The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

parablesowerpg“The child in each of us
Knows paradise.
Paradise is home.
Home as it was
Or home as it should have been.

Paradise is one’s own place,
One’s own people,
One’s own world,
Knowing and known,
Perhaps even
Loving and loved.


Yet every child
Is cast from paradise-
Into growth and new community,
Into vast, ongoing

Here’s the story:  the world is falling to bits, wracked with economic and environmental crises. People are starving in the streets.  A new drug creates an underworld of fire-starting addicts; watching things burn is said to feel better than sex, on the drug.  Money is nearly worthless, and communities that cannot afford to erect a razor-wire-covered wall are helpless to protect themselves against theft and fire.  Eighteen-year-old Lauren is one of the lucky ones, even though she suffers from a rare condition called hyperempathy, where she physically feels the pain of others-a side effect of the drugs her mother took before she has born.  While her condition is disabling, dangerous, and painful, Lauren is safer than most.   She has a home, a wall, and an education. While she doesn’t share the faith of her minister father, she is far from faithless.  In fact, she has been developing her own religion, in response to the chaos and uncertainty of the world she lives in.  She calls it Earthseed.

When Lauren loses her home and family, she must set out on the treacherous journey north, in search of food and shelter.  The trip is immensely difficult: she and her companions must fight off fire-crazed addicts and potential thieves, carefully preserve what little food and water they have, and be constantly vigilant.  It’s not easy, but they don’t have a choice.

Now, this might sound like the plot of a lot of dystopias out there, right?  Disaster + Must Flee Home = Dystopic Adventure.  The special thing, though, is the way this is written.  It is a compelling, breathtaking adventure story, yes.  However, it’s also a treatise on race and economy, community and compassion.  Butler points an incriminating finger at exploitative corporations and indifferent governments; at the same time, she explores the intersections of gender, race, and social status. It’s a phenomenal story with a built-in social commentary, and it is definitely going on my favorites list.

Author’s website:

If you liked this book, you might want to read on! Octavia Butler’s second Earthseed book is called Parable of the Talents.

Happy Reading!


Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien

birthmarked“The mother stared at her, shock and horror shifting across her face.  ‘You can’t,’ she whispered. ‘You can’t take my baby.  She’s mine.’

‘I have to,’ Gaia said, backing away.  ‘I’m sorry.’

‘But you can’t,’ the woman gasped.

‘Please,’ the mother begged. ‘Not this one. Not my only.  What have I done?’

‘I’m sorry,’ Gaia repeated…’Your baby will be well cared for,’ she said, using the phrases she’d learned. ‘You’ve provided a great service to the Enclave, and you will be compensated.'”

Gaia is a sixteen-year-old midwife, unlucky enough to live outside The Wall, apart from the privileged, comfortable citizens of The Enclave.  It is her duty to hand over the first three babies she delivers each month-babies who are destined to be adopted by waiting parents in The Enclave.  These children are destined to live a life of comfort and cleanliness, far from the polluted, crowded streets of those living outside the walled community.

When Gaia’s parents are arrested by the very government they worked so faithfully for, Gaia realizes all is not well.  Her parents were keeping secrets-a secret code listing the parents of all the babies who had been sent away to live in The Enclave.  When the government comes after her, Gaia is forced to choose: solve her parents’ code and turn the information over to a government she doesn’t trust, or attempt a risky escape.

Dystopias, everyone! Do we still love them?  I have to say that I do, personally, but I’ve gotten a lot pickier since there are so many great ones out there.  I’m bringing this one to you because it is one on the Great List!  Gaia is smart, strong, and real-feeling; she feels like someone you go to school with, or would like to.  Her job is interesting, and (without spoiling anything) the reason the government needs the delivered babies is double-interesting.  For those of you looking for romance, you’ll find a bit, but it’s not front and center, so if it’s not your thing, you’ll be able to ignore it.  Part mystery, part thriller, part end-of-the-world book, this one is one I didn’t want to put down.

Happy reading!

Author’s website:

If you’re looking for Read-Alikes for Birthmarked, I think you’ll like Parable of the Sower, by superstar science fiction author Octavia Butler-it’s the story of a young women facing a collapsing society, much like Gaia’s.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker also grapples with the collapse of the world as we know, and is told from the perspective of a young woman with an unforgettable voice.  This book feels like poetry for the end of the world.

Life as We Knew It is another disaster story: massive climate change makes the earth nearly inhospitable, and teenager Miranda records it all in her diary.



The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

“Destroying things is much easier than making them.”

