Review: Mindy McGinnis’ “Not a Drop to Drink” and “In a Handful of Dust”

I always love when I come across a book or series with a female protagonist who is a total badass, and I’ve quickly learned that I need look no further than Mindy McGinnis and her YA books.  She creates these epic protagonists who you wish existed in real life (but only if they were on your side…).  For those of you who follow me on Instagram (@waitingforthesecondstar), you know how obsessed I was with McGinnis’ books during the month of October.  Her terrifying plot lines and tough-as-nails teenage girls were the perfect combination for Halloween reading.

During this time, I read Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, two companion novels that tell the story of Lynn and Lucy, a couple of girls fighting to survive in a world where fresh water is hard to come by, and even harder to protect.  The books were some of my favorite for the year, and so I wanted to put out a more formal review than what I usually post on Goodreads.

Mindy is a local author for me.  I have met Mindy three times, and she is spectacular.  I absolutely love going to see her at signings.  I adore her work because she’s unafraid to challenge gender stereotypes in her texts.  She’s also unashamed to go “there,” wherever “there” might be in a particular book (if you’ve read anything by her, you understand how dark and twisted her books can be!).  But in person, she’s super down-to-earth and fantastic, and I know I’m going to be a lifetime fan.

I’m going to split this review between the two titles, reviewing them separately.  I gave each of these books 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.  They are an excellent companion set focused on girlhood and growing up in a world that’s just gone wrong.  And while they’re shelved in the teen books, they’re definitely worthy of a crossover.  Not for the faint of heart, these twisted tales will make your skin crawl and your heart break.

So, shall we?

 

not a drop to drinkFive-Star-Review

Regret was for the people who had nothing to defend, people who had no water.

Lynn knows every threat to her pond: drought, a snowless winter, coyotes, and, most important, people looking for a drink.  She makes sure anyone who comes near the pond leaves thirsty, or doesn’t leave at all.

Confident in her own abilities, Lynn has no use for the world beyond the nearby fields and forest.  But wisps of smoke on the horizon mean one thing: strangers.  The mysterious footprints by the pond, nighttime threats, and gunshots make it all too clear Lynn has exactly what they want, and they won’t stop until they get it…

With evocative, spare language and incredible drama, danger, and romance, Mindy McGinnis depicts one girl’s journey in a barren world not so different from our own.

Goodreads

Not a Drop to Drink follows closely the story of Lynn, a teenage girl who lives with her mom in the middle of nowhere, next to a precious pond of fresh water in a world where faucets don’t work and cholera is a constant threat.  Lynn’s mom has raised her on the idea of “shoot first, ask questions later,” and the closest she’s ever been to other humans has been through the scope on her rifle.  A terrible accident leaves her alone, and she has to reach out to her only neighbor, a man she hasn’t spoken to since her mom helped him get his foot out of a bear trap nearly a decade before.  And a set of city-slicker strangers will challenge the cold-hard shell of Lynn’s heart, forcing her to open up and take a chance at love in a world without hope.  Suddenly, with a very real threat just miles away, Lynn has far more to protect than just a pond.

This is a book that I would describe as “reads slow but has a lot going on.”  Sometimes, you pick up a book and the pages seem to turn really slowly, but you get to the end and you realize everything that happened and suddenly the book feels far more complex than you originally thought. (It’s kind of like feeling like a single day of the week drags by, but then Friday shows up before you expect it and you realize the week as a whole went by really fast.)  That’s how this book was, with everything that happened coming about in a matter-of-fact way.  The plot was chilling, action-focused, and it utilized characters as pawns in its game (so don’t get attached to anyone!).  And one of my favorite parts of McGinnis’ writing is that she takes these shocking moments and states them in such a straightforward way.  It adds to the darkness, the bleakness, and the horror.

Some of the events in this plot are somewhat predictable, but not in a bad way.  For instance, I had a pretty good idea who may show up in the final pages, and I was right.  But, that didn’t take away from the scene wherein Lynn meets this person, and what goes down is totally bone-chilling.  And, on the other hand, some moments were straight-up shocking!  Like, where did that come from?! So those moments helped to balance out the more obvious ones.

(Seriously.  Do NOT get emotionally attached to these characters!)

Honestly, I appreciated the fact that McGinnis was able to *remove* some of her characters from the plot, and she did so in such a way that it wasn’t overly emotional.  This wasn’t a John Green-esque bedside lament, but a “necessary evil” in the face of a dystopian future.  Most people find dystopian novels where no one dies to be unrealistic, and I have to agree, so I am so happy (is that demented of me?) that someone died in this one.  At the same time, I was equally happy that there is a companion book, because our two main characters–Lynn, and Lucy–had become so important to me.

