Big-Time Abandonment Issues: Quarantine, Book 1: The Loners

Cover image for QuarantineQuarantine: The Loners, first in a planned trilogy by two screenwriters under the pen name Lex Thomas, may feed young readers’ desires for another book like The Hunger Games (Moms having now moved on to Fifty Shades of Grey) but this action-packed thriller describes its violent fights to the death in more gory detail than The Hunger Games trilogy, and the characters (all high school-aged) are much edgier in language and attitude. Aimed at an audience of older teens who can’t get enough of the popular teens-survive-the-apocalypse stories, Quarantine: The Loners is also likely to thrill younger teens, with its aura of menace from attack by warring factions, and prevalence of casual sex (mentioned, but not described) among the ruins of a school.

Stronger in plot than character development, Quarantine: The Loners starts fast and keeps going, opening with a scene of desperate kids fighting each other in packs for airdropped supplies.

A black military helicopter eclipsed the view of the sky and lowered its giant cargo through the opening. Pallets of food, water, and supplies were lashed together into a single block the size of a school bus. The mass of supplies breached the slash and hung there, suspended by a cable forty feet above them.
The cable detached with a plink. The block of pallets fell. It cracked onto the ground and broke apart, scattering supplies all over the quad. As the helicopter retreated, an unseen mechanism mended the slit in the gray canopy. The kids on the perimeter bolted from the school walls and charged the mound of supplies. Colors collided. All around David kids kicked, clawed, and stomped each other to get at the food.
David never thought high school would be this hard.

On the worst first day of school ever for kids at the new McKinley High School (even worse for the teachers and administrators), David and his younger brother Will have just arrived and found their first classrooms in the gigantic, brand-new school building when the whole East Wing explodes as if from a bomb. Teachers and all other adults die immediate, gruesome deaths as if from some instantaneous Ebola-like virus. As David searches for Will to get him out and away from the scene of the disaster, lines of soldiers surround the school, armed with assault rifles and firing on any students who try to escape. Under armed guard, exit doors are welded shut and the entire building is covered in some type of tarp.

The night before, David, a former football star and good-times guy changed by the recent death of their mother, had made an enemy of the new football team captain (who his girlfriend was cheating on him with) so he is on his own, focused only on taking care of Will who is going to be without his epilepsy medicine in the months-long quarantine ahead. Loners are in grave danger of dying, though, in this new society free of adult supervision, as the high school hierarchy with football players and cheerleaders at the top solidifies into dictatorship and cliques transform into vicious gangs.

With a new school year approaching, Quarantine: The Loners is a good choice for August reading, like a pumped-up Lord of the Flies. Kids already nervous about the first day, though, may want to avoid this nightmarish vision of high school.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of Quarantine: The Loners from Egmont USA through NetGalley.

Quarantine: The Loners
Thomas, Lex
Egmont USA
July 10, 2012
978-1-60684-329-1
$17.99

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Decade of Decay: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

Cover image of The Lola QuartetIf it’s true that your twenties are the “Defining Decade” – the crucial, formative years that determine how the rest of your life will go – then the troubled young adults in Emily St. John Mandel’s third novel, The Lola Quartet, are definitely screwed. Their lives have all gone off the rails, somewhere along the line. Depression and decay lurk everywhere in the oppressive heat of Sebastian, Florida, the town where they grew up and to which they eventually return.

The third novel by Canadian-American author Emily St. John Mandel, The Lola Quartet is composed of vignettes, whose order at first appears random and tangential, before their connections and intersections gradually become apparent. Ten years after high school graduation, when they dissolved the Lola Quartet and went their separate ways, the four former members of the prize-winning high school jazz ensemble – Gavin, Daniel, Sasha, and Jack – are brought back into tangential contact with each other through their connection to Sasha’s younger half-sister – the tough, vulnerable, and elusive Anna.

The novel’s structure and style seems inspired by the style of quick-shifting gypsy jazz music, as performed by the real-life master guitarist Django Reinhart, who is idolized by Liam Deval, one of the many musicians in the novel. Here’s the description, from early in the book, of Liam Deval’s jazz guitar duo that Gavin is listening to after his life has imploded. Gavin has a sense that these performances he is witnessing are momentous, but doesn’t know that Liam Deval plays another role in his story, as well:

Arthur Morelli was older, an unsmiling man in his late thirties or early forties who played with a heavy swing. In his solos he wheeled out into wild tangents, he pushed the music to the edge before he came back to the rhythm. Liam Deval looked about Gavin’s age, late twenties or early thirties, the star of the show: a perfect counterpoint to Morelli, all shimmering arpeggios and light sharp tones. Gavin had never seen anyone’s hands move so quickly. His skill was astonishing. Jazz slipped into gypsy music and back again, a thrilling hybrid form. Gavin knew it wasn’t new, what they were doing, but it was the first time he’d encountered it live.

