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The dead and the gone
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2008
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  New York Times Review

THE past year has seen the publication of more than a dozen post-apocalyptic young adult novels that explore what the future could look like once our unsustainable lifestyles cease to be sustained. (Spoiler alert: It's gonna be bad.) Amid this rising sea of dystopias, two books stand apart: "The Dead and the Gone," by Susan Beth Pfeffer, and "The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins. While some young adult novels are content to read the way bad sci-fi movies look, both these books transcend their premises with terrifyingly well-imagined futures and superb characterization. Unlike most of the recent dark visionary fictions, "The Dead and the Gone," a companion to Pfeffer's acclaimed "Life as We Knew It," explores an apocalyptic event not of our making: in the near future an asteroid hits the moon, changing tides and weather patterns so profoundly that human life in New York City becomes nearly impossible. Seventeen-year-old Alex Morales must take care of his family, because his mother doesn't return home from her hospital job in Queens and his father is missing in Puerto Rico. Alex and his sisters attend Catholic school, and they all struggle with the complexity of faith in the wake of an unbearable (and for most, unsurvivable) act of God. What makes "The Dead and the Gone" so riveting is its steadfast resistance to traditional ideas of hope in children's books - which is to say this is a dark and scary novel. But it is not without hope. Alex and his sisters receive some assistance from the government: there are weekly, if meager, bags of food for those who stand in line for hours. Most of their help and hope, though, comes from the church, and the tension between faith and disaster keeps the story taut. Pfeffer subtly explores the complexity of believing in an omnipotent God in the wake of an event that, if it could have been prevented, surely would have been. Some of the plot seems more symbolically resonant than realistic - Alex, for instance, takes coats and shoes from dead people to trade for food, and it's hard to imagine a shoe shortage in a mostly depopulated Manhattan. But the story's climax and resolution feel achingly right. Pfeffer subverts all our expectations of how redemption works in teenage fiction, as Alex learns to live, and have faith, in a world where radical unfairness is the norm. Suzanne Collins's brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced new novel, "The Hunger Games," is set much farther in the future but grapples with many of the same questions. Collins, the author of "The Underland Chronicles," a well-regarded fantasy series, has now written a futuristic novel every bit as good and as allegorically rich as Scott Westerfeld's "Uglies" books. "The Hunger Games" begins long after the human population has been decimated by climate change and the wars that followed. Now North America is the nation of Panem, a country with 12 fenced-in districts that all work to feed the enormously wealthy and technologically advanced capital. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, the poorest of them all. Her father died mining in the Seam years ago, and now her family survives thanks to her mother's knowledge of herbal medicine and Katniss's own illegal hunting and gathering outside the district's fence. THE archetype of the girl survivalist is familiar - she's tough and resourceful, but kind and sentimental. We are put on notice that Katniss is something different in Chapter 1, when she describes a lynx who followed her around while she hunted. In many books, that lynx would be Katniss's best friend. But not this one: "I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn't bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt." Long ago in Panem, there was a District 13. The district revolted, and the Capital demolished it and killed all its inhabitants. To commemorate the event - and to remind the districts of its power - the Capital organizes the annual hunger games. First comes the reaping: one boy and one girl are chosen from each district to attend the games. Then the games themselves: a fight to the death among 24 teenage competitors in a sprawling environment controlled by sadistic game masters. The event is watched by the whole nation on live TV. The winner - and there can be only one - returns to his or her home district triumphant and rich. When the reaping comes to District 12, Katniss isn't chosen - but her little sister is. In a harrowing moment, Katniss sacrifices herself to the games instead. She's certain this is a death sentence - no one from the underfinanced and undernourished District 12 has won in decades. But as the games begin, Katniss's intelligence and accumulated knowledge about edible plants and hunting become an advantage over the better-fed, stronger kids with wealthy patrons who can send them medicine or weapons. As the contest progresses, Katniss develops a relationship with the boy from her district. But not even she seems to know whether her feelings are real or faked for the omnipresent cameras. The concept of the book isn't particularly original - a nearly identical premise is explored in "Battle Royale," a wondrously gruesome Japanese novel that has been spun off into a popular manga series. Nor is there anything spectacular about the writing - the words describe the action and little else. But the considerable strength of the novel comes in Collins's convincingly detailed world-building and her memorably complex and fascinating heroine. In fact, by not calling attention to itself, the text disappears in the way a good font does: nothing stands between Katniss and the reader, between Panem and America. This makes for an exhilarating narrative and a future we can fear and believe in, but it also allows us to see the similarities between Katniss's world and ours. American luxury, after all, depends on someone else's poverty. Most people in Panem live at subsistence levels, working to feed the cavernous hungers of the Capital's citizens. Collins sometimes fails to exploit the rich allegorical potential here in favor of crisp plotting, but it's hard to fault a novel for being too engrossing. Both Collins and Pfeffer plan sequels to their books - here's hoping civilization can hang around long enough to publish them. John Green won the Michael L. Printz Award with "Looking for Alaska." His most recent novel is "Paper Towns." Two novels set in a chilling future where civilizaton barely survives.

  Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In Life as We Knew It (2005), veteran writer Pfeffer painted a terrifying picture of what happened in a rural Pennsylvania town after an asteroid hit the moon and cataclysmic changes on land and sea caused familiar life to grind to a halt. For readers who wondered if things were any better in a bustling city, here is the horrifying answer. On the night the moon tilts, 17-year-old Alex and his younger sisters are alone; their mother is at work, and their father is visiting Puerto Rico. No matter how the kids wish, hope, and pray, their parents don't return. It's up to Alex to do what's best. At first that means bartering for food and batteries and avoiding fighting with the rambunctious Julie especially after sickly Bri is sent to live at a rural convent. Later it means rescuing Julie from rapists and steering her away from the corpses that litter the street, providing food for rats. Religion is one of the strong threads running through the novel. It would have been interesting to see Alex wrestle more with his staunch Catholicism, but in many ways, the Church anchors the plot. The story's power, as in the companion book, comes from readers' ability to picture themselves in a similiar situation; everything Pfeffer writes about seems wrenchingly plausible.--Cooper, Ilene Copyright 2008 Booklist

  Kirkus Review

Seventeen-year-old Alex, the son of a Puerto Rican New York City working-class family, attends college-prep Vincent de Paul on scholarship. An after-school job and chores assigned by his building superintendent father keep Alex focused on a better future, with ambitions of attending an Ivy League school through study, hard work and a little faith. But when his parents fail to return home after the catastrophic environmental events following the moon's altered gravitational pull, Alex suddenly faces the reality of survival and the obligation to protect his two younger sisters. His moral and religious upbringing is continually put to the test as he finds himself forced to take action that is often gruesome if not unethical--like "body shopping," to collect objects to barter for food. As in the previous novel, Life as We Knew It (2006), realistically bone-chilling despair and death join with the larger question of how the haves and have-nots of a major metropolitan city will ultimately survive in an increasingly lawless, largely deserted urban wasteland. Incredibly engaging. (Fiction. YA) Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Summary
Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life as We Knew It enthralled and devastated readers with its brutal but hopeful look at an apocalyptic event--an asteroid hitting the moon, setting off a tailspin of horrific climate changes. Now this harrowing companion novel examines the same events as they unfold in New York City, revealed through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican Alex Morales. When Alex's parents disappear in the aftermath of tidal waves, he must care for his two younger sisters, even as Manhattan becomes a deadly wasteland, and food and aid dwindle.<br> With haunting themes of family, faith, personal change, and courage, this powerful new novel explores how a young man takes on unimaginable responsibilities.
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