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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Better Than Medical School: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is much longer, but much, much better, than The Kite Runner. Cutting for Stone and The Kite Runner were both books I read only because so many people asked me if I had, because I’m abysmally ignorant about politics and world history, and felt that my ignorance about an unfamiliar setting like Ethiopia or Afghanistan would make it harder to get immersed in the story. Also, the title Cutting for Stone made me think of stonemasons (BO-O-O-RING) when it really refers to surgery, as in bladder stones.
Cutting for Stone is a big novel that’s a good choice for a book club read, because it is packed with discussable subjects, including the exotic setting of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (pronounced by natives as “Ethyo-pya”, not “Eee-theee-op-eee-ya”); political upheavals; terrorism; hospitals as institutions; doctors as professionals and as people; emigration and foreignness; how the culture of medicine compares from one country to another or one hospital to another; twin-ness and family; the many mystical moments in the story, and the meanings the author has layered into the narrative.
Cutting for Stone is essentially the story of Marion Stone, who becomes estranged from his twin brother, Shiva, and throws himself early into the study of medicine, planning to become a surgeon, as they go from conjoined babies who had to be surgically separated at birth and who slept together head to head as boys, into identical-looking teenagers with utterly distinct talents, personalities, and ease of being in the world. Marion and Shiva (like the author himself) are raised by Indian doctors in Ethiopia. Their adoptive parents, Hema and Ghosh, work and live at the run-down Missing Hospital. The title Cutting for Stone comes from the Hippocratic Oath, but also refers to Thomas Stone, the hospital’s third doctor for many years – the surgeon-father whose absence looms large over Marion’s childhood and whose presence in Addis Ababa is known only by the sons he left behind and the medical knowledge he passed on to Marion’s adoptive parents who then passed it on Marion and Shiva.
This would have been a very different book if brilliant, graceful, spiritual Shiva had been the one narrating – piecing together the pasts of their  absent parents and adoptive parents, guessing others’ thoughts and parsing their actions, while making his way through life – but Shiva would not have felt the need to write the story. Where Marion plans and works ever harder at his studies, Shiva succeeds effortlessly at everything but doesn’t seem to notice. Marion says of himself, as an adult surgeon, in the book’s prologue:

“…I am not known for speed, or daring, or technical genius. Call me steady, call me plodding; say I adopt the style and technique that suits the patient and the particular situation and I’ll consider that high praise….Knowing when not to operate, knowing when I am in over my head, knowing when to call for a surgeon of my father’s caliber–that kind of talent, that kind of “brilliance,” goes unheralded.”

This would have been a very different book if brilliant, graceful, spiritual Shiva had been the one narrating – piecing together the pasts of their  absent parents and adoptive parents, guessing others’ thoughts and parsing their actions, while making his way through life – but Shiva would not have felt the need to write the story. While Marion plans and works ever harder at his studies, Shiva succeeds effortlessly at everything but doesn’t seem to notice. Throughout his adolescence and long years of medical training, Marion is uncomfortable in his own skin and prickly by nature. Although he struggles to find a mystical communion with his mother through her few belongings, his nature leads him to observe and describe his life clinically. As a reader, I also felt like a detached observer and wasn’t gripped by the novel until close to the end. Only a few of the other characters come fully to life. This may have been the author’s intention, but I found myself wishing for more fully-drawn characters and that Marion would get a life. Also, be forewarned, if you tend towards queasiness, the descriptions of surgeries are long and very detailed.
Cutting for Stone is a good novel, well worth reading, that will appeals to a variety of people, and would be great for a book discussion group.
This is the first book completed for my TBR Pile Challenge. I was given a friend’s copy of the book to get me to read it, and now I can tell her I finally did!

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