in their existence.

Expect an abrupt culmination with a cliffhanger ending leading into the next novel where the teens, armed with what normal people would consider insane facts, are determined to spend the summer tracking down and destroying this evil which threatens the world.

Not quite as groundbreaking as the first novel, three and a half stars and a thank you to Curiosity Quill for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads and Amazon.

Sacrificed (Enhanced Series: Book 2) by Courtney Farrell

I like when sequels just pick up the storyline where they left off with minimal explanation of the back story. Each book should be able to stand on its own two feet (or binding) but allow the dedicated reader to have an “enhanced” understanding of the motivations and plot. Such is the case with the novel Sacrificed by Courtney Farrell, Book Two of the Enhanced Series.

Here we have Michelle waiting for her boyfriend Dillon to arrive so they can set off on their assigned mission. In pops Brian, her brother’s best friend and the boy she has adored since her younger days. It seems he’s going with them and he doesn’t hold back that he’s available if Dillon doesn’t work out. Awkward! Before Michelle has a chance to think things through, the original mission is scrubbed and she and almost the whole gang (from Book One: Enhanced) are on their way to the remote, arctic Iron Torr, a place which holds bad childhood memories. On arrival, they are attacked by the Rebel Norms, barely making it to safety. Inside Iron Torr, the group gets a mixed welcome from leader Colonel Parker who, once they are rested, sends them outside the military compound to repair the communications equipment. Despite precautions, Michelle is captured.

“A life for a life” as the Norms say, and Michelle ends up adopted by widowed Mollie. Enhanced abilities allows her to assist the inhabitants of the village even while she plots her escape and return to Iron Torr where she hopes to discover the fate of the rest of her group. In the meantime, Dillon has made some discoveries of his own as he goes through treatments back at Iron Torr to upgrade the dormant enhancements buried deep in his persona. No one seems to mind that his father was only a norm, but when it is time to rescue his friends, he must abide by Parker’s Master Plan – a strategy which just doesn’t sit right with his upbringing, especially since the norms who have survived the plague now have at least one enhanced Gene which make them Rebels who are now smarter or stronger.

Nothing is as it seems. Sacrificed is an excellent term to explain the situation the teenagers find themselves in. All that training to be the best of the best as enhanced human beings, yet trained to do what? And for whose benefit?

While Sacrificed picks up where Enhanced left off (Michelle is now sixteen), the majority of this book takes place in a new setting. Some questions are answered, especially about Dillon’s past, yet a whole slew of new ones pop up. In fact, there are so many open ended plot lines that I was often confused. It was impossible to distinguish between the good guys and the bad ones due to all the deceptions by both enhanced and norms. After awhile, I decided to just sit back and stop trying to forsee what happens as the plot unfolded. Even then, much of the action was extremely murky. This was definitely not a quick read with too many characters to keep straight and just as many plot twists. Parts of the story dragged, while other sections needed to be expanded. Sacrificed was excessively violent since warfare was its central theme and the next book in the series promises to be more of the same. The focus was the development of the two main characters, Michelle and Dillon, who alternately tell the story from their point of view. The other characters from Book One only serve as backups, although Brian does have an important role to play as Dillon’s best friend as well as competitor. Colonel Parker and his wife, Brooke, are also major players along with their son, Slade, who slips in and out of both worlds. While we know the background of the teens, it is impossible to understand exactly what motivates the people of Torr, even with the various clues which Farrell has left. The ending indicates that some of these issues will be resolved in the next book, as the leader of Iron Torr has not completed his master plan.

As in any good YA book, the teens seem to be smarter than their parents, so hopefully these youngsters will find solutions and bring peace to all factions with the series finding some sort of closure in Book Three.

Three stars. I would like to thank author Courtney Farrell for sending me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Enhanced by Courtney Farrell

I love a story that has enough twists, turns, and surprises that one is compelled to continue reading in order to find out what happens next. Such is the situation in Enhanced by Courtney Farrell, a dystopian novel where the created world only slightly resembles life as we know it. Here is a community ruled by controlled genetics with the haves, called the Enhanced, living with luxuries which are restricted for the have nots or “wild-bred” Norms. Even amongst the Enhanced, there is a hierarchy based upon the skills of the children – skills which are continually tested by Dr Salmon and his staff. These “examinations” might consist of physical group challenges or they could be an individual session to determine ones tolerance to pain. Or, perhaps, the children are used as human guinea pigs to discover the outcome of an experimental procedure or theory. Death, which occurs on occasion, is not a factor to be considered by these heartless scientists. Children quickly learn that any deficiency, whether intellectual, mental, or physical, counts against their score. The goal is to be rated worthy enough to be chosen as a breeder. At the other end of the scale is the “culling” ceremony where the deficient, those who are not strong enough or smart enough to be accepted into the group, are kicked out. These lesser individuals are forced to permanently leave their family and friends behind as they enter the world of the Norms – a place where poverty leads to hunger and violence in a community which attempts to survive outside the walls of the elite.

Brian who has just turned eighteen (the magic age where students are supposedly no longer candidates for experimentation) has amazingly been summoned, along with his best friend Seth, to the vacant laboratory of the abhorrent Dr Salmon where an unidentified object is inserted under their skin. This is the same Dr Salmon who internally “examines” young girls in a predatory manner just to make sure they aren’t riddled with cancer (an impossibility since the Enhanced have been bred to resist diseases). All the youngsters dread the doctor, but their fear of being targeted and bringing disgrace to their families keeps them silent. After all, being culled is literally a fate worse than death since it ends existence in their known universe.

Our inquisitive heroine, Michelle, at fifteen is one of the top students, yet she has to hide all her fears and anxieties so as not to exhibit any weaknesses. Her feisty brother, Seth, is also an exemplary member of society. Their parents are part of the leadership of the community. In fact, their grandfather is the leading member whose long life can be attributed to regular “treatments” to stay “younger” than his real age. Yet, even being amongst the most privileged of the privileged, living in a fine home with servants and owning all of the most current gadgets, does not protect them from the Council if a rule is broken.

Michelle has several close friends and together they figure out that something is not quite right in their community. Their lives have begun to change even before Seth and Brian are sent beyond the wall by the Institution to intermingle with the Norms. While on her mission to locate the two boys, Michelle realizes that the servants and other Norms aren’t mindless fools, but individuals with abilities and emotions. She starts to see beyond her seemingly perfect world in her quest to expose the secrets that Dr Salmon is withholding from the Council. Secrets which will have an impact on everyone if she fails to uncover them in time. In fact, in her search for the truth, she discovers that almost every aspect of her life is a puzzling illusion which she must decipher in order to save the earth from harm. Whether she is successful in her endeavors is up to the reader to decide.

This is an intriguing, well told tale. The teenage characters are defined in exquisite detail, with the perplexities of Enhanced society slowly revealed through their eyes as they unravel the mysteries which dictate their lives. I found this book to be a quick read, although the climax was a bit rushed and the conclusion less than satisfying (perhaps because the author wanted to use the lack of closure as a teaser to encourage us to read the sequel). Young Adults will enjoy this foray into a study of the possible effects of Extreme Eugenics which includes plenty of action plus a touch of romance. Four Stars.

I would like to thank the author for allowing me a free copy of her novel in exchange for an honest review which I am posting on Amazon, Goodreads, and on my blog, Gotta Read.