Tag Archives: dystopian fiction

Interview with Sherri L. Smith, Author of Orleans

Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Sherri, for letting me ask you these questions.  Orleans blew me away!


Sherri L. Smith: Thanks, Jaime!  Coming from an avid reader, that means a lot!


JB: You have worked in film, animation, comic books, and construction.  What made you want to write novels?


SLS: Long before I did any of the above, I was a writer.  I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and started writing poetry and short stories in elementary school.  As a kid, I was always awed by novels—it was incredible to me that the author could hold an entire universe in his or her head.  Ever since then, I wanted to learn how to do it, too.


JB: You previously wrote FlygirlHot, Sour, Salty, SweetSparrow; and Lucy the Giant.  Orleans is so different from your other novels.  What made you want to explore dystopian and speculative fiction?


SLS: Again, blame my childhood.  I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction growing up—give me Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Terry Brooks, Michael Moorcock or Frank Herbert, etc. and I was happy.  In fact, it was rather a shock to discover my first novel (Lucy the Giant) was contemporary.  I had to give myself a good hard look in the mirror and ask what the heck I thought I was doing.  But I loved the story and it worked.  From then on I decided I would just write what I loved, regardless of genre, and that’s what I’ve done.


JB: How did you come up with the idea behind Orleans?


SLS: I got the idea for Orleans from my family’s experience with Katrina.  At the time, the idea was born out of two things: an article I read about street gangs protecting their neighborhoods when the cops had all fled, and race issues that seemed to be part of the whole Katrina catastrophe.   It made me wonder: what if race wasn’t an issue?  What differences would separate people then?  What if it wasn’t something you could see?  I decided blood was an interesting answer.  And then, one day on the drive home, Fen popped into my head and started talking to me.  The street gangs became blood tribes, and it wasn’t long before Orleans was born.


JB: What kind of research did you do for Orleans?


SLS: I bought maps of the city, talked to doctors and scientists, read a lot of environmental studies and articles about hurricanes.  I researched blood types and the history of New Orleans, religious groups, and field medicine.  I watched movies about post-disaster worlds, read books, and studied knife fights in movies and books.  It really ran the gamut!



JB: One of the astounding things about Orleans is how you build a singular world, unlike anything anybody’s written before, and you do it all in one novel where Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Ally Condie need three books to fully achieve that effect.  How did you invent this wildly imaginative world?


SLS: That’s a huge compliment, so thank you from the bottom of my writerly heart.  I imagine that Collins, Roth and Condie knew the width and breadth of their worlds before they finished the first book, though.  The great thing about world building is, once it’s built, you can keep going back!


As for how I approached it, brick by brick is the short answer.  The long answer is—have you ever read Dune by Frank Herbert?  There are appendices at the end of the novel that detail the ecology of the planet.  I remember reading that as a kid and thinking, “Wow, he really made the world!”  It seemed insane, but it worked.  I had a teacher once tell me you had to create the entire room, even if you only wrote about one corner of it.  I think that’s true for all writing, but especially for speculative fiction.  With that in mind, when I started writing I actually made a notebook with tabs for religion, weather, food, tribes, disease, etc.  It was my own Dune appendix.  However, unlike Frank Herbert, I got bored with cataloging and decided to get on with the writing.  So, I didn’t refer to the notebook as much as I thought I would, but any time I lost track of things, it was my touchstone and a good place to daydream new ideas.


The ideas themselves came from—extrapolation.  I thought of New Orleans as I knew it and imagined what would change.  There are incredible time lapse maps of the flooding in the city during Katrina, and forecast maps for the Gulf shoreline in years to come.  Those all went into the kitty.  I sat down with a couple of doctors, and grilled my biology teacher friend and her scientist sister for details when creating Delta Fever and the DF Virus.  I saw a hut on stilts outside of Seattle, and the Church of the Rising Son was born.


JB: In Orleans, “tribe is life.”  Classifying someone by race no longer exists in Orleans.  It’s now all about blood type, all because of a horrible disease.  How did you come up with Delta Fever?


SLS: I knew I wanted a disease that would force separation by blood type.  I called a doctor friend of mine and she introduced me to a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Noah Federman, who walked me through the possibilities.  I basically told him what I needed the Fever to do, and he told me what diseases existed that were similar and how they would manifest.  I then talked to a friend who teaches biology and her sister, who is a research scientist.  They taught me how to destroy viruses and how I might try to create a cure.  Any science that works is owed to the three of them.  The rest is my crazy imagination.


