"A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last." --C.S. Lewis
You can find more of my reviews (plus discussions and giveaways) at Christina Reads YA.
1. (+) Lynn, the protagonist - Kick-ass protagonist extraordinaire. Lynn had to kill her first man at the age of nine (first line of the book - not a spoiler) and has always had to help her mother purify water for them to store and later drink. Help her gather wood and cook the game that they muster before the winter chill sets in and forces them to hibernate in their all-too-vulnerable house. This has made Lynn into a pragmatic, no nonsense heroine who is willing to get the job done right and well even when the task is hard. Does that mean she's not emotional? Not at all. Given the things that Lynn has to do and given how she suffers, it's easy to identify with her and her struggles. And hey, this protagonist knows how to wield a shotgun. Knows to strip a body for goods and to take night watches on the roof of her house -- it's hard not to admire someone who's so determined, so smart and loyal and fierce and utterly competent.
2. (+) World-building - This is where the book excels. Mindy McGinnis paints a world that is so stark and realistic that it's frightening. Honestly, as she unveiled how the world degenerated, I realized that that kind of situation could actually happen. And you know it takes true talent to make that backstory and the individual details of the world itself come to life. You learn of Lynn's water purification system, the cholera endemic, and survivalist details like how to cure animals, how to witch water and set fires that don't just give off smoke. You learn about the city and its population standards and law makers and the wild where Lynn lives, and how the Shortage originated and was handled politically across the world. You learn about coyotes and gangrene and both the ugly and beautiful sides to nature. To contrast all the lovely details are random famous English poems (i.e. one from Yeats, some from Frost, etc.). The plot is firmly set in the little every day details of this world and what it means to live when water is in limited supply.
3. (+) Romance - Here's the thing: Eli doesn't do much for me as a romantic interest - we don't learn a lot about him - but I'm okay with that because the focus isn't on the romance, that side plot. The romance is good for what it is. A lightening factor. A thread of hope and love in a dark world, brimming with the stink of death and the chill of harsh winters. Eli is a city boy matched to the country girl, Lynn, and he teases her in such a way that immediately endears me to him. He never mocked Lynn for her ignorance, instead treating her with a soft kindness that made him adorable. He alternates between brave and desperate, teasing and gentle, secretive and real, but at the end of day, like Lynn, he's only trying his hardest for the ones he loves.
4. (+) Unconventional - You know that Frost poem that says "I took the road less traveled by--and that has made all the difference?" This book quotes that and quite appropriately given its unconventional context. For one, you've got a dystopia that doesn't involve a lot of action and isn't wholly symbolic a la Matched or poetic a la Wither. Instead you've got a dystopia that focuses on the harsh edges of humanity and the thin balance between survival and morality and meaning. You've also got a feminist bent on a wildly harsh, almost Western-esque (minus the Ohio setting) story and an author who's willing to take huge risks across the board. And because this book was so unconventional, I was honestly thrown for a loop when it came to some of the plot twists.
5. (+) Humor - If this story was only about survival, I probably wouldn't have been as interested or drawn to its characters. What makes this story work are the few bouts of humor, sometimes bleak and dark to fit the story but most of the times humor due to Lynn's ignorance. Having been raised in the middle of nowhere with only her Mother and paranoia for company, Lynn doesn't know how to flirt and has that awkward sex-ed talk way too late in her life. Yes, a lot of books have humor based on sexual naivete, but there's a wonderful authenticity to this shown in Lynn's pragmatism and no nonsense attitude except for when the right moment comes. It works well with the feminist aspects.
6. (+) Character Growth & Relationships - Particularly the strong female relationships - let me mention that off the bat; if you're looking for more strong friendships in YA lit, look no further than this book. In order to grow, Lynn must make open herself to strangers instead of blithely shooting at everyone who dares to approach. In doing so, she meets some particularly awesome characters who become her family, her meaning, her guides to how to live the life that she wants/needs but doesn't realize just yet. I thought that each of the relationships that Lynn had with the characters (even if I wanted more information on the characters themselves) was well developed.
7. (+/-) That Special Spark - Really, Not a Drop to Drink is everything the synopsis says the book is: Minimalist prose. Kick-ass, competent heroine. Not a lot of action, but a lot of thought-provoking details on the wilderness and how to survive and what it means to survive (the themes are really great, explored well and have the potential to be extensively discussed). This was a great read and executed well. However, it probably won't make my favorites list, because as much as I appreciated the quiet steadiness of this novel, a part of me also longed for more excitement. As usual, special spark = personal preference.
8. (+) Writing - The summary describes this writing well: there is not a single wasted detail on the setting, the labor involved in various tasks, etc. and when it comes to action? Ooh, the bloody images. McGinnis does not spare you, which of course fits with the survivalist feel. This also means for some beautifully simple yet evocative prose (Another low moan rose from the grass. "That was a good shot," Mother said, nodding toward it. / "Not good enough." / Mother shrugged. "It was dark." She rose and stretched out her stiff body, a sign that she truly felt safe. "You'll get better." / Another cry. Mother licked her finger, tested the wind, and fired once into the night. / Silence fell. (p. 21 in e-arc, quote may change later.)). There are also a lot of scene breaks.
9. (+/-) Pacing - Because this book focuses on the every day life of Lynn and the others near her pond, the times when things do happen seem to hit you in the face, if that makes sense. The book has a traditional, linear storyline in the sense that you can tell Lynn's got her character arc and that the book builds to a climax, but the climax, while epic and brutal, wasn't as long as I would have hoped and in between those spurts of action, I felt restless, wanting more.
10. (+) Cover - This is still quite possibly my favorite cover of 2013. The bold font, the symbolism in the colors, the depiction of the plot and the setting, Lynn standing on her roof, shotgun in hand. SO beautiful.
If you're a lover of the wilderness, of the scope of the settings in the Fire and Thorns trilogy, this book is for you. If you wanted less visceral, heart-pumping action from The Hunger Games and more focus on the survivalist aspects, this book is for you. In fact, some of the action reminded me of No Country for Old Men (the blood spatter! the hard choices! Lynn and her shotgun and spending "every minute living working against dying"), but this book also has a feminist twist. The author described this book as Little House on the Prairie on steroids, or LHotP meets The Hunger Games. These are both truly accurate descriptions, and although this book fell just short of being a favorite, I can do nothing but recommend it and hope that it flies off the shelves and gets well stocked at libraries.
Here's the trailer too, if you're interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nZd_BEGgE8#action=share
If you've read the novel, some SPOILER discussion questions:
-what did you think of the decision to kill Eli?
-was that Big Bastard at the end? did Lynn let him live?
-do you think this kind of world could actually happen?
... or were you bothered by the vague mention of the Second War on Oil?
-what was your favorite part?
END OF SPOILER.