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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 drink

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.

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 dust

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.

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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50 Years of YA, Part 3

I could write an introduction, but y’all know what’s coming.  Let’s do this!

Note: I decided to try including synopses with the books from here on out.  We’ll see if I remember to do this, and if it sticks.

 

#4: The Friends, Rosa Guy

A powerful, award-winning novel about friendship.

Phyllisia Cathy–She is fourteen. Her problems seem overwhelming: New York, after life on her sunlit West Indies island, is cold, cruel and filthy. She is insulted daily and is beaten up by classmates. What Phyllisia needs, God not being interested, is a friend.

Edith Jackson–She is fifteen. Her clothes are unpressed, her stockings bagging with big holes. Her knowledge of school is zero. She has no parents, she swears and she steals. But she is kind and offers her friendship and protection to Phyllisia.

“And so begins the struggle that is the heart of this very important book: the fight to gain perception of one’s own real character; the grim struggle for self-knowledge.”–Alice Walker, The New York Times

This book offers an interesting look at what it means to reach an age where you can identify your own prejudices.  Phyllisia is an extremely relatable character.  She just wants to be considered normal and to fit in, and after moving to this new place, it’s not coming as easily as she thought it might.  I really enjoyed her character in the sense that I think young people can look at her and see themselves.

Edith is the perfect foil to Phyllisia: Aware of who she is and unashamed of it (at least, willing to admit that nothing will change for her without her initiating the change).  She’s also a character you enjoy reading about, because she so perfectly depicts goodness.

I have a few issues with how the plot of this book is carried out.  In many ways, I think it is too didactic for the teenage reader.  They can spot a phony solution.  And the trauma that Phyllisia experiences as she’s learning to accept people who are different is almost textbook sentimental literature.

Despite its shortcomings (many of which are most likely a result of its age), The Friends is a story that offers an alternative perspective, and I can understand why it was included on this list.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for “fun” reading, but it’s one to take a look at if you’re interested in what YA was like in the Beginning.

 

#5: A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich, Alice Childress

Benjie can stop using heroin anytime he wants to. He just doesn’t want to yet. Why would he want to give up something that makes him feel so good, so relaxed, so tuned-out? As Benjie sees it, there’s nothing much to tune in for. School is a waste of time, and home life isn’t much better. All Benjie wants is for someone to believe in him, for someone to believe that he’s more than a thirteen-year-old junkie. Told from the perspectives of the people in his life-including his mother, stepfather, teachers, drug dealer, and best friend-this powerful story will draw you into Benjie’s troubled world and force you to confront the uncertainty of his future.

Can I just say, I love this title?

This book is really neat due to its style.  Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character (although sometimes, like in the case of Benjie, they have mutliple chapters), and each of these characters shares his or her perspectives on what’s happening in Benjie’s life.  This gives the author the opportunity to personify the different ideologies and persons surrounding a heroine epidemic.   The other really neat part about this book is that it’s written in dialect.  It was difficult to read at first, but you quickly get used to it as you get to know the characters (and each character has a slightly different way of speaking, too).

This book, like The Friends, is from an early time in the world of YA, and therefore it has some weaknesses in terms of how engaging the plot is.  When reading it, I could definitely see this one being required reading in a freshman high school classroom.  Again, another you wouldn’t necessarily pick up for “fun.”  Yet I can also see how it could be challenged and banned in certain communities.  It’s brutally honest about how young people find and use and sell drugs, at least within the context of its day.  It also deals heavily with race issues, which in the story and in history were not resolved.

It was during the reading of this book and The Friends that I started to see this list of “50 Best YA Books” in a new light.  While I began reading these books because I thought they represented what teens loved, I think a more accurate description of them would be books that educators, librarians, and booksellers offer for their value to young people.  It doesn’t make me want to stop reading through these titles, but it does kind of change my approach to them.

 

#24: Kit’s Wilderness, David Almond

The Watson family moves to Stoneygate, an old coal-mining town, to care for Kit’s recently widowed grandfather. When Kit meets John Askew, another boy whose family has both worked and died in the mines, Askew invites Kit to join him in playing a game called Death. As Kit’s grandfather tells him stories of the mine’s past and the history of the Watson family, Askew takes Kit into the mines, where the boys look to find the childhood ghosts of their long-gone ancestors. Written in haunting, lyrical prose, Kit’s Wilderness examines the bonds of family from one generation to the next, and explores how meaning and beauty can be revealed from the depths of darkness.

I actually listened to the audiobook for this title, and I have to admit, I got lost.  It was hard to follow the story.  I don’t think it was the fault of the performer or anything; I just think this text is probably best read on your own.

The overall feel of the book is very weird, but in kind of a good way.  I love the haunting images and rhythm to the writing.  And the relationship between Kit and his grandfather is sweet and believable.  Having just recently experienced the loss of a grandparent, I was able to relate to the pain behind the struggles his family was facing.

Because I got lost with the overall plot of this story, I really have no idea what was going on with John Askew.  I think if I had read the story in print, I would have grasped it better.  However, there are 50 books on this list and I don’t have time to reread at this point.  If the title still sounds interesting to you, find it in print!

 

#26: Hole in My Life, Jack Gantos

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.

In Hole in My Life, this prizewinning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.

I didn’t recognize the title of this book, but when I saw the cover, I had a gigantic “Aha!” moment.  I’m pretty sure every single boy in my class in middle school checked out this book from the library, at least once.  In my mind, it’s the quintessential book guys chose when they had to find something to do during Silent Reading (oh, how I miss that designated half hour of the day!).  For that reason, I wasn’t super excited about this book.  I figured it would have very little to offer me that I would find engaging.

On the one hand, after reading this book, I can TOTALLY see why a certain school demographic was attracted to it.  There’s language, sex, and drugs on pretty much every page.  I went to a rather sheltered public school, and so this was probably one of the first introductions to anything grungy and on-edge for these young teenagers.

On the other hand, I ended up really enjoying the “memoir” aspect of this book.  Gantos is an excellent writer, and it shows through this very personal story.  I love reading memoir, and this actually did not disappoint.  I still struggled to really connect with any of his life experiences.  But, to me, the mark of a good memoir is that you end up relating to its speaker even if you have no personal experience with what they went through.

In terms of required reading and recommending this to young people, I think this book continues to speak to young men entering into the stage of life in which Jack’s experiences occurred.  And I think this one will stay relevant, as evidenced by its inclusion on this list.

 

#41: Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson

“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.

Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit.

In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the multiple-award-winning Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson explores Lia’s descent into the powerful vortex of anorexia, and her painful path toward recovery.

I’m not going to lie–this book was extremely difficult to read.  It wasn’t that the prose was stilted or that the plot was slow-moving; it was just so emotional and dark.  As someone who has struggled with body image issues in the past, Lia’s internal dialogue gave me a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach.  The blurb from Goodreads does not lie–this is the most emotionally wrenching book by Anderson I have ever read.

I personally cannot stand when serious emotional and physical issues are used for entertainment purposes.  There are several very popular TV shows and movies I refuse to watch because I think there’s a limit to how much violence we should willingly take in for the sake of a good story.  As I began this book, I wondered if its content would fall in the same category.  In the end, though, I agree that this story is important.  The struggles Lia and Cassie face are not glorified, by any means.  Instead, they’re exposed for what they truly are: an illness, real and powerful, that no one can fight alone.  And this story likewise highlights the important role family and friends play in combating the darkness many people face on a daily basis.

This is not a fun book, by any means.  But it’s beautiful, and it’s important.  I’m glad it was included on this list and that I finally was able to read it.

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