JB: Do you have a favorite character in Orleans?  If so, please share.


SLS: Fen.  Hands down.  I just think she’s so cool.


JB: Perfect lead-in for this question: your main female character is named Fen de la Guerre.  “Guerre” is similar to “guerilla” fighter.  What made you choose this name?  And what came first—the character or her name?


SLS: The character came first.  Her voice popped into my head.  The name followed shortly thereafter.  I wanted something that conjured the swamps and bayous in the Delta.  A fen is a type of wetland.  It also reminded me of Fern, the little girl in Charlotte’s Web, which was my favorite book growing up.   “De la Guerre” is French for “of war.”  Orleans is constantly at war, so that made sense.  Lastly, “Fen” also sounds like the French “fin” or “end.”  I liked the idea that she would be a game changer for Orleans.



JB: It was so refreshing how you do not have the two protagonists falling in love, like so many other YA novels do.  What stopped you from doing that in Orleans?


SLS: To quote Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, “No time for love, Dr. Jones!”  Orleans is an incredibly dangerous place and Fen is working on a timeline.  The idea of stopping in the middle of it to make googly eyes at someone was out of the question, especially for someone as no nonsense as Fen.  Thanks to Delta Fever, romance is also a liability in Orleans.  There is no room for a Romeo and Juliet situation—you fall in love with the wrong tribe, one of you dies.  You get pregnant, your blood volume goes up and your value as a blood slave does, too.  Not to mention it slows you down in a fight.  Fen actually loves quite fiercely in this novel.  It’s just not about romance.



JB: One scene in Orleans, for me, is one I’ll always think of when I see the book or hear about it.  It’s the scene where Fen and Daniel are in what remains of the Garden District and see a curious ritual from a window of a house in which they are resting.  It happens on November 1, All Saints’ Day and also the traditional end of hurricane season.  Can you tell us about this scene?  And what inspired it?


SLS: Ah.  This is the scene of the All Saint’s Krewe.  Mardi Gras, which takes place in the early part of the year, is famous for its parades led by organizations called “krewes.”  The first krewes were young men in 19th century New Orleans who rode around on horses while wearing masks and holding torches, or flambeaux, in the air.  I know this sounds disturbingly like a lynch mob, but it was meant to be a celebration.  Or, more likely, it was a group of wild partiers, the 19th century equivalent of a frat party, and they hid their faces so their families wouldn’t know about their hooliganism.  At any rate, the tradition stuck and transformed into the Mardi Gras mask and the krewe parade.


I liked the idea that this tradition would continue to evolve in Orleans, or rather devolve to its original state.  The opening image of the novel is a man playing a saxophone on the levee as a storm threatens the city.  That image came from news footage I saw at the time.  I decided the krewes would carry on that laissez faire attitude that New Orleans is so famous for by celebrating the end of hurricane season.  The parade is as an act of defiance against nature, where people of all tribes come together anonymously.


In the scene, Fen wakes Daniel to see the krewe ride in a hurricane-shaped spiral reciting the names of the storms that destroyed New Orleans, and then shouting—Nous sommes ici!  We are here!  We are still here!

More about that scene from my book review:

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.


JB: Did you ever think of turning Orleans into a trilogy?


SLS: Yes, certainly.  Once you’ve built the world, why not go back?  Although I think there’s a lot more to see in this universe than just the city of Orleans…


JB: Interesting!  Why do you think YA dystopian/apocalyptic fiction is so popular?


SLS: I think it has something to do with war.  We’ve been at war for over a decade and that takes its toll on a society.  From terrorist acts to man-made and natural disasters, it’s got people wondering how they will survive.  Speculative fiction has always been good at mulling over those questions and answers.  It can be a comfort to read a book and say, “Ah, there is life after this disaster.  This is how you do it.”


JB: In your book, the United States as we know it today no longer exists.  Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas have been quarantined and are no longer part of the Union.  The great city of New Orleans is surrounded by a wall.  Do you think a catastrophe of this magnitude could happen in our country?


