Monday, December 11, 2017

Book Review: GONE by Michael Grant

WARNING: This week’s book is actually edgy YA and it is filled with adult content. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie, which makes it awesome. If the reader in question can handle Ashfall by Mike Mullin, they'll be at home with Gone.

First Paragraph(s): ONE MINUTE THE teacher was talking about the Civil War. And the next minute he was gone. 
No “poof.” No flash of light. No explosion. 
Sam Temple was sitting in third-period history class staring blankly at the blackboard, but far away in his head. In his head he was down at the beach, he and Quinn. Down at the beach with their boards, yelling, bracing for that first plunge into cold Pacific water. 
For a moment he thought he had imagined it, the teacher disappearing. For a moment he thought he’d slipped into a daydream. 
Sam turned to Mary Terrafino, who sat just to his left. “You saw that, right?”

This will be our last book of the year, Esteemed Reader, as we'll have Michael Grant here on Wednesday to face the 7 Questions, and that's a heck of a way to close out 2017. After that, the blog will be quiet through the holidays and I'll holler at you on January 1st with my usual year-in-review post and we'll keep this middle grade blog going into 2018 and beyond as long as y'all keep showing up every week.

So this week's book is my newest obsession. Esteemed Reader, if you haven't read Gone, skip this review and just read it, and then it will be your obsession as well. I'm already tearing my way through its second sequel, Lies, and the seventh in the series, Monster, was just released in October. Part of the reason I'm not writing any more reviews in December is because I'm going to finish this series and I don't want other books getting in the way:)

I'm kicking myself for not reading Gone sooner, but in a way I'm grateful I didn't because now I get to binge read the whole series at once instead of having to wait like the suckers did:) I've read Mr. Grant's middle grade work previous, such as The Magnificent 12, which I reviewed here, and The Animorphs, which he wrote with friend of the blog (and his wife) Katherine Applegate. I was expecting more of the same with Gone, which would've been great, but what I got was something that caught me totally by surprise by how deeply Michael Grant instantly hooked me and has kept me reading.

It's so amazing that Stephen King blurbed this series because I would've classified it as Stephen King for the YA crowd (although, technically speaking, The Body and arguably Itdepending on how cool the librarian recommending teen reads isare Stephen King for the YA crowd). And you regular Esteemed Readers know how much I love my Stephen King (I've also written Stephen King-ish for the YA crowd). There's even a national park in the fictional universe of Gone called Stefano Rey, which is Spanish for Stephen King.

The language employed in Gone is nowhere near as foul as in a King novel, but otherwise this is a long story (581 pages depending on your edition) with an over-the-top Twilight Zone premise that's periodically very dark and inhabited by fully realized characters. Also, like King, Grant is playing for keeps:

She smelled something foul. Sickly sweet and foul. 
She looked at her shattered right arm. The flesh, especially the taut, stretched flesh that barely contained her shattered arm bones, was dark, black edging toward green. The smell was awful. 
Lana took several deep breaths, shaky, fighting the upsurge of terror. She’d heard of gangrene. It was what happened when flesh died or circulation was cut off. Her arm was dying. The smell was the odor of rotting human flesh. 
A vulture fluttered to a landing just a few feet away. It stared at her with beady eyes and bobbed its featherless neck. The vulture knew that smell, too.

To fully describe the plot of Gone would probably take up the entire review, but the short short version is that it's Under the Dome meets The Stand meets Desperation with some X-men and a whole lot of Lord of the Flies and just a dash of Saints Row IV. All of those are favorites of mine, so Gone had me from that first paragraph up above. If the short short version isn't quite clear, let me give the slightly longer version.

Don't let the length of this book intimidate you. As the opening paragraph above makes clear, this is a book that moves quickly and you'll be done with it long before you want to be. Grant starts with a sort-of/kind-of rapture in that everyone 15 and older disappears for a 20-mile radius from Perdido Beach in California. Soon, the remaining children discover that they disappear the moment they age out. That's plenty of conflict to sustain a novel:

This school was dangerous now. Scared people did scary things sometimes, even kids. Sam knew that from personal experience. Fear could be dangerous. Fear could get people hurt. And there was nothing but fear running crazy through the school.

