Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Not a Drop To Drink - Review



I’m going to be honest. I picked this book up because of the title (it's a great title) and I bought it because of the blurb. On that alone this book is a success. Author Mindy McGinnis paints a grim world filled with thirst, danger and death. A frontier living story at its core, Not a Drop to Drink is also touched with flavors of military adventure, romance, survival, and dystopia. In a world filled with Dystopian novels, McGinnis’ novel is refreshingly different. There’s nary a hint of sci-fi, or death rituals target at teens. Scandalous, I know. What was her agent thinking?

McGinnis has a lot of skill as a writer. She has a clipped, clean style free of overly flowery prose that I really enjoyed. She has a good sense of pacing and action as can be seen in the open and close of the book. Despite being light on plot in the middle, the book remains interesting with characters purifying water, preserving food, building shelters and treating diseases so that it never feels like things have stagnated, which was really impressive to me.

The characters themselves are interesting, though here is where Not a Drop To Drink starts to show its flaws. McGinnis’s small cast of other characters is largely likable but a little flat. You have the love interest, the dependent, the crazy mom, the grandma, and the old coot and none of them really move beyond those tropes.

The main character Lynn is a beautiful (naturally), cold-blooded crack-shot. To be honest she’s also a straight up murderer—a character I’ve never had much ability to sympathize with. She’s been blasting strangers trying to approach the pond she and her mother ruthlessly protect for years. Now a teen, she’s killed dozens of people, without knowing if they were actually anything more than thirsty people looking for water. The author paints this as acceptable, since Lynn and her mother are just “surviving” despite the massive amounts of surplus they have available, something I found reprehensible and inhuman.

Where the book also falters is in some inconsistencies. Now, I blame this more on the editor than the writer here, as it’s specifically the editor's job to root out such things. In one section it mentions a field of flowers Lynn has seen from her roof-top sniper perch but never visited. Later she’s suddenly an expert on the surrounding area for hundreds of miles in every direction. She can shoot an enemy in complete darkness at a range of hundreds of feet, but can’t shoot someone six feet away through the ceiling of her house. She’s paranoid enough to consider killing someone she knows when he comes walking towards her property but doesn’t fight when some strange aggressive men approach her with an unfamiliar hostage. There are numerous little things like that throughout, which unfortunately weaken an interesting story.

The author also neglected to do enough research. She has packs of coyotes menace the farm. Having lived in the Southwest my whole life I know coyotes are solitary animals, except for females with pups. They will occasionally band together for a quick hunt but never longer than that. McGinnis also shows a lack of knowledge regarding guns. Normally this wouldn't be a problem except guns are an integral part to the plot so her ignorance is glaring. The characters constantly “cock” their rifles, something that modern rifles don’t do (much less future ones). Bullets leave smoking holes and ignite containers of gasoline. No one ever loads, reloads or even checks the loads on their guns. They carry no ammo and don’t count their shots like a real shooter would.

There are a few other things. I’d worry about spoiling this point but it’s so… well, I’ll let you decide: The villains run some sort of rape-for-trade settlement which is frequented by everyone in the area, despite their brutal treatment of everyone and standard policy of stealing everything from everyone they encounter—so… yeah… I have no idea how they have anyone to trade with or how they keep customers… but there you have it.

As I mentioned, the short comings in this book are the fault, not of the talented author, but of the editor, who should have caught the inconsistencies, and miss-information and insisted on their being corrected. All in all, Not a Drop To Drink isn’t a bad book, it’s just not great either. That said, I’d be very curious to read something else by the author to see how she improves with practice.

What to know: There is a bit of cursing / foul language in the book. The concepts of sex and rape are acknowledged as existing but are more hinted at than explained outright. There is a generous helping of violence and gore that some sensitive readers might find disturbing.

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~SJA

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

GLORY AND GORE

Inspired by Lorde's song Glory and Gore.

There’s a humming in the air of the green room. It makes the whole room feel like it’s skittering, filled with static electricity or robot ants. Maybe it’s just the air scrubbers, or some loose vent cover somewhere. Or maybe it’s just our nerves. We’re all still in our formal wear from the talent portion of the show. We look like a bunch of prom-goers waiting in an Emergency Room—wondering who’s going to live or die.

We’re the final six.

Of course six doesn’t mean squat. It’s the final five we want. Then we get the first pay off we’ve seen since passing auditions nearly three months back. I shake out my hands for the hundredth time, hoping this time it will get rid of the jitters. Other people are busy on their com-swatches, sending out last minute pleas for votes, or thanks to their many fans.