SLS: In fact, the Wall runs from Florida to Texas, amputating a vital part of the country.  It seems crazy but, truly, in the first week after Katrina, it didn’t sound so farfetched.  There was talk of abandoning the city, moving inland.  In fact, I remember reading a report.  I think it was in the New Orleans Times-Picayune back in the late 1980s or early 1990s that postulated the need to abandon the city in the face of a major hurricane.  The report proposed building a wall around the French Quarter to protect it for posterity.  Apparently, the rest of the city was considered a reasonable loss.  I remember reading that in my grandparent’s kitchen and thinking, “But… that’s us!”


JB: I know that Hurricane Katrina affected your mother and you.  How did that experience provide the impetus to write Orleans?


SLS: My mom grew up in New Orleans and weathered the storm there.  It was a couple of days before we realized she was trapped down there and things were falling apart fast.  I hadn’t thought of it until recently, but, in a lot of ways, Fen’s journey to get Baby Girl out of Orleans mirrors my attempts to get my mom out of New Orleans.  It’s important to me to keep New Orleans in people’s thoughts through my writing.  We tend to think “the storm is over, everything is fine.”  But, as anyone who has ever had to rebuild after a disaster knows, it’s far from over and the effects last for years.  Orleans is about that aftermath.



JB: With each hurricane or even strong tropical storm that hits the New Orleans area, flooding seems worse.  With the marshes disappearing, how likely do you think it is that the city could be underwater in 40, 50, or 100 years?


SLS: I don’t even want to speculate about that.  Anything can happen, as Katrina proved.  As much as the fading wetlands were an issue with storm surge, it was manmade channels and levees that led to the bulk of the damage in the city.  Not to diminish the threat, but they’ve been talking about Venice, Italy, sinking for decades and it’s still standing.  A little low in the water, maybe, but it’s there.  Hopefully the storms we’ve had recently will be a wake-up call and steps will be taken to protect our land.


JB: As a writer, who has influenced you the most?


SLS: Too many people to mention.  I’ll say my mother because she always encouraged me to keep with it.  She never doubted I could publish if I tried.


JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?


SLS: I think I already mentioned Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  I love Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, too, a though that last one was a bit weird because his parents were human and it kind of threw me. I’m a fan of Susan Cooper.  I love her Dark Is Rising series.  I’ve already mentioned Dune.  I’ve come to appreciate Ernest Hemingway.  I admire Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ability to make her stories sound like truth.  David Eddings, Laurie R. King, Lloyd Alexander, Kage Baker, Olivia Butler—I’m looking at my bookcase, but it’s only one of 11 in the house!


JB: You really are an avid reader!  What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?


SLS: I like to read.  Is that obvious?  I also like travel, bake, eat, sleep, watch movies.  I like to dance and make stuff with my hands.  I watch a lot of cooking shows and make up songs that I sing to my cat, because she’s the only one who tolerates it on a regular basis.


JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Orleans?


SLS: That’s a good question.  I hope they recognize how precious the world we live in really is, and do what they can to protect it.  Whether that means putting together a “go bag” disaster kit, volunteering in an area that needs help, or taking steps to protect the environment, I’m happy.  Heck, if it means everyone goes to New Orleans and supports the city with their visit, that would be grand too.  Even if they just think about it and talk about the book with other people, it would mean I reached them somehow.  And that’s all any writer can ever hope.


JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?


SLS: I am currently working on my first fantasy!  It’s an historical fantasy based on the Nutcracker.  I’m also genre-dabbling in mystery and noir.  I want to try everything, so that’s what I’m going to do!


JB: Thanks, Sherri, for a wonderful interview!  Good luck with the book.


SLS: Thank you, Jaime.  It was a lot of fun.



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Spotlight on The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve, Justin Cronin’s second novel in The Passage trilogy, comes out October 16.  This was a featured book at BEA 2012.


I have had The Twelve since June but, curiously, have not read it yet.  I devoured The Passage when it was released in June of 2010.  I barely remember the weekend I read it.  All I did was become part of Cronin’s strange world so different from my own.

Could The Twelve live up to The Passage?  That is a question I’ve asked myself over and over during the last few months.  The possibility that it could not meant the novel has been sitting on a table all this time.  In my experience, the second novel in a trilogy is never as good as the first or the last.  There are a vast number of examples: The Hunger Games trilogy, the Matched trilogy, Anne Rice’s witches, and even Fifty Shades.