Sam flashed on news videos he’d seen of school shootings. It had that kind of feel to it. Kids were bewildered, scared, hysterical, or hiding hysteria beneath laughter and bold displays of rowdiness.

But apparently that's just not enough conflict for Michael Grant, so he adds another layer. And what I want to draw your attention to is the way he adds it:

Astrid and Quinn thought today was the beginning, but Sam knew better. Normal life had started coming apart eight months ago. 

Rather than come right out and state his additional conflict, which is that the teens left behind in Perdido Beach, including Sam, are developing super powers and have been for some time, Grants lets the reader get there ahead of him by suggesting evidence of this before confirming it. This is a technique for suspension of disbelief I have discussed elsewhere at length, but it's ever effective to give the reader tantalizing hints that allow the reader to form a conclusion of something impossible before the writer openly states it.

And the fact that the super powers emerged prior to the disappearance of the adults deepens the mystery about just what situation our heroes have found themselves in. So are the powers related to the disappearance of the adults and the placing of the barrier? And what's the deal in Perdido Beach?

I'm not telling you what I know, but keep in mind that Grant's got more books to come, so don't expect every answer in this first story. Remember, a good mystery is created not by withholding things from the reader, but by selectively revealing things. And the mystery is a big part of what drives the story:

Maybe it was aliens and right now some creepy monsters were chasing her mother and father through the streets of Las Vegas, like in that movie, War of the Worlds. Maybe. 
Lana found that thought strangely comforting. After all, at least she wasn’t being chased by aliens in giant tripods. Maybe the wall was some kind of defense put up against the aliens. Maybe she was safe on this side of the wall.

“Maybe it was God,” Quinn said, looking up, suddenly hopeful. His eyes were red and he stared with sudden, manic energy. “It was God.” 
“Maybe,” Sam said. 
“What else could it be, right? S-so—so—so—” Quinn caught himself, choked down the panicked stutter. “So it’ll be okay.” The thought of some explanation, any explanation, no matter how weak, seemed to help. 

But even that STILL isn't enough conflict for Michael Grant. As I was trying to explain the plot to Mrs. Ninja, she was with me until I got to the part about the talking coyotes and flying snakes. Also, there's a mysterious darkness out in the woods communing with the animals, but I think some of these things are better discovered by the reader.

So that's where we'll leave the review. If you haven't read Gone, read it. It's amazing and it will keep you glued to your seat until it's done.

But you regular Esteemed Readers know that the point of these reviews is really for us to discuss the techniques a writer employs so that we can adapt them for our own stories. So let's do that now. For starters, that talk about God in the previous quote isn't an isolated incident:

“What did we do?” Quinn asked. “That’s what I don’t get. What did we do to piss God off?” 
Sam opened the refrigerator. He stared at the food there. Milk. A couple of sodas. Half of a small watermelon placed cut side down on a plate. Eggs. Apples. And lemons for his mom’s tea. The usual.
“I mean, we did something to deserve this, right?” Quinn said. “God doesn’t do things like this for no reason.” 
“I don’t think it was God,” Sam said. 
“Dude. Had to be.”

“She’s with God now,” Mary said. 
“I’m not sure there is a God in the FAYZ,” Dahra said.

That's an awful lot of God talk in Gone (said the author of The Book of David), and if you're looking to deduce the thematic concerns of the story, I'd recommend starting there. It's not heavy handed. Grant is far more concerned with terrifying the reader and driving the suspense than discussing thematic concerns at length, as he should be. But for no one to discuss religion in this rapture-like situation would be a glaring omission. And as the teens lose their faith and/or become motivated by an assumed belief, we get a metaphor for how our own beliefs both motivate and put us in conflict with each other.