“Bam!” Thomas Cochran suddenly says. “Two million fans.” He scans the room with a smirk. He’s gorgeously fit and can turn on the charm for the cameras. A deadly combo. Too bad he’s rotten to the core. I think there used to be a song about that. Something about a pretty boy with an ugly heart. “There’s no way I’m up for elimination. Not with numbers like that.”

“You heard the judges, they thought your singing was crap,” Mae says, ever the debater.

“Yeah, but the judges don’t get to vote. Not anymore. It’s all up to the world now.”

I swallow the burning bile at the back of my throat. I don’t have many fans—only a couple hundred thousand. I don’t have the knack for schmoosing people and during the talent portion of the show I’d forgotten my dance routine. I’d tried to fake it but no one had bought it. Truth be told, dancing isn’t my real talent. My real ability shows during eliminations. Still it worries me. No one likes facing the possibility of being sent home.

The seconds continue to crawl past, punctuated with the dull tapping of everyone checking and rechecking their swatches. Everyone but me and Gianna, who half-sprawls atop the glass table, poking one of the cheap cups slowly from one edge to the other. I shake out my hands for the hundred and first time to no avail.

CRASH! Everyone jumps at the sound of the glass breaking. Gianna’s pushed the cup off the table. She shrugs. She’s older than all of us by a few years. Twenty, I think. She’s fought in the army on three continents, launched into a minor acting career after appearing as the Army’s poster-child in a variety of ads and has the most amazing alto voice you’ve ever heard. She’s the essence of the show. A real triple threat, just like the name of the show.

“Gah! What’s wrong with you?” someone says

“Better than listening to the sounds of your desperation,” she answers. Everyone glares and I can almost hear their thoughts. I hope you’re the one eliminated. But Gianna won’t be—at least not easily. She was a contender last season and only got eliminated due to a freak injury. She’s heavily favored to win and she knows it. So does everyone else.

We return to our waiting. I keep replaying that stupid dance routine and my epic failure. How can I remember the routine so perfectly now, but an hour ago…? The green room door opens. One of the many PAs enters with a cloud of camera drones that eagerly zoom in on the six of us.

“The results are in.”

Some start hamming it up for the cams. Deep breathing, teary gasps. I try to stay calm—stoic. It’s the one thing I have going for me. People think I’m cold as ice, that I don’t have fear or regret. I’ll make it work for me.

“Aster, Gianna, you’re going up for elimination.”

She says it so matter-of-factly I almost miss it. Then the icy fist slams into my gut. I have to go up against Gianna-the-freaking-veteran. I’m doomed. I shake the thought away. The mind is half of the battle. I have to win there first. The PA continues as if my life isn’t about to end. “We’ll get the entire cast ready to go, set up on the main stage for the judgement. Check your swatches. The director has pushed some suggested lines and reactions. Wardrobe is ready for everyone so let’s go.”

Reality TV. Nothing real about it—except the money.

I swallow my dread as we head out. There’s a flurry of excited conversations and exchanged glances. The others think I’m as good as gone.

They get us all dressed quickly. We slide out of our shimmering formal wear and into snug leather and plastine, stuff designed to look “tough” more than actually offer any protection. The entire time we’re surrounded by wardrobe and production staff as well as other contestants. Then there’s fresh makeup. New hair styles. Then they film us pretending to get ready and saying potential good-byes. Sometimes they have us repeat something we actually said, other times we’re fed lines and reactions. The cameras seem to linger on me, getting more footage than the other contenders. They think I’m going to be eliminated—they need that extra footage for the farewell montage.

“Not today,” I vow. That ten million is going to be mine, even if I have to go through the veteran.

Then we’re brought up to the big stage and we have to wait in the wings while they bring in an audience, prep the judges, and finish adjusting the lights and redressing the stage. We’re all sitting in silence, me because I’m nervous out of my mind, the others probably because they’re working on their lines.

I glance at the swatch in my sleeve. I’ve been given five options to say when the producers ask me how I feel about being up for elimination but I’m not going to use them. I’ve picked a line. Had it in mind since before auditions.

Suddenly Gianna pipes up. “You know. They had stuff like this in ancient Rome. People battling for the entertainment of the masses. Gladiators.”

For a moment everyone’s silent but inevitably Chochran pipes up. “I’d friggin love to see a gladiator sing Teenage Dream before going out to battle.”

Mae falls for Gianna’s goad as well. “We auditioned for this. We can quit any time. We’re not slaves or like, prisoners.”