Here is a synopsis of The Twelve from Good Reads:

“At the end of The Passage, the great viral plague had left a small group of survivors clinging to life amidst a world transformed into a nightmare. In the second volume of this epic trilogy, this same group of survivors, led by the mysterious, charismatic Amy, go on the attack, leading an insurrection against the virals: the first offensives of the Second Viral War.

To do this, they must infiltrate a dozen hives, each presided over by one of the original Twelve. Their secret weapon: Alicia, transformed at the end of book one into a half human, half viral—but whose side, in the end, is she really on?”

But no more.  This weekend, I’m reading The Twelve.  I hope it lives up to expectations.

Now I ask you: Have you read The Twelve?  What are your thoughts on it?

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Spotlight on Reached by Ally Condie

I am reading an ARC of Reached by Ally Condie.  Reached is the third and final book in Condie’s Matched trilogy.




I loved Matched and compared Condie to Lois Lowry.  Crossed, though, was not as good as the first book.  But Reached is just as good, maybe even better, than Matched.

If you love YA dystopian fiction, or if you are a fan of The Hunger Games, you will definitely want to try Condie’s trilogy.

Reached comes out November 13, 2012.  ALL WILL BE SORTED.

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Book Review: Genus by Jonathan Trigell

Genus by Jonathan Trigell (Corsair; 288 pages; £7.99).


Gretchen Gerbi, an elderly woman who lives in a London apartment complex, busies herself by playing an old video game called “Civilization.”  Gretchen has not gotten far into the game.  Her tribe is still quite primitive.  She knows it is not the way to win the game, but she directs her people to farm and form settlements rather than make war on other tribes.  For Gretchen, Civilization is just a way to pass the time.  She never really succeeds because the game crashes when her power dims.  “After rebooting, it’s like a plague has wiped out half your people,” she laments, “all the achievements and population growth you’ve made since your last save have been lost.”


She sounds like any elderly lady in any city, right?  Did I mention Gretchen keeps a spider with ten-inch mandible fangs and three-foot-long legs who she calls Bojangles?  A spider that spins silk for her that she sells on the side?  Gretchen loves the spider.  She manages an apartment building in London’s King’s Cross (The Kross), a ghetto filled with the Unimproved lower classes.  No, Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore…er, present-day London.


We are in the world of the brilliant and talented novelist Jonathan Trigell.  Trigell, a British author, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 2004, the Waverton Good Read Award, and the inaugural World Book Day Prize in 2008 for his first novel Boy AGenus is his third novel.  In the book, Trigell turns to speculative dystopian fiction set in a future and chilling London.

No one calls “The Kross” King’s Cross anymore since it “sounds antiquated and strange,” Trigell writes.  There is no longer a king, you see.  “Once the royal family began genetically enhancing, the utter absurdity of bloodline head of state became obvious.”


Like Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood, Trigell explores science, medicine, biology, morality, and religion.  New breakthroughs occur everyday.  What was once considered science fiction or pure fantasy actually happens; this is our reality.  Test-tube babies, surrogacy, living to 110 years old, gene therapy, mapping the human genome, selecting a child’s eye color, and even finding out an unborn child’s genetic abnormalities–these are not the stuff of fiction.  They have already happened.


So Trigell’s premise is not so wild then.  In the not-too-distant future, scientists began “improving” people.  A child could be bred for warfare with all of the genes of warriors.  Likewise, a baby could be created to rule over others or to be a scientist.  If a man or woman was unhappy in his or her present circumstances, don’t blame the employer, him or herself, or even the government.  Lay the blame on the parents for not having enough money to give their child a great future.  Because money is what determines one’s future lot in life.  The more your parents pay for you the better your life will be, the better your education, the better your career.  Sex for procreation is outlawed; when it happens, the offspring are “unimproved,” ugly, and scorned.  These inhabit The Kross.


The future is bleak but intriguing in Trigell’s story.  The government has banned religion, as it promotes terrorism.  Opiates are the “opiates of the masses.”  An alcoholic drink called synth and drugs are very popular, as they make the Unimproved forget.