The Lola Quartet’s structure of intersecting stories building atmospheric tension reminded me of Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply. If you liked Await Your Reply, you should definitely add The Lola Quartet to your to-read list. (Just keep in mind the description of Await Your Reply in The New York Times Sunday Book Review: “ambitious, gripping and unrelentingly bleak.”)

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So You Think You’ve Got Tough Neighbors?: Zombie Fallout by Mark Tufo (AUDIO)

The audiobook edition of Zombie Fallout by Mark Tufo made me chuckle, grossed me outCover image for Zombie Fallout audiobook, and kept me in suspense in about equal measure. Narrator Sean Runnette is well suited for the voice of Michael Talbot, the forty-something hero-narrator of Zombie Fallout (and, I assume, of the next five books in the Zombie Fallout series) who is a sarcastic, family-oriented, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive, anti-authority, irreligious survivalist and ex-Marine. Luckily for himself and his family, Mike is also a fanatic about zombie books and movies, so when the first living-dead neighbor shows up at his back door, Mike’s house is already stocked with a full arsenal of weapons, ammunition, survival gear, and a large amount of emergency rations. Although he never actually expected a zombie invasion, he felt it was important to be prepared for contingencies. Mike, his two sons, and son-in-law are all skilled shooters; his wife and daughter don’t play much of a role once the fighting starts (which is right away), although they are credited with being highly effective in using feminine wiles to manipulate the menfolk.

Zombie Fallout started life as a 99-cent Kindle book, and that unfortunately does show in the writing. I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading it on my own as much as I enjoyed it as an audiobook because of the author’s frequent use of ten-cent words when nickel words that he actually knew how to use would have been better. This was less distracting in the audio edition, because Sean Runnette spoke the words as if they were right, so you knew what the author meant. Zombie Fallout isn’t even in the same league as The Reapers Are the Angels if you compared them strictly on writing quality, but Zombie Fallout is pure, fast-paced entertainment and has to be enjoyed as such. If you’re a stickler for correct word usage (not that that’s going to help you in the event of a zombie outbreak) you’d probably be too irritated by Zombie Fallout to enjoy the story.

I first heard about Mark Tufo on the Guilded Earlobe’s amusing blog post about how Mark Tufo’s fans gently remonstrated with him about giving the Zombie Fallout series only a B rating, causing him to invite the author and some of his most rabid enthusiastic fans to contribute a guest post expressing their thoughts on the series. In addition to posting humble remarks about his fans, the author responded individually to each potential new fan who entered the giveaway for the Zombie Fallout audiobook by commenting on the blog post. Mark Tufo is a good example of how an amateur, self-published author builds a fan base using social media and becomes successful enough that a traditional publisher – like Tantor Audio, which published the audiobook editions of this series – can bring him on board with a ready-made audience for his work. Although he now lives in Maine, Mark Tufo is originally from Massachusetts, so when I didn’t win the giveaway, I decided to buy my own copy of the Zombie Fallout audiobook.

Although the Talbot family has moved to Colorado, the frequent references to Massachusetts places and sports teams and to Mike’s New England-style sarcasm (Who, us? Sarcastic?) all give Zombie Fallout a local flavor, but you definitely don’t want to eat anything while listening, what with all the descriptions of oozing pus (and other disgusting excretions) and body parts coming off. Not to mention the fart jokes and all the insensitive comments that Mike lets fly in the heat of the moment. (Mike Talbot and Howie Carr’s ex-cop Jack Reilly from Hard Knocks would probably be instant buddies if they met up in a Boston bar.)

Zombie Fallout is a fun zombie novel that imagines how people might respond to a sudden, utter transformation of everyday life while not changing, personality-wise, from how they always were. Although there are a lot of gross-out moments (to be expected in a horror novel) and not much world-building, I have to admit that it did make me laugh!

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Out of Amnesia: Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King

In Garment of Shadows, the intrepid Mary Russell is back on serious territory after her unusual (and undesired) foray into the pop culture of the time (1924) with Fflytte Films (detailed in her last book of “memoirs”, Pirate King). This story is twelfth in the series of suspense novels by Laurie R. King (starting with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) about an unusual partnership between the retired famous detective Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, a young woman with a classical education from Oxford; well-versed in Judaism and other theologies; sharp-witted; an excellent shot (when she has her glasses on); and very skilled at wielding the sharp knife she keeps hidden in her boot (only when cornered or attacked.)

Garment of Shadows opens with Mary Russell concussed and amnesiac, trying to figure out who she is, where she is, and how she got there. Her life up until that point is a near-blank. Out of a haze of shadowy thoughts and with the help of muscle memory, she escapes this latest dangerous situation, and the latest adventure of this most unusual married couple (separated from each other at the moment) begins. This time, they are in the divided country of Morocco, where the borders of French and Spanish protectorates are being threatened by local tribal factions and where, it appears, civil war is imminent.