It’s not the United States anymore; it’s Panem, a collection of districts under strict governmental control.  As punishment for a long-past rebellion, two young people from each district must fight for survival in the arena-style arcade battle: The Hunger Games.  The survivor’s district wins food, far more food than normal.

Participants are chosen by lottery; youth between the ages of 12 and 18 are automatically entered, but can trade against their fortunes by entering their name more than once, in exchange for more food rations.  Katniss’ name is in the drawing multiple times, but this is her baby sister’s first year to participate.

Prim is unlucky, and her name is drawn.  Instead of allowing her sister to go and fight, Katniss volunteers in her place.  With Peeta, the young man chosen from District 12, Katniss begins training for the games.  Only one teenager can win; the others will die.  When the games begin, Katniss must fight for her life.

All right, friends, please forgive me for being so slow to review this book.  I know the entire universe is already in love with it, so I’ll be quick with the plot summary.  I just wanted to include this on the blog because I noticed some very interesting things about the story’s message, and I wanted to share them with you.

In the recent past, the literary world was grappling with some very cynical ideas: the collapse of meaning, and a collective anxiety about the future of the world.  Power-the struggle for it and the attempts to retain it-is the primary focus.  These concepts are associated with a literature movement called postmodernism.  I don’t like to get all preachy, but I never loved postmodernism, and here is why I’m telling you about it:

I think The Hunger Games is showing us what lies beyond the other side of postmodernism.  When Katniss steps up and volunteers her life in place of her sisters, she is mirrored by another district’s character, who refuses to take his sibling’s place.  The book shows us both sides, and empowers us to chose one.  Through the course of the novel, we watch Katniss as she negotiates the horrific choices laid before her, and tries to behave ethically in a system designed to reward bloodlust.  This book shows us the possibility of hope’s triumph, and teaches us that sincerity allows us to be both strong and vulnerable.  The story rewards loyalty over force, ethics over calculations, and love over destruction.  These are not necessarily new ideas, but they are concepts that postmodernism hasn’t accounted for.

My biggest pet peeve is when people tell me that young adult books aren’t true literature, and I’m grateful to authors like Suzanne Collins for demonstrating otherwise.  She presents the rift between two literary schools of thought, and allows space for us to contemplate the separate worlds created by each; that’s heavy stuff, and I applaud her for trusting that her audience is capable (and willing) to engage with it.

Besides, it’s a fantastic story.  You are going to go crazy about it, if you haven’t already.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. 374 pp. Ages 12 and up.

If you liked the philosophical feel to the book, you will love Nothing by Janne Teller (it’s on the Awesome-est List).  And if you liked the post-apocalyptic feel, I think you should try How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff or Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.

I just saw this: one more reason why The Hunger Games is a great book!

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

“Connor had known other kids at school who disappeared over the past couple of years.  One day they just didn’t turn up.  Teachers would say that they were ‘gone’ or ‘no longer enrolled’.  Those were just code words, though.  Everyone knew what they meant.”

The Heartland War is over now, a bitter battle over the sanctity of life.  As per the new agreement, life begins at conception and cannot be tampered with until a child reaches the age of thirteen.  However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, parents can choose to have their children “unwound”, by sending them to a “harvest camp” and having all of their organs  donated to others.  That way, life doesn’t technically stop; the teen keeps living, albeit in the bodies of many other recipients.  If you are not able to raise your baby until he or she reaches the age of thirteen, you can “stork” it: leave it on someone’s door stop and run away.  Finders, keepers, according to the law.

Unwind is the story of three teens.  Connor has behavior problems, and his parents have signed the unwind orders because they just can’t handle him acting out anymore.  Risa is a ward of the state, a piano player who simply wasn’t talented enough to be allowed to continue living (what with budget cuts and all, there isn’t enough money to invest in anyone but the most skilled).  Lev is a tithe, a child who was born to be a sacrifice under the tithing code, where ten percent of all wealth is given to the government.  They are all slated to be unwound, when Connor initiates a series of events (bus crash, human shield, lots of confusion) that allows all three of them to escape.  The three must then navigate the underground world of escaped unwinds, learning how to survive without drawing attention to themselves.  If they can make it until their eighteenth birthdays, they are home free.  But it certainly won’t be easy…

This futuristic tale is riveting; built around an interesting concept and driven by strong, complex characters.  Shusterman creates an elaborate world of these characters, and each one of them is interesting enough to merit a personal story.  His universe is populated by the Clappers, a dreaded terrorist group, a wizened antiques dealer whose shop is a front for the unwind version of the Underground Railroad, and an eccentric who creates a large-scale shelter for unwinds in the middle of the Arizona desert.  Everyone’s got a back story, and Shusterman lets us all in on it, which I absolutely love.  Even though it is a complicated world, with a lot of unfamiliar political and social situations, it is still very accessible to readers. That’s a tricky balancing act for many writers.  I really enjoyed that the story was not predictable, either.  I was expecting a daring escape, but there is just no way to guess where Shusterman will take readers next.  Awesome!