(Okay, so you can get mildly emotionally attached to Lynn and Lucy, if you want to.  Just…you’ve been warned).

I also love that these books take place in Ohio, because it’s great to be able to imagine fields like the ones around where I grew up, and a city like the one I live in now.  Lots of books I read are set in other areas I’ve at least been to, but it’s definitely a neat experience to read something set where am.

There are several key characters in Not a Drop to Drink that I think really carry McGinnis’ novel to its conclusion.  Of course, there’s Lynn, a cold-hearted girl forced to grow up and do things no young person should have to.  I know some people have issues with her coldbloodedness, but characters like this are staples in McGinnis’ work.  You’re likely to find at least one terrifying woman whose sense of justice leaves everyone on edge.  I say embrace her, because we have far too many male characters in popular culture who would do the same thing, and we accept them with no questions asked.  This is the kind of subversive writing that I love, and Lynn is an excellent protagonist for a world where the girls get to be the badasses.

Stebbs is Lynn’s neighbor, and older man with a bum leg from his run-in with the bear trap.  He serves as the compassionate foil to Lynn and her mom, building the gap between the girl and the newcomers, Eli, Lucy, and Neva (these are the city slickers with no sense of living in the wilderness).  As a male character in a female-dominated text, I think Stebbs is excellent.  And he serves as an adorable grandfather figure throughout the series.

Eli is a sixteen-year-old boy who fled a nearby city with his brother and sister-in-law and their daughter.  Eli’s brother was killed before the trip really got started, and so Eli is trying to take care of his family.  He’s not as capable as his brother would have been, though.  I love Eli’s character, because he is so dependent on Lynn (again, some awesome challenges to gender roles here).

Lucy, Eli’s niece, is the instigator for melting Lynn’s cold heart.  She’s a seven-year-old girl with an earnest desire for life, and she is wonderful.  In this book, she’s largely treated as a child who’s still learning about the world.  It’s in the sequel that we get to see into her view (so more on her later!).

Neva is Lucy’s mother, forced to leave the city because she was pregnant with her second child (a dark world calls for dark laws).  After tragedy strikes her pregnancy, she’s never quite the same, but she manages to be a great mother one more time.  Neva is a definite foil to Lynn’s own mother, and while she is perhaps the most frustrating character to read, she’s again an awesome addition to the struggles that this small band of humans face in the wake of several tragedies.

Several awesome themes come out through this book, that I can’t stress enough for being so awesome.  The first, as you can probably guess by what I’ve said so far, is the heavy emphasis on motherhood and sisterhood.  I was often reminded of the work of Fannie Flagg while reading this, because so much time and energy goes into establishing powerful connections between women.  And men, because of their nature (usually faceless brutes coming to steal water from Lynn and robbing people on the road blind), are often seen as the “other,” for a fresh take on who our heroes should be.  The men we like in this story are kind and compassionate, containing many characteristics that may be somewhat effeminate, and they never upstage the women.  The bonds between women are powerful, and this book chooses to highlight that.

There’s also a heavy emphasis on the idea that family doesn’t end with blood.  Lynn ends up essentially adopting Lucy, and Stebbs becomes a great protector for the little family.  These relationships are key in a world without anyone else, but it also displays the important message that families look all sorts of different ways in the real world, too.  Again, an awesome element of diversity and inclusion.

You also get a really great glimpse at a dark, dark world.  Anymore, readers of YA frequently take comfort in worlds that seem more hopeless than our own.  This book certainly provides that kind of a perspective.  And yet, it’s handled with such taste.  Innocence is still preserved in the integrity and honesty of the characters.  This would be an easy thing for McGinnis to leave out, and yet it’s there, and it’s beautiful.

And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, this book tells a story of a girl who learns how to save herself.  Lynn is the leader in this outfit, and she directs Eli, Stebbs, and others along the way.  When fate threatens to intervene and turn her world upside down, she’s the one that tells it, No.  Whether this was intentional or not, I think it’s greatly important, because this is another book out there for young women to read and remind themselves that they are powerful.

Not a Drop to Drink is an excellent girlhood, dystopian story with a unique premise and challenging conclusion that leaves you begging for more.

Fortunately…there is more!

in a handful of dustFive-Star-Review

The only thing bigger than the world is fear.

