Nuts to You. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Scavengers. By Michael Perry. Harper. $16.99.
The Mortality Doctrine #2: The Rule of Thoughts. By James Dashner. Delacorte Press. $18.99.
Animal-based fantasies are as old as Aesop and, in more-modern novels, as elaborate as Watership Down. And they remain ways for authors to explore human concerns while also inventing societies sharing some human foibles while avoiding others – and creating some of their own. It should not be surprising that there is something squirrelly about the society invented by Lynne Rae Perkins in Nuts to You, since it is a society of, well, squirrels. Or not exactly a society, but certainly a story about squirrels. And what a story it is! It almost does not matter what happens in the tale, because Perkins’ writing is so entertaining that it scarcely matters what she is writing about. Early in the book, for example, a squirrel named Jed is seized by a hawk and tries to escape using “the ancient squirrel defensive martial art of Hai Tchree, not well known because it doesn’t work most of the time.” It does work for Jed, though, and he slips through the hawk’s talons like water – or, as a footnote tells us, “thick water. Or perhaps like a non-Newtonian fluid. Look it up on YouTube.” There are other squirrels here, too, such as TsTs, pronounced “by making two tongue clicks, very close together. It is currently the most frequently given girl squirrel name, the ‘Emma’ of squirrel names. If you sit and watch squirrels, you will no doubt hear it.” And so we meet various squirrels, various non-squirrels such as screech owls and humans, various squirrels who talk with vaguely Cockney accents, and – well, the whole story is about squirrel problems and issues, involving humans and non-humans, and about tree cutting for power lines and how that displaces squirrels and other animals and about how screech owls speak fluent cliché: “It is what it is. …Move on. Get a grip. Deal with it.” The book is a quest story – nothing unusual there in a fantasy – but also a story about what it must feel like to be a squirrel trying to avoid foxes and bobcats while learning how to stay away from humans except sometimes to get food from them. It is a story in which readers learn that disasters can “throw us together with those who are our adversaries. Who play for a different team. For a short time, a common enemy dissolves our differences and makes us realize what we share. Until someone gets hungry.” Eventually some of the squirrels get other squirrels to do the right thing, which involves moving lots of nuts, because squirrel nature involves enjoying games and stories, so coming up with the right stories and games can get things going the right way. And if that sounds confusing, just wait until you read Nuts to You and find out what happens. Do not forget to read all the way through the five epilogues.
Human dystopias are not much like squirrel dystopias, although calling Nuts to You a dystopic novel would be stretching things. Not so giving that designation to The Scavengers and The Rule of Thoughts, which don the dystopic mantle immediately and wrap it carefully around their entire stories. However, The Scavengers is different from most dystopias because of its hearty helping of humor – which, it must be said, makes it difficult to be sure whether to laugh or gasp at some of what happens. This is a fairly standard post-apocalyptic tale in which electricity has ceased to power anything, the weather has gone wild, food is scarce, and most people live in Bubble Cities – but not Maggie and her family, who live OutBubble despite the many risks posed by daily survival needs and by the zombie-like GreyDevils. Maggie decides she needs a better, stronger name, so she determines to call herself Ford Falcon – a choice that adults who know cars will surely find laughable, although it may pass muster with younger readers. The adventures are not, in the beginning, all that scary, such as an encounter with the GreyDevils, which “are most dangerous when they start running in packs. Although GreyDevils aren’t really healthy enough to run. Shuffling in packs, I guess. And they’re not so bright, what with their brains all cheese-holed by chemical smoke and PartsWash…” Yes, there is a typical-for-the-genre invented vocabulary here, with weapons such as the Tooth Club, Spit Stick, Whomper-Zooka and flingshot. There is a fighting rooster named Hatchet, and there are people named Toad and Dookie and Tilapia Tom, and dangerous creatures called solar bears. “Whatever sort of world you live in, it will get boring if you live there long enough,” Maggie/Ford opines, but of course Michael Perry wants to be sure that this world does not get boring, so he trots out all sorts of characters and creatures while producing a typical plot in which Maggie/Ford must rescue her family after everyone mysteriously disappears. Eventually her father turns up, explaining that he must turn himself in to the Bubble Authorities because he possesses a Great Secret (you can hear the capital letters even though they are not shown), and giving himself up is the only way to get the authorities to free Maggie/Ford’s mother. Maggie/Ford’s quest – yes, this too is a quest tale – takes up the second half of the book, which is complete with bad guys called Fat Man and Lettuce Face and that most evil thing of all, a corporation in partnership with the government. Bit of a letdown and non-surprise, that, but even if The Scavengers contains numerous unsurprising elements, even if it teeters at times between cliché and overdone amusement, it has enough pacing and plot cleverness to pull readers along to the end.
There is no end, yet, to The Rule of Thoughts, because this is the second book of a mundane James Dashner trilogy called The Mortality Doctrine. Dashner’s work follows predictable patterns: teenagers, chosen by authorities for never-explained reasons to do something extremely complex, find themselves confronting more-difficult choices and problems than they ever expected, all of which they overcome thanks to a series of coincidences and overt plot manipulations. In The Eye of Minds, the first book of the trilogy, Michael, Sarah and Bryson agree for no good reason to go on a life-threatening mission (for free, yet), when asked to do so by VirtNet Security (VNS). What the three poorly imagined and not-very-interesting protagonists do is “code” (never explained) in a world containing such stuff as The Chair, The Path, The Sleep, The Wake and The Coffin. The central character, Michael, is a standard-issue rich boy who doesn’t care about much of anything until he gets involved in saving the world. When he eventually does appear to save it, by completing The Path, he finds out – and here comes The Rule of Thoughts – that all he has really done is bring the Master Plan called the Mortality Doctrine one step closer to realization. This evil plan, perpetrated by cyber-terrorist Kaine, is a kind of virtual Invasion of the Body Snatchers, designed to implant sentient computer programs called Tangents in human bodies. Kaine is doing this because, being a Tangent himself (itself?), Kaine is, well, the evil mastermind here, and this is what evil masterminds do. Michael, Sarah and Bryson, who are scarcely first-rank intellects, try to figure out what is going on, with Bryson saying, “‘Maybe [Kaine] wants all the humans to start a big war and kill themselves.’ ‘That doesn’t make an ounce of sense,’ Michael countered. ‘What’s the point of the Mortality Doctrine if he wants to wipe out humans? Doesn’t he want to be a human?’ It was Bryson’s turn to shrug. ‘I guess that’s the question of the year.’” Or the question of this (++) book, anyway. Sarah follows it up by commenting, “‘We all need to chill and rest today,’ she said. ‘Get some sleep tonight. Because tomorrow we have a very big day.’” There are many such big days, actually, but the characters are so wooden, the author’s self-indulgence in the plot so obvious, that when Dashner writes at one point, “Michael felt like an idiot,” readers may well echo, “So do I.” There is, however, a sequel to this sequel still to come, and it too will undoubtedly contain chapters broken into subchapters for no discernible reason, and comments like this from Bryson: “‘I can’t wait for this to be over.’” He is not the only one.
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