The Mary Russell series falls into the genre of historical mystery and suspense, but the author’s writing style gives them a contemporary feel. Russell is a thoroughly modern woman who drives, speaks her mind, and records such thoughts in her memoir as “It was damnably irritating” and “Oh, that was just great.” Neither the 25-year-old Russell nor the 70-something Holmes expect proper behavior from the other – allowing both partners to indulge in eccentricity, frequent disguises, dangerous exploits, and the exercise of their keen, complementary intelligence. Russell and Holmes do show a traditionally gentlemanly reluctance to kill in cold blood, and display good English sportsmanship when playing The Game (i.e. espionage) by only using deadly force when absolutely necessary to save another’s life.

Each of the books in the series can stand alone, but they really are best read in order, to appreciate the organic growth of the relationship of the main characters from mentor and pupil to equal partners in detection and espionage in the service of queen and country. You can read a substantial PDF excerpt from the beginning of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, when Mary Russell is only fifteen, from the author’s Web site.

Read my review of Pirate King here.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of Garment of Shadows from Random House through NetGalley.

Garment of Shadows
King, Laurie R.
Random House, Sept. 4, 2012
978-0-553-80799-8
288 pp.
$26.00

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Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel

Cover image of Goodbye for NowIn Laurie Frankel‘s second novel, Goodbye for Now, there are many moments that will bring a tear to your eye, but not a single sappy sentence. I loved it. When an advanced reading copy came in the mail last week, I bumped it to the top of the TBR pile and read it in two days. To shower some of my highest praise on this book: Goodbye for Now reminded me of Laurie Colwin.

Although I haven’t read Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time;  Shine on, Bright and Dangerous Object; Family Happiness; and Goodbye Without Leaving in years, they remain among my favorite novels of all time. Although they were about relatively privileged New Yorkers in their late twenties and early thirties, the novels made the domestic lives of these smart, witty people, who were also down-to-earth and kind to each other, so irresistibly appealing that readers were drawn in and forgave them any faults, wanting only the best for them all. Throw in computer technology, social media, and improved  forms of electronic communication and you’ve extended the boundaries for a contemporary comedy of manners with family, friends, colleagues, and beyond. In Goodbye for Now, the author’s tweaking of the geek-boy-meets-geek-girl theme and the characters’ philosophical musings on digital afterlives (when we die, our Facebook pages remain) add to the humor and the pathos of the characters’ everyday lives.

The main characters in Goodbye for Now live in Seattle, not New York, but Sam Elling and Meredith Maxwell seem as made for one other as Laurie Colwin’s couples did (Sam’s new online dating algorithm doesn’t go wrong.) Here’s Sam, a lonely software engineer, meeting Meredith for the first time, having tried his newly developed software on himself:

The next step for Sam, of course, was to try it himself. He wanted to know if it worked. He wanted to prove that it worked. But mostly, he wanted it to work. He wanted it to search the world and point, to reach down like the finger of God and say, “Her.” How good was this algorithm? First time out, it set Sam up with Meredith Maxwell. She worked next door. In the marketing department. Of Sam’s own company. For their first date, they met for lunch in the cafeteria at work. She was leaning against the doorframe grinning at him when he got off the elevator, grinning helplessly himself.
“Meredith Maxwell,” she said, shaking Sam’s hand. “My friends mostly call me Max.”
“Not Merde?” Sam asked, incredulous, appalled with himself, even as he was doing so. Who made a joke like that–pretentious, scatological, and French–as a first impression? Sam was awkward and off-putting and a little gross.
Incredibly, Meredith Maxwell laughed. She thought it was funny. She thought Sam was funny. But it wasn’t a miracle. It was computer science.

Both in their early thirties and unattached, Sam and Meredith (forever known to Sam as “Merde”) fall in love so easily and undramatically that when events conspire to have them moving in together, it makes perfect sense to start the living-happily-ever-after part of their lives right away, now that the wonders of computer technology and Sam’s programming genius have brought them together. It’s best not to know much more of the plot in advance because serendipity and bolts from the blue play a major role in how the story goes, so I won’t say much more here, except that the theme of loss runs through the novel starting with the sudden death of Sam’s mother when Sam was only thirteen months old, leaving Sam’s father (also a software engineer) to miss her for many years and Sam with a hole in his life where his mother should have been and no memories of his own stored up.

I hope Goodbye for Now won’t be marketed as a romantic story for women, because there’s so much more here…about grieving, marriage, friendship, artificial intelligence, and (of course, as in all the best novels) the motives of the human heart. Male readers of male authors who write humorous yet sharply observed novels and sometimes touching novels like Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby, and Tom Perrotta, should also like Goodbye for Now. (Look! There are model airplanes on the cover, not shoes or a thin, pale white woman in a dress.) If you are a reader of either sex who likes novels by Meg Wolitzer (Surrender, Dorothy), or Carolyn Parkhurst (The Dogs of Babel), or Laurie Colwin, you should also pick up Goodbye for Now as soon as it comes out.

Goodbye for Now
Frankel, Laurie
Doubleday
Aug. 7, 2012
978-0-385-53618-9
288 pp., $25.95 U.S./$30.oo CAN

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of Goodbye for Now from Doubleday through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.
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