Lucy’s life by the pond has always been full.  She has water and friends, laughter and the love of her adoptive mother, Lynn.  Yet it seems Lucy’s future is settled already–a house, a man, children, and a water source–and anything beyond their life by the pond is beyond reach.

When disease burns through their community, the once life-saving water of the pond might be the source of what’s killing them now.  Rumors of a “normal” lifestyle in California set Lucy and Lynn on an epic journal west to face new dangers: hunger, mountains, deserts, betrayal, and the perils of a world so vast that Lucy fears she could be lost forever, only to disappear in a handful of dust.

In this companion to Not a Drop to Drink, Mindy McGinnis thrillingly combines the heart-swelling hope of a journey, the challenges of establishing your own place in the world, and the gripping physical danger of nature in a futuristic frontier.

Goodreads

This book is told with a closer eye on Lucy, and it begins in a community that’s been established around Lynn’s pond and Lucy’s dowsing abilities.  When polio strikes that community, and Lucy may be the carrier of the disease, Lynn and Lucy have to leave the town altogether.  So, they set out for California (from Ohio!) and take on all the perils between here and there (ha! Because I’m in Ohio).  Lucy is confident with Lynn at her side, but as their journey wears on, she has to learn how to find strength from inside herself.

The plot of this one seems to move more quickly, perhaps because the girls are actually travelling.  This plot was also far less predictable, as so many of the things and people they encountered as they went along were shocking, terrifying, revolting…aye!  There was also more focus on character, since it was just Lucy and Lynn for a lot of the book, and this read very much like a coming-of-age story for Lucy.  She’s now the age Lynn was when they met each other, and she admires Lynn’s strength, but she knows she doesn’t want to live like Lynn.  For these reasons, this was my favorite of the two books.

And for that reason, the ending of this one nearly ripped my heart out.

(Do. Not. Get. Emotionally. Attached…I think you get the point.)

This one also had me sobbing at different moments from the writing alone.  McGinnis powers up the prose, for sure.  I felt so much of this, physically and emotionally.  I was raw and reeling for over 24 hours after finishing it.  This writing really built into the settings, and you feel like you’re crossing the mountains or the desert with the girls.

Character names are somewhat less important to this plot (or, rather, more important, because naming anyone would give a good bit of the plot away), but I can summarize some of the themes I noticed in character placement and why I enjoyed them.

This book is still very female-driven.  Many of the men are Bad Guys or accessories, and the two girls are the main carriers of the plot.  I like this because it remains consistent with the first book.  However, McGinnis also provides some more devious women in this book, some girls and grown-ups as bad as the men.  (And, there is one spectacularly wonderful man who helps to counteract some of the darkness from the other men!)  This complicates the plot, I think, and adds an edge to what McGinnis has created.  Girls are now reading and thinking about what type of girl they want to be, just like Lucy is thinking herself.

Several themes repeat themselves in this text.  For instance, sisterhood and motherhood are brought right back to the forefront.  Lucy treats Lynn like a mother, and they set themselves apart from almost everyone they encounter.  There’s an inherent distrust of anyone else that stems from the world they live in, but this blatant fear creates a fierce bond to exemplify the pure strength and resilience of women when they work together.

Survival is a more significant element in this book, because life-sustaining substances are harder to come by.  There’s also a fascinating interplay wherein Lynn has become the kind of person she would have shot, no questions asked.  Also, Lucy is wrestling with more than physical ailments, as McGinnis takes a good stab at anxiety and “adulting” fears.  There’s also an underlying theme of what makes an appropriate way to survive, because in this text many people are encountered who do things the wrong way.  And hope is personified in the other side of individuals who show up with good things.

And finally, as I mentioned above, this book is about becoming yourself.  As I said, some readers take pretty serious issue with Lynn.  She’s cold, man; ice cold.  So this story is of a more human character, Lucy, who admires Lynn’s strength and yet wonders what her strength will look like on its own.

In a Handful of Dust is a spectacular sister/mother/daughter story of survival and self-discovery, with just the right amount of darkness and hope to keep the pages turning.

 

Put these two together, and you have a super kickass masterpiece.  These books won’t be right for everyone, and yet I can’t praise them enough.  We need more books like this, where women take on a role that men would normally fill, and then make it their own.  And we need more books that offer hope in unusual forms, heroes in unusual capes, and families in unusual sizes.  I’m so grateful to Mindy for writing books like this, and I look forward to reading more of them.

 

Cheers, and happy reading!

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