Of more practical use for employment in most stories, let us examine how Grant introduces us to our main protagonist:

Sam Temple kept a lower profile. He stuck to jeans and understated T-shirts, nothing that drew attention to himself. He had spent most of his life in Perdido Beach, attending this school, and everybody knew who he was, but few people were quite sure what he was. He was a surfer who didn’t hang out with surfers. He was bright, but not a brain. He was good-looking, but not so that girls thought of him as a hottie. 
The one thing most kids knew about Sam Temple was that he was School Bus Sam. He’d earned the nickname when he was in seventh grade. The class had been on the way to a field trip when the bus driver had suffered a heart attack. They’d been driving down Highway 1. Sam had pulled the man out of his seat, steered the bus onto the shoulder of the road, brought it safely to a stop, and calmly dialed 911 on the driver’s cell phone. 
If he had hesitated for even a second, the bus would have plunged off a cliff and into the ocean. 
His picture had been in the paper.

One thing I've been stressing to the students in my fiction classes is that hero characters should be heroic. Grant right away gives us every reason to identify with Sam and to root for him. He feels out of place, belonging to no particular group and uncertain of his identity, just like, say, for example, every teenager ever. Sam is unassuming and humble, especially considering we're about to learn he can shoot light energy from his hands (which will definitely come in handy). Also, and this is very important, he has engaged in heroic activity.

Please note, however, that Grant doesn't leave Sam's characterization with this flashback incident. No sooner do things start to fall apart than Sam is in action doing heroic things that are shown, including his rushing into a burning building to save a little girl and defending another one from bullies. Both attempts end with the little girls in question dead because this is a darker story, but it's the attempts that counts:) This incident with the school bus that happened off screen is also important as it establishes Sam's credibility as a possibly heroic leader in the minds of other characters in the story.

As for this being a darker story, that's part of its appeal. Just as our old friend Mike Mullin did in Ashfall, Grant establishes credibility for his world through including grisly details. Multiple children die, and not in clean, painless ways. The world of Gone is cold and harsh, but not unrelentingly so. Grant doesn't want to bum us out completely as this isn't a historical tomb. Rather, the worst aspects of this story make the unbelievable situation seem more believable. So, in the interest of helping readers suspend disbelief, Grant shows us one of the probable consequences of everyone over the age of 15 suddenly departing the world:

Quinn hefted the hammer and swung it against the door, just below the doorknob. The wood splintered, and Quinn pushed the door back. 
The smell hit them hard. 
“Oh, man, what died in here?” Quinn said, like it was a joke. 
The joke fell flat. 
Just inside the door, on the hardwood floor lay a baby’s pacifier. The three of them stared at it. 
“No, no, no. I can’t do this,” Brooke said.

The world of Gone feels real enough while the story is progressing, which is all that matters, and it feels metaphorically real after the fact. A dead baby alone is not enough to convince the reader to suspend disbelief, though it's a good start.

One of the reasons the page count is higher is because Grant goes into so much detail about the world, all with the goal of overcoming the reader's natural suspicion of a world with talking animals and superpowers. To quote myself from a post on horror writing, "those seemingly mundane details add up, like the passes of a hypnotist's golden watch, to convince the reader the story is real and that they should be terrified."

Grant doesn't just sell us on the main characters. He takes the time to build up secondary characters and below. For example, see how he not only flushes out the third tier character of Mary (at least in this first book in the series) so that we believe in her, but how he also further convinces us of the reality of Gone's improbable situation through Mary's reaction to it. Her demonstrable belief in her reality lends some of her belief to the reader.

Mary had suffered from bulimia since she was ten. Binge eating followed by purging, again and again in a quickening cycle of diminishing returns that had left her forty pounds overweight at one point, and her teeth rough and discolored from the stomach acid.
She’d been clever enough to conceal it for a long time, but her parents had found out eventually. Then had come therapists and a special camp and when none of that really helped, medication. Speaking of which, Mary reminded herself, she needed to get the bottle from her medicine cabinet.
She was better now with the Prozac. Her eating was under control. She didn’t purge anymore. She had lost some of the extra weight. 
But why not eat now? Why not? 
The cold air of the freezer wafted over her. The ice cream, the chocolate, there it was. It wouldn’t hurt. Not just once. Not now when she was scared to death and alone and so tired. 
Just one DoveBar. 
She pulled it out of the box and with fumbling, anxious fingers tore open the wrapper. It was in her mouth in a flash, so good, so cold, the chocolate slick and greasy as it melted on her tongue. The crunch of the shell as she bit into it, the soft luscious vanilla ice cream inside. 
She ate it all. She ate like a wolf.

