Shadows by Ilsa Bick

Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick is a better book than the first in the series, Ashes (my review), (if you have not read the first book, beware of spoilers in this review) as the writing is more descriptive and less reliant on the cliffhanger factor for each chapter than it was in the first book.  An EMP blast has caused much of the human race to change, leaving the elderly to rethink their lives and focus on the best survival plan they have.  Meanwhile, the young are scared that they will change into flesh-eating monsters like so many others and struggle to keep away from bounty hunters and others who would use the Spared for their own nefarious gains.

Alex, Chris, and others are thrown into a whirlwind fight for their lives as they are separated and sent on their own journeys where they will uncover the truth and learn more about the Changed than they ever expected.  Unlike the first book where readers follow Alex’s point of view for most of the novel, Shadows is made up of more than just some of the main characters’ points of view from the first book, but several others.  At first this can be disconcerting given that the chapters move quickly are immersed in nearly constant action and are very short in some cases.  However, once the reader adjusts to the constant shifts in POV, they are swept up in the action and the chase — and in some cases, merely speeding through certain aspects of the 500+ page book to get to the story lines they really want to uncover.

Oh God, help me, please, help me.  Alex felt her mind begin to slip, as if the world was ice and begun to tilt and she was going to slide right off and fall away into forever if she didn’t hang on tight.  Her heart was trying to blast right out of her chest.  She was shaking all over, the hay hook in its belt loop bouncing against her right thigh.  The pyramid, row after row of skills, loomed at her back:  all that remained of those who’d stumbled into this filling field before her.  And of course, there was the smell — that familiar reek of roadkill and boiled sewage.”  (page 21)

Minus a prologue in the beginning, the novel takes off right where Alex was left in the last book.  And readers who were looking for more horror and death than they got in the last book will get their just desserts here, with a little nasty sex thrown in for good measure.  It’s hard to believe this is a young adult novel, and readers should beware that this is a novel for older teens, rather than younger readers.  Bick’s writing is much improved over the last novel, and it helps to garner readers’ emotions and attachments to the characters of Alex and Tom.  However, there are still so many unanswered questions from the last book that are left unanswered.  Not only that, more questions and riddles are raised and left unanswered in this novel.  Bick is treading a fine line here, and unless the final novel in the series addresses a great number of these questions and mysteries, readers could be disappointed.

Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick is an adrenaline rush that pushes readers to not only think about the heat of combat and the survival skills they would need in a post-apocalyptic world, but also about the concept of trust and family.  When is our best efforts to save those we love and help them enough and when is it time to let go and move on?  Do you trust those who are nicest to you or do you still treat them with a degree of suspicion?  For Alex and Tom, there is never enough effort, and a healthy dose of suspicion is what keeps you alive.  The horrifying aspects of this novel are likely to turn off some readers, while attract others, but there are deeper themes at work here, and it is clear that Bick is attempting to tell a story that pays homage to those soldiers racked with guilt and still living daily nightmares of war.

About the Author:

Ilsa J. Bick is an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories, e-books and novels. She has written for several long-running science fiction series, most notably Star Trek, Battletech, and Mechwarrior:Dark Age. She’s taken both Grand and Second Prize in the Strange New Worlds anthology series (1999 and 2001, respectively), while her story, “The Quality of Wetness,” took Second Prize in the prestigious Writers of the Future contest in 2000. Her first Star Trek novel, Well of Souls, was a 2003 Barnes & Noble bestseller.

What the Eclectic Bookworms Thought (BEWARE of SPOILERS):

Shadows by Ilsa Bick was the book club selection for February.  With the multiple perspectives in this book, the members expressed a hard time following all of them and/or whether all of them were necessary.  While some preferred to keep the perspectives to a manageable number, another observation was that with Alex, the main protagonist, in a different area and experiencing things outside of Rule, it would have been difficult to keep the book from only her perspective.  The gore did not bother most members, which made the second book in the series read more like horror and less like science fiction or fantasy; some were taken aback by the sexual chapter, with the youngest member of the group not reading those sections at all.