Unwind won two of the big awards:  it’s an ALA Best Book, as well as a Best Book for Reluctant Readers.  It also won about a billion state awards, including a placement on the Oklahoma Sequoyah Award list (my home state, folks!).  This is a fast-paced, engrossing read that covers heavy topics like the definition of human life, reproductive rights, politics, the ethical concerns of organ donation for profit, and governmental power.  I think you’re going to love it!  And if you do, you’re certainly in luck, because there’s going to be a movie version released, and also, Shusterman has written a ton of other incredible books!  So, while you’re waiting for the movie, you might want to try his crazy-popular Skinjacker series, which includes the books Everlost, Everwild, and Everfound.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

Movie website:

Shusterman, Neal.  Unwind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 335 pp.  Ages 13 and up.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

” ‘Can I ask a question?’ said Richard.

‘Certainly not,’ said the marquis. ‘You don’t ask any questions. You don’t get any answers. You don’t stray from the path. You don’t even think about what’s happening to you right now. Got it?’


‘Most important of all: no buts,’ said de Carabas. ‘And time is of the essence. Move.’

…Richard moved, clambering down the metal ladder…feeling so far out of his depth that it didn’t even occur to him to question any further.”

Richard is a decent guy,  a mild-mannered fellow with an undistinguished office job.  His life is on track: he is engaged to a beautiful (if somewhat intimidating) woman, enjoys time with his friends, and generally doesn’t make waves.  However, it all changes when he stumbles on the bleeding body of a young woman one night and knows that the only decent thing to do is to stop and help her.

When Richard stops to assist the girl, his whole world shifts and he is tumbled into the underworld of London.  This isn’t just the sewer-underground-metro London, though; it’s a whole new plane of existence.  This strange and threatening tunnel-world is populated with frightening beasts, tricksters, a thriving market economy, and a host of memorable characters, including a huntress who specializes only in the biggest and most dangerous animals, a marquis who barters in favors, and an angel.

Richard has no choice but to go forwards, deep into the underbelly of London.  After he stops to help the injured girl, no one in his former life even recognizes him anymore.  The only way out is in, and so, Richard embarks on a quest leading him through the depths of the underworld, facing a maze of filthy tunnels, nightmarish dark, and chilling characters.

If I had to classify this book, I would say it’s is a dark urban fantasy.  It’s not inaccessible, like sometimes true fantasies can be, though.  Richard is just an ordinary, somewhat bewildered nice guy, and so you learn about this new, Dark London along the way, just like he does in the story.  It’s an intricate plot, but easy enough to follow, and very interesting.  I love the dark, gritty feel of the underworld, especially as observed by Richard, who is quite pitiable.   He actually reminds me of Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of my favorite books.  It’s a similar idea: a nice, ordinary guy gets sucked into an unbelievable adventure and has to cope with all the accompanying unpleasantries.  Come to think of it, that actually encapsulates the plots of a great number of books out there, from The Odyssey to Alice in Wonderland.  And speaking of Alice, there are a number of references to the Lewis Carroll story tucked away in this book, which I thought was a fun surprise.

This book is the current One Book, One Chicago selection. I love Chicago, and its great library system!  I was there recently, and every time I go, I pick up the One Book selection.  I think it’s such a well-done program, and I’d love to implement it in my own library some day.  If you’re interested, here’s the link:

This is an older book, and has been made into a miniseries for British television.  I think I’ll actually check it out; I really enjoyed this book.  Also, if you’re in the area, he will be speaking on Tuesday, April 12.  I would love to see him! Click for the  schedule of library events for One Book, One Chicago:

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: (Check out that amazing hat he’s wearing!)

Gaiman, Neil. Neverwhere. Harpertorch, New York: 1996. 370 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you might want to try John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things or The Gates.  They’re both dark fantasies that still have strong connections to reality, so they are very accessible, even to the non-fantasy-reader.  However, they are really for the 16 and up crowd.  If you’re a little younger than that, you might try The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or The House Eaters by Aaron Polson.