Pills and Starships: A Novel by Lydia Millet; BlackSheep/Akashic Books. 283 pages ($11.95) Ages 12 and up
Lydia Millet offers a brilliant dystopian novel that eclipses all others written for Young Adults with this beautifully written, dark but ultimately hopeful tale of 17-year-old Nat and her 14-year-old hacker brother Sam as they go on a last family vacation to Hawaii where their elderly parents (ages 85 and 93) will live out their final days in a blissed-out, scheduled “pharmadaze” and then take a fatal dose of pills to fulfill their “service contracts” to the corporation that runs everything.
The book is written as Nat’s journal, to someone in the future, “watching from a safe distance,” possibly from space.
Millet offers a vivid picture, in Nat’s voice, of the bleak reality, set at an unspecified future date, after the last tipping point and the melting of the Greenland ice sheets. The “one-millionth of the one percent” live managed lives, protected by Invisinets, and interacting via technology (“on face”). Social interactions with others also are managed, preceded by vaccine booster shots for protection. Zoo animals have all died. All around is chaos: “cliffs falling into the sea,” “the last carbon-sequest forests” turning brown, consumed by “beetles from another continent”; Category Six hurricanes accompanied by tsunamis; plagues brought from Africa by mosquitoes and flies. It is illegal to have babies. Death is managed (the past is referred to as “free death times”). Burial is considered a waste of land; cremation is too big a carbon footprint. Bodies are placed in a tank and dissolved by enzymes and recycled.
Millet cleverly peppers her prose with her own phrases for this future reality: “realmeets,” “facemedia, “faceschool,” caffbevs, “soylami.”
Sam’s computer hacking has made him suspicious of “corpsspeak” and he uncovers a sinister reality behind all the carefully presented management of their lives.
Millet evokes an aching sense of nostalgia for our lost world with its vanished pleasures in some beautiful passages; there are beautifully placed references to the myth of Icarus, the poetry of William Blake.
The tiny details are at once humorous and chilling. Nat always wanted a dog; she recalls a history tutorial on the topic: “Carbon Excesses Vol 244: The Era of the Pet.”
This is the first YA novel from Millet, author of eight novels for adults and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the story collection, “Love in Infant Monkeys.”
– Jean Westmoore
“Stay with Me” by Alison Gaylin; Harper (384 pages, $5.99)
Teenage angst, adult obsession and family secrets fuse into a suspenseful plot that holds its myriad surprises right up until the final page in “Stay with Me,” Alison Gaylin’s third novel about private investigator Brenna Spector.
Since she was 11 years old, Brenna Spector has been afflicted “or ‘blessed,’ depending on your opinion” with hyperthymestic syndrome, a rare disorder that gives her perfect autobiographical memory. Being able to remember every moment of every day helps Brenna as a private investigator but wreaks havoc on her personal life. This is especially true because the one part of her memory that is blank is when her sister, Clea, disappeared at age 17, more than 28 years ago. That disappearance triggered Brenna’s hyperthymesia. Through the years, Brenna has tried to find out what happened to her sister – is she still alive, or did she die, as so many runaways do. This obsession has seeped into every part of Brenna’s life. But she never knew how this affected her 13-year-old daughter, Maya, until the teenager disappears.
Brenna and Maya have had a close relationship, but the mother is about to find out how little she knows about her child. Drawing on her skills as a private investigator, Brenna discovers aspects about Maya she didn’t know. Maya has kept from her mother a group of new friends, mean girls, a crush on a boy and a resentment about her mother’s obsession over Clea. As Brenna tries to find her daughter, she also faces some unpleasant truths about her missing sister.
Alison Gaylin’s third novel about Brenna delivers a gripping plot and an emotional roller coaster as the author delves deep into the psyche and motives of her characters. Brenna’s heart-wrenching search for her daughter is matched by the poignant effect Clea’s disappearance had on her and a realistic look at family dynamics that leads to a stunning ending.
– Oline H. Cogdill, McClatchy News Service