Trigell tells the story from multiple perspectives in suspenseful, alternating chapters, giving us a view into the lives of those Improved and Unimproved.  A few characters stand head and shoulders above the rest of Trigell’s narrators.  Holman, a dwarf, particularly fascinated me.  Holman is an artist with a rather shocking lineage.  His mother, Adele Nicole, was a religious cultist and then a model.  Adele Nicole was the last “Miss Natural” and caught the eye of a very important man.


Another especially interesting character is Crick, Holman’s friend.  Crick once fought in the Caliphate Wars and was injured so badly he is now blind.  He gives us some history of what got England into this in the first place.  Spain, Portugal, North Africa, most of France and Asia, and Arabia all became one.  They became the Caliphate.  Refugees from these war-torn countries fled to England.  Population growth ballooned; terrorism increased exponentially; crime spiked; unemployment shot up; homeless people flooded the streets; wars killed countless English people and drained the economy.  There is a lesson here, Trigell warns from between the lines. Trigell gives a voice to the disenfranchised Unimproved in his book.  They are crying out to be heard.


Meanwhile, there is a serial killer on the loose in The Kross.  A detective is on the trail.  But a deeper, darker force may be at work.  Trigell keeps the surprises coming, and the shocker at the end was one I never saw coming.


Genus is a masterful work of dystopian speculative fiction.  You may not have heard of Trigell, but he definitely deserves your attention.  London will be in the public eye over the next few weeks.  As you watch the 2012 Olympics, think what a future dystopian London might resemble.  Better yet, read Trigell’s Genus for yourself.  But be warned: the future is not pretty.  You can’t help but ask youself: “How good are your genes?”

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It Starts with an Itch

It Starts with an Itch

The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe (Disney Hyperion; 320 pages; $16.99).

            Life seems perfect for sixteen-year-old Kaelyn, until a virus ravages her island community.  The Way We Fall is book one of The Fallen World trilogy, a new YA dystopian series.


It starts with an itch you just can’t shake. Then comes a fever and a tickle in your throat. A few days later, you’ll be blabbing your secrets and chatting with strangers like they’re old friends. Three more, and the paranoid hallucinations kick in.  And then you’re dead.


The premise sounds good; Crewe’s execution, though, is faulty.  It seems a good idea to set the story on an island, a place accessible only by ferry.  At first, the government promises to send medicines and supplies to the residents via the ferry.  This is just not enough for those watching their families die.  Riots break out, forcing those in control to cease ferry operations.  Islanders must scavenge, steal, and loot to survive.  Others depend on the kindness of neighbors.  I feel setting the story on an island boxes Crewe in.  There is just little she can do in such an isolated place.  I would have liked to have seen this set in the middle of a country, with some escaping and taking the virus with them.  I would have liked to see it spread more.


Crewe is vague on what kind of virus the islanders have.  It has no name.  Where it comes from is a mystery.  She offers an explanation as to why some survive the virus while others die.  I want more.  I am just not totally convinced.


The story is told through letters Kaelyn writes to a former friend who lives in New York named Leo.  At the very end of the novel, Crewe miraculously brings back the ferry with no explanation as to why it is returning at that particular time and not before.  Kaelyn sees the ferry approaching and believes she sees Leo on it.  Other than this, Leo is absent from the novel.  We know him only from Kaelyn’s recollections.  Will the next book be from Leo’s perspective?  Will he write letters to Kaelyn?  The letter format turns me off.  Instead, I would have liked to see the story told from multiple points of view.


The Way We Fall is plausible.  As I read, I shake my head or nod in agreement.  In a situation like this, society as we know it would break down.  Social niceties would cease to exist.  In that sense, Crewe presents a believable story.


I am sure YA readers will love The Way We Fall.  The book makes for good escapism.


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Eve by Anna Carey

Anna Carey’s YA novel Eve shows early promise but then disappoints.

I want to love Eve, a YA dystopian novel.  The story’s premise intrigues me.  Carey even chooses a quote from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (one of my favorite novels) as her epigraph, which is a good start.


Carey begins Eve with a letter written by Eve’s mother in the year 2025.  She is ill from the plague, a disease “taking everyone who was given the vaccine.”  The United States is at a standstill: “There are no more flights.  There are no more trains.  They’ve barricaded the roads outside of town and now we all must wait.  The phones and internet have long since gone out.  The faucets are dry and cities are losing power, one by one.”  Soon, Eve’s mother fears, “the entire world will be dark.”