There are a lot of other passages I want to share with you and so much to more to discuss, but this post is long and needs to end. I'd love to talk more about Quinn and how he serves as an excellent foil to Sam. I'd also love to talk about his casual racism with Edilio, but we'll skip it, except to say that casual racism is a detail that further convinces the reader that these are real characters from our reality and not blank book heroes. I'd also like to talk more about Astrid and her relationship to Pete, her autistic brother.

Oh heck, there's time enough for that one. Astrid is a brilliant and beautiful girl who Sam has a thing for and because he's a hero and this is a fantasy story, she might just be into him as well. It's standard issue YA and it's fine. What I found more interesting about Astrid is that she is made more heroic through her shortcomings. Her little brother Pete is a lot to deal with, but she does it, not because she's a perfect person, but in spite of her desire not to have to deal with him. It's a far more realistic sibling relationship which pays off before the end of the book.

There were kid-proof knobs on the stove. 
Astrid noticed him noticing. “It’s not for me,” she said snippily. “It’s for Little Pete.” 
“I know. He’s . . .” He didn’t know the right word. 
“He’s autistic,” Astrid said, very breezy, like it was no big thing.

After he's lost for a time, our heroes find Pete once again. The following might be my favorite character beat in the whole book because it's the most effective detail at making Astrid fully three dimensional:

There, sitting on the control room floor, rocking slightly back and forth, playing a muted handheld video game, was Little Pete. 
Astrid did not run to him. She stared with what looked to Sam like something close to disappointment. She seemed almost to shrink down a little. 
But then she forced a smile and went to him.

Okay, for real, let's wrap this up. The last point I want to make is that none of this character detail or situation makes a difference without Grant's first laying a basic groundwork for his story. He gets the basics done before worrying about the awesome action sequences and monster attacks that come with the territory. We're given a main hero, a main villain  (read some one else's review to learn about Caine, I guess), they're put at odds with each other in such a way that they must do battle before the story is done, and because this is suspense, we're given a ticking clock to keep those pages turning because Sam is 14 going on 15:

“I have five days,” Sam fretted. “Five. Days. Not even a week.” 
“You don’t know that for sure.” 
“Don’t, okay? Just don’t. Don’t tell me some story about how it’s all going to be fine. It’s not going to be fine.” 
“Okay,” Astrid said. “You’re right. Somehow, age fifteen is this line, and when you reach it, you poof out.”

And that's it. Gone is fantastic novel to be enjoyed by readers of all ages without pandering to any of them. In fact, I encountered a a new word in this story I had to look up: insouciantly. If you have any desire to write YA, particularly horror or dystopian, you absolutely must read this novel. Really, if you like a good story well told, you have to read this novel.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Gone:

It was Astrid Ellison, known as Astrid the Genius, because she was . . . well, she was a genius.

Impossible things don’t happen. That’s what impossible means.

“You seem like a nice girl, Astrid,” Diana said. “I’ll bet you’re one of those brainy, Lisa Simpson types, all full of great ideas and worried about saving the planet or whatever. But things have changed. This isn’t your old life anymore. It’s like . . . you know what it’s like? It’s like you used to live in a really nice neighborhood, and now you live in a really tough neighborhood. You don’t look tough, Astrid.”

The sound of his own name snapped Jack out of his trance. “Yes.” 
Jack fell into step behind Diana, ashamed of his instant, doglike obedience.

Lana lay in the dark in the cabin listening to the mysterious sounds of the desert outside. Something made a soft, slithery sound like a hand stroking silk.

“Sadism,” Diana said. “The enjoyment of another person’s pain.” 
Drake stretched his shark grin. “Words don’t scare me.” 
“You wouldn’t be a psychopath if they did, Drake.”

His narrow lizard eyes narrowed further.

“Where are we going?”
“How about not here?”

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

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