The member who nominated Shadows was angry that the book left readers hanging about the fate of some characters, but it was pointed out that cliffhangers are often the case in second books when a third book is planned.  One member really enjoys Alex as a character, while two others pointed to Tom as their favorite.  Meanwhile, the group members all speculated about where the third book would go with most of us agreeing there would be a battle between Rule and the other Amish-like society mentioned, as well as a possible three-way dual between Chris, Wolf, and Tom or at least Chris and Tom in a sort of romantic gesture to win Alex’s affections.

The group seemed split on whether the overall reason would be explained for why some kids changed into cannibals and some did not.  We’ve speculated that the brain chemistry of the changed had been closer to normal levels than those that did not change, though Lena — one of the characters pointed out as most annoying — seems to have fallen in the camp of the changed with this book.  Overall, it seemed as though at least two members liked the second book in the series more than the first, while three or four members liked it even less with a couple people giving it one star.  Two members were not interested at all in reading the third installment, while two expressed an interest in one member reading it and telling the rest of us what happens, and a few others considering the option of reading the third book.

You Are My Only by Beth Kephart

You Are My Only by Beth Kephart tackles the tough topic of child abduction from two perspectives — that of the young victim, Sophie, and that of a mother, Emmy, whose child is stolen.  In this powerful, yet quiet novel, Kephart explores how one unexpected event can devastate entire worlds.

While the topic is ripped from the headlines, there is no sensationalism here.  Through carefully selected words in her poetic prose, Kephart builds tension and suspense, like the quiet vibration growing louder on the railroad tracks as the train approaches.  It also provides a quiet space — like the air between the branches of a tall tree — for readers to contemplate what each voice is saying, what each voice is struggling to address, what pain is closed inside of them and just clawing to get out.

“My feet are two pale fish inside the tight ponds of my Keds.  I leave the street for the train station.  I leave the station and cross onto the tracks, slick-backed and shiny as snail glisten.  The black gauze of the clouds flap at the moon, and from the tracks I can see into the backs of people’s houses, the private places where the lamps have not gone off.  It’s like looking through snow globes, worlds behind glass.”  (page 21)

Kephart’s prose is very lyrical and imagistic, and readers need to pay careful attention to her lines.  For instance, the above passage perfectly demonstrates Emmy’s frame of mind after losing her child.  She is lost, drowning, unmoored.  She has become separate from those who have “normal” lives because that’s what she believed she had with her child and husband, no matter how imperfect the marriage.

Emmy and Sophie have strong voices, both with stories to tell, and having one without the other here would have left too much unsaid.  Kephart is a masterful storyteller, building characters from the inside out, ensuring readers receive well-rounded men and women with strengths and weaknesses.  But there is always a mystical element to her novels, something in the background that is left unexplained.  She trusts the reader to uncover the truth of these relationships she’s building and the mysteries of what motivates them to keep moving forward even when things are at their most dark and uncertain.

“But my voice skids away, rides the slippery tracks.  Far away, at the bend in the rails, the night is lamped.  It is yellow and growing brighter, and now I understand:  the train has big yellow eyes.  Lovely ocher liquid eyes.  They put the shimmer down on the tracks and splatter the dark.”  (Page 22)

Beyond the main story, there are Helen and Cloris a devoted couple of aunts to a young boy, Joey, who is as normal as can be to Sophie.  Like Joey who supports Sophie, quirky Arlen and fantastical Autumn support Emmy in ways that are unexpected.  Although Emmy’s scenes, which are told from her point of view, limit readers’ knowledge of how she becomes institutionalized, it is not how she got there that is important to the story.  What is important is what happens there and how it transforms her.  Some of the hospital scenes are reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — minus the booze, floozies,and Nurse Ratched — in that she is there against her will and wants to escape, but for a while she merely is.  The relationship Emmy builds with Autumn helps her repair her broken psyche, and in this way, Kephart’s hospital is the antithesis of what happens in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

You Are My Only is an emotional powerhouse drawing redemption out of the shattered pieces of lives rendered asunder by a single event.  Through faith and love these characters can begin the heal, rebuild, and flourish.  What more could readers ask for?  Stunning, precious, and captivating from beginning to end.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 10 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. Kephart teaches the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. You can visit her blog.  Also check out this chat.

My other Beth Kephart reviews:

Please come back this afternoon for my interview with Beth Kephart about You Are My Only and for a giveaway.