Apocalypticism interests me; in graduate school, I even took a course in Medieval Apocalyptic Thought.  It seems that YA novelists are especially fond of apocalyptic settings.  Thus, Eve appeals to me, or at least the idea does.  I love end-of-the-world scenarios.


Carey’s main character is, you guessed it, Eve.  Carey tells the story from her point-of-view using a first-person narrative.  This method of storytelling allows me to get into her head and know everything she knows.  I develop a connection with her.


After her mother’s death, Eve, like many other orphaned little girls, was taken to a government compound where she is educated for twelve years.  Eve was five when she arrived at the school and is now seventeen, on the cusp of graduating and learning a trade.  Once she acquires useful skills, Eve will go to the City of Sand in the New America.  No president governs New America; instead, a king rules over the country, or what is left of it.


On the night before graduation, Eve uncovers a horrible secret.  The older girls housed in another building across from the compound, those same girls who supposedly already graduated and were apprenticing, are not there willingly.  And they are not learning anything at all.  Rather, they are “sows,” baby-making machines for the New America.


The revelation horrifies Eve, and, with the help of a teacher, she escapes into the “wilds.”  She meets Caleb, the first young man she has seen in years (besides the doctor).  At first, she is wary of him.  He is a man, after all, and the teachers lectured on the nefarious ways of men and how, throughout history, they have hurt women.  Eve finds, though, that Caleb is not the threat her teachers warned her about.  A romance blooms between the two.


We learn that boys do not have it easy in the New America.  Like girls, boys have a purpose.  Many work as slaves in the City of Sand.  Carey is rather vague here.  I want to know more about this city, the king, and what boys experience there, but she is not forthcoming.  Caleb takes Eve to a mountain hide-out he shares with other boys.  But just as this “lost boys” meets “Lord of the Flies” type scenario gets interesting, Eve is exchanged by one of the boys for supplies.  She escapes her captor and flees to the mythical and mysterious Califia, where only women are allowed.  This is obviously the former state of California, but Carey is vague on this, too.


I hope there is a sequel because I do not care for the way it ended.  I do want to find out more about Califia, Caleb, the City of Sand, and the New America.  While this is a YA novel, geared to teens and young adults, sometimes Carey forgets her audience.  For example, Eve and a friend listen to the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and also find an old Madonna cassette tape of “La Isla Bonita.”  I would have liked to have seen more contemporary singers and maybe even old iPads.  The Beatles and Madonna are legendary, sure, but, by the 2030s, their music will be literally ancient.


Eve is intriguing, but there are better YA dystopian novels.  Try Suzanne Collins, Ally Condie, Moira Young, Veronica Roth, or Beth Revis instead.

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Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

“When she woke, she was red” begins Hillary Jordan’s dystopian novel When She Woke. Readers and critics alike have compared the book to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). I feel Jordan’s second novel has more in common with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Yet Jordan’s world is all her own as she transports readers into a disturbing future America that is all too horrifyingly plausible.

The world as we know it today does not exist in When She Woke. Separation between church and state has vanished. Doctor-patient confidentiality laws have been abolished. The United States Supreme Court has overturned Roe vs. Wade: abortion, in any form, is illegal, but, of course, doctors still secretly perform the outlawed procedure.

A disease has ravaged the country, a very sexist disease as it turns out. A superclap epidemic, known as the Great Scourge, swept the nation, leaving many women infertile. The superclap did not affect men in the same ways in affected women; men were carriers and showed virtually no signs of the sickness. For that reason, life is precious.

The epidemic not only resulted in the illegalization of abortion but the disease also led to the abolition of the death penalty. The United States, in the throes of the Second Great Depression, simply ran out of funds to house the ever-growing prison population.

The solution to the problem was melachroming, or injecting a virus into the body of a convicted criminal which would temporarily change the color of his or skin to reflect his or her crime. The color yellow signified the person had been convicted of a misdemeanor. A blue was a child molester. A red was someone who had been convicted of murder.
This is the world in which we meet Hannah Payne who, interestingly, has the same initials as Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. Hannah is a good girl, a church-going girl, who has an affair with famous, handsome, and very married pastor Aidan Dale. Soon, Hannah finds herself pregnant. Because of Aidan’s notoriety, Hannah decides to seek out an abortion.

