Survival of the Fittest

Reading dystopian novels during a pandemic? Maybe that’s the last thing you’d want to do right now, or maybe you find courage and inspiration in reading about how people survive harrowing situations. Dystopian is defined in the Oxford Dictionary:

relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice

Personally, I love survival stories of all kinds, and a favorite book of 2020 renewed my interest in the genre.

“I love building worlds – I think it’s one of my favorite parts of writing.” So says author Diane Cook, author of The New Wilderness. Cook certainly succeeded in building a fascinating world and a gripping story about survival, sacrifice, and relationships challenged by this tough world. I was thrilled to find out the book was a finalist for The Booker Prize. (The prize was awarded to another book, Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart.) I agree completely with what Roxana Gay says about Cook’s debut novel “I was entirely engrossed in this novel. I didn’t want to leave it…” Learn more about the book by watching this video.

What is it about The New Wilderness that really stuck with me? I checked Novelist (featured in this blog post) to see how they describe it:

Genre: Dystopian fiction; Literary fiction; Multiple perspectives
Character: Complex
Storyline: issue-oriented
Tone: Darkly humorous; Suspenseful; Thought-provoking
Writing style: Compelling; Descriptive

If these descriptors sound good to you, take a look at these dystopian/survival favorites of mine from over the years. All of these titles, like The New Wilderness, left a lasting memory in my mind of their worlds.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood must be at the top of the list because it sparked my fascination with this genre (plus Atwood is just amazing overall). In the Republic of Gilead, male dominance has returned with a vengeance and women are relegated to a handful of truly horrible roles from Commanders’ wives to colony slaves. Don’t miss the Hulu series, which you can check out from the library!

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The world has been devastated by a pandemic, and outdoorsman Hig is surviving in an abandoned airport. He loves his dog, misses his wife, and has conversations with his weapons hoarding neighbor, while fighting off marauding bands of desperate savages. He also occasionally takes his small plane out to search for more survivors, and one day hears a voice on the radio. Library Journal describes the book: “In spare, poetic prose, [Heller] portrays a soaring spirit of hope that triumphs over heartbreak, trauma, and insurmountable struggles.”

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag is another climate change related book in which the ice caps have melted, raising the sea level so high that only mountains are left above water. Most of life is spent traveling by boat, trying to find enough to eat, and hoping to find some place on land not under the control of ruthless gangs of pirate types. Myra and her 7 year old daughter, barely making a living by fishing, hear a rumor that Myra’s oldest daughter, stolen by her ex and presumed dead, may be living in an encampment in the far north. The two embark on a perilous journey. Booklist describes it thus: “Anchored by a complicated, compelling heroine, this gripping, speculative, high-seas adventure is impossible to put down.”

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is the first in a four part young adult series which, despite being published 14 years ago, stays with me to this day. The moon has been knocked off course by a meteor and an extreme winter sets in. As the situation gets more and more dire, 16 year old Miranda and her family tries everything they can think of to stay alive. Publisher’s Weekly wrote in 2006: “…readers will find it absorbing from first page to last. This survival tale…celebrates the fortitude and resourcefulness of human beings during critical times.”

Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
The California drought turns the landscape into mountains of sand, and a mass exodus ensues, with only a few hearty, pioneering types left behind. Former model Luz and AWOL Ray are squatting in an abandoned mansion when they encounter a strange little orphan girl. They take to the hills in search of a safer place to raise her. BookList describes their trek: “Their journey across the vast, ever-changing dunes is cosmic and terrifying as Watkins conjures eerily beautiful and deadly sandscapes and a cult leader’s renegade colony.”

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, does not fit perfectly into this genre, but definitely involves survival. Eight year old Peggy has been taken to the woods by her survivalist dad who claims the world has ended and they are the only two people left. Library Journal, in its Starred Review of the book concludes, “Though not always easy reading, Fuller’s emotionally intense novel comes to an unexpected but rewarding conclusion. Don’t let this gripping story pass you by.”

But this is just a beginning – there are so many other good dystopian and survival books out there. Our librarians have created a few collections you may enjoy: If You Liked The Handmaid’s Tale, and Pandemic Apocalypse Fiction. If you prefer nonfiction, check out this list of true survival stories.

What’s Overdue? or Books I Wish I’d Read in 2013

2013 brought a great change in my reading habits. Without any conscious choice I found myself checking out great big bunches of books, reading a little of each, and continuing with the one (or ones) that tickled my fancy. The result? I checked out a whole lotta books that I never read.

As the year came to a close, I decided to look through the books I didn’t finish in search of hidden gems. After all, I’m usually pretty excited about a book when I check it out.

So what we have today, O Brave Readers, is a list of titles that I wish I’d read in 2013, and beyond that a list of books that I pledge to read in the upcoming months. I’m actually quite excited by this prospect as I’ve never created a reading list for myself and, after all, the books are all titles that I want to read.

And with that I present:  What’s Overdue? or Books I Wish I’d Read in 2013.

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Red HarvestPulp detective stories rank among my favorites, so it is somewhat strange that I do not enjoy the highly-regarded Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Still, I want to like the writing of this legendary ink slinger. So imagine my satisfaction when I read a gushing review of Red Harvest, a story based in Hammett’s experiences as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Butte, Montana. The main character, The Op, is called to clean up a corrupt town, Personville. But quell horreur, a woman The Op’s keen on is found murdered with an ice pick he recently handled. Now The Op must extricate himself from a murder where he is a prime suspect.

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
I Hunt KillersI am fascinated with fictional serial killers. One of my favorites, Dexter, only kills really bad people… usually… and we generally like and sympathize with him even though HE KILLS A REALLY LOT OF PEOPLE AND CUTS THEM UP! But we like him. Now there’s a YA book, I Hunt Killers, about a nice teenager named Jazz whose father is an infamous serial killer. He even forces Jazz to witness (and perhaps participate in?) his killings. Jazz begins to wonder if he is destined to follow in daddy’s footsteps. As dark as this all sounds, the book is described as being consistently hilarious. Comedy and serial killing – it makes my list!

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett
Gideon SmithI consider myself a trend-bucker, but steampunk has me by the islets of Langerhans. If there’s a zeppelin, silly old-fashioned names and adventure, well sir, I want to read about it. Set it in England, all the better! In Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, Queen Victoria rules most of the world, including the east coast of America. Gideon loves penny dreadfuls penned by Lucian Trigger, and when his father disappears he commences a long journey to London to find Captain Trigger. Along the way he meets Bram Stoker (who blames vampires for the father’s disappearance), mummies, and a clockwork girl.  And upon finding Captain Trigger, a further journey to Egypt leads to encounters with sky-pirates, frog-faced hordes, and a variety of historical characters. Will Gideon be the hero that Victoria’s empire needs?

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Dog StarsIn a world where most people have been killed by influenza, Hig and his dog fly a 1956 Cessna around their abandoned airfield in a small corner of the land formerly known as Colorado. One day he receives a radio transmission and Hig decides to give up the life he’s been living in order to find the broadcast’s source. Thus begins an adventure filled with risk, shattered hopes and potential happiness.


Snapper
 by Brian Kimberling
SnapperI’ve always loved stories set in the cozy small towns that probably never really existed. Add quirky characters to the mix and I’m sold. In Snapper we find Nathan, a bird researcher, arriving in a small Indiana town filled with peculiar citizens and animals. Here, in one place, he finds both love and “Thong Thursdays”. But mostly he finds birds and an ever-unfolding life heading down unexpected paths.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Books I Wish I’d Read in 2013!