I expect an argument, but Gianna just shrugs again. “Sure. Keep telling yourself that. Anyway, the height of the games coincided with the height of Roman corruption. See, no one cared the country was falling apart so long as they were being entertained. I think that’s what we are. My dad called it the opiate of the masses. The Visigoths are on the hill but no one cares because, hey, Triple Threat is on.”

I frown at the thought. Where is all this coming from? Is she trying to rattle me? Trying to get me to forfeit? Or is she just running her mouth? “If you think that, why don’t you quit?” I snap before I realize everyone will think I’m hoping not to have to fight Gianna. I can't appear afraid.

“I’m pretty sure I can kill you all, one by one to get that ten million,” Gianna says. “And even the Visigoths take cash.” That silences everyone.

She should have saved that line for the cams, I think. It’s a good line.

The production staff finally have us line up, down the length of the stage. There are lights, holograms, smoke, music cues. The producers start filming lines, responses they’ll splice together in editing with the judges asking the same questions. Everyone is performing at full bore now. Tears, anxious faces, stiff upper-lips even though they know they’re not going into the arena after this. I feel confused. Conflicted. I stare down through the crystalline floor to the bright mottled orb of the earth hundreds of miles below us. What am I doing here? Distracting the world from problems it should be facing?

I’m next.

I shake off the thought. It’s just Gianna’s mind games at work. The cams and production assistants and director with their black clothing and nerd-chique hairstyles gather around me. This is the worst part for me. Worse than what’s to come.

“Got your lines ready?” the director smiles his taxed smile.

I nod and try to look delicate, cool. A stylist fusses with me for another second and then the cams are on, little red lights winking away as they orbit me.

“So this line will come from Simon,” the director says. He indicates an empty judge’s seat. “So we want you looking that direction for these close ups. Okay.”

A PA reads the line with the enthusiasm of a wanna-be. “What would you say if I told you, you were up for elimination tonight, Aster?”

I jump on my line. “The ancient Samurai used to say, ‘I am already dead. Only victory will return my life.’”

There’s a buzz of excitement from the staff. They’re all grinning, nodding and for a moment my heart surges full of pride. My line’s a hit.

“Great! Great, Aster. Let’s try another couple that we’ve prepared. Give the editing monkeys some other stuff to work with.”

I rattle off the other lines with a lot less enthusiasm, hoping that’ll make them use the first take. After a few minutes more they wrap up my close ups but instead of going to the next person they backtrack to Gianna. To my horror, they give her my line. They’re all grinning and nodding again as if they thought of it. A hollow fills my stomach and a hot fury, my heart. I try not to cry. It’s such a stupid thing to cry about.

Eventually they finish the close-ups and we move onto the wide shots with the actors/judges delivering their lines. Then the final judgment, which Gianna and I have known for hours is declared and the platforms beneath our feet slowly lower us into the floor. They edit the footage so it looks like we’re taken directly to the arena but really we’re just under the stage. They take us out, doctors look us over, we’re redressed, this time in better armor and then we’re given our weapons. Swords. No shields.

They want an ugly match tonight. The execs must want a boost in the ratings.

My anxiety and energy are building. I feel that humming in the air again. I dance on the balls of my feet. My heart rate is going up. I can feel it thumping in my finger tips. My mouth is dry. My palms wet. I spin the sword experimentally. It’s not like the ones I’ve been practicing for the past few years. It’s a heavy broad blade designed for hacking, as well as crushing thrusts. I can hear my father’s voice telling me I’m ready, that he’s proud of me, that there’s ten million on the line.

I glance at Gianna. She doesn’t seem to have any of my pre-fight jitters and just stands staring out towards the arena that’s beginning to fill with the crowd that had been watching our “final judgement” earlier. These people must have been in line since dawn this morning. It’s going on eight PM now and we’re finally getting to what they want.

The death match.

“You ever think about death?” Gianna asks. I pause in my nervous excitement, looking for another mind game. She turns to me, her dark eyes hollow. “It’s alright if you do.”

“Barely anyone dies in these eliminations.”

“Yeah. I know. But do you think about death, about it really, truly finding you and ending everything?”

I swallow again. Her simple words have pierced my excitement like a needle through a balloon. I suddenly feel older than my sixteen years, stretched thin and tired. “Yeah,” I admit.

“Me too.” Her voice is soft, almost too soft to hear over the cheering of the crowd and the thundering music as the arena doors swing open, beckoning us towards the final five.

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~SJA