Literally minutes after she has the procedure, authorities catch Hannah, but she refuses to give them both the name of the abortion doctor and the name of the father. New sanctity of life laws mean Hannah has committed murder and is sentenced to be a red for sixteen years. She will have to undergo routine injections of melachroming every four months or she will experience defragmentation, a horrible, painful side effect of the virus.
After fulfilling her sentence of thirty days in the chrome ward, Hannah is released into the world, released to live the next sixteen years of her life as a red, an outcast. Her father, along with help from the good reverend, arranges for Hannah to live at a half-way house run by a man and his sadistic wife. Hannah leaves there, but not before she meets Kayla, also a red.

Kayla is African-American and shot her step-father for molesting her sister. Let me be clear here: she did not kill him. He dies later, and authorities seek out Kayla once again for his murder. To try her again for the same crime is double jeopardy, but Jordan makes no mention of this fact, leading me to assume the entire Bill of Rights has been abolished.
A group of freedom fighters called the Novemberists come to both Hannah’s and Kayla’s aid. This group promises to get the two safely to the promised land of Canada where they can totally erase the effects of the virus. While on the way to Canada, Hannah and Kayla stop in Mississippi.

Jordan was not born in Mississippi, nor does she have any ties to the state I could find. It is curious, as Mudbound was set in Mississippi. I would love to ask her why she is fond of the setting of my home state.

Mississippi, in Jordan’s creation, is a rich state. Mississippi has so much excess rainfall that it collects the overflow and sells it to other states .

It is in Columbus, Mississippi, that we learn the Novemberists have a traitor in their midst who sells Hannah and Kayla to the highest bidder. The same Novemberist, Simone, who saved them previously rescues Hannah; Kayla was taken, but a newfound love interest goes after her.
Jordan chooses this time to give us a lesbian sex scene between Simone and Hannah. I questioned this scene. Hannah is still in love with Aidan. Furthermore, she is still a “good” girl, god-fearing; being a red does not change that. It is out of character for her to have sex with Simone, not because Simone is a lesbian, but because Hannah would simply not make love with anyone but Aidan at this point. I think a simply thank-you to Simone would have sufficed.
After leaving Mississippi, Hannah drives to Canada, stopping along the way to meet Aidan. I also had a problem with this, yet it does show how impulsive Hannah is by this point, and how desperate she is to see Aidan. Hannah takes a huge risk in contacting him. She risks herself, Aidan, and the entire Novemberist network by contacting him. She is blinded by Aidan, who I saw as terribly flawed, hypocritical, and unlikable.

Does Hannah make it to the promised land? You will have to find that out for yourself.

Jordan’s style is very visual in When She Woke. Colors take on a whole new meaning. She gives a scathing critique on where our country is heading, not only politically but also culturally. While chromes are in the chrome ward, people can watch their daily activities on their ports (think ipads). Talk about reality television at its worst.
Up until the middle of the novel, I assumed all young American women had been brought up similarly to Hannah and her sister. Church, God, sewing, Bible-study. I assumed most did not go to college or have careers outside the home. I assumed most got married young and started having children. This assumption was incorrect. Yet how could a minority of Americans be in control enough to exact the changes Jordan mentions in her novel? It would take a majority. Anyone who spoke out in opposition to the radicalizations was assassinated. I found it odd that Halloween was celebrated in this world and thought it seemed contradictory.
I commend Jordan for her prescience in When She Woke. Her novel describes Dallas and most of Texas as undergoing droughts and massive heatwaves. The situation becomes so dire that Texans can no longer fill their swimming pools. Sound familiar? Texas suffered a horrendous drought this year. I actually read this novel the week the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis. I will not comment on his innocence or his guilt in this review.

What I want to say is this: since 1990, more Americans have come out against the death penalty. What is the alternative? Certainly not melachroming.
Hannah might very well be a stereotypical character. After all, it is only when she wakes up red that she becomes interesting. But her story and her struggle is unique and I could not stop reading. Is Jordan describing our future? Let’s hope not.

One thing is certain, though. Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke is dystopian literature at is best and deserves a place next to The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a disturbing tale, but it is, above all, utterly believable and horrifying. When She Woke is an Indie